Right-wing bias in my classroom.

by Harry on April 6, 2006

I teasingly announced in my class on political policy and education reform that next week I shall be defending NCLB; “Brighouse defends Bush” was what I promised them. I told my family the same at the dinner table, and confronted the following rebuke by my 9 year old: “But dad, you’re not supposed to use your teaching to persuade your students about politics. That’s bias”. This was, I thought, a bit rich from someone who slavishly adopts her teacher’s views, and criticizes me every time I use the word “Indian” for what she regards as “using stereotypes”. But I agree with her basic point. So why is it ok for me to defend NCLB in class?

I won’t go into the details of how I’m going to defend it (I might do that later). I can criticize NCLB with the rest of them; there’s a lot wrong with it and not just the under-funding. But my sense is that my students are much more aware of and persuaded by the objections to NCLB than they are of the positive arguments of the standards, testing and accountability movement. So, for example, I frequently encounter the objection that NCLB eviscerates democratic control; but rarely the point that democratic control requires accountability of various sorts. Frequently the objection that NCLB contains perverse incentives; rarely the observation that every other system (including that of local democracy with teacher autonomy) contains unappealing incentives too. Frequently the objection that the tests encourage teaching to the test; rarely the observation that without any tests at all teachers are often ill-informed about what they should be teaching (this is not, on my part, a criticism; it is a reflection of complaints I have heard from many teachers about the absence of common standards and collegial cooperation within their departments and the neglect of academic life by administrators). I’m not going to defend NCLB uncritically, but I do want the students to see that the arguments against it are often very limited, and that there really is something to argue about here.

Anyway, the main point is this; that in order to get my students to think these questions carefully out for themselves, the best thing I can do is present the arguments that they have either dismissed or ignored as forcefully and reasonably as possible; and similarly to counter those arguments that they take for granted with responses they may not yet have encountered or the force of which they may not have seen.

This is all by way of making a small comment about the “political diversity of faculty” debate. I’m only interested here in the teaching and learning experience, not research. Diversity is, of course, good for that experience. I had the good fortune of being taught History in high school by a passionate (and homosexual) high Tory, a revolutionary Maoist, and a convinced right-wing Social Democrat. Nothing could have been better.

But if I were convinced that university faculties tilted strongly to the left and that came out in the classroom, that would not seem a big problem to me, except in those few places like Madison where there are cliques of left-ish students who need to have their ideas tested rather than reinforced. I regard it as the university’s mission to get students to think critically and fully about important matters, and while the political culture pushes them to an uncritical acceptance of various right wing assumptions, the job of a faculty member (whatever his or her personal convictions) is to test those assumptions, provide students with the resources to think them through carefully, and to foster the inclination so to do. If the political culture were tilting the other way our mission (as I see it) would require us to devote more time and thought to testing the left-ish assumptions they brought to the table (now, despite the title, I don’t really view my students’ assumptions about NCLB to be specifically leftish, but whatever their flavor I am trying to test them). Frankly, I’m well qualified to do that, perhaps better than some otherwise excellent right-wing colleagues who know less of the inticracies of leftwing thought than I do.

So my daughter is right that it is wrong for a professor to try and win students over to his or her political outlook. But it is ok for him or her to appear to do so, if that is the best way of getting the students to consider reasons and evidence that they will otherwise ignore. It might look like bias, but it won’t be bias, in that case.

A final note; of course that many teachers do demand conformity with their own political presuppositions, and there are liberal/left-ish teachers who do this. I also know some right-wing university professors (at Madison) whom I respect partly because I know from students that they do what I aspire to do; teach (and sometimes use advocacy in the service of teaching) in a way that tests their student’s unreflective assumptions and prompts them to think more fully and richly about the matters at hand. But advocates of more political diversity on faculties sometimes seem to assume that our teaching is advocacy, and that that is fine, the only problem being that not enough of us are right wing. (My brief flick through Horowitz’s horrible little book suggests this is an example; he hardly ever refers to their classroom behavior; the “research” usually consisting of a couple of (often anodyne) quotes from the dangerous professors’ writings).



MikeS 04.06.06 at 2:29 pm

Congratulations on the inpenetrable acronym. I have no idea of the referents of NCLB. Keep up the good work.


djw 04.06.06 at 2:34 pm

Excellent post that most good teachers (of political and other controversial matters) are likely to find familiar. This captures nicely why Burke is my favorite week in my intro to political theory course.


harry b 04.06.06 at 2:37 pm

No Child Left Behind.

Sorry mikes. Google does get it first time!


