Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Am I contradictory?

In a response to the NY Times article below, janine asked me if there was a contradiction between Horowitz attempt to restrict speech on campus and my opinion that RA's should not be holding bible study in their work-space. I started to comment directly to her, but decided to move it since my reply kept growing:

First, teaching at a university and being an RA in a dormitory are very different occupations with different expectations. My job is not to provide support for dorm residents as they adjust to college life.

Second, I don't think classrooms are appropriate spaces for political discussions, outside of classes on political science. Students are there to learn a certain content and to learn ways of interpreting the content which is placed before them.

As part of that process, the comfortable notions which students often bring to their classes are challenged. That is what a college education is about. Occasionally, students who are not open to listening to diverse opinions are offended.

Usually, the views with which the offended students are presented come from a part of the spectrum which is foreign to current American political discourse--the left. The David Horowitzs of the world think that it is a bad thing to be forced to confront ideas with which you might not agree. The John Ashcrofts of the world claim it aids terrorism to question the administration. It is not surprising that students don't like to hear about alternative world-views.

In my own teaching, I am sure I come across like some radical leftist. I continually emphasize the power and appeal of left-wing ideas, because it is clearly so foreign to my students. Many simply can not conceive how anyone would ever believe anything different than they do.

The Horowitz crowd, and his Christianist legislator supporters, don't seem to believe in critical thinking and being exposed to a diversity of opinions. They see it as a threat that students might have to confront ideas that disagree with their own. Bible study fits this mold--the RAs are not looking to critically analyze the diversity of interpretations of the bible, but are trying to convince their charges that their own view is the right own.

A historian named Bill Cronon who gave a presentation on campus a few months ago described history as the stories we tell about our past. I want my students to think about the reasons that some stories are dominant and others are lost. This is what education is about, not having your own stories recited back to you without any analysis.


Janine said...

I will have to disagree with your idea that professors and RA's are essentially different. RA's live in the dorms and have the responsibility of "watching" those that are in the dorms -- guiding them through the college experience. Professors have the responsibility of teaching the students how to use the information they are learning. They also guide them through the college experience.

I've been in classes where a professor clearly has a bias towards one political party. There hasn't been a problem with it because they adequately teach the subject material and respectfully listen to disenting opinions. On the other hand, I've also been in classes where the professor is so biased towards one political party that they do not acknowledge nor respect anyone's dissenting opinion.

That is where the difference lies, in my opinion. An RA who is holding a Bible study in his/her dorm room is doing so behind closed doors. A professor who is bias towards one political party and does not acknowledge disenting opinions is doing so in an open classroom. The "problem" is the fact that both the RA and the professor have to be open to other's views and opinions. To blanketly say that a professor who is teaching and using political rethoric is OK and an RA who is holding a Bible study in their dorm room is not, is completely contradictory in my opinion.

However, I thank you for answering my question.

Lake Winneblogo said...

In some ways we are not that far apart. As I said, I don't think classrooms are a place for proselytizing anymore than RA's dorm rooms.

If professors are spending time talking politics in their biology class, for example, then the time is ill used.

However, it is not a professor's job to make everyone comfortable. It is the job of an RA. This is why we have a strong tradition in this country of protecting professors' ability to say whatever they want.

If you start constricting the ability of professors to challenge the status quo because of students' discomfort or disagreement, you might as well give up on the idea of critical inquiry and scholarship.

The same can not be said for student RAs and their bible studies.