Should teachers of controversial issues disclose their opinions?

by Harry on March 3, 2014

My colleagues Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy will publish a book later this year called The Political Classroom, containing a study of high school teachers who teach controversial issues. Their presentation at a recent conference for philosophers made me think it might be a good idea to articulate my answer to one of the questions the book raises: whether teachers of controversial issues should disclose their views about the issues they teach about (their earlier discussion of disclosure is included in Hess’s book, Controversy in the Classroom). I’m articulating it not to try and persuade anyone, but to broaden the discussion – I’ve only ever discussed these issues with my students themselves, and with close colleagues.

I’ve taught Contemporary Moral Issues most semesters for the past 22 years. It, or something like it, is a standard offering in Philosophy departments. It is not the most prestigious course – applied ethics basically – but it brings in students for general education requirements, and for most students will be the only sustained encounter they get to have with rigorous and dispassionate thinking about the moral aspects of policy and personal decision-making. In my department it has the largest share of student credits, partly because our Business School, for reasons best known to themselves, designates it as ne of the three classes (all taught exclusively by my dept) that meets the ethics requirement for their majors. [1] Standard topics include abortion, the death penalty, vegetarianism, duties to distant strangers, euthanasia, cloning – you get the idea. The course is typically taught in large lecture format – my classes are typically 160 or 80, but on many campuses 200-300 would be a normal size.

For some of the issues I teach, it is not that hard to find out my views, if you really want to, and are a minimally competent googler. But I take a pretty hard line on the disclosure question. I don’t disclose my views about the issues I teach. Here’s why.

First, all of the issues I teach are issues on which there are powerful arguments on more than one side. I do not see my job as presenting technical scholarly applied ethics so that they will become interested in the major, but in introducing them to a particular practice that requires certain intellectual resources that my discipline has developed: the practice of moral reason giving and taking. So it makes no sense to teach issues about which, though there is a public debate, the reasons are one-sided. This is why, for example, I do not teach same-sex marriage (I tried, it didn’t work) or gun rights and why, if I lived in the UK, I would not teach about the legitimacy of the monarchy. I want students really to understand that there are reasons on both sides, and worry that disclosing would give them the impression that, contrary to fact, I regard the issues as settled. (I should add: it might make complete sense to teach such issues in a social studies high school class, especially if the focus is on getting the students to articulate and defend their own positions; the aims of such a class might be different from mine).

Second, I want the students to take seriously the injunction that I have no interest in them coming to share whatever view I have about the issue at hand. Now, I do want them to share my views about what makes an argument strong, and if we expose a contradiction I want them to see it, and understand that it undermines a position. I understand that it is entirely possible for someone to disclose while continuing to convey that they do not regard the issues as settled. It just seems easier if you don’t disclose. I know, furthermore, that many students come to the class believing that some liberal professor is going to tell them what to think about the issues (and only some people who believe this resent it!). I want to frustrate that expectation, and quickly. Non-disclosure, I believe, helps.

Third, even when the class is large, I want there to be a good deal of discussion. I don’t think that students can learn how to do anything much simply by watching me do it, however well I do it. They need to do it themselves. On some of the issues most students do not have strong prior convictions. But on some – abortion is the most obvious example – they do. Most of my students are pretty fervently pro-choice, some ae anti-abortion, and very few in either camp have reasons for believing what they do that would survive a 3 minute interrogation by me. When the student who holds a different view from mine about an issue endures that interrogation, and then sees their peer being subjected to the same thing, I want them not to have in mind that really I might be favoring them, or conversely, their peer. And if, as sometimes happens, very few students in the class hold one view, I have to build an environment in which they feel comfortable giving their reasons – speaking out. I do not think that most students are afraid of their professor’s disagreeing with them, but many are silenced by the fear that their peers disagree with them. The professor has to help them overcome that fear by backing them up, encouraging others to join them. I believe it is easier for them to experience my backing as support if they do not know what I believe (and know that I regard what I believe as irrelevant to the process), than if they know, quite clearly, that I disagree with them and am only playing devil’s advocate.

During one of the early discussions when Hess and McAvoy were starting work on the book, another colleague – someone who is a political conservative (not in my department) and whose practice I know to be very much like mine — took me to task for generalizing that the practice we both use is the best or even the only right approach to take. He pointed to examples of truly great teachers who not only disclose, but openly and vigorously advocate for their own view on moral and political questions. His specific example was the legendary Marxist historian Harvey Goldberg, who inspired hundreds if not thousands of left wing students in his large lectures on American and on European history, giving a thoroughly Marxists interpretation.

