- Politics and Social Issues
Are College Teachers Politically Biased?
What does it mean to be unbiased?
I have heard it said for many years that there is a “liberal bias” in
higher education institutions. Apparently, colleges are filled with a bunch of
ex-hippy – and sometimes still practicing hippy - professors teaching young
people why they should hate Republicans, corporations, religious conservatives,
and, in some cases, America in general. I have even heard stories of a growing
movement of conservatives who are compiling lists of liberal educators that
they can use as ammunition in their attempts to bring more “balance” to
American colleges and universities. (I guess that they want to make them fair
and balanced, like “Fox News.”)
A part of me wishes that people pressuring educational institutions to be more politically balanced would someday get their wish, and colleges would actively seek more conservative educators in order to correct this liberal bias. After all, it would be fun to watch colleges enforce this policy. Enforcement, I suppose, would go something like this. First, a college would have to conduct some kind of a test with its existing faculty to find out the political leanings of the current staff. I guess this would be some type of a standardized test consisting of questions regarding abortion, foreign policy, social programs, business regulation, and other controversial topics. Then, once they found out where the college is located on the liberal / conservative political spectrum, they could then give the same basic test to prospective employees applying for positions. That way, they could hire people who would eventually bring things into greater political balance. Of course, if they wanted to fix things more quickly, they could fire excess liberals (or conservatives) that they currently had on staff and immediately hire people who would bring political balance. Or, if they wanted to save themselves all of this trouble, they could force all faculty members to sign some sort of an agreement in which they would promise to avoid expressing any kind of political opinions in their classrooms. Instead, they would simply express facts. And, if God forbid they found themselves unable to avoid the discussion of some controversial topic, they would agree to give equal time and personal support to the conservative and liberal perspectives on this particular issue.
This sounds easy enough. Of course, there are all sorts of potential problems with a policy like this. First, colleges would find themselves dealing with all sorts of lawsuits from people claiming that they were discriminated against because of their political views. Then, if colleges were somehow able to overcome the lawsuit problem, this may set a precedent for other movements to achieve proper balance. Maybe colleges, in the name of achieving balance, should make sure that they have an equal number of people from different religious perspectives. Maybe aggressive affirmative action programs would get a new lease on life, with colleges pressured to achieve proper balance by bringing in more women, ethnic minorities, or people with different sexual orientations. Now you could argue that some of the things I have listed in this paragraph would be positive changes, and I might agree with you. But sorting this out could get tricky and expensive, and these efforts may distract educational institutions from accomplishing their primary goals.
Now even if you could muddle your way through some of these legal problems, there are deeper philosophic problems with any attempt to force educational institutions to be politically balanced. The most basic problem is pretty simple: definition of terms. When a person claims that there is either a liberal or conservative bias in some type of an institution, what exactly does he or she mean? Very often, I suspect, the people who complain the most about political bias are those on the political fringes, and to people on the fringe, virtually anyone to the left or right of them is a member of the opposing faction. But to a political moderate, a person whose views were also moderate would be labeled as such. The terms political and conservative, like any other political labels, mean different things to different people, and breaking people up into these two general categories is far too simplistic. All people – with the exception of the fascists and the communists on the extreme fringes – exist somewhere on a political continuum. So who gets to decide the point on this political continuum that is the unbiased middle? I would love to hear the people crying “liberal bias” attempt to clearly quantify where that point lies.
The term biased also creates some philosophic problems. It seems like a simple enough word. An unbiased person would seem to be someone who is not trying to push some personal agenda. Instead, he or she tries to look objectively at an issue and is willing to present different perspectives on controversial questions. On the surface, being unbiased is a noble goal that most educators would claim to strive for. However, if you take this unbiased ideal to an extreme, it can take away all of the potential value of studying fields like History, Political Science, Economics, and many other fields of knowledge. Take History, for instance. Some would say that History teachers should limit themselves to teaching facts and not allow their personal bias to get into the class. On a superficial level, I agree with this point of view. But if a History class is going to be more than simply memorization and regurgitation of simple statistics and dates, then a teacher is forced to confront questions that have no definitive answer. We can all agree that Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and that Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, but if you ask the more important general question of why World War II occurred, there may be several valid explanations and points of view.