The Navigator 04.06.06 at 2:38 pm

Harry’s referring to No Cadavers Lunched on Briefly. It’s very, very politically incorrect, and yet surprisingly was pushed by the Bush Administration – an effort to replace ketchup in the school cafeteria (a Reagan-era holdover) with the bodies of Katrina victims. Really, everyone’s a winner – NoLa gets cleaned up more quickly, schoolchildren get protein in their diet, the Dept of Education budget doesn’t have to grow. Naturally those small-minded cliquish leftists in Wisconsin are reflexively opposed to it. Sigh – the more things change, etc.


Steve 04.06.06 at 2:45 pm

“But if I were convinced that university faculties tilted strongly to the left and that came out in the classroom, that would not seem a big problem to me,”


Your analysis is missing a few key details. You seem to be advocating, behind all the rhetoric, two ideas: first, that professors should question assumptions within the prevailing political culture, and second, that professors should get students to question their own assumptions. Thus, its ok for a left-wing faculty if the political status of the country is right wing, and its only a problem with left-wing faculty if there’s a left-wing clique within the student body.

The two problems are this: first, that there is ALWAYS a left-wing clique within the student body. And there is ALWAYS a right-wing clique within the student body. And there is ALWAYS a middling clique within the student body. Thus justifies questioning either everybody or nobody, depending on your preference. But it doesn’t justify a permanent, significant left-wing bias in the faculty. Frankly, student bodies tend to be slightly left-wing (not so much as faculties, but more so than the general population)-by your own argument, this would tend to support a RIGHT-leaning faculty rather than a left-leaning faculty.
And second, the fact that the political culture is right wing is at least a conceivable argument-faculties should question the prevailing culture (I’m not saying I agree with it-I’m saying its coherent). However, 1) the left-wing bias in faculties has been growing over several decades-it didn’t arise with George Bush, and won’t disappear if the Democrats regain the White House. and 2) if left-leaning political bias is questioned from within the faculty, it is FROM THE LEFT-not from the right. In practice, your arguement is that when republicans run the White House, universities should question the prevailing culture from the left. When Democrats run the White House, universities should (or at least will) question the prevailing culture from further to the left.
This ignores the main problem with this part of your argument, which is Why should academia be devoted to questioning the prevailing Political View, just because its prevailing? Why not devote yourselves to questioning the prevailing view of the media (which is as liberal as academia is)? Why not question the prevailing view of the judiciary? Why not question other academics? Why not question Islam, or Hollywood, or cartoons, or environmentalists, or any of a myriad of other ideas/institutions/subcultures? Why is it that academia should be an institution devoted specifically to questioning one other institution in our society (The White House, or Congress, or both if you like)? There are lots of ‘purposes’ for academia-why is this one in particular better than all the others?



roger 04.06.06 at 2:50 pm

navigator, that is classified information, man! Unless you have Bush’s express 2 day pass (“get out of jail free, pass go, get 200 favorable comments in the press”) card to leak classified information, including atom bomb blueprints to friendly or good looking South Asian nations. If you got that, its all right.


Matt Austern 04.06.06 at 3:01 pm

There’s one other anti-NCLB argument I’ve seen that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a counterargument for: that it’s an expensive unfunded mandate. I hope you’ll address that argument too.


sd 04.06.06 at 3:02 pm

I think your thoughts about the need to challenge students’ unexamined biases is right, and I suspect shared in good faith by most professors.

But where I think many professors trip up (and, I suspect, where the origin of most charges of bias against the academy originate) is that most professors, who happen to tilt left politically and culturally to one degree or another, tend to over-estimate the prevalence of unexamined right wing bias in their students, and under-estimate the prevalence of unexamined left wing bias.

I took a couple of history of theology courses in college from a guy who once remarked that he didn’t have to work to get his students to accept, much less understand, a highly “relativsitic” worldview. Even kids who came from Evangelical households were comfortable with the idea that there was an element of truth in all religions, that it was folly to fight over religious differences, that religious choices were highly personal, etc. But he said that he had a very hard time getting students to even begin to understand the kind of absolutist mindset that was nearly universal until very recently. Not that it would be good for today’s mostly religiously tolerant students to become intolerant. Rather, it makes it very hard to understand the past, and even difficult to critically examine one’s own faith, if one simply cannot understand why someone would say “I believe X and thus I think everyone who doesn’t is wrong.”

I suspect that similar examples pop up in many disciplines. And I think that most college age kids confound their professorial elders by holding a mix of beliefs and assumptions that are traditional and radical. Its a generation likely to think that divorce is tremendously destructive and thus should be curtailed, and that gays should be allowed to marry. That military service is noble and honorable, and that the current war is a sham. That capitalism is a very appealing economic system and that large corporations are souless and destructive.

