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To politicize, or not to politicize

Last Friday, Chad Puterbaugh wrote a column regarding professors’ responsibilities towards their students. Specifically, he argued that professors are not “caches of pure knowledge,” but instead are prone to interjecting their own opinions and politics. The real problem, according to Puterbaugh, is that professors hold a sufficiently powerful position to browbeat students into conformity or – only slightly better – completely turn them off to classroom material. Speaking as Puterbaugh’s political antithesis, I wanted to pose a potential solution to such a problem.

It is frequently believed among the political right that universities such as BGSU’s are bastions of liberal or even radical indoctrination. I do not tend to buy into this notion. As Puterbaugh pointed out on Friday, it is impossible to transfer knowledge and comprehension from one person to another with no bleed-over in personality and opinion. That said, I have had minimal problems with this in my previous three years here at the University. I am much more concerned with Puterbaugh’s second point that those who feel politically affronted will stop taking their studies seriously.

The initial reason for my “liberal bastion” comment above was to introduce this observation: Conservative and often even moderate students take an inherently defensive stance. This is in part because University policy, such as gender and LGBTQA issues, as well as mental health and education methods are based on fundamentally liberal assumptions. While I might expound upon that point at a later date, for now I would simply like to state that these perceptions need not form the basis of a student’s experience at the University. What I would like to do instead, is explain my own standard for judging a professor and the material.

I call it the “all-or-nothing” standard. Simply put, if you are studying something that cannot benefit by political discourse, then it should never come up. In some subjects this is the obvious choice – hard sciences and so on. It gets trickier in the humanities, however. While it is possible to study philosophy exclusively in the abstract or hypothetical, it is also a valuable exercise to apply the concepts and their counterpoints to contemporary issues. This also holds true for students of ancient history, to say nothing of modern history or political science. The point is, whenever a professor can avoid bringing in political observation (a rather generous use of that word), the better chance they have to purvey Puterbaugh’s “cache of pure knowledge.”

However, as mentioned above, sometimes political dialogue is helpful or even necessary to the course. So if the “nothing” standard cannot apply, the “all” standard must. This seems like a simple concept: Present the arguments, merits and failures of both liberal and conservative stances in class. Unfortunately, it is not that easy. For starters, what about libertarian or communitarian perspectives? How can a professor make time for every conceivable stance and still get anything done? My simplified answer would be, do not be gun shy.

The most extreme example is often the most telling. In studying history, my most adept professors have been able to represent the viewpoints of monarchs, confederalists and even Nazis and Soviets. While this might have set off a few warning bells, let me point out two things. First, it is much easier to learn about something if you can see it both from the outside and inside. Those of you who oppose the Bush administration, take the time to learn about the values and motivations of those in power. I am not saying you will be won over – quite the opposite. By studying something from both sides you are better prepared for debate. This leads into my second point: a university student will not slide on over to whichever side is currently being analyzed. A history student will not be a Nazi one week, a Soviet the next and a Reagan era neo-con the third. On the flip side, to rob a student of any of those perspectives in such a course would be a failure on the part of the professor and class.

Unfortunately, my solutions to the problems posed by Puterbaugh presuppose an intelligent professor who is interested in fairness and equal scholastic exposure.

To students I would simply say, force the issue. If a professor is failing to meet the “all-or-nothing” standard, put him or her on the defensive. As a closing observation, my best professors have been those whose beliefs I cannot tell you to this day. If this seems unfair or dehumanizing, such is the price of authority.

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