So lets talk about advocacy, as opposed to disclosure, for a moment. Truly great teachers are poor models. I am not, and never will be, a truly great teacher, and what I am interested in is what counts as good practice for the vast majority of college teachers who are at best good teachers. Nor am I sure that even Goldberg could have pulled off the pedagogical goals I have in CMI using my subject matter. I’m pretty sure he couldn’t have pulled them off if he had engaged in the kind of vocal advocacy he engaged in. Its easy to see how being with a Marxist interpretation of history could help turn a student who disagreed into a careful thinker about history, but much harder for me to see how being presented with strong advocacy of a pro-choice view about abortion would help most anti-abortion students weigh the moral reasons (let alone the pro-choice student who, at a school like mine, would most likely have their tendency to complacency reinforced). Finally: even if someone can pull everything off while advocating forcefully, I am suspicious of anyone who thinks that they are that person. Given the absence of high-quality metrics of our performance as teachers, we should all assume a certain level of humility, and believing oneself to be successful at all seems hubristic, let alone believing oneself to be successful while engaging in a practice that there are so many reasons to suspect will only work for exceptional people.

Back to disclosure. In smaller classes, teaching philosophy majors, or students I have come to know well, I disclose more. Most students in my senior level political philosophy classes have a rough idea where I am coming from. And I do not know, for sure, how effective I am as a non-discloser in the contemporary moral issues course (or the freshman seminar I teach about the family, in which I have the same policy). [2] In this, as in other respects, I have sparse evidence about the effectiveness of my teaching. Many readers teach the kinds of class I am talking about, and many more have taken them, or similar classes. Should a teacher of controversial issues withhold their views about the issues?

(Xposted at ISW)

[1] Note: I am not complaining about this, I and my department benefit from it enormously, and I even think it is good for students, its just that, in general, being good for students is not the main criterion for decisions abut requirements.

[2] I do have some small bits of data. Examples here are of students whom I’ve taught in one or more classes, and have stayed in touch, so who know me pretty well:

1. Walking together on election day. S: “I’m off to vote. Are you going?” HB: “I can’t, I’m not a citizen”. S: “Oh you should be so you can vote”. HB: “You should only want me to do that if you think I’ll vote the same way you will. Do you know what my politics are?”. S: “Well…. You’ve never said anything that gives me a clue, but I think you are liberal” HB (disappointed): “why do you think that?”. S: “Well…. The only evidence I have is that I like you, and I think that I wouldn’t like you if you weren’t liberal”.
2. At a dinner at my house days after the 2010 election (ie, students who know me well enough to have dinner at my house), the issue comes up. HB: S just told me she doesn’t know what my political views are. Do you?”; R: “Kinda conservative I think”; P: “definitely not socialist”; Q: “middle of the road”; T:”I disagree with P, I think you are socialist”. V: “I know you support trade unions. Kinda conservative” (not kidding).
3. Conversation right around the 2012 election, about who the students will vote for: S has established that she doesn’t feel she knows enough to vote responsibly, and doesn’t know who to vote for. S: “Who would you vote for if you could?”; HB: “who do you think?”; S: “I don’t know, I keep trying to work it out. I know you have a good salary and I know rich people vote Republican, so that makes me think you would vote that way. But I know you’re a professor, and most professors here are liberal”. (After the election I told her whom I’d have voted for, and it turned out that she had, after our conversation, educated herself better so she could vote responsibly).



MPAVictoria 03.03.14 at 7:45 pm

“very few in either camp have reasons for believing what they do that would survive a 3 minute interrogation by me.”

No offense meant at all but I think you have a drastically inflated opinion of your persuasive skills. Or indeed anyone’s persuasive skills. People do not change their opinions on these sort of fundamental issues just because they are exposed to a good argument.


Maria 03.03.14 at 7:52 pm

I read that bit as the student anticipating their arguments would be found wanting rather than that their minds would be changed.


Greg 03.03.14 at 7:54 pm

I don’t take Harry to mean that his 3 minute interrogation would change their minds. Rather that their reasons would be exposed (to them if they’re honest, but to observers at least) as poor, fallacious, insufficient, etc.


Z 03.03.14 at 8:12 pm

I used to agree 100% with you, but now, maybe 95% only.

In the meantime, what happened is that I attended a graduate seminar from an academic discipline which is usually much less controversial than Contemporary Moral Issues yet much more so than my usual arithmetic geometry (it was on syntax). The seminar was supervised with great talent and touched on very mysterious and debated (for the standards of the field) issues. The professor in charge of it obviously strived for the best intellectual discussions he could get and the most severe cross-examinations and empirical and logical examinations of arguments we could collectively achieve. He also was as diametrically opposed to my own conceptions as could be, and the article I was writing at the time was a direct challenge to his most fundamental conceptual underpinnings. He didn’t disclose his own favorite theoretical approach in the seminar (though this was easy to find by a quick review of the literature) and presented material from all relevant perspective.

As it turned out, I benefited immensely from his work, because I felt that if I could overcome his objections, then it was a sign that I had done a good job. However, I couldn’t help but notice that, even though he clearly tried as hard as he could and was in fact much fairer to opposite theories than I could have been were I in his place, it seemed to me that he couldn’t achieve the same level of skepticism when attacking his own theories and, most especially, that he couldn’t present the very best version of the theories he was opposed to (in one case, I actually pointed to him that he was slightly unfair to an author, and he readily admitted it and that he needed to review the argument discussed again).

From that experience, I concluded that perhaps students with the same theoretical perspective as his own might in fact have been slightly misled by his non-disclosure, and that a sentence like “I tend to favor this particular approach, so it is perhaps fitting that you all work extra-hard to see if what I’m going to say right now actually holds up” could have helped them.