And I think a lot of left-leaning professors see the traditional beliefs among their students and assume that they are all broadly conservative in upbringing and outlook and thus in need of a little lefty rabble rousing. They’re right, but only half right.


harry b 04.06.06 at 3:09 pm


I agree about the political cliques problem (although actually the biggest problem is the large swathe of students who don’t want to think carefully about anything at all and have no discernable political outlook — I’m always so pleased to have right and left wing students in my classes). I think that makes for a big problem in teaching large lecture classes, in which it is hard to identify the prevailing views and presuppositions in the class, and in my experience it takes a number of years to figure out which buttons to push. We shold challenge right wing students from the left, left wing students from the right, middle-of-the-road students from both sides, and all of them from perspectives they haven’t any of them thought about before.

I’m not sure I understood your other point. Sure, I agree that leftish students should not only be challenged from the further left, but also from the right. But, contrary to popular belief, what you might think of as comprehensive far left views are almost absent from elite campuses at least. My claim isn’t that Universities should tilt against the prevailing political winds, or pushing against them (whether they are left or right); just that in so far as we are educating students about matters which are relevant to politics we should provoke them to think fully and carefully and reasonably about them. This requires that we somehow get them to appreciate as much as possible the force of good reasons; and to do this we have to challenge those reasons which the general culture has led them to overappreciate, and present forcefully those that it is led them to underappreciate. So my answer to all your “why nots?” is why not indeed; we should do all of that! But I assumed all that because my understanding of what the political culture contains is much broader than the understanding you are deploying: Hollywood seems to me an integral part of the political culture in the US.

And, of course, there’s a lot else we should be doing including, depressingly, teaching them to read and write properly (and spell, too, though you’ll be glad to know that’s a low priority for me). When I’ve finished Derek Bok’s new book,
I’ll write some depressing post about that too.

I don’t know what you found rhetorical about the post, btw.


harry b 04.06.06 at 3:12 pm

sd — I took out 2 paras from my draft which made something like your point incredibly badly, mainly because I didn’t have it well formulated in my head. Now I do. Thanks, I think you’re exactly (not half) right.


Colin Danby 04.06.06 at 3:46 pm

Less than 90 minutes ago I offered a closely-reasoned defense of the Second Gulf War, as part of an introduction to the “Realist” school in IPE.

Contrary to “Steve,” most of us encounter students who, either from conviction or cynicism, feed us ill-thought PC pabulum because they think it’s what we want to hear. The problem is not politics of one variety or another, but students who are not used to proper debate and not accustomed to finding what is rational in lines of argument they don’t like.

Part of the answer also is getting away from sloppy, identitarian, use of the terms right and left.


Sebastian Holsclaw 04.06.06 at 4:09 pm

“But where I think many professors trip up (and, I suspect, where the origin of most charges of bias against the academy originate) is that most professors, who happen to tilt left politically and culturally to one degree or another, tend to over-estimate the prevalence of unexamined right wing bias in their students, and under-estimate the prevalence of unexamined left wing bias.”

My personal experience at one university (UCSD definitely an anecdote) involved very little examination of left-wing bias. Over the years I have realized that I may have gone to school at an especially unlucky time for that–the early 1990s seem in retrospect to be a high water mark for silly pseudo post-modern trends and no scare quotes unironic political correctness. But I really did attend a class where the teacher seriously taught that moral values were entirely culture-dependent artifacts with no independent weight. Later when we talked about apartheid when I asked how we could condemn it if there was no objective right or wrong I was called racist (which seems to me to miss the whole point of the question as I wasn’t defending apartheid I was instead criticizing the idea that there was no independently valuable sense of right and wrong).

I think you are completely correct that it is best to expose students to the good arguments of the other side. You have to be especially careful when doing so not to use strawmen because if you do it will tend to reinforce their beliefs without facilitating intellectual growth.


decon 04.06.06 at 4:18 pm

You offered a “realist” defense of the 2nd Gulf War? I’d like to hear that one! Was it anything like the inaugral and unintentionally farcial Becker/Posner blog posts?


decon 04.06.06 at 4:39 pm

Apparently the clowns are still at it.


In the comments to Becker’s post is a very good question that gets at one of their many duplicities: “would even Saddam have killed and maimed as many of his own people in the past three years as the United States and its allies have?” Is there really no one at UC to address their idiocy?


eudoxis 04.06.06 at 4:40 pm

“So why is it ok for me to defend NCLB in class?”

I don’t see how you can avoid education policy in your particular career.


Cryptic Ned 04.06.06 at 4:49 pm

Congratulations on the inpenetrable acronym. I have no idea of the referents of NCLB. Keep up the good work.

