Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Knowing your weakness 

Yesterday's First Person column in the Chronicle of Higher Education by a younger faculty member who wonders if he wants too much to indoctrinate his students.
Most of the time, there is nothing wrong with using our power to influence students' judgments -- after all, we need to get students to learn the truth. But we all know that this power gets abused. There is a continuum that runs from cultivating in students a healthy desire to know, through instilling certain cultural and intellectual tastes, to taking advantage of their openmindedness by feeding them the ideological catchphrases that rest like foam atop our considered opinions. It's easy to slide along that continuum, as the line separating education from indoctrination is poorly defined.

But we should learn to recognize indoctrination when we see it. In graduate school, I once overheard one teaching assistant tell another that she wanted to try to make her students into liberals before it was too late. Now, I think that having a few more liberals around, especially if they were strategically placed in swing states, would be a great thing for the republic. So in one sense, I sympathize with that TA. But I also know that to make students into liberals is an essentially illiberal act.
It is hard to get students to read current affairs; I have for years assigned my students daily reading of financial papers. Because of the editorial page slant of the WSJ I don't force that choice on students -- though it has the best coverage and a good educational discount price -- and I do put current event questions on exams that probably come from WSJ because that's what I read. What part of that is "influencing students' judgment"?

Recognizing that making students into liberals or conservatives is an illiberal act is the first step in recognizing the obligation that comes with the opportunity to "influence students' judgments". I don't see that obligation taken seriously very often.