Yesterday Stanley Fish blogged about that perennial favorite, political indoctrination on campus, weighing in somewhat belatedly on the University of Illinois policy barring professors from wearing candidate buttons in the workplace, putting candidate bumper stickers on their cars, and attending partisan rallies on campus.
The place of partisan politics on college campuses. One point often lost in the debate is how the arguments, on both sides really, tend to infantilize college students and puff up professor influence. We have to mold these young minds and show them how to be civically active adults. Really? Aside from the troubling and monolithic way such an argument invokes student need, much research about civic engagement on campus suggests students engage differently (through places of worship, for instance) from professors but at no lower a rate. Others , like Fish, argue: We abuse our position of influence and neglect "real" teaching when we "bring" politics into class. I have been interested in the rhetoric of this debate for a decade and I have yet to see solid evidence establishing the influence we allegedly have over students.
College students are adults. They can make up their own minds. They do make up their own minds. They bring experiences, habits, literacies, and ideas with them. Hopefully they continue to gain new experiences, habits, literacies, and ideas. Hopefully we are effective enough to expand their repertoire as thinkers and doers. Are we talking about partisan politics this semester in my rhetoric classes? You bet. Do I have partisan bumper stickers on my car and a button on my backpack? You bet. Do I take "public" stands on issues and candidates, both on and off camps? You bet. Do I wear a button to class? No. Exercising both my first amendment rights and my academic freedom as well, I choose not to. Given my teaching style (discussion-oriented, informal, open) , I think such a symbol might distract. For some teaching styles, such a symbol might help.
The policy is bogus because it removes those aforementioned liberties and because it suggests that college students are something other than adults with prerogatives who have chosen to enter into an arena of competing and new prerogatives.
Experience-as-proof has its limits and I don't mean to generalize here, but let me invoke my own story. As an undergraduate, I knew a great deal about the politics of many of my professors. Some, not so much. But a lot of my professors displayed symbols, on their office doors for instance. And a lot of them brought not only the issues but also their perspectives into the classroom. Certainly in courses like ethics and women's studies, but also in courses like postmodern fiction and philosophies of God. I studied with a lot of outspoken public intellectuals. Many were far to the left, but not all of them. I took several philosophy classes with an extremely conservative Catholic, a member of the religious right who incorporated his views on abortion to illustrate various lessons: a priori argumentation, for instance.
Now, granted, I was at a private University. Also, it was the early 90s, the height of the campus multi-culturalism movement. But the point is: I never felt coerced, never felt victimized by indoctrination, never felt like a child incapable of making up my mind. I felt challenged to consider new things. It's called adulthood.