Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Non Partisan Teaching

Tibor R. Machan

Over the years that I have taught, I have also held some firm, often controversial, positions in ethics, politics, economics, and so on. Yet I have also believed in and tried to practice nonpartisan teaching. For example, although I believe that business managers have as their primary obligation to serve the owners and investors in their companies, I make it a point to present the stakeholder theory in my classes—and textbooks—which argues that they actually ought to serve all who have a stake in the firm. Or in political philosophy, where I am very much a libertarian, I do full justice to the ideas of socialists, communists, conservatives, theocrats and others.

The reason is that I signed up for all this when I entered the profession of college teaching. That was, as it were, my oath of office, not to make use of my class room as a podium for advocating my own ideas but to familiarize my students with the current ways o fthinking about those topics. Now and then I will make an “editorial” comment, of course, but these are clearly labeled as such. My students are no fools and know that their teachers have views of their own on the topics they discuss in class. But the job isn’t to preach but to teach.

In my own discipline, philosophy, this is not all that complicated because academic philosophy has mostly involved teaching a great variety of positions on innumerable topics. God, determinism, free will, knowledge, the nature of reality, and all the rest are dealt with differently by different schools of philosophy and the job of teachers, in the main, is to familiarize students with what these different schools have to say about these topics, to lay out their arguments, to offer doubts about them and then leave it to students to figure out what they find most sensible or to suspend belief until they know more.

There are disciplines, however, where this kind of relative even-handedness is difficult if not impossible to pull off even if the professors are committed to be non-partisan. Those are ones where it is the latest understanding of the subject gets taught, never mind alternative approaches. Certainly most of the hard sciences—physics, astronomy, chemistry, anatomy—fall into this category. No one teaches Newtonian physics at universities and while there are puzzles aplenty left in quantum physics, those are mostly widely agree upon puzzles. Fringe thinking may get mentioned now and then but mostly it is mainstream science that is communicated to the students.

When it comes to the less then hard sciences and fields—for example, climatology, anthropology, history, psychology, sociology, economics and such—things get a bit messy. Yes, in most of these there are schools that have more or less won out in the competition for who gets it right about the subject matter but there are also quite a few debates afoot. Still, most who teach these disciplines work from their own school’s perspective, which they tend to consider the winner in the competition. So often they will favor their school’s take on how to understand the subject matter of the discipline and only now and then tip their hats toward dissenters. A convinced behaviorist in psychology is probably not going to be even-handed about how to understand human conscious experiences. Even if the field of biology, there are disputes that get neglected because partisan teachers do not much respect those from a rival school of thought.

All in all, non-partisan college education is not easy to come by. There is something, however, that’s a remedy for this—the many courses students tend to take in the fields they study. This is why departments ideally do not adhere to orthodoxies, although this is not the norm, unfortunately. Still, over four years or so of college, let alone graduate school, most students are exposed to teachers of a great variety of positions in the various disciplines they study so, when one adds to this outside reading and personal, creative thought, there is likely to evolve a fairly balanced educational experience. Even if some professors abuse the process and use their classes to indoctrinate, they can rarely succeed. To think they can is to give students and the system very little credit. If one keeps in mind that it is prudent to be on guard against professors who abuse their positions, I do not think there will be a great deal of successful advocacy in college education.

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