In March 2003, the Yale Law School auditorium overflowed with hundreds of students eager to hear a panel of professors’ opinions on the potential war in Iraq. Professors criticized various administration practices and international institutions from Halliburton to the U.N., making jokes and providing a wide variety of perspectives to the student body.
In the classroom, however, professors say they strive not to make the same politicized remarks. In Yale’s Political Science and International Studies departments — the two departments most obviously connected to the political scene — professors insist that while they may or may not be involved in politics in their work outside of Yale’s buildings, they preserve the classroom as a separate entity in which their personal views get little, if any, play.
Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said there is no college-wide policy regarding professors’ inclusion of their personal political views in class, making it the prerogative of the faculty to decide what they think is appropriate. Salovey offered further insight from his own teaching experience specific to including the upcoming election in a classroom environment.
“To me there are two issues,” Salovey said. “One is relevance. Does talking about the election help make a point or address a topic that is being addressed in class? Is it being made relevant to the actual issue on the table? The second issue is, is it being talked about in a way that allows everyone to feel that he or she can freely express an opinion and that certain kinds of opinion aren’t privileged over others?”
Salovey emphasized the importance of professors’ choice in their curriculum, whether or not it involves controversial political issues. He said the University would not “articulate” a policy for whether professors should discuss events such as the election, leaving this up to each individual professor’s discretion.
“We need to bend over backwards to guard the freedom of our professors to sort of teach in a manner that they feel is most conducive to their students’ education,” Salovey said.
On a campus as notoriously liberal as Yale’s, one of the major reasons for often equally liberal professors to be wary of sharing political views is to ensure the comfort of the more conservative students in what might otherwise turn into a Bush-bashing party instead of a lecture on political philosophy.
But even prominent conservative professor Charles Hill, whose views run little risk of alienating a group of students who already frequently feel marginalized, said he is careful to keep his politics separate from his teaching in class.
“I think it’s very important to keep personal political views out of the classroom. Once an instructor gets that out on the table it unavoidably creates a sense of pressure on the student to conform to that,” Hill said. “The classroom is a sacred space, and you shouldn’t inject your personal views into it.”
Although Gregory Huber, who teaches “Crime and Punishment” with Ian Shapiro as well as the seminar “Politics and Crime Control,” said he does not share his opinions in class, he said political opinions should not be a forbidden subject.
“There’s a difference between acknowledging your opinion and educating on its behalf,” Huber said. “There’s something to be said for being open about it, but what I think should be irrelevant.”
In that vein, Huber said he tries to keep students guessing by frequently “playing devil’s advocate” for positions that seem antithetical to what they expect.
Political Science major Candace Arthur ’05, who took Huber’s “Crime and Punishment” lecture two years ago, is currently enrolled in Huber’s “Politics and Crime Control” seminar. Arthur said the more intimate format lends itself to Huber sharing his opinion more about matters of policy, though she said he has never made any pointedly partisan statements.
While Arthur said Huber will occasionally give a comment at the end of class, she said she does not mind hearing his opinion — or that of any other professor — so long as he waits until all the students have already shared their opinions. Otherwise, students might cater their comments to match the professor’s views, Arthur said.
Jolyon Howorth, who is teaching “Introduction to International Relations” this semester, agreed with Huber’s method of keeping the students guessing. Like the vast majority of academics across the country, Howorth said he has strong opinions on today’s political situation. But although he explores these beliefs in policy papers and analysis, he said he is careful not to let his feelings affect the classroom.
“While I have fairly clear views on all aspects of contemporary events, that’s not really of any significance in the classroom,” Howorth said. “Occasionally I take some satisfaction in students saying, ‘Well, what do you really think?'”
If anything, Howorth said, it is almost a relief to explore political ideas in the less charged classroom environment. He described his teaching and his writing as two different exercises that need to be kept distinct.
Somewhat similarly, Hill said he finds it liberating to be teaching at Yale as opposed to working for the State Department, not so much because he can take a break from asserting his opinion, but because he is free to explore his own beliefs instead of the party line.
“The great function of not being in the State Department is being able to say whatever you want,” Hill said.
