Perhaps the Elephant in the Classroom is NOT What You Think It Is...
The Cause and Effect of Explicit Bias in College Professors
By Thomas Marlowe, Contributor
I remember the good old days (before Twitter) when professors took the “higher” road in political discourse that left their nerve endings frayed. Going rhetorically rogue wasn’t unheard of, but instead of tweets, they wrote lengthy articles and books inveighing against controversial ideas with which they didn’t agree. However, it has become fairly common to see professors take to social media with ad hominem attacks against political conservatives with a kind of “passionate intensity” that would have raised even W.B. Yeats’ brow. Indeed, caustic tweets from professors wind up going viral, being plastered all over the national news and making headlines for Fox’s conservative hosts. It certainly paints a skewed picture of academics. With all the air time set aside for professorial “tweets,” one must pause and ask: Why do social media quips like these from professors make such big news? Perhaps the answer lies in an assessment of where institutions of higher learning sit in the social strata of our uber-contentious contemporary American culture.
In the very same issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education where a professor harangues the college administration for berating her “tweet speech” aimed at Vice President Pence, Patrick Deneed, Political Science Professor at Notre Dame, writes an opinion piece predicting the defunding of progressive studies programs at colleges and universities by elected officials. I believe these articles portend, though not directly, an even more dire prophecy: a coming war of Armageddon-like proportions between academe and working-class—largely conservative—rural America. The saber-rattling on social media has intensified between academia and conservative leaders and their constituents for a while now. It is albeit inconvenient for some academics to acknowledge that a good portion of those constituents enroll themselves and their children into the colleges that employ the professors who lash out on their social media accounts. Given this reality, Deneen’s observations should alarm anyone who has enjoyed job security in the university environment.
He rightly points out that, in fact, it is the “conservative representation among the faculty [that has been] shrinking to the point of nonexistence” for a generation, which further cements the perception of academia’s stark opposition to a middle class, center-right voting base. Given this fact, it does not bode well for us that these media highlighted universities no longer represent a place where diverse ideas can be tried and tested in the polemics of politics, society, individual thought, and moral and religious perspective. To John Q. Public, they have seemingly become “sacred,” hegemonic institutions where conservatives like Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson, Laura Ingraham, and many others—academics in their own right who have Doctorates in Jurisprudence, Psychology, etc.,—are either frog-walked off campuses by a security detail or “canceled” by protesters who complain about the far right’s “cancel culture.” The irony seems lost on many at the administrative level: College student organizations, sometimes relatively small and not even partially funded by the college itself, invite speakers—who come to share their ideas and promote thought, discussion, and, yes, debate for voluntary participants—, and they are canceled by the campus thought police.
Welcome to 1984.
Across the country, within the bounds of the very institutions that should remain the last bastion of free speech in a society where ideological debate has arguably eroded to a vestige of what it was more than 200 years ago, students and faculty alike with signs and painted faces gather outside campus auditoriums shouting (sometimes even blowing tubas and trombones) to drown out ideas they don’t even want to hear, let alone debate. Is it better to shut the guest speakers down than to respond in kind to their “confounded” and “dangerous” ideas about government and society? That doesn’t seem quite in line with what university-educated individuals should be doing. What’s more, out of that chaos and cacophony, often these madding crowds turn violent enough to force the college to send a security detail to ensure the visiting speakers’ are escorted off campus safely or to cancel the event altogether. In short, mob rules. It should be no surprise the proverbial chickens have come home to roost.
The chronically underrepresented people on today’s college campuses—who definitely do not pay less in tuition costs because they ascribe to conservative and fundamentalist values—have begun organizing in order to lash out, often in rather unpleasant ways, against liberal and progressive voices from the academic left. They claim their rebellion has been seeded by those same liberal and progressive voices who too often wield, and sometimes abuse, their power over what has historically been a safe haven of ideological egalitarianism: the college campus and its classrooms. Unfortunately, witnessing the trends on social media, that claim has begun to find standing. I am not inculpating professors for bad actors on either side of the aisle. Indeed, we all condemn abhorrent verbal and written attacks toward any professor on a college campus. Likewise, professors are citizens, too. They should be allowed the same right to lambast whomever they wish. But the mosaic is much bigger here.
