Sunday, June 08, 2014

Should Teachers Reveal Their Biases? (updated)

After a somewhat provocative tag-team student post got quite a few American Studies students all "Reilled"-up and a little bit "Mad", I thought I'd recycle parts of this post I first wrote many years ago (check out the exact date -- talk about an artifact -- it's the month before the presidential election!). The question that today's blog post poses has been hotly debated in my own department and I am not surprised that a group of such thoughtful (and largely respectful to each other) students would take it up, on their own!

I had read an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education (the link is now broken, unfortunately) which references a recently published book, Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities, written by three faculty members from George Mason University. If you read the students' post, part of the discussion focused on how appropriate it is when teachers reveal their political perspective**. Would that action have an inappropriate effect on their students? Would it amount to, as one student argued, being "indoctrinated"?

Does this guy look like me? Or Doc OC? Ah, who can tell the difference, anyway!

The book's authors state that based on their 2007 study, the majority of professors "say they keep their own politics out of the classroom". In fact, only a minority of college faculty (28%) admit that they openly reveal their political bias to their students.

But even if the above statistics are true, does it even matter if teachers conceal their political leanings? Another study, conducted by two professors from Pennsylvania State University may have the answer. In their research-based article, "I Think My Professor Is a Democrat", they published two related findings, based on student surveys:
  1. College students agree that most professors do not reveal their political bias (thus corroborating the findings from the book mentioned at the beginning)
  2. But 75% of students were able to guess correctly their professor's political leanings, anyway.
Finally, the biggest question looming behind this particular discussion: if the great majority of college professors call themselves liberal, does this influence their students to become more left-leaning as well? The same researchers conducted another study which found that students started shifting slightly to the left under both Republican- and Democrat-voting professors -- not just under liberal-leaning teachers.

What do these studies mean for our class discussions (online and off)? What could be responsible for the shift to the political left? Perhaps, too, there is a difference between college-level classrooms and high school with regard to these findings?

**For students who want to hear "both sides" of every issue (assuming "both sides" are equally meritorious), my own philosophy has always been (quoted from Howard Zinn): "You can't be neutral on a moving train." I guess I'd rather be upfront with my views than play guessing games all school year-long.


Alex Wyse said...

Though 72% of professors say that they keep politics out of it, I think this statistic is misleading because many professors teach classes that don't address anything in the political realm e.g. math classes, physics classes, many foreign language classes.

In reality, it is probably a higher percentage of professors that DO share their political opinions. This is understandable though, for I think it would be impossible to teach a class completely neutral, as Howard Zinn's quote suggests. All teachers have opinions, and whether they are open about them or not, students are going to be able to detect their biases. So no, I really don't think it matters if teachers conceal their political leadings. Yes, it might make certain students feel more comfortable if professors taught without a bias, but this is unrealistic. As long as students can express their viewpoints freely, I don’t think it is wrong for teachers to share theirs.

In terms of the affect on students, a teacher’s political views are clearly going to have an influence on their students. Since most teachers tend to be more liberal, it probably does encourage kids to become more liberal. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why many young Americans are more liberal. However, if teachers are open with their students on where they stand politically, it makes it easier for the students to understand their bias and realize that the material is being taught from a particular viewpoint. Provided that alternative viewpoints can be freely expressed in the class, having an honest and open teacher can actually be beneficial.

Anonymous said...

I believe that a teacher's political views should generally not be shared openly, because that has a direct effect on each and every student. If a teacher openly admitted to being on one end of the political spectrum, I believe the people on the opposite side will feel as if they can write off what the teachers are saying. Also I think it would definitely sway a few high school students to one side or the other, due to they act that many high school students aren't up to date on politics. These uneducated students are bound to listen to their teachers due to the fact that teachers are people who are looked up to, and who seem to have all the right answers.

College may be a little different. People can finally vote, and become much more independent and more educated on politics. I feel as though it may be a little better for college professors to be able to be open about their political views, because I believe they have less of a chance to influence their students.

However, I understand when Alex says it is impossible to teach a class neutral. And this can be a good thing because it can spark some great discussions between opposing parties. All in all, I think depending on how the teachers handle their openness and if the students are willing to listen and get involved in the discussion with the teachers, it would be beneficial.

Shannon said...

I agree with Alex. It is totally impossible to teach a class neutrally. Even the material you choose to teach and how you teach it is a bias. It is certainly important to try to keep the environment neutral, though. As a teacher, you are not a dictator or the leader of a kremlin youth camp. You are there to teach and to educate which is awesome because we all need a little education. Then, students can form their own opinions and beliefs, knowing that they are basing them on education from a life-bias-as-possible teacher.

Carolyn D. said...

It is all very interesting, but I completely agree that it is nearly impossible for a teacher, or anyone in general, to come off completly unbiased. I think that this concept of imparting outr views on others through what we say is so natural and it is hard to avoid.

However, if there is anything that this class has taught me, it is that we need to think critically of everything. So this seems to be why we can listen to biases and accept the different opinions and be able to not have to believe all of them. I feel like for the most part our teachers this year have been more objective about topics, and of course they do have biases that are sometimes made apparent, I think we all have the ability to see past these biases.

Overall I think it is absurd to expect teachers or anyone not to show any bias whatsoever in a conversation, it is our job, however, to see these biases and decide what to believe.

Josh Sussman said...

Similar to what many of the other commenters said, I agree that it is nearly impossible for teachers (especially those that deal with social issues) to display a completely unbiased view in certain issues. However, because of the structure of our American Studies class, which has always valued fact and evidence-based opinions, I feel that we are always encouraged to offer up an alternate viewpoint as long as you can support that with evidence. As Mr. O'Connor mentioned in class the other day, many high schoolers are at a time in there lives when we are most open to new ideas, and for that reason, I think there is really no issue with teachers showing biases as long as they are well-supported because that allows students to make their own informed decisions (whether it be in politics or otherWyse).