Friday, March 24, 2006

The liberal bias of facts

Rob Farley, the Guns of Lawyers, Guns and Money, has posted a list of movies he has used in his classes to help him teach, either as introductions to lessons or as tools to foster what Rob calls non-traditional ways of analyzing and discussing concepts and to expose his students to non-academic perspectives on issues and questions they've been studying.

I know some college profs who'd complain that they have the opposite problem. Their students are all too willing to embrace non-academic perspectives. They have to spend a lot of time and energy trying to get their students to think academically, that is like scholars, critically and analytically, and not mistake an emotional response for a considered opinion.

As Obi-wan tells Luke, much depends on your point of view. Your feelings will depend on whether you teach grad students or undergrads, upperclassmen or freshmen, and if you're teaching a required course for majors or an elective open to all students.

Having taught only undergrads, I'd say that one of the biggest problems college professors have to deal with is an almost universal attitude among students that, "If a teacher says it, it must be boring."

Boring translates variously as irrelevent, not worth my time, useless, of no practical application to my life, nerdy, stupid, clueless, probably untrue, doesn't jive with anything I know, makes sense only to Martians, and a flat-out lie.

Many students arrive at school never having read anything by Henry Adams, not even having heard of Henry Adams, desiring nothing more than to never hear of Henry Adams, yet they still land in your classroom already in complete agreement with Adams on two things.

That "a schoolmaster [is] a man employed to teach lies to little boys."

And "Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts."

Whatever you can do to get students to see things in a new way, to shake up the routine, to make them think, academically or non-academically, to remind them that they do know things---another stumbling block for profs who teach undergrads is many students' secret conviction that they don't know anything and don't have any opinions or ideas that matter, at least not to adults---is good and useful. Visual aids, music, jokes, tap dancing on the desk, holding class outdoors or in the student union (ah for the days when you could hold one in a bar), movies, it's all helpful.

Rob's list of movies he's shown is an interesting one and evidence that students who take ol' Prof Farley's classes come out of there ahead of the game.

Just as interesting are the movies that Rob's commenters have used in their classes. I threw in my two cents. Responding to someone who was looking for a movie about Vietnam to show in a class studying Tim O'Brien's novel Going After Cacciato and his stories in The Things They Carried, I recommended Brian DePalma's Casualties of War, "the best and the scariest of all the Vietnam movies," I wrote.

This got me thinking about how I would like to use those books and that movie in a class, and while I was thinking about that two words began to flash in big red neon letters in my mind's eye.


I can't see how you could teach those books or that movie, or any books or any movie about Vietnam, and not have the thrust of the discussion be that the War in Vietnam was not just a disaster but an evil. And this being the case, I think I would shy away from Vietnam books and movies in my classes. Not because I don't believe that the war was a disaster and an evil, and not because I'd be afraid of having conservative students report me to David Horowitz, but because I'd be teaching an English class or a writing class and I wouldn't want the class to get sidetracked into arguments about politics and history. That's what poli sci classes and history classes are for.

I never shut down debates that arose out of what we were studying. I didn't go out of my way to inject politics into the class, but political questions pop up all the time without being invited. I just had too much else that needed to be discussed.

I'll leave it to Michael Berube to deal with the likes of Horowitz and the Right Wing bully boys who are trying to shut down intellectual freedom by attacking a nightmare in the closet they call Liberal bias in the classroom.

But I was in grad school and was a young instructor in the 80s and early 90s and I had a lot of colleagues, all teachers of literature and creative writing, who turned their classes into forums on politics, gender biases, feminism, and racism. There are many classes offered by English Departments that are really quasi-poli sci and history classes and any student who signs up for one of these and then is shocked, shocked to find that politics is being discussed is a dissembler or a dope. But few of my politically inclined colleagues taught those kinds of classes. Most of them taught what looked in the catalogs like traditional literature and creative writing courses. And they'd come back from class and brag how they'd given it to Reagan or Bush or Newt that day, how they'd come down hard on the frat boys and the sorority sisters---"I really made them think." They weren't all bad teachers. Some of them were quite talented and did make their students think and even the conservative students appreciated them. But many of them were just being intellectual bullies.

I don't know how much this went on at other colleges. There was probably a lot of it. Not as much as conservatives claim, more than liberals and leftists like to admit, I suspect. The fads of deconstructionsim and post-modernism gave people license to turn every class period into a seminar on politics. All I know is I didn't do it myself, but only because it just wasn't my cup of tea.

Some of you might find that hard to believe, that I could keep my political opinions to myself.

A blog is not a classroom.

The important point here, though, is that I taught literature and creative writing. I didn't teach political science. I didn't teach history. And I can't imagine how you could teach history without the class having a liberal bias, even if the professor herself is a conservative.

It's not quite true that the whole history of the United States has been one story of the triumph of liberalism after another, althought that hasn't stopped me from saying it from time to time. There have been a number of periods when liberalism was defeated. The Salem Witch Hysteria. The end of Reconstruction. The centuries-long war to exterminate the Indians. And it's hard to see how you can teach those as good things. Unless you believe that defending religious authority requires the hanging of the odd innocent now and then, or the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, and Jim Crow had some positive benefits, or the only good Injun is a dead one, you end up teaching in favor of liberalism.

(There are plenty of people who are liberal when they time-travel but conservative in the present.)

If I put my mind to it I could probably come up with an argument that those liberal defeats were also defeats for conservativism too.

I can't come up with a conservative take on the Labor Movement.

"When the mine owner heard that several small boys had also been killed in the explosion in Shaft No. 8, he almost couldn't finish his lunch."

"Labor Unions are basically evil and all those bad conditions they supposedly fixed would have been fixed eventually by market forces."

How many more decades in an eventually, boss?

History is biased against conservatives.

Movement conservatives don't like this.

So they rewrite history.

Conservative students come to college indoctrinated in an alternative history of the United States that includes such facts as

The founders were Christians who established a Christian government.

The American Revolution was all about the evils of taxation.

The Civil War was fought over States' Rights in general, slavery was a separate issue, and anyway the slaves weren't so bad off, so what's the problem?

The Robber Barons have been given a bad rap.

The New Deal was a failure.

The Civil Rights Movement ended racism for all time.

Women were happier before evil Feminists forced them to take jobs as lawyers and doctors and Indian chiefs and they could just go about happily being suburban mothers and housewives with nothing much more on their minds than what to make for supper.

We didn't lose in Vietnam. Namby-pamby and traitorous Liberals at home wouldn't let the Army fight.

Ronald Reagan was the greatest American President.

George Bush is the next greatest.

We're winning the war in Iraq, which was a good, just, and necessary war.

I don't see how any honest professor can duck a charge of LIBERAL BIAS these days.

It was pretty easy for me to avoid politics in my classes. But how does a college professor go about avoiding facts?


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