The existence of different points of view, however, should not be a problem. A teacher just needs to be sure to present all of these points of view, and to include, of course, both the liberal and conservative perspectives on both past and current events. But then it hits you pretty quickly that there are often dozens of explanations for why some particular event may have occurred. And while some of these explanations can be supported by material evidence and reason, other explanations might be, for lack of a better term, kind of “wacky.” So, as a teacher, am I obligated to present an explanation simply because there are a certain number of people out there who may believe it is true, or should I limit my presentation to those explanations that Historians have offered the most evidence to support? By choosing to present certain explanations while editing out others, I open myself up to the possibility of being labeled biased. Of course, if being unbiased means that I simply present information without any regard to what trained Historians or my own common sense tell me are plausible, then I will proudly proclaim myself biased.
This insistence on lack of bias and political balance is based somewhat on the assumption that there is no such thing as truth. Now anyone who has taken Philosophy 101 can tell you that it is virtually impossible to say that anything is true without a shadow of a doubt. The more complicated the question, the more difficult it is to state anything with any degree of certainty. Bias, therefore, is inevitable. So if bias is inevitable, then it is important to expose people to multiple biased points of view. While I agree with the basic philosophical argument, I still have this old fashioned idea that there is such a thing as truth. We may never know exactly what it is, but this does not mean that truth is nonexistent. As a teacher, it is my job to help students absorb and seek accurate information. My job is not to help them simply memorize all of the points of view that exist in the world about any given topic. Many points of view, after all, are based on pretty flimsy evidence. There may be people who believe that the world is flat, the moon landing was fake, and that John F. Kennedy was shot by the smoking man in “The X Files”, but I do not feel obligated to present these particular beliefs. Of course, in the real world, ridiculous ideas are not always so easy to recognize. However, if I am convinced through study and reflection that a commonly held belief is inaccurate, I believe that it is my responsibility as an educator to say so.
Now having laid out this defense of the inevitable bias that will be found in the classroom, I think that there can be a point where teachers go overboard in promoting their personal opinions. One situation that may take place is a teacher failing to cover basic course material because he or she is spending so much time promoting political ideas. Anyone who has gone to college for a while probably experiences a course or two where the teacher, shall we say, goes off on a lot of “tangents.” In a Political Science class, ranting about the political issues of the day may be justified, but there are other classes where the teacher should stick more to the subject. Another example of “going overboard” would be a teacher who never even presents views which contradict his or her position. As I said before, I think it is perfectly justified for teachers to express their opinions on controversial topics. They should not, however, consistently omit commonly held ideas that they disagree with. You should instead present the ideas and the logic behind them, and then you can feel free to cut them down. It is then up to the students to decide which argument makes the most sense. At least then they will have different options to choose from.
The worst cases of going overboard, however, can occur when a student is personally affected when his or her views are different from those of the teacher. This can play out in a couple of different ways. The most common would occur when a student feels publicly belittled or attacked during a class discussion by a teacher who goes too far in trying to prove this student’s views wrong. I know as a teacher that it is easy to be drawn into this negative behavior because I want to appear to know what I am talking about. When you are on public display continually, you want to appear to be competent in order to protect your credibility and, I hate to say, your sense of self-esteem. No one wants to be “shown up” by a student. So when making my case, I try to be respectful, although there may be times where I do not always succeed. I am pretty confident, however, that I have not made an even bigger mistake: grading people on the basis of their political opinions. One thing a teacher should never do is require a student in the course of completing a test or written assignment to express agreement with the instructor in order to receive a positive grade. Asking people to answer controversial questions can be appropriate, but a teacher needs to do their best to grade people on the quality of the argument, and not necessarily on the conclusions made. This can be a tricky proposition, but it is possible.
So is there a liberal bias in education? I am tempted at this point to continue with a drawn out argument explaining how the field of academics may be more attractive to people with a liberal mindset than it is for conservatives. The only problem is that this argument would contradict much of what I tried to say in this article. So instead, I will simply say that I don’t know. It depends on what you mean by the words liberal and bias. Still, I think that people who make this claim raise some important issues. Teachers should be open minded enough to explore different ideas and to present sometimes contradictory points of view to students. Pushing a political agenda should not be the primary goal of teachers, and they should never penalize students for disagreeing with them. A classroom dedicated purely to the pursuit of truth may be an impractical dream, but it’s definitely a fantasy worth striving for.