Last week I saw that my dean was reading Louis Menand’s latest seemingly dull work on higher education. In order to keep up my side of the employment equation, and thanks to a nice discount from Amazon.com, I decided to buy Cary Nelson’s No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom. I can assure you this about the book right off: It’s not dull.
Nelson, the President of the American Association of University Professors, knows his stuff and can teach any professor a thing or two about the way things ought to be at their schools. As a loyal AAUP member, I feel like I’m way too biased to review it. Besides, I can do that in one post. Instead, I want to tie together some good parts of it here in a series of posts while I’m reading the book.
I’ll start with Nelson on the greatly exaggerated problem of professors bringing their politics into the classroom (p.14):
“I find that most undergraduates arrive on campus with fairly well formed political beliefs. I am, however, very much interested in putting progressive, radical, and conservative views before them, but the students drawn to my views are always those who already share them. Beyond that, I could not care less whether my classes convert or persuade them. I put ideas out for consideration. They can take them or leave them. Then we get on with our lives.”
Not only do I agree with that sentiment, I’ll take it one further: If you do want to convert students to your point of view, grading them on their adherence to your views is the worst possible strategy. Nobody should ever be compelled to think anything, and should a professor choose to operate in that manner the students won’t only resent them, they’ll resent those views as well.
Explaining why you think how you think is about the best any professor can or should do. Here’s Nelson again, who (if you don’t know already) is an English professor (pp. 21-22):
“In my view and the view of many others, all human understanding is culturally and historically constructed. We have no unmediated access to any facts. Consequently, I teach the cultural construction of gender as true, although my students are free to disagree. I advocate for this view, as the AAUP allows, not only because it is what I believe but also because my students should see how I arrive at and account for my intellectual commitments.”
Transferring this same intellectual process to the history classroom, me and most other historians believe that slavery was the primary if not the sole underlying cause of the American Civil War. This may be controversial in some (probably Southern) circles, but I can easily explain to anyone why I believe this. It is a question of evidence, rather than values.
That’s not teaching politics. It’s teaching process, and that’s exactly what academic freedom is designed to protect.