Shorter version: perhaps disclosing one’s own favorite perspective from time to time-maybe in a remainder that being only human, we are most likely to be lazy when we believe in the conclusion-can help the students sharing this very perspective to be especially intellectually alert at the right time.


MPAVictoria 03.03.14 at 8:23 pm

Maria and Greg,
Your reading of it seems more likely to be correct than mine. Please consider my comment withdrawn.


Dan 03.03.14 at 8:24 pm

I’m curious what you mean when you say the following: “I want the students to take seriously the injunction that I have no interest in them coming to share whatever view I have about the issue at hand.”

Do you mean that you want students to take seriously the claim that you have no interest in their coming to share your views on whatever issue (abortion, vegetarianism, our duties to those in poverty) because you hold that view, and don’t care what views they actually come to hold?

Or do you want them to take this seriously because doing so will help serve various important educational ends, even though, in reality, you do care/hope they come to adopt the same views as you?

For many of these issues, its hard to see how one could think the balance of reasons supported one view over another and not care what one’s students came to believe. If I thought that we have much more demanding obligations to give to those living in extreme poverty, its hard to see why I wouldn’t care, on at least some level, that those in my class came to hold the same view.


Maria 03.03.14 at 8:37 pm

MPAVictoria, though in a perfect world, having one’s arguments demolished would inevitably and directly result in changing one’s mind, so Harry would indeed be possessed of a super-power!


Z 03.03.14 at 8:40 pm

Do you mean that you want students to take seriously the claim that you have no interest in their coming to share your views on whatever issue (abortion, vegetarianism, our duties to those in poverty) because you hold that view, and don’t care what views they actually come to hold?

I don’t want to speak for Harry, but I’m quite sure he meant that as their professor within this classroom he has no interest in their coming to share his views, his role being rather devoted to teach them to effectively question preconceptions, though of course he presumably retains an intense interest in that in other social roles (fellow citizen, fellow human being, parent…)


MPAVictoria 03.03.14 at 8:47 pm

“MPAVictoria, though in a perfect world, having one’s arguments demolished would inevitably and directly result in changing one’s mind, so Harry would indeed be possessed of a super-power!”

I love that idea

Narrator: Faster than a speed reader. More powerful than a logical syllogism. Able to convince ideologues with a single phase.

Man 1: Look! Up at the podium! It’s a Professor!
Woman: It’s a Debater!
Man 2: It’s Irresistible Argument Man!

Narrator: Yes, it’s Irresistible Argument Man, strange visitor from another planet who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Irresistible Argument Man, who can change the opinion of the stubbornest of old men, bend minds with his words. And who, disguised as Harry, mild-mannered Professor for a great metropolitan University, fights a never ending battle for truth, justice and the progressive way. And now another exciting episode in the adventures of Irresistible Argument Man.


Anderson 03.03.14 at 8:55 pm

Ideally, it seems, one’s liberal students should suspect their philosophy teacher of being a conservative, and vice-versa.


TM 03.03.14 at 9:59 pm

Out of curiosity, don’t you often get the impression that students think they know your position and that influences their reaction? How do you deal with that?

Let me explain. In my anecdotal experience, often when students are exposed to an idea that doesn’t conform with their own preconception, they assume you are trying to advocate a position. And given the way they experience the public discourse, they will often tacitly infer a whole package of views from your making a certain argument. Of course you are trying to preempt that by presenting “both sides” but do the students buy that? You may not always know but I’m sure you can pick up the vibes well enough.


Mark Haag 03.03.14 at 10:04 pm

I teach a similar course at a Wisconsin technical college. I agree that being neutral is a virtue, but not an unlimited one.

On some issues I find I frame questions in a way that probably reveals a side. For example, I start a discussion with the question: “What should we do about climate change? and not “Is there such a thing as anthropocentric climate change?” That question still allows us to use a variety of ethical tools in different ways: utilitarianism, rights ethics, duty ethics, care ethics, etc.

I wonder if a totally neutral stance could result in quieting some voices in the class. For example: I teach in a situation where there might be only one or two students of color in the classroom. If other students in class complain about “reverse racism” its a heavy burden on just those students if no other students present another take.


Mark Haag 03.03.14 at 10:08 pm

In my first sentence, I should have said “attempting to be neutral” and not “being neutral”.


Z 03.03.14 at 10:13 pm

Ideally, it seems, one’s liberal students should suspect their philosophy teacher of being a conservative, and vice-versa.

Yeah, I think that would work for an introductory lectures, but I think it is increasingly harder to really present the best sides of the positions you oppose as they become more intricate and sophisticated, and conversely, not to be sloppy or move a bit too quickly when discussing the subtle weak points of one’s favored position.

I mean, suppose we were teaching Contemporary Moral Issues of the 1600: today geocentrism versus heliocentrism. I’m sure most readers here would be familiar with the obvious, psychological and religious arguments in favor of geocentrism (I see the Sun rise every morning, I’m obviously at the centre of the Universe, it is clearly stated in the Bible that God stopped the Sun) and maybe even the good one (if the Earth is moving, why aren’t there permanent huge winds?) but who would immediately think about the best argument in favor of geocentrism? And who could immediately give a proper rebuttal?


