Good People Can Differ

Jason Fertig

Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a well-intentioned piece that offered advice on handling classroom debate. Yet the piece also provided evidence as to why it is very difficult for students to hear honest classroom discussion of contentious issues.

The Chronicle piece, “Taking Sides in the Classroom” by Professor Timothy Hill, addressed whether a professor should take sides when presenting hot-button topics in the classroom. Hill wrote the essay in response to his admission of letting his politics out in the classroom, something that he has never done before:

In nine years of teaching, I have always obeyed a strict policy of checking my own political views at the door. My philosophy has long been that students should just be told the facts; it is up to them to formulate whatever conclusions they wish to reach on the basis of those facts. And while I believe my own political positions are based on the firmest data and logic (don’t we all?), I never assume that my conclusions must be everyone’s.

Letting students form their own conclusions based on the facts is the appropriate way to teach. NAS has argued that this is part of students’ academic freedom. But Hill’s “strict policy” amounted to no more than rhetoric when the class began discussing a matter in which he felt he held the moral high ground. The issue in question was Hill’s stance on the Ground Zero mosque debate:

I called a student’s remark un-American last week. It was current events time in my introductory American-government class, and he brought up the controversy over the so-called ‘Ground Zero mosque.’ That is a topic about which I believe there is only one morally defensible position. The student’s morality, unfortunately, pointed in the other directions. So after seeing why I couldn’t see the protests against the mosque as motivated at their base by anything other than bigotry, I averred that such expressions were, well, you know.

Staying neutral on issues that provoke emotion is a challenging task. Anyone who makes a living on presenting such topics is going to be human and emote a time or two, just as Hill did. I have kicked myself at times for doing just that in my own classes. However, I do take issue with the conclusions he derived based on his admitted “outburst.”

Hill asserts that he may not remain neutral in class on issues where “the facts themselves are "biased"—that is, when a controversy exists in society, but the evidence falls overwhelmingly toward a single position.” He backs his statement up with the following examples:

Much has been written lamenting how our media and political environment allow individuals to pick their own facts—but, of course, that isn't really true. A large portion of the public may be convinced that health-care legislation will lead to "death panels," or that the president is secretly a radical Muslim, but the popularity of such beliefs does not make them true. And yet denouncing such notions as the fantasies they are risks undoing a professor's hard-earned reputation as an evenhanded broker of the facts.

Skepticism abounds in this country regarding topics on which experts have reached an evidence-based consensus, such as climate change, vaccine safety, and the religious views of the Founding Fathers. In every case, those are matters of scientific or historical record, and in every case, attempts to teach our best understanding of the facts can be construed by misinformed partisans as an attempt to ram an ideology—usually liberal—down students' throats.

My conclusion is that all points of view are not, in fact, created equal. One of my central obligations as an instructor is to teach students how to separate the wheat of evidence-based claims from the chaff of those that lack substance. Whatever it may do to my reputation for evenhandedness, then, I cannot pretend that certain ideas are valid or rational when they are not, because when I do, I am not modeling the behavior I want students to learn. Under this new understanding of what it means to conduct an ideology-free class, I can (for instance) talk about the existence of anthropogenic climate change as fact because that existence is what the overwhelming weight of the evidence indicates, regardless of the popular debate.

In the professor’s words, he finds it difficult to present both sides of certain issues because of “overwhelming evidence” towards one side. I can empathize with the struggle that Hill has with remaining neutral. While it is more justifiable to take a “more moral stance” on the justness of slavery or human sacrifices, I have trouble with the topics that he suggested are so one-sided.

The Ground Zero Mosque

The builders of the mosque certainly have a legal right to build it; but, does forbidding it suggest to the Muslims of the world that the United States is “unwelcoming to Muslims” because of the actions of the 9/11 attackers? Or is erecting a symbol of the religion in which 3,000 U.S. citizens were murdered so close to the attack location insensitive towards to victims’ families and an admission of weakness towards terrorism? This is a difficult issue in which well-meaning people can hold differing views, none of which involve bigotry or anti-Americanism (see Maureen Dowd and Charles Krauthammer).

Healthcare Legislation

The U.S. healthcare debate involves two sides seeking to address the flaws in the current system. One side seeks more government, and the other side seeks more free market. It is not a “fantasy” to think that (the free market side’s assertion of) “death panels” can happen. “Death panels” are hyperbole towards government legislation of doctors’ practices. An honest debate on this issue involves asking questions like whether a free market for healthcare would lead to an increase in unethical recommendations of more expensive medical procedures, or whether it is possible for a government to increase access to and lower costs for healthcare without rationing services. While one can passionately argue for one side, the classroom is a place to explore these two sides in depth.

Climate Change

Anthropogenic climate change has received much attention on this site. It is not settled science (see Climategate); yet even if the Earth is warming, there is a debate over how to tackle climate policy. Dr. Bjorn Lomborg, author of Cool It and organizer of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, believes in warming, but he suggests that “we should first focus our resources on more immediate concerns, such as fighting malaria and HIV/AIDS and assuring and maintaining a safe, fresh water supply-which can be addressed at a fraction of the cost [of regulating carbon dioxide] and save millions of lives within our lifetime.”

Again, there are multiple sides that argue passionately for their view.

The ability to present both sides of current political debates begins with recognizing that an opponent is not a “bad person.” Thinking that opposition to the Ground Zero mosque is rooted in bigotry (as opposed to sensitivity to the victims of the tragedy) or that an opponent of same-sex marriage is a homophobe (as opposed to wanting to preserve the institution of marriage) cuts off intellectual debate by attacking the person presenting the stance, not the position.

As a passionate advocate of a balanced reading of both sides, my magazine subscriptions include both the New Republic and the National Review. My bookmarked columnists include George Will, Thomas Sowell, Paul Krugman, and Thomas Friedman. This balanced reading of both sides of the spectrum provides me with ample evidence to present both sides of current issues, even if my advocacy leans in one direction.

It’s crucial to note that a reader of this particular essay should not be able to clearly discern my politics – which is exactly the way I like it in my classroom as well. In today’s climate of über-partisanship and closed minds, academics owe students a thorough exploration of opposing positions – even if one has to figuratively hold his nose while defending the “other side.”

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