Thursday, May 25, 2006

Column on Teaching versus Preaching (sans typo)

Teaching versus Preaching

Tibor R. Machan

After having taught college for nearly forty years, I can report that a
great many teachers use their class rooms to preach, not to teach. (The
same is reportedly the case in secondary schooling but I am not qualified
to speak to that.)

In the tradition of liberal education, which is what is supposed to guide
the profession of teaching, when professors enter the classroom, they are
supposed to present to their students facts about the subject matter and,
where appropriate, the variety of viewpoints that have gained prominence
concerning it. The former approach is mainly associated with the natural
sciences, the latter with the humanities and social sciences. Of course,
facts are involved in both and even where there are different viewpoints
afoot, it doesn?t mean they are all equally sound. But because they have
all gained respectability, the professor is not supposed to take sides. He
or she is supposed to familiarize students with these prominent
perspectives and leave it to the students to decide which position is the
most reasonable.

Of course, total nonpartisanship is unlikely, even if possible. And
students usually do not expect it?nor do they need it since they are,
after all, capable of careful thinking. But they do deserve a respectful
representation of all those positions the professor may not find
convincing. After all, another professor with just those views could be
teaching the very same course and they all took an oath, as it were, to
teach, not preach.

The frequent partisanship of professors is, of course, offset by the fact
that students take quite a few courses and most are taught by different
teachers, so they do often receive representation of different viewpoints
even if their teachers are out and out partisan. Yet even with partisan
teaching, contrary viewpoints aren?t supposed to be ridiculed?if they are
worth teaching, they are worth rendering at their strongest, instead of
being belittled, spoofed.

Sadly this tradition of liberal education is not being faithfully
followed by many professors. I do not only have my own experience?with my
own nine years of college and graduate education, with my colleagues, and
with reports from students?on which to base my assessment. I also have my
three children with their experiences in college. They, too, have had all
too many professors who engage in blatant malpractice. They often make no
attempt to represent ideas at their strongest with which they disagree and
quite often outright rant and rave against these, as well as at thinkers
who hold them. Back when I was a graduate student, one famous Oxford
educated professor of mine dismissed all philosophers prior to Bertrand
Russell as nothing but ideologues?which is to say, as apologists for some
ruling class. And he gave no argument for this at all.

The abuse of class room power is nothing new but it is my impression that
it used to be held in very low esteem and prevailed only because some who
received tenure took advantage of the policy of academic freedom. It
seems, however, that these days the abuse is the norm, although it is
difficult to track the matter since the classroom tends to be the fiefdom
of the professor so that no one can come in without his or her permission.
And deans do not breach this practice, even though they are perhaps the
only ones who have the authority to do so.

All this is disconcerting although the effort to take advantage of one?s
captive audience in a classroom is not likely to get far in a relatively
free society. There are many other sources of information, educated
opinion, and competent renditions of different viewpoints, so even if some
professors try to indoctrinate their students with just their take on a
subject and denounce everyone else?s as silly, they are likely to be found

The one clear liability of professorial malpractice can be serious,
however. This is the student?s grade who dares oppose a very partisan
teacher. To such students, who do not want to become wallflowers as they
face such destructive professors, ones who would penalize them for failing
to tow the line, I have a suggestion. Raise your objections, your
questions, in the third person?for example, ?I wonder what you would say
to a critic who says this or that to the idea you just championed?? Or
?Are there not some who have proposed this objection to your position and
how would you respond to them?? This approach could help one dodge the
mean-minded grading of professors who want full compliance from their
students and will punish them for refusing to provide it. But sadly even
this tactic cannot stop those teachers who will refuse to hear anything
contrary to their views from doing damage to their students.

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