Z 03.03.14 at 10:15 pm

FWIW, I’m referring to Tycho Brahé’s careful calculation that for a star like Vega to appear as big as it does in the night sky and show absolutely no discernible parallax during the enormous distance the Earth would have to travel if it moved around the Sun, then such a star would have to be thousand of billions of leagues away and hundred of times bigger than the Earth; two obviously absurd conclusions. Interestingly, contemporary opponents of Tycho Brahé mostly retorted that he must be quite a miscreant if he doubted God could make huge stars very far away.


Anderson 03.03.14 at 10:21 pm

“but I think it is increasingly harder to really present the best sides of the positions you oppose as they become more intricate and sophisticated”

Well, on something like geocentrism, the audience already knows how the movie ends … but IMHO, anyone teaching a class like that in the 1st place should be skilled at argument, including shifting the premises. E.g, “okay, so you’re arguing that the observational evidence supports you … but who said that observation is dispositive? Why should I trust my fallible senses over Scripture?” For instance, Bellarmine:

I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false. But I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown me. Nor is it the same to demonstrate that by assuming the sun to be at the center and the earth in heaven one can save the appearances, and to demonstrate that in truth the sun is at the center and the earth in heaven; for I believe the first demonstration may be available, but I have very great doubts about the second, and in case of doubt one must not abandon the Holy Scripture as interpreted by the Holy Fathers.

And then to make the class feel uneasy, quote Einstein’s “the good Lord would be wrong” remark.


Nick Barnes 03.03.14 at 10:25 pm

Z: “Well, what would it look like if it looked as if the earth were rotating?” is the perfect rebuttal to geocentrism.


Nakul 03.03.14 at 10:33 pm

On comments 1, 2, 3:

Wouldn’t it be better if philosophical arguments left the person no possible answer at all, reducing him to impotent silence? Even then, he might sit there silently, smiling, Buddhalike. Perhaps philosophers need arguments so powerful they set up reverberations in the brain: if the person refuses to accept the conclusion, he dies. How’s that for a powerful argument? Yet, as with other physical threats (“your money or your life”), he can choose defiance. A “perfect” philosophical argument would leave no choice. (Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, p. 4)


Colin Danby 03.03.14 at 10:34 pm

Echoing 8, I’d strongly agree that you have to distinguish roles.

One reason for the bureaucratic formalization of learning objectives and course descriptions is that they specify what the class is for, and *for what purpose* you make claims on students’ time, energy, and attention.


PatrickinIowa 03.03.14 at 10:55 pm

In my view, what you accomplish by non-disclosure is that each student makes up your views in her/his head as they go along. No matter what their intellectual commitments, they’ll get them wrong, of course.

What do you allow them to believe about, for example, whether women unrepresented in philosophy because they are incapable or unwilling to engage in rigorous philosophic thought? How about whether differences in scores on standardized tests by race are the result of genetic differences between white people and other “races.” Or, for that matter, whether races exist at all?

You can’t not disclose. It’s not possible. That’s one thing. And the philosophical presupposition is that there is a structure of argumentation that’s 1) optimal and 2) separable from one’s political commitments. I don’t think (empirically) that’s possible, either.

The best teacher I had in high school, by a long way, was a Nixon Republican, who managed to disclose his positions, elicit ours, and treat everybody with respect. It was a rigorous and wonderful school year. I got (I think) the highest grade in the class for a paper that explored the links between the CIA and the heroin trade in Vietnam. In 1970/1971.

I’m sorry, Harry, I’m not feeling you on this one.


PatrickinIowa 03.03.14 at 10:57 pm

“…your take on whether women are underrepresented in philosophy…”



js. 03.03.14 at 10:58 pm

In the meantime, what happened is that I attended a graduate seminar…

I think graduate seminar vs. intro class for freshman makes a _huge_ difference. One important distinction, tho not necessarily the only one, is that student confidence levels are vastly different. So it would seem strange to hide one’s actual views in a graduate seminar, whereas I tend to agree with HB that this is (mostly) best practice in undergrad intro classes.


js. 03.03.14 at 11:03 pm

I crossposted with PatrickinIowa, but I think his (or her?) comment is totally on point. There’re some (I don’t know if I’d say lots of) cases where neutrality/non-disclosure seems pretty much impossible. If I’m teaching feminism or King’s arguments for civil disobedience (both of which I’ve done), it seems both utterly impossible and quite possibly an intellectual disservice to students to pretend to be neutral on whether these were, historically, forces for the good.


floopmeister 03.03.14 at 11:11 pm

Teaching first year Political Economy to primarily business students (but with a significant smattering of environment, urban planning, social work, legal and dispute studies and psychology students as well) I take the same stand with regard to my own ideological positions regarding economics.

It’s really the only way – and anyway with both US and Eurpoean exchange students arguing (in the main) for free market and social democratic positions retrospectively (and the enviro students pushing for a reappraisal of the concept of growth – tyo the bemusement of both other groups!) I can put myself in the position of playing devils advocate to all positions.