Salovey emphasized that he does not see any conflict between professors work outside of Yale and their time in the lecture hall, adding that the two can have a complementary relationship. Yale hires professors because they are experts in their field and have made great contributions to that field outside of the Yale undergraduate teaching environment. When a professor’s field is political science, that means the professor will most likely be engaged in a dialogue outside of Yale. As far as Salovey is concerned, professors are always free to give their political opinions in class at their discretion, he said, but he takes it as a given that they will enter in debate on a larger national scale.
“I feel that the faculty at Yale are among the most thoughtful and intelligent people that you can find,” Salovey said. “To share their opinions about the future of our country and its leadership is maybe not quite an obligation; it certainly shouldn’t be discouraged.”
While all these professors insist that they keep their personal politics out of the classroom, they said they do their best to relate sometimes distant or hard-to-grasp subjects to contemporary national issues. For example, Hill said his class this semester, “International Ideas and Institutions: Foundations,” uses the U.N. and N.A.T.O. to illuminate Kant’s writings on the idea of a federation of republics.
“In an important sense, if you’re talking about ideas in international life and its genealogy, it can’t be meaningful unless these ideas can be demonstrated in current practice,” Hill said.
Huber said, in his experience, students prefer concrete examples to discussion of abstract theory, so he tries to connect ideas of economy and political philosophy to present-day institutions. Steven Smith, who teaches “Introduction to Political Philosophy,” also said he tries to help students relate to long-standing theory, using today’s politics to illustrate the ideas of Aristotle and Montesquieu.
“I try to tell people how they should think about politics,” Smith said. “I don’t look at these books as giving formulas for today’s problems, but I do think that they should help us frame more clearly what the problems are.”
John Beski ’07, currently enrolled in Smith’s political philosophy class, said he appreciates tying theories to current systems but he does not find it necessary. Arthur, however, said she found including current events in lecture and seminar made the topics “more personal” and allowed students to have more of their own input based on their life experience.
Even as these professors take care not to impose their beliefs upon their students, some students are more forthcoming with their own political biases. As long as students are able to back up their opinions with evidence, professors said, they are happy to listen.
“I encourage [students] to give their views, but I also encourage them to defend their views,” Howorth said. “The last thing the classroom should be is a sounding board for political prejudice.”
Every once in a while, of course, professors may let their political passion get the better of them.
“Just as much as anybody, I make a snide comment every once in a while,” Smith said. “But the last thing I want to do in class is tell anyone what person I’m voting for.”
Sometimes, however, that is not the last thing students want. As students flock to the classes of some professors known for their more extreme views, it is clear that they are looking perhaps not for guidance, but at least interesting extremism from a politically-experienced source.
But, Hill asserts, there is a place for opinions outside of the classroom. Beyond the professors’ personal writings — from newspaper columns to books — Yale has sponsored forums and talks in the past on contentious subjects such as the war in Iraq. Hill, who has sat on various panels, said these forums are the appropriate environment for professors to share their opinions because the audience at those events is expecting and desiring to hear opinions, instead of being captive to professors’ wills.
At that March teach-in — one of many that were to follow — professors, including historians Paul Kennedy and Donald Kagan, as well as Hill, came together under moderator John Gaddis. The panel was so popular that students spilled out of the law school into area classrooms to watch the panel on live television feeds.
Outside of these kind of events, Hill said students should not look for political guidance inside the classroom, but in the more usual forms of television, newspaper, magazines and other media.
“All students have to do is just pay attention and draw their own conclusions,” Hill said.
While Smith said he does not want to include his personal views in his class, he does not worry too much about the consequences of slips in his otherwise nonpartisan teachings because he is confident in Yale students ability — and desire — to choose for themselves.
“It’s not like some political candidate is out there waiting for my endorsement,” Smith said. “Are students so gullible? Of course not. One thing I know about students is they make up their own minds.”
Beski is a case in point. Reflecting on his experience both in Smith’s class and other political science classes, Beski insisted that whether the professor included his beliefs or not was inconsequential.
“It doesn’t particularly matter,” Beski said. “It’s not going to influence me one way or another.”
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