Reply to Sracic (2007)

[The following is a comment I made in October of 2007 in response to a piece written by my friend Paul Sracic (Youngstown State University). See this post for the context.]

Like most of us most of the time, Professor Sracic is partly right. He is certainly right in attending to an underlying scruple to teach his students with prudence and fairness. Full disclosure: I am a long-time friend of Sracic, I’ve observed his teaching, and Respondent “dah” [one of the commenters to his post] is wrong: Sracic is a very fine teacher, indeed, and I believe popular and well-respected by his students. If I understand Sracic’s position correctly, his intentions are noble. He wants to be careful to teach his subject to students in such a way as to inform them of the relevant information about his subject but also (and especially) to help hone his students’ critical thinking skills. He hopes to teach his students in such a way as to respect their autonomy and freedom in crafting their own lives. He does not want to cheat them.

Part of his commentary here is a response to reports that surface from time to time of professors rambling on about political views instead of teaching the subjects they are paid to teach. For instance, if my kid is trying to take a course in intermediate calculus, the instructor should not spend three-quarters of the time talking about, say, the merits or a Kucinich or Keyes administration. I’ll want my money back. That non-intermediate-calculus discussion could (and even should) be held over coffee after class–extracurricular discussions between faculty and students being a not insignificant element in a rich educational experience.

So Sracic is trying to do what he’s paid to do: teach a subject in which he has developed an expertise. Any hint that he might be violating his code of ethics strikes him as unacceptable.

But would he really be violating his code of ethics by answering his student’s question about his personal political views? I think the answer in the context of a course on American politics is: not necessarily. If he were to fail to teach about the structures and processes involved in American polity, and instead tried (emphasis on try..students aren’t sheep, and Sracic does not think they are, by the way) merely to sway his students to cast their vote in a certain way, then I would think that he did not perform his job well. If, on the other hand, he were to answer his student and provide his student with his reasons for supporting Kucinich or Keyes (or whomever), this could easily constitute a teachable moment–especially if he were to encourage his students to do the same. It would then be a manifestation of an element of the democratic process: debate and deliberation.

However, there might be good pedagogical reasons for not sharing a personal view. When I taught the history of philosophy, students would often ask me which philosopher we studied I thought was “right.” I would frequently (and flippantly) answer: “We’re not here to talk about me.” It is not that I do not have views on the question. It is not that I was (merely) being coy. For pedagogical reasons, I was trying not to make things too easy for my students, trying not to let them let their guard down concerning the rhetorical force of authority and expertise. Don’t misunderstand: both I and my students knew I knew more about the various philosophers than they did. They knew I was the expert and their hard-earned money was going to pay for my expertise. But, asking “which philosopher was right” is, in itself, especially at that stage of the learning process, the wrong question to take up. And I should mention that a refusal can often incite further curiosity, which of course is pedagogically very valuable.

So for at least one (and probably both) of these reasons–some version of a professional code of conduct and pedagogical strategy–Sracic may have been right to not answer the question. But then again, he could have easily answered it for the same reasons. Either way, a teacher senstive to both the ethics of his or her profession and the techniques and strategies for success can hardly be called “not a very good teacher.”

But there is a much larger question that haunts this discussion: What is the role of the humanities in the contemporary university?

I commend to readers Anthony T. Kronman’s new book, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. His analysis can shed light on Professor Sracic’s dilemma, along with that of his critics: Does the humanities professor have the authority to teach about profound questions that do not admit of “objective” answers? Sracic might feel that he does not. Those who do often face as much (or more) criticism as some of Sracic’s respondents have leveled at him. Why is this?

Kronman, in a Boston Globe piece, writes,

Over the past century and a half, our top universities have embraced a research-driven ideal that has squeezed the question of life’s meaning from the college curriculum, limiting the range of questions teachers feel they have the right and authority to teach. And in the process it has badly weakened the humanities, the disciplines with the oldest and deepest connection to this question, leaving them directionless and vulnerable to being hijacked for political ends.

But the encouraging news is that there is, today, a growing hunger among students to explore these topics. As questions of spiritual urgency – abortion, creationism, the destruction of the environment – move to the center of debate in our society, America’s colleges and universities have a real opportunity to give students the tools to discuss them at a meaningful level.

What our society now desperately needs is what it once had: An alternative approach to a college education that takes these matters seriously without pretending to answer them in a doctrinaire way.”

The question of who should be president is important. The answer will involve people’s understanding of the nature of government and politics, which in turn involves an understanding of the meaning and purpose of life. The issues raised by Sracic’s editorial and the discussion it has spurred are critically important for both the university and society.

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  1. Talking to Students | Peripatetic Praxis

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