I usually divulge my actual positions on the topics to those (few) students who are interested after the last class.

In the pub. Over a beer.


floopmeister 03.03.14 at 11:14 pm

Duh. Not ‘retrospectively ‘ – obviously meant ‘respectively’.

No beer was involved in this error.


Phil 03.03.14 at 11:16 pm

I think the questions to ask yourself are “is this an issue on which students will already have definite views?” and “would agreeing with my position leave no questions unanswered?” Proceed with caution if honest introspection returns one Yes, and keep your views very quiet indeed if you get 2/2. But a teacher who has strong views on (e.g.) the role of contradictory class relations in the historical process, or on which side to back at Stalingrad (or Burford), will generally score 0/2 positives & can indoctrinate away to his/her heart’s content.

Come to think of it, I’m puzzled that the OP mentions the monarchy as a topic to handle carefully in British educational institutions; my sense of it is that this isn’t a topic on which kids grow up with strong views, any more than they have strong views about ‘trees’ or ‘the 6.00 News’.


Phil 03.03.14 at 11:23 pm

I’m also leaning towards PatrickInIowa’s position, although that may be because most of my mental examples are coming from optional third-year courses (i.e. students aged 21+ who are there because they want to be). I saw a great project once that analysed statistics on crime and fear of crime, & found some backing for the ‘Broken Windows’ model. Personally I think ‘Broken Windows’ is hogwash & I’ve read more than one paper debunking it; the chances are my student didn’t prove what he thought he did. Still impressive work. I had an essay last year arguing at great, closely-argued, well-supported and very tendentious length that the EDL isn’t a racist organisation; again, I think it was basically wrong, but it was a fine essay & earned a good mark. And so on.


Alan White 03.04.14 at 12:21 am

I’ve not seen Harry teach but I’ve been to some of his talks. He is an excellent teacher in all respects that count as I can see.

I’m sympathetic to his point about neutrality in some ways. I teach a 101 based on free will. Students frequently ask me what I believe about it. Because I’m pretty much a minimalist about my commitments there, about the only thing I reveal is that I have doubts about libertarianism. Still, I teach all the positions vigorously, including the strengths of libertarianism, stressing that understanding and criticism is the point–one sharpens one’s mind by being a philosopher, and that is the main goal of my class–making them into philosophers that have more than just a superficial grasp of a deep topic.

But let’s face it–some classes have a potentially higher level of emotional investment in topics covered. When I teach PHI/REL I attach a caveat to the syllabus that stresses that the course is a critical examination of a topic that has deep attachment to many peoples’ lives, but that the criticism cuts both ways for theism and nontheism. I further disclose that I studied for the ministry, learned a lot about Judeo-Christianity from an academic and believer’s perspective, but eventually abandoned religious life through a protracted intellectual deconversion. However I stress that philosophy is fair in giving all reasons in any direction proper due, and again, that critical appreciation of religious concepts is the final goal of the course. I must do something odd in delivering all those goods. Over the years many students have concluded that despite my caveat I must really be religious! Not one student evaluation has ever complained about my professed non-belief, even from students who then went on to become ministers and priests.

It’s not that revealing one’s (e.g.) metaphysical stances poses much less a pedagogical risk than revealing one’s moral or religious ones. It’s finally, I think, about an attitude of critical respect that the prof needs to model in delivering the course, and attempt to inculcate in students irrespective of whether holding one’s cards close to the vest or showing one’s hand is part of that.


Wendy 03.04.14 at 2:31 am

I don’t teach philosophy/ethics, but I do teach persuasive writing in the context of English composition courses. I have leaned towards more disclosure, and here is why.

I teach elements of argument (a lot of Toulmin-ish stuff) and require students to analyze arguments. I indicate to them that their opinions will become more credible and their arguments stronger when they understand the other side of the issue. I explain that that is why I am not here to indoctrinate them; if they just followed me blindly, they’d just have a bunch of hollow opinions and would be easily swayed to one side or the other. It doesn’t really benefit my side to have a lot of people who support me without really knowing why; they’ll just defect the first time they see a fact.

But I do disclose. Why? To model what it’s like to be both an analytical person and an emotional person. The two can exist within the same person. By showing only my analytical side, I worry that I am telling students that they have to make a choice, and they can’t make that choice (because no one really can), so they simply eschew rationality and analysis and respond to complex issues based purely on emotional reactions.

Another reason I disclose is to model empathy as part of persuasive communication. If I am a person who cares deeply about a particular position on an issue, and I am taking the time to *listen* to the other side and take it seriously, I am likely increasing my own credibility with my audience, making them more likely to listen to my side. That’s good for students to see.

Like you, I avoid one-sided arguments. My students always want to write about same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization, and I’m all “Give it up! It’s pretty much been decided already. Move on to something else more complex.” I tell them I like the thorny issues because even if I have an opinion one way or the other, I can see the other side and its value.


oldster 03.04.14 at 2:35 am

You know, when I saw the title of your post I thought it would make an excellent topic for discussion in comments.

