Thursday, February 22, 2007

Clam Up, Y'all!

This is from NCTE Inbox (yes, that's right: I teach English. Oh, get up off the floor already.)

An Arizona House committee has approved legislation that would prohibit any public school educator or college professor from advocating for or against a political candidate in class, or advocating for a social, political, or cultural issue that is part of a partisan debate. Supporters say the measure would allow students to disagree with an instructor without fear of retribution. However, students and instructors say the measure would stifle classroom discussion.

You can read about it in more detail here: The Arizona Republic, February 16, 2007.

This is a despicable bill. There's no real reason to put muzzles on teachers. We are living, breathing, thinking human beings, so naturally we have opinions. Asking us to not express them in the context of an intelligent discussion is a pretty tall order. Besides that, any responsible instructor already presents both sides of a controversial issue and challenges students to reach their own conclusions about it. Only a jerk would punish a student by assigning a poor grade just because he happens to disagree with the professor. And if this bill became law, it won't stop the few jerks out there who would. A teacher who is forced to keep his opinions to himself could still mark down the paper, say, of a student with whom he quietly disagreed.

Such legislation would also be unenforceable--or at least not enforceable fairly. See, sometimes students simply don't listen well. Or, they don't realize when a teacher is expressing a view she may not actually happen to hold. For example, if I find a classroom discussion is too unbalanced (virtually everyone is speaking up for one side only), I will often play "Devil's Advocate" and start arguing back with the opposing view (even if I secretly happen to disagree). The point is to teach students to be able to defend their own reasoning. (Or if they can't, to perhaps open their minds to consider the other side.) Consequently, on some occasions a student will think I'm advocating for a view I disagree with. (A student once actually thought I was against a woman's right to choose. My colleagues got a real kick outta that one!)

The law would also ask some teachers to sell their souls, or at least sell out academically. Imagine this: a science instructor is teaching a unit on global warming. Are we actually going to ask her to present the "disbelievers'" point of view and to not challenge the illogic? But she's supposed to teach her students to be critical thinkers! How is she supposed to teach as valid a view that is demonstrably fraught with logical fallacies or a lack of hard evidence? If the other side's view is full of holes, shouldn't she poke her fingers through those holes? Shouldn't she be teaching what science says?

Finally, sometimes students honestly want to know what their teachers think. I recall a classroom discussion about the views of God as presented in Alice Walker's The Color Purple. In the middle of the discussion, a student I knew to be a born-again Christian asked me how I imagined God. I thought it was a loaded question, so I reminded him, "Well, what I think doesn't have to be what you think." And he said, "I know that. I was just curious." So I answered him, and a few other students chimed in with what they thought, and he offered what he believed. Then he asked me a few follow-up questions, and finally he nodded, satisfied. We moved on to examine how Celie's character changed as her understanding of God changed.

My main point is this: what are discussions but (ideally) a respectful exchange of ideas? This demands that those partaking in the discussion have opinions. (To express an opinion is to advocate for it, and virtually any issue worth bringing up in class is "partisan" in some way.) Thus, asking teachers to not advocate is, essentially, to ask us to not participate in our own classroom discussions, at least not in any genuine way.

The principles of freedom of speech and academic freedom exist for several excellent reasons. 'Nuff said.


Anonymous said...

Wow! Really well written (as I would expect from an Enlglish teacher) and you articulated your points well - maybe you should be a politician ;-)

Joyce said...

Noooooooooooooo! ;-) Back, back, get thee behind me ...!