Shortly after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I gave a talk to a local senior citizens group. The talk was largely informational, flavored by my analysis of what had happened. After the speech, a man walked up to me and told me he found me too partisan, that liberal bias in academia disturbed him greatly, and that people who taught like me were “a disgrace.”
This reference to liberal bias among academics, is, of course, a well-known trope. While the numbers clearly indicate more academics are liberal than conservative, either by overwhelming numbers or by smaller numbers, we are seeing increasing, disturbing, responses to this. Worrisome for us is the fear that any efforts at encouraging civic engagement will be derided as attempts at indoctrination, and therefore discouraged. This was a pervasive theme at this year’s American Political Science Association Teaching and Learning Conference, where discussion addressed how to avoid this problem.
We stand at a challenging time, having just passed an election featuring two extraordinarily unpopular candidates, and with a new president with unprecedentedly low approval ratings. More than that, we stand at a time when science is under siege; indeed, facts themselves rather than interpretations are increasingly being challenged. When demonstrably false statements are offered, and repeated, until they are believed, we enter a chilling epoch in this American experiment with democracy.
What are we, as political science professors, to do about it? I offer three suggestions here:
- Ask for the Data
One concern that many of us share is how to address controversial issues within the classroom, without appearing to take sides. How can we do this? With data. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but we are not entitled to our own facts. Are Republicans or Democrats more obstructionist when confronting a president of the opposite party? Do voter ID laws reduce turnout among minority groups? We’re political scientists – we can offer data to illuminate the question. We can invite our students to share data they find. What sources are reliable, and what are not? How do we know? This opens the door to a discussion of information literacy and the role that being able to evaluate sources plays in citizenship.
So, when outlandish statements are made – by political figures or by students in our classes – ask for the data. If we do it in a non-threatening way – to students with whom we disagree as well as to students with whom we do not – we create a culture devoted to the scientific study of politics and policy, much as our discipline suggests we ought to be. Ideally (and the ideal is, admittedly, so hard to achieve these days), we want our classrooms to be collaborative sites of inquiry, rather than combative sites of argument.
- Learn from One Another
Like all human beings, you have your biases around political issues. I would venture to say that it is impossible for our biases to remain hidden, even if we made a studied attempt to be completely neutral. Furthermore, as many of us now occupy more public personas than we did ten years across – through Facebook, Twitter, op-eds, and the like – the days in which we could realistically claim students do not know our beliefs are fading.
Allowing our students to know where we stand politically can democratize our classes. For me, it says to my students that I respect them enough for them to take me seriously even if they disagree with me (rather than just dismissing me as a “liberal snowflake” and ignoring anything I say). I owe them the same respect. My students may say that my ideology clouds how I read the news, or interpret events – and I cannot say they are wrong. But when I admit this failing on my part, I encourage them to see these failings on theirs. We are all imperfect, navigating a challenging information environment, and our own biases, as well as we can. We can all learn something from doing it together.
- Don’t Be a Bystander
Today, we are seeing some staggering political events, seemingly on a daily basis. Wherever you stand, this is not the time to be neutral. As political scientists, we must stand up for core values like equality, fairness, and justice. When our most cherished values are threatened, from any side, we must march, donate, agitate, and resist. We must stand up in support of education, and scientific inquiry, and in favor of policies that will provide opportunities for our students. Does this become partisan? Perhaps it does. There are clear limits to what we should do in the classroom, where we have a different role. But as academics, we also must fight for the core values we hold dear, and for the core values that must be upheld if universities remain the places where we all come together to search for truth, and a better way forward. In so doing, we can also set examples for our students of the utility and virtue of political engagement.
And my detractor at my speech: Well, when he gave me a chance to respond, I explained to him the difference between my approach in a community speech, and my approach in the classroom. I elaborated my approach to data and shared inquiry in the classroom. And, I told him that what I found most objectionable in his statement was how he seemed to be insulting my students by suggesting that they would automatically believe, and follow, what I said in class. Such a statement, I said, runs counter to my philosophy as an instructor: Respect your students. Give them the space and structure within which to inquire about politics, and a model for how to engage the system once they figure out where they stand. I’d much rather give them these gifts than to have them blindly follow what I believe. I know my colleagues feel the same way.
And, when I presented it like this, my detractor told me that, “Well, you’re not a disgrace, you’re just wrong [on the issues].” I lightheartedly said I felt the same way about him. But we could talk to each other. Somehow, in that moment, together, we made our democracy a little bit richer.
About the Author: Jeffrey L. Bernstein is professor of political science at Eastern Michigan University. He is co-author and contributing editor (with Michael Smith and Rebecca Nowacek) of Citizenship Across the Curriculum, and of numerous other articles on citizenship education and the scholarship of teaching and learning.