Dissenting viewpoints in the classroom

Obviously, teachers have the right to freedom of speech, but we also have a need to educate our students within the parameters of our subject. If we don’t, we may have to deal with legal issues.

“A Long Beach student has filed a complaint against ,,,[a teacher] for using an hour and a half of his English class instructional time to talk about his disapproval of George W. Bush and the war in Iraq” (Brown).

That is not just this teacher.

13% felt their professors had presented their own political views in an inappropriate way(Jaschik)

Educators should not introduce issues for discussion while simultaneously shutting down opposition. A blogosphere-wide upheaval came about when a student sent the URL to his English teacher’s website to popular bloggers. Many of them were unimpressed with what Professor Snider did in 2004 when he limited his classes from covering either side of a controversial issue in their argument papers:

Topics on which there is, in my opinion, no other side apart from chauvinistic, religious, or bigoted opinions and pseudo-science (for example, female circumcision, prayer in public schools, same-sex marriage, the so-called faith-based initiative, abortion, hate crime laws, the existence of the Holocaust, and so-called creationism). (Volokh)

He then went on to suggest topics with comments like “Even the usually conservative” newspaper in the area agrees with medicinal use of recreational drugs. His suggestion for the topic of energy includes a quote about four generations of the Bush dynasty chasing oil profits and questions Dick Cheney’s secrets. Another topic suggestion is the question of whether Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor should be impeached for her role in the Bush v. Gore case of 2000. “In each and every case, when there is a political nature to a suggested topic, he presents one and only one possible perspective as the basis for a paper” (Cramer).

Would you feel free to express a dissenting view in his classroom? I wouldn’t. Such a paper wouldn’t get a passing grade because he has already removed that from the assignment possibilities. While Dr. Snider is a particularly egregious example, there are enough others to show that this is not a moot point that recognized, acknowledged, and properly dealt with by all.

One of the schools I have taught at had, as recently as three years ago, a political science professor who required that the students bring in current event clippings. But if there were anything remotely positive toward the right, this teacher would lambast it.

One of my friends was in the class with her son. While her son agreed with my friend’s political position, in class he would only argue the teacher’s side, because to do otherwise brought ridicule. My friend, however, said she was taking the course for enrichment and she could afford a low grade from the teacher. She brought in controversial clippings and always argued the conservative side.

My friend received a reasonable grade in the course, so it is possible the teacher was simply trying to spark discussion. Her approach, however, did not encourage the students to dissent.

This kind of approach simply entrenches the students’ alienation from us and from the learning process. If they disagree with us, they perceive that they are unaccepted and unacceptable. They feel it, even if we don’t mean it.

This is from my TYCA-SW talk on controversial issues in the classroom.

Political Power: Who has it in our classroom and should we acknowledge it?

This is from the introduction to my TYCA-SW talk on controversial issues in the classroom:

In our classrooms, we as teachers have the political power. We are the ones who decide “who gets what when.” We are the gatekeepers for information (Luehmann). That is our job and if we regulate education through passing and failing students, thus enabling or limiting their pursuit of further class work, most see it as good.

But sometimes our students, the less powerful or the powerless, feel alienated in college. They thought they would have more power as they moved out of high school and into our classrooms and to some extent they do. They are now held responsible for their grades; if they fail, it is usually considered a fair consequence of their choices. They are responsible but in our classrooms, they aren’t the arbiters of truth.

Because of this dichotomy of responsibility and powerlessness sometimes students gain the impression that no one understands their position and everyone is against them. This can be exacerbated when the class deals with controversial issues. Often the students feel like it is us versus them or them versus me.

When we ignore this, it causes damage, just like having an elephant in your living room causes damage. Even if the furniture isn’t broken, the pounds of elephant scat will ruin the carpet. The alienation of the students and our positions of power can be mitigated by literally looking at both sides of the question and bringing balance, not just to the classroom, but also to the students’ understanding of an issue.

31% of students surveyed said the instructors should NOT challenge the students’ personal beliefs
52% said they needed to be exposed to new ieas and challenged about their beliefs (Jaschik)

The first step in dealing with the elephant in the room is to acknowledge our part in its care and feeding.