The Professors, a new book by David Horowitz, lists the 101 professors he deems "the most dangerous academics in America." If professors preach anti-Semitism or incite violence, as he claims, I doubt many would question their being fired. However, he casts a wider net by including professors who promote "hatred of America and the American military." Using this definition, Horowitz labels as "dangerous" individuals he deems insufficiently patriotic or excessively critical of U.S. policy. Such political litmus tests are unacceptable if we wish to have open and productive academic discourse.
But this raises a question I've been grappling with since eighth grade: Should a teacher's opinion enter the classroom? My eighth grade U.S. history teacher was adamant about keeping his political views to himself, and despite my repeated attempts I could never uncover his opinion on any political subject. Although he earned my deepest respect for his convictions, such insistence is unnecessary. It's perfectly acceptable if professors present their opinions-they are, after all, experts in their fields-but is it acceptable for professors to design a class around their world views? Prof. Gordon Fellman (SOC), whose views earned him a spot on Horowitz's list, does precisely that. Horowitz condemns professors who teach a world view (at least those he considers "dangerous), but should we?
I took Fellman's course "Sociology of the Israeli-Palestinian Confrontation." Fellman believes the conflict is heavily driven by right-wing settlers, and the course's structure revolved around this belief. In articles, movies and other assigned class readings, there was clear and constant criticism of right-wing Israeli parties. Very little of the course touched on Palestinians views and behaviors. Fellman's is a view I disagreed with. He and I often clashed, particularly on elements of the class I felt were factually inaccurate, but my grade was unaffected by these disagreements. To his credit, Fellman did attempt to present alternative perspectives by inviting the Israeli Consul General to speak, assigning a book with an opposite view and-knowing I had opinions different than his-asking me to make a presentation. He also invited students to offer alternative perspectives.
Fellman told the Justice last week that courses are always taught from a point of view. This is obviously correct, but does this mean professors should not strive for objectivity? One can argue for the value of courses in which a professor's politics play an integral part. If I wanted to study communism, wouldn't an avowed communist be the best instructor? However, having a course based on a political conviction raises a few areas of concern. First, there is the danger a student may feel a good grade requires agreement with the professor. More subtly, a student may not feel comfortable expressing a view contrary to the professor's, who is clearly in a position of authority. There is a risk the course may shift from teaching to indoctrination, particularly if no alternative perspectives are given voice. One danger of political bias, which is a national problem particularly in the field of Middle East studies, is the use of false or misleading information. If these concerns are addressed and, as Fellman suggests, the professor's bias is upfront, would it be OK then?
There must never be a political litmus test for our professors or our courses, but we cannot ignore the real dangers of professors structuring their courses around specific political convictions and biases. The solution must be to grant the faculty every freedom to formulate their courses as they please, but in exchange, departments should work toward a balance in the courses offered and proactive steps must be taken to address the areas of concern. If professors choose to structure classes around their views, they must be upfront about their biases. They must strive to create an environment open to dissenting opinions, grading criteria must be transparent and objective and special care must be taken that presented facts are accurate. As students we must not be shy with our opinions, nor engaging our professors when we have concerns.