Tibor R. Machan
For forty some years I have been a teacher in a field rife with controversy, namely, philosophy. My specialty, political philosophy, is notorious for constant disagreements. What is justice? What are rights? What is more important, equality or liberty or order or peace, etc.? Since the ancient Greeks and before, these issues have been debated and no consensus has ever been reached. Maybe just one thing is at least widely agreed to. That is that discussions of these ideas, provided they are civil and intelligent, is very important.
Educators who take up these questions as part of their scholarship face certain challenges. One of which is to remain reasonably fair-minded when they face their students even if they are committed to certain views as against all the others. It is one thing to conclude that certain views or positions are sound, superior to others, and another to turn one’s classroom into a platform for these views. The idea of a liberal education isn’t that some expert will stand up and lay down the final word on a topic which he or she will then impart authoritatively to a captive audience in the class room. Education is more about helping or enabling, intelligently and with sufficient knowledge, one’s students to come to conclusions they themselves find reasonable, sensible, true. This, roughly, is what has come to be called the Socratic method, although there is plenty of debate about whether Socrates practiced it faithfully. (A very good book dealing with that issue is Emily Wilson, The Death of Socrates, Harvard University Press, 2007.)
But some teachers simply find it too tempting to resist become indoctrinators. This is especially so because in some many forums outside the classroom they are called upon to advocate, to promote, to defend or argue for the positions they find most convincing. And in certain disciplines, such as political philosophy, economy or theory, they are not only convinced that they have the right answer--even if that's some form of skepticism--but of the urgency to spread these ideas, to convince people of them. If you believe that some law is just or some public policy advances a basic human value, you are likely to want to share this in the hopes that the ideas will in time, sooner than later, come to influence the world. But this is a belief that competes with the commitment to refuse to use the classroom as a place where one is going to try to influence students to follow one’s way.
I am very familiar with this challenge because I do have strong political convictions and often take the podium outside school to defend them, to argue for them. And I write many essays, articles, books and so forth hoping to show readers that these ideas are worth their allegiance.
But I keep reminding myself every day that that is not why I became and was hired to be a teacher. I am not a mouthpiece for even the truest of ideas in my classrooms. Of course, now and then a student will ask about my position on some topic we are covering and I will say, “OK, this is an editorial comment, and here is where I stand. But that isn’t what we are here to study, what I happen to believe.” If my students get interested in my views, they need to find them mostly outside the classroom.
Sadly not everyone shares this commitment who takes up an academic teaching career. I recall many years ago a discussion I had with a colleague who defended his use of his classroom is a platform from which to advocate his views. He said that failing to deliver the truth to one’s students gives the impression that there is no truth and that they are free to choose when, in fact, society forces them to believe one or another thing that is wrong. And this is an attractive position. One who holds it comes off as a savior.
But is one hired to be a savior--indoctrinator--or a teacher? Are one’s students served better by being instructed to accept certain beliefs or by being urged to take up a search for the best beliefs, the trust ones?
I have always thought the latter is the better idea. But just so you know, not all of us holding teaching jobs at colleges and universities share it.