Written for Acculturated
November 5th, 2015
Recently, approximately four hundred members of academia publicly declared their support for Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, forming a group called Higher Ed for Bernie. These professors argue that Sanders is the only candidate on either side of the aisle that has a serious proposal for higher education. As a college student I am shocked that these professors would go so far as to make known their views on a matter as controversial as a presidential election. The members of Higher Ed for Bernie have thrown themselves into the political arena at the cost of their academic integrity.
These openly partisan professors raise some serious questions. Can they maintain a neutral attitude with their subject matter? And even if they can, will students be able to maintain a neutral attitude in learning the subject matter?
I decided I wanted to see what my fellow classmates thought about the subject, so I did an informal poll of people living on my dorm hall. I posed the following question: “If you had a professor who made their political leanings public would you feel pressured to agree with them?” The response was universal; regardless of personal political leanings everyone felt that if professors made their views known, agreeing with them would result in a higher grade.
While members of Higher Ed for Bernie are certainly within their rights to support Sanders at the ballot box, this public declaration of support undermines the status of the classroom as neutral territory where all students are free to share their views and ideas. A recent survey of college students revealed that nearly half felt “intimidated” by their professors when they tried to share different beliefs. In the classroom professors are the ultimate authority; what they say is law, and when bias slips into their presentation of facts, that bias becomes part of the classroom “law.” Disagreeing with the “law” can be disastrous.
Equally scary is that even professors who keep their biases in check may unintentionally influence their students. Knowing that your professor holds a view different from your own creates pressure to agree and stifles classroom discussion. Expressing a dissenting opinion suddenly becomes a direct challenge to the professor. After all, it’s one thing if you think your classmates disagree with you; it’s another if you know your professor does. There’s always that thought in the back of your head, “If I just agree I’ll get a better grade.”
The men and women who have dedicated their lives to higher education should know better than anyone the importance of a balanced classroom to stimulate learning. Even if the professors aren’t breaking any official rules by publicly declaring support for Sanders, they’ve done a great disservice to their students by robbing them of the opportunity to learn by hearing both sides and deciding for themselves.
Unfortunately, even if professors don’t join a group to show which presidential candidate they support or declare their views from a mountaintop, many still manage to make their views known. A survey performed in 2011 found that the academia is moving further and further left, with a higher percentage of professors self-reporting as liberal and far left than in 2008. In all, 62.7 percent call themselves liberal. A study of the political identification of academic psychologists found that self-identifying liberals outnumbered self-identifying conservatives 12-1 in the field. The same study found that an overwhelming majority of conservative academic psychologists reported working in a climate hostile to their views, and 82 percent of psychologists said they would be at least slightly biased against a conservative seeking a position in their department.
Personal leanings will always undoubtedly find their way into the classroom, but declaring one’s political preferences outright seems a guarantee of quashing, not encouraging, debate. Yet that’s precisely what we need in order to learn: exposure to opposing and often uncomfortable ideas that challenge us to think critically. The job of a teacher is to educate, to present the facts, and allow students to come to conclusions on their own. The professors of Higher Ed for Bernie have created an environment that doesn’t foster students’ curiosity and thinking skills. Instead, it nurtures their own predictable political ideology.