If you aren’t an American, it doesn’t matter to you.


y81 04.06.06 at 5:14 pm

Combining Sebastian’s and sd’s points, I would note that most professors probably aren’t intellectually equipped to produce coherent critiques of or challenges to anyone’s worldview, just as most college students don’t have coherent worldviews to critique. However, most college professors are intellectually equipped to teach Sapphic meters, or partial differentiation, or the possible macroeconomic effects of changes in bank reserve requirements, or whatever, and should probably stick to that.


Richard Bellamy 04.06.06 at 5:36 pm

This was, I thought, a bit rich from someone who slavishly adopts her teacher’s views, and criticizes me every time I use the word “Indian” for what she regards as “using stereotypes”.

You know, you live your life thinking that the kids speak the same language you did back in the day, and then all of a sudden you find out that every five-year-old in the country not sits “Criss Cross Applesauce” instead of “Indian Style.” It didn’t even occur to me that this would be offensive — I thought it was just description (and even if a wrong description, hardly an offensive wrong description).

Now, here I am saying “Criss cross applesauce” to five year olds. Sometimes I wonder who the first person was who came up with the phrase.


Gene O'Grady 04.06.06 at 6:01 pm

“Most college professors are equipped to teach Sapphic meters?” Anybody other than me ever post who could tell an adoneus from an Alcaic?

Of course it might be argued that a culture with a highly formal metrics was as much a challenge to our cultural world view as anything else….


Laura 04.06.06 at 6:25 pm

yay. Great post, Harry. I thought I was just ornery for perfering debate to agreement, but now I feel like a noble educator.

I want to see a full post on NCLB. I just spent an hour in a debate about testing, so I would love to read how you come out on all of this.


blah 04.06.06 at 6:34 pm

So what you are saying is that you will play Devil’s Advocate in order to develop your student’s ability to think critically about an issue? Isn’t that what good teachers in the Humanities have always done?


Pat 04.06.06 at 7:32 pm

I’d go even further than this. I think its perfectly acceptable for a professor to flat out and directly try to convince his students of a political position, as long as:

1) that position is relevant to the subject of the class,

2) the professor does not grade students down for not agreeing with him (for disagreeing for incoherent reasons is fine),

3) the professor discloses that this is what he’s doing,

4) ideally, the professor gives time for class discussion and for students to attempt to rebut him. This one is more subjective and less mandatory than the others.

This system will lead to certain opinions “losing” in a classroom setting. Oh well. Some political positions may lose continuously- for example, I don’t expect creationism to do so well in an environment like the one I’ve outlined. That’s ok- its losing on the merits. That’s the whole damn point of education.

Students may be unsettled, and may feel like their opinions are under attack. Again, don’t care. I think its fair to say that there should be a presumption of intellectual maturity that attaches to college attendance. Part of intellectual maturity is having your views not only questioned, but attacked. The better part is responding to those attacks, or, after a defeat, brushing yourself off and investigating your opponents positions for weaknesses. Or god forbid, if your opponents position is too strong for you to defeat, changing your opinion.

I am especially strong in this opinion as it regards my fellow law students. If you are the sort of person who can be “indoctrinated,” or worse, “brainwashed” by a professor’s lecture, you are intellectually weak and should drop out of law school poste haste. If you do not, the real world will devour you alive.


Tony 04.06.06 at 8:18 pm

I should add that professors are disproportionately likely to underestimate the effect to which academics are left-wing precisely because of the extent to which they are. If the midpoint of campus debate has been moved far enough to the left, then it’s easy to perceive moderates as right-wing and mainstream liberals as moderate.


lalala 04.06.06 at 8:34 pm

#23: “If the midpoint of campus debate has been moved far enough to the left, then it’s easy to perceive moderates as right-wing and mainstream liberals as moderate.”

Well, and similarly, if the national political discourse has been moved far enough to the right, it’s easy to perceive moderates as left-wing and mainstream liberals as wild-eyed radicals.

For what it’s worth, I believe that bringing one’s beliefs into one’s teaching is on some level inevitable. Better to be up front about it and call for debate than to establish a classroom hegemony in which your views are reasonable and apolitical, and challenging them is unacceptable. This is true at every level, from grade school to grad school (and yes, these issues were very present in my life as a grade-schooler).


Grant 04.07.06 at 1:11 am

Excellent points in the comments.

I think the ideas behind this that I heard – to encourage a debate on the topic, and field some rarely heard (but valid) points – are very good ideas. I think they’re very valuable.