But then you had to go and tell us what you think. And that spoiled everything.


Moz in Oz 03.04.14 at 3:28 am

One of the more interesting contexts I’ve seen this in is a dual-listed course between feminist studies and sociology, on body politics. Admittedly for second year students, but there were a couple of times when we looked at issues that were controversial and lecturers took different positions on the current issue. One said “here’s my position” and the material was very much presented as “why I’m right”. Which made it hard for some of the kids who disagreed, as material supporting their ideas was largely absent from what was supplied. Now, arguably, the issue presented was settled (specifically, “anorexia is bad”), but there are people who will vigorously contest that and I think those arguments would have strengthened the course.

Another section was the less settled area of body-building and body image. The disjunction between “inside” voices and “outside” presentation was stark at times and the crossover with the anorexia discussion was interesting. But having a lecturer refuse to disclose their views, and work to present all sides made it much more interesting. But that was less “body building is bad” and more “how does gender politics influence body building”.

What often irritated me about those courses, BTW, was the lack of ability to argue that many students suffered from. They just couldn’t understand the difference between “I feel this” and “I think this because {reasons}”, let alone “group X say Y because they believe Z”. Often to the point of being offended that someone would present an argument they disagreed with. As someone who’d sat through a few philosophy courses, and grew up arguing, that was something of a surprise to me.

(Feminist Studies suffered a lot from students who thought the course was “how to be a feminist” rather than “the academic study of feminism”)


TheSophist 03.04.14 at 3:44 am

Just today I gave my annual guest lecture on Marx to my school’s macro class. (We’re a k-12 college prep in the western US). I disclose at least partially in most of my classes (Theories of Justice, International Relations, and Contemporary Political Issues are probably the relevant ones here.) I think that disclosure only works when it’s accompanied by absolute safety to disagree. The students who espouse (eg) libertarianism know that they can do so without getting graded down for it, and I like to think it sharpens their arguments. I’ve had one (sophomore) this year who, on being told that he needed to get a better theoretical basis for his args, borrowed my copy of Genealogy of Morals, and, on bringing it back two weeks later, said “Neitzsche talks about Kant a lot. What do you have on him that I can read?” So, progress, maybe. Maybe also disclosure works only if it’s not too dogmatic and if it comes from a position of (perceived) intellectual gravitas.

Interestingly, the nicest letter I ever got from a parent came from the family of a very conservative student and read, in part, “Thank you for teaching our son that there are other ways of seeing the world apart from the one he learned at home.”


absurdbeats 03.04.14 at 4:16 am

I’ve taught political science & bioethics at a bunch of different places with class sizes ranging from 10 to 200, and never really had a single approach to the issue of disclosure. Now that I’ve settled into my current (adjunct) gig (at a CUNY school) with classes of 25-35 students, I’ve come to the approach of non-disclosure for 100-level courses, and disclosure for the 300-levels.

Why? I want to encourage discussion, and I worry that I’ll bigfoot the intro level students if I pick a side, while I think the upper-level students are unimpressed with the fact that I have a point of view. (Sometimes the intro level (usually American govt) students want to know my politics: I tell them they can ask me about them on the last day of class, which seems to work fine.)

In my bioethics class, I think the disclosure not only doesn’t hurt but advances the aims of the course, which is to get them to think deeply and seriously about some very difficult issues. By discussing my own views and how I deal with my ongoing uncertainty about my own judgments, I’m getting across—I hope—that there are some questions for which there are no good or many good answers, and that struggle in reaching for those answers is entirely appropriate.


Harry 03.04.14 at 5:18 am

There should be a rule against posting when you know you won’t be able to look at comments for another 10 hours, which I did know when I posted. So sorry that I won’t answer much.

PatrickinIowa — I did say that I was asking what people think. And, I would have added in the OP if I could have figured out how that in high school I was taught History by a high Tory, a social democrat, and a Maoist, all very clear disclosers; each of them was a very good teacher in different ways, but the combination was dynamite.

I do disclose about issues that are not on the table, For example, when discussing whether parent have the right to shield their children from worldviews other than their own, I disclose that I am an atheist. Rights play some role in various of the issues, and I need to make the point that it is never enough to say “there is a right to X”, but you have to have a theory about the precise content of the right to X which requires some moral philosophy; during that discussion I often reveal that I beleive that there is a right to freedom of expression, which does ot extend to the right to use racist speech or even to the right to spread racist or anti-semitic ideas (I think people should probably be allowed to do those things, on balance, but not that they have a right t), because I know pretty much all of them disagree, so it raises sharply the need to specify content.

The first two examples of questions you give are empirical, and on the second of those I think the evidence is pretty clear, but there are no normative issues to discuss (same with whether climate change is driven by human activity). If I were teaching a science course I’d give them the science (which, I presume, I’d know!). The third is interesting — is there such a thing as race? That is an interesting philosophical debate, and I can imagine someone having a firm view, but I don’t see why its one they’d feel impelled to disclose.

I don’t think they are interested in me enough to be making up in their head what I might think.

