When they disagree with a view I've expressed, some readers, apparently believing they haven't thrown in enough insults, tell me how horrible it is to know that I am influencing impressionable young college students. My response is usually that I should be so lucky. The image of learning taking place as information travels from a professor's mouth to a student's tender ears is clearly not informed by any of the abundant research on how people learn.
Nonetheless, the question of whether college professors should discuss the impending war in their classrooms has made for lively exchanges at Central Connecticut State University, where I teach. The debate, much of which has taken place on an automated e-mail list read by faculty members, mirrors discussions around the country as academics and intellectuals debate the official U.S. response to events following Sept. 11, 2001. Why do academics hate America? has been the pretty shaky assumption that has framed the complaints of groups that think campuses are crawling with left-leaning, blame-America-first professors.
The local debate broke out when the art department passed a resolution against a war with Iraq and called on other departments to do the
same. The philosophy department soon followed with its own statement against the war. Meanwhile, other faculty members argued that such overtly political activity within departments and classrooms was an attempt at indoctrination of students and faculty members with opposing views. This is a brief account of an exchange that included a little trash talk; when some of the parties took the dispute outside, to a panel before faculty and students, there were more respectful exchanges.
Some professors believe they have a responsibility to help students critically evaluate issues of the day, such as war, and some students say they want to hear professors' views even if they disagree with them. Other faculty don't see a role for such discussions at all, or they think discussions are appropriate only as they pertain to a professor's scholarly expertise — and that faculty members must make clear when they are speaking as citizens rather than as experts.
The latter stance becomes complicated because, as some in the audience noted, most disciplines have something to say about war: biology, computer science, math and philosophy, just to name a few. Mike Alewitz, the muralist, political activist and professor behind the art department's resolution, noted that art students who would go out into the world to create advertising for corporations or other forms of media need to engage with the moral issues of the day. Because he spoke from the standpoint of someone who has worked in the art world and in academia, Alewitz's arguments were compelling. At a time when the free market and corporate values permeate most spheres of life, the university is one of the last places where people can discuss the social responsibility and consequences of professions such as art, engineering, law, medicine and journalism.
As a junior high student in the early 1970s, I used to look forward to the days when some teachers would set aside the math or geography lesson and talk about the war in Vietnam. I can still recall the image of my science teacher suddenly looking at the clock and realizing that the few remarks he'd planned on recent news out of Vietnam had turned into 20 or more minutes. He threw his book aside and said, "This is important," and continued discussing his objections to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. I probably used those views to form my dinner table arguments against the war.
College students have more critical distance from their professors, but the professor who launches into a soliloquy on the war in Iraq that has no relation to the academic content of the course is on shaky ground. Most college professors accept that there is a line between their personal views and the needs of the classroom. Students wouldn't let them get away with crossing that line.
This past week, I have begun working with students in one class to put together a story about views on Iraq by showing them how to use interviews, locate just enough pertinent background detail and make responsible use of polling data surrounding the question of how Americans feel about war.
"Can we put our opinions in the article, too?" The question always comes, but this time there was more urgency and a few more disappointed faces when I explained that other people's views were the focus of the assignment. They'll get used to it.
Vivian B. Martin teaches journalism at Central Connecticut State and writes a regular column for The Hartford Courant.