University Business - November 2008 - (Page 44)

Challenging Authority The former president of Hampshire College (Mass.) discusses advocacy in an age of conservatism. By TIm GoRAl EvERy yEAR THE populAR pRESS RunS ARTIclES on THE dEmISE oF HIGHER EducATIon, often pointing the finger of blame at the “liberal bias” of college and university professors. The remedy, according to one school of thought, is “institutional neutrality,” an environment absent of perspective and personal opinion, in which all sides of an argument are presented and students are left to make up their own minds. Former Hampshire College (mass.) president Gregory prince says that approach leads to disengagement and, ultimately, much bigger problems. In his book Teach Them to Challenge Authority: Educating for Healthy Societies (continuum, 2008), prince argues that neutrality itself undermines the ability to teach critical thinking, and that neutralists don’t appreciate young people’s capacity to see through bias and rhetoric. He recently spoke about it in a conversation with University Business. f Q: A: You say that neutrality proponents like David Horowitz, Anne Neal, and Stephen Balch “see students as passive recipients of knowledge, not active participants in creating knowledge; and that passivity makes the issues of bias, balance, and all the other concerns expressed by advocates of neutrality more urgent.” Can you expand on that? If you lump them together as advocates of neutrality, they see the students as people who have to be civilized before they become productive citizens. Therefore, it is urgent for them to protect these passive, malleable individuals from the bias of professors. The professors will have too much influence on them, and professors become dangerous if they are too biased and too arrogant. Some professors are always going to be like that. I just don’t think students are as much at risk as they do. So we don’t disagree in that an arrogant, biased, closed-minded professor is not a sound pedagogical platform. But that isn’t my biggest fear, because I think students know how to deal with those individuals. They’re not at risk. If the solution to the fact that some of those professors exist is to make everyone neutral, you create a much bigger problem and a much greater danger. But education is historically about discussion and debate, and pursuing a greater truth. That is the purpose of education. Both sides agree with that. The question is, which is the best context for it to take place? Their argument is that the only context is one in which issues are laid out on a table and students are left to make up their own minds. I argue that one of our responsibilities is to have students learn how to challenge authority because that is part of the role of a democracy. And what safer place to have them do that than in a college or university, where, yes, the person has authority over them, but it is a controlled environment. Being neutral in a classroom is an appropriate pedagogical device—but as I say over and over in the book, it is not the only one. Stanley Fish’s recent book (Save the World on Your Own Time) is critical of the idea of advocacy in the classroom. He writes that the only jobs of a teacher are to “1) introduce students to bodies of knowledge and traditions of inquiry they didn’t know much about before; and 2) equip these same students with the analytical skills that will enable them to move confidently within those traditions and to engage in independent research should they choose to do so.” That is true, but it just doesn’t go far enough. To be fair to Stanley Fish, he is saying that at whatever level the student ends up, the goal is to develop the curiosity to pursue knowledge and to know how to do it, and to be aware that there are different modes of inquiry and different ways to pursue that knowledge. But the idea that education goes no further than to get the students to pursue that inquiry does not, in effect, get those students to take account of why they are doing it and what they are going to do it for. They don’t think through the ethical implications of what they do with that knowledge. He stops at a point where I would have thought that he, of all people, would urge them to take the next steps and ask about the implications of what they do. What are the roots of all this? When did “liberal education” become a dirty word? I think much of it has arisen from the conservative viewpoint, expressed by people like Robert Bork, who blamed all the excesses of the sixties on liberal faculty that brainwashed the student 44 | November 2008

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of University Business - November 2008

University Business - November 2008
Editor's Note
College Index
Company Index
Advisory Board
Behind the News
Sense of Place
Human Resources
Financial Aid
Money Matters
Community Colleges
Expansion, without the Red Tape
Coming to You by Video
Challenging Authority
Road Tour
What's New
End Note

University Business - November 2008