Moz inOz — I think of the course primarily as being about developing the skill that, indeed, they tend to lack coming in — the ability to give reasons rather than just stating feelings or responses. This is easier to do in smaller courses (in the fall I taught 19 freshman, and toward the end they were demanding reasons from one another explicitly, which was just great), but larger courses are what I am stuck with, and it is their one chance, for most of them, to learn it in college.

On bias toward my own positions. I do agree that there is a tendency to that, and I think the way I have dealt with it is by turnover. So, eg, on affirmative action I think there is actually a lot of room for reasonable debate, but I found that I couldn’t be fair to opponents, and ended up dropping the topic. If I were forced to teach it I hope I’d be able to figure out how to be fairer.

Loads more to say, and I hope the (universally thoughtful — thanks) comments will keep coming.


Belle Waring 03.04.14 at 6:19 am

The really collectible edition would be “The Death of Irresistible Argument Man,” in which he saves the world from The Invincible Fallacious Convincer by climbing up the sheer face of the argument itself, luring his arch-nemesis after him, and then quickly pulls the ladder up behind them and tosses it away so that both are lost. That one has a holographic 3-D kind of thingie on it, and when it came out in 1996 it was released with 3 different covers. Of course, he came back like a month later when it turned out that had all taken place on Putnam Twin-Earth Prime. God, 90s comics blew.


adam.smith 03.04.14 at 6:36 am

While we’re at Irresistible Argument Man — in case anyone isn’t familiar with “Fallacy Man” yet, go check him out:


Belle Waring 03.04.14 at 6:50 am

John correctly points out that Harry’s arch-nemesis should be called “Confabulator.”


Harold 03.04.14 at 7:17 am

As a student, and also a reader, I always appreciated it when the professor/writer emphasized how a thinker came to believe what they believed, or how an idea came to be prevalent, rather than whether they, personally, agreed with it or not, a less interesting question.


Z 03.04.14 at 2:05 pm

Oldster wins the thread, of course.

Nick Barnes, I thought long and hard, but I don’t see how “Well, what would it look like if it looked as if the earth were rotating?” even begins to rebut “If the Earth is moving, then Vega has to be absurdly large and even more obviously absurdly far away.” I admit that I’m not sure I even parse the sentence correctly, though.


Metatone 03.04.14 at 10:08 pm

@36 – interesting collision between “gambler’s fallacy” and “reversion to the mean.”


Tony Lynch 03.04.14 at 10:14 pm

For the teacher in such classes – ataraxia.


oldster 03.04.14 at 10:30 pm

Tony Lynch–sorry, what’s that? Is that the generic name for some SSRI? What’s the trade name?


PatrickinIowa 03.04.14 at 11:10 pm

Wendy gets at a lot of the origins of my thinking: I teach a lot of comp (we call it Rhetoric at Iowa).

I think that the statement, “The absence of women in philosophy cannot be accounted for by women’s capacity nor their preferences,” while having an empirical structure, immediately raises a whole host of normative issues. (This is probably occasioned by my sense that people who say that the absence of group X from some favored space is because of intractable group characteristics are frequently being disingenuous about the real ground of their beliefs.) That’s what makes many arguments so interesting: not everything framed as empirical is free of normative features, and vice versa.

I think that TheSophist nails it with this, “I think that disclosure only works when it’s accompanied by absolute safety to disagree.” In my experience, I’m better at making the space open to all when I’m not policing my own disclosure or pretending to be dispassionate. YMMV.


Ed Herdman 03.05.14 at 5:02 am

This is a really important topic and I’m glad for the opportunity to be repetitive in my comments! Maybe this is flip, but my first impression of the “tear apart most every student’s reasons” comment was that it belies (perhaps in only a miniscule way) the program of treating the students’ learning process as holistic. If the reason for the opinion is really coming from something that is arguably grounded, but in a way that the student really doesn’t know how to express properly, it seems premature to say that it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny – more an issue of knowing the tactics of debate or perhaps the rules of logic (the former being not very important, the latter being quite important). As always, I wonder if the factual / emotional grounding of the debate is really in clear focus when I read something like this.

At the same time I think that it is important to note that a lot of the student teachers – and more than a few long-time lecturers and professors – are not giving a balanced view of issues at all, so that the idea of disclosure seems a luxury. The student teachers are an easy example – surely a lot have found Catholic ethical thought or Chomsky or something else which explains everything, and which they absolutely must smash into every discussion – let them give the lecture one day when you’re not there and they’ll turn it completely off the topic to talk about their Very Special Favorite Thing while the students look on nonplussed.

That’s a roundabout way of coming back to TheSophist’s point, sure, but I thought it was worth baring explicitly.

I understand what PatrickinIowa is talking about, but I think that in the places where disclosure makes the most impact, we can very safely and strongly distinguish between areas unsettled by controversy, and universally accepted best practices there there is effectively no controversy – a professor advocating a viewpoint that women are incapable of filling a particular role is not going to be adhering to the rule stipulated in the modern university setting that they should be creating a welcoming learning environment, for obvious reasons – as well as failing the sanity test in other ways. There’s a matter of fact or at least of nearly universal acclaim there.