But I think that it’s important not to get too carried away (although I can’t say whether it is happening here or not). As has been said, there are important things to be discussed and decided with regards to educational standards, requirements, etc. But having a debate about those things is a little different from having a debate specifically about NCLB.

Yes, standardized testing has a place in our schools. Incentives and consequences need to be discussed. But when we talk about NCLB, we’re no longer talking about vague, yet-to-be-determined ideas. NCLB is terribly, critically flawed, and will have to be demolished or overhauled in the coming years. There is no other option, if only because it’s eventual required 100% rate is a dream among dreams.

I think that more attention to educational standards would a good thing, and that when people spend enough time to consider the condition things are in, they will be motivated to effect some improvements. Debate is an integral part of that. But NCLB in its CURRENT STATE is pure garbage, and any discussion about it should probably start with what parts to cut or change if it’s to be allowed to exist at all.


Tom W 04.07.06 at 6:05 am

Surely if you have left and right wing cliques in your class then the students should be able to duke it out themselves with a bit of encouragement?

And what happens when both your ‘left’ and ‘right’ wing students share assumptions that are worth questioning?

Recently I sat in a class of ‘lefty, progressive, liberal’ students that had the literally conservative assumption that you will never get people to change their lifestyles to adjust to environmental problems until they have (for example) practically run down their catchment water supply. The implications of such a belief, even if these same students recognise the problem of water conversation, is that its not worth even trying to fix the problem. Thus a status quo enforcing, conservative outlook.



P-Brane 04.07.06 at 10:11 am

Status Quo Enforcing = conservatism?? Burke, anyone?


John I 04.07.06 at 3:23 pm

The last two comments fianlly said what I was about to say.

When I was brought up, “liberal” meant challenging the status quo, questioning assumptions, seeing all points of view and coming to a reasoned conclusion. “Conservative” meant doing/thinking/agreeing with what you’re told by an authority figure. – generally a fat, old white guy.

Liberal dogma should be oxymoronic, as should a conservative trying to get “students to think these questions carefully out for themselves”.



Pat 04.07.06 at 10:22 pm

1. Note that a 35 year old newly tenured associate professor was 20 and an undergraduate in 1990, at the peak of pomo discourse. Whatever else that person may be, she/he isn’t a child of the sixties.

2. I teach first year writing and speaking. I agree with the post that suggests that contemporary undergraduates hold, in general, idiosyncratic mixes of views, without a consistent overarching political structure. They tend to adopt unreflecting relativism not because they’ve been indoctrinated with post-modernism, but because it saves the effort of disciplined argument.

3. Guess what, their professors are similarly complex in their attitudes. I would suggest that left wingers who lecture and hector their students with the aim of converting them to a particular world view are employing conservative pedagogies to left wing ends. (In the main, the ones I’ve seen doing this are the kind orthodox Marxists who critique post-modernism because it denies the reality of historical processes.)

4. Notice that no one has said that in addition to questioning people’s assumptions, if you teach critical thinking you have to get students to attend to the interests associated with people’s assumptions and beliefs. For example, white students largely attack affirmative action, but in-state students tend to think it’s okay to favour state residents in admission and tuition. Students over the age of 21 almost never give speeches advocating elimination of drinking ages. And so on… This can be a powerful tool for examining why employees of a (partially) state funded institution tend to be to the left of people who operate in the private sector.

5. What is the primary interest of most tenure-track faculty members? Tenure and promotion. The demands are so heavy, at least at my institution, that any proselytizing is largely unexamined, ad hoc and the result of sloppy teaching. I suspect that careerism (fertilized by the current economics of higher education) damages teaching more than ideologies of any kind.


Seb 04.08.06 at 10:46 am

“I had the good fortune of being taught History in high school by a passionate (and homosexual) high Tory, a revolutionary Maoist, and a convinced right-wing Social Democrat. Nothing could have been better.”

All the same person? Sweet.

I applaud you; I had a science teacher in elementary school who told his classes that he believed the earth was flat on the first day, and insisted that we prove him wrong. This exercise is dissimilar in that policy arguments are (or should be) applications of competing value systems rather than arguments about facts. Many people of course disagree about the basic facts (and can therefore be proven wrong), which is presumably outside the scope of your argument. However, people also typically refuse to see that there are different interpretations of the facts that everyone acknowledges.

JS Mill covered this well, in his argument (I paraphrase) that suppressing error by means other than argument was also a crime against truth, because believers in the truth would lose a full knowledge of the source of their belief.

I keep meaning to read the counterargument to “On Liberty” in Stephen’s “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, as a tribute to this idea. Haven’t gotten around to it yet, though…


cw 04.09.06 at 8:35 pm

I believe most Indians prefer the term Indian.

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