Friday, June 14, 2013

Activism in the Classroom

I’m writing this essay because I want to clarify in my mind a position I’ve held about education for quite some time.  I’ve vigorously opposed the idea of being an activist instructor in my history courses.  The particular subjects I teach and otherwise read about give me perhaps a certain perspective that makes me so contrarian on this issue.  I’ve broached this topic with a few colleagues, some of whom identify themselves as activists and don’t see a problem here, provided that the activist cause that's being presented in the classroom is one with which they agree.  In some cases these individuals misunderstand what I’m saying, becauseI suspectthey feel so strongly about their principles, values, or sense of mission that they can't get beyond their defensive reaction or understand why there'd be a question mark here. Whether they understand me or not, it could simply be a case of disagreement.  To be honest, I'm sometimes astounded that I have to make my case for leaving activism out of the classroom, but I realize this issue requires much clarification.
So before I proceed, a couple of qualifications are in order.  First, I’m talking about activism in the classroom, not activism as such.  This point is often missed in these conversations.  Moreover, I’m thinking specifically of the traditional disciplines: the humanities, the behavioral and social sciences, biology, chemistry, and the quantitative sciences.  I’m somewhat open to arguments for an activist bent in co-curricular courses on, say, civics and cultural diversity, because students are arguably expecting this approach in these types of courses.  I'm still thinking through this question, though.  Second, I think it’s important to get a handle on what activism precisely means.  Let’s start with some definitions.  According to the, activism is “the doctrine or practice of vigorous action or involvement as a means of achieving political or other goals, sometimes by demonstrations, protests, etc.”  Wikipedia tells us that activism “consists of efforts to promote, impede, or direct social, political, economic, or environmental change, or stasis.”  Merriam-Webster Online says it’s “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.”  This last definition is most pertinent here.  Okay, I think we’re ready to go forward.
My basic concern is that activism can mar pedagogical efforts to be as objective as possible in the classroom.  Many undergrad freshmen don't have the ability to discern a professor's advocacy for a controversial issue from analysis or Socratic dialogue.  The students who might have a different view will either be turned off by the instructor's efforts at proselytization or they won't really think about it because they agree.  In either scenario, I submit, education is not happening.  The temptation for a university instructor to preach their values or indoctrinate students with their ideological viewpoint is strong enough, as that's what humans do: they want to influence others. But giving full vent to activism in the classroom makes an instructor less willing to foster the free exchange of ideas, something that a university is supposed to facilitate.

When I’m talking about Nazism, for instance, I should be discussing how this evil came about, various theories that account for the rise of this ideology, and less on what students should be thinking about it or what they're going to do to oppose manifestations of it in our own day.  I want them to draw their own conclusions.  There are plenty of avenues for the student to get involved outside of class.  History is replete with examples of visionaries and moralists with good intentions and a razor-sharp moral sense who've nonetheless led people down the primrose path to hell.  Jim Jones and Robespierre, a pastor and a principled activist who wanted to right the wrongs of their respective societies, are just two individuals that come to mind; one enjoined his followers under gunpoint to drink poison and the other ended up cutting people’s heads off en masse.  Didn’t George Orwell warn us about public mind control?  I guess there’s a part of me that, should I let my ideological or partisan views come to the fore in my class, would feel like I'm Inner Party member O’Brien probing for thoughtcrime among my students.

I attended a GBLT speaker’s talk on campus a few months ago.  At that meeting no less than the chancellor seemed to be on board with an activist classroom.  No one even questioned or at least qualified the notion of pushing a particular social agenda.  I thought to myself: What if I wanted to promote the idea of regime change in my course on conflicts throughout the contemporary world?  That is, what if I decided to make the case with students that the U.S. military should intervene to displace genocidal dictators abroad because it serves our national interests and the interests of humanity in general?  How do you think that would go over?  I’d have good intentions, and perhaps roughly half the country wouldn’t mind this emphasis in my class.  I don't think it would be a popular idea where I teach, however.  So being an activist in the classroom hinges on your patrons and the campus culture.  What's wrong with this picture?

For those who are either explicitly or implicitly okay with activism in the classroom, the thought process presumably goes something like this: Why wouldn’t you take this great opportunity to promote a good cause?  You have a captive audience and as an authority figure their respect.  They’ll listen to you and consider your perspective.  You shouldn’t pass up this moment to correct those who might be less ardent in fighting sexism, racism, homophobia, and other expressions of social injustice.  It's not about pushing an agenda!  It's about doing the right thing.  Don’t you want to inspire?  Don’t you want to be a part of the solution?  These students are wide-eyed young people with an open mind.  They'll be moved by what you have to say, and you'll be doing humanity a favor by fostering those same values in the youth that you hold so dear.

Am I exaggerating the impact of activism in the class?  Maybe just a bit, but I’m trying to make a point.  I think some further clarification would be welcome here.  Do I make value judgments in the classroom?  You bet, especially in the subject matter that I teach.  I can tell the students that the Nazis committed evil.  I don’t leave that up for them to decide.  There are times when an instructor needs to make a stand and not moderate or throw out alternative positions on an issue.  For instance, while I'm open to the idea that the 911 attack was really a conspiracy carried out by the U.S. government doing Israel's bidding, I reject it out of hand in class because of the lack of evidence.  The burden of proof, I tell the students, is on the conspiracy theorists, not mainstream scientific investigation and data.

Listen, instructors have opinions and it can aid the learning process to share these opinions at times.  For instance, I had my students read a young Tutsi woman's memoir about surviving the Rwandan genocide by finding refuge in a Hutu pastor's home.  She talks a lot about forgiveness, as she's a devout Catholic.  I told the students that I can't agree with her view of forgiveness; instead, I expressed my agreement with a military commander that she cites in the book who said he'll forgive the perpetrators when they're dead.  I made it clear that this is my opinion.  Remember the third definition above: activism means you’re defending one side of a controversial issue.  What's controversial changes for each generation.  One must discern the moral zeitgeist from partisan positions that divide the country.  If you find yourself pushing a viewpoint tendentiously, you're likely not giving the opposing viewpoint its due.  Activism in the classroom will always conjure up for me China’s Cultural Revolution, re-education centers, propaganda, self-criticism sessions in North Korea’s gulags, Joseph Goebbels, totalitarianism, and Big Brother.