During the last twenty-seven years that I have taught at various institutions, far too often I have heard students claim they were intimidated in their classes because their teachers (and I’m not exaggerating) “don’t like men,” “don’t like women,” “despise anyone who has an opinion other than what the professor espouses,” “like to embarrass conservatives for even speaking,” and upwards even to more shocking admissions from students seeking advice about their coursework. While it’s certainly a professor’s job and prerogative to “profess” the truth as they find it, it is not likely that students and the communities who help financially support these colleges and universities will long sit silently while professors demean, debase, belittle, and embarrass students who have paid such a high price to enter their classrooms. Some families borrow or pay a great deal of money for their child’s education, mind you because colleges “sell” them on how it will greatly improve the likelihood of their child paving a successful career path. It’s clear that some parents have begun to lose faith in that promise. It’s no wonder; no employer I know in the “real world,” including me, would tolerate an intolerant elitist trained to berate or “shut up” anyone whom they deem is politically “malaligned.”
Some of the professors at universities, it seems, prefer to risk even their teaching positions just so they can lash out at political figures and conservative voters for the sake of—I can only guess—insulting them. One Tampa, Florida professor decided to apologize after his viral tweet got him fired from a private institution. He kindly quipped that Hurricane Harvey was “karma” for Texans because of their GOP voters. Another professor tweeted about his joy in teaching future “dead cops” in his classrooms and was placed on leave. Another California professor was placed on leave for a rather unseemly tweet about Barbara Bush upon hearing about the former First Lady’s passing. The list goes on and on. One can’t help but wonder how those professors might respond to a student who writes a paper expressing an admiration, whether warranted or not, for someone the professor happens to despise.
Many working-class Americans have a growing concern about what they are getting when they pay for their children to attend college in pursuit of “higher” education. They have a particular interest in the social behavior displayed by professors on these platforms because a reasonable person might deduce that such a belligerent, mean-spirited attitude toward opposing viewpoints spills over into professor’s classrooms and onto vulnerable students who feel the need to conform to ideologies that go directly against their own beliefs to maintain a GPA. Parents do not need to peruse academic research about teachers’ unquestionable influence over students in the college classroom to surmise that their hard-earned dollar might be paying more for indoctrination than for education.
Beyond The Chronicle of Higher Eduction’s study all the way back in 2004, which cites 51% of 1000 people polled believe professors use their authority to promote political agendas, there are more recent studies sparking concern for professors’ explicit bias in classrooms. Regardless of whether political bias in classrooms is a settled statistic without clearly defined terms of “perceived bias” versus “real bias” (and in today’s climate, I have a feeling academics aren’t racing to find a settled statistic), it’s quite clear something is astir with all the media hoopla and with the clear defiance on college campuses of hosting conservative guest speakers in blue areas of the map. Most scholars agree that ideological “leakage” is inevitable in the classroom. Moreover, they acknowledge that practicing a Socratic pedagogy that encourages examining diverse ideas and controversial ideologies might make some students feel uncomfortable enough to “perceive” bias rather than be real victims of it. Experts and reasonable people alike believe it is not acceptable to attempt to “cleanse” the classroom and campus of conservative-leaning minds in favor of liberal, progressive automatons.
The “liberal” in a “liberal arts education” does not denote a political affiliation. Thus, shouldn’t professors be trying their best to promote the free exchange of individual ideas to provide a forum for students to explore and test their own belief systems, while remembering students should still be free and safe to reach their own independent conclusions--to heed the edicts of their own consciences after considering all the angles? We might ask ourselves why some of our students seem subdued and, at times, even despondent during our lectures and prompts for discussion. Perhaps some of them have been victims of a classroom cleansing already, and they don’t want to go through that again.
Perhaps there is an elephant in the classroom: It’s not that students are afraid the professor swings to the left (they can be quite certain of that these days); rather, it is that they are afraid the professor is a vengeful, intolerant ideologue who might use the course grade to silence dissenting voices. Perhaps we need a wake-up call as a reminder that the more intolerant the academic left continues to sound while they lecture vehemently about tolerance, the more likely the conservative population will stop matriculating at institutions where such rancor exists, and the more likely the conservative leaders they elect will indeed try to defund those institutions when the tables turn in the legislation.
They may well be turning very soon.
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