While I think the area suggested to be controversial by PatrickinIowa is not the sort of thing that intro students are likely to be concerned with, just as importantly I think it is interesting to note that the dynamics of choice are totally different when comparing a group of students who have been shoveled into a boilerplate intro course, and a group of grad or even multiple-year undergrads who may not only be actively searching out mentors, but might have even selected the school because it has a particular reputation.


Ed Herdman 03.05.14 at 5:03 am

@ oldster:

“Ataraxia is an Italian neoclassical Goth opera band who combine modern technology with archaic instrumentation over various media.”


John Quiggin 03.05.14 at 9:47 am

Unfortunately,the comic Fallacy Man gets just about everything wrong. Relying on Peyton Manning’s judgement about football ability is a presumptively valid use of authority, not a fallacious syllogism and conversely with Glenn Beck on anything. The bartender’s refusal of free drinks to one customer is entirely sensible and not a slippery slope. And so on, except that, confusingly, he gets the gambler’s fallacy right


oldster 03.05.14 at 11:31 am

Thanks, Ed, but now I’m really confused:

Tony Lynch thinks that teachers of controversial issues should bring an Italian goth opera band into the classroom with them? To, what, drown out the screams?


Z 03.05.14 at 2:05 pm

Oldster, ataraxia means absence of emotion in Greek. Is that what confused you?


oldster 03.05.14 at 2:16 pm

It hadn’t been, but it does now. Why would the Greeks coin a term for the absence of emotion, based on the name of an Italian Goth opera band?

I mean–I could see why you might coin a new term for absence of emotion based on the name of a prescription downer–like, say, “tranquility”, from tranquilizers. That would at least make some sense.


Z 03.05.14 at 2:29 pm

Oldster, I hate you :)


PatrickinIowa 03.05.14 at 2:30 pm

Among the students I teach are first year engineering students, many of whom happen to be women. If you think, “the area suggested to be controversial by PatrickinIowa is not the sort of thing that intro students are likely to be concerned with,” specifically with respect to gender and the intellectual capacities of women, I know a couple of young women you should talk to.

We underestimate them all the time. This I know for a fact.

And, after a very long time observing good teaching, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are few if any hard and fast rules, beyond “love the subject, and respect the people in the room.”


Harry 03.05.14 at 3:36 pm


I take the point about loving the subject and respecting the students. And, sure, there are few hard and fast rules. But plenty of people love the subject and respect the students and can’t teach — there are lots of techniques and protocols for teaching that make you better able to make learning happen. (Another way of putting this would say love and respect were all there is, but put a particular interpretation on “respect”, as not simply an attitude to the people, but a disposition to learn the techniques that will help you do well by them). I’m not arguing with you, just adding a footnote (I think).


TheSophist 03.05.14 at 3:37 pm

I’ve been thinking about this over the last couple of days as I ride my bike to/from school, and I’ve even asked a couple of my students to take a look at the thread so we can talk about it.

I find myself getting a little stuck on what exactly disclosure means. I got into a similar discussion with Judith Butler (really) a few years ago about the possibility of non-political speech, and I’m not completely sure that such a thing exists.

A couple of “f’rinstances” (as my high school latin teacher used to say): 1. Am I “disclosing”, or merely being objective if I respond to a student who argues that there’s no such thing as climate change by laying out the mass of evidence contrary to his (and it always is a he) position?

2. A study breaks down a sample into M and F. Should I say “…and let’s not forget that there exist those who do not fit comfortably into either M or F.” ?

My sophomores are reading Judt (Postwar). We looked at a piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates in which he described Judt’s view of history as “atheistic.” This lead to a discussion of how texts are “always already partial incomplete narratives” (to drop as much post-modernist jargon as is legal into one clause) which was genuinely eye-opening (and in some instances exciting) for them. The discussion developed to point out that teachers also can never be truly impartial – that there are always choices as to which facts matter (realizing that both of those words might be seen as problematic) and that those choices are made either by the individual teacher or by somebody higher up the food chain.

The OP mentions a study of teaching controversial issues in high school, so my thoughts above are based on doing this every day. I would like to add (as was my point on the high school debate thread a few weeks ago) that many hs students are capable of appreciating much more nuance and depth of argument than we might think. (Most of my sophs found the first couple of chapters of Judt rather intimidating, as it was a much more substantial text than they had ever encountered before. Now that they are used to it and that the class is structured in such a way as to help them tease out the really important stuff, they’re feeling rather proud of themselves.)


Trader Joe 03.05.14 at 4:22 pm

I prefer to play what I call the Ryan Seacrest role and never directly say what I think, but argue from both sides, as necessary, to keep the topic flowing and bring order when discussions flow away from their center (as all good arguments are wont to do).

Neutrality also allows me to retip the balance of the room if one or more students has a particularly ardent or particularly well defended view and its serving to silence opposition. If the goal is critical thinking, thoughtful debate etc. the instructor needs to be able to stir the pot in both directions, add overlooked points, define terms etc. and its harder to do that after staking a side.

The final reason I like to keep my views out of it is they don’t really matter and shouldn’t matter to anyone in the classroom – my task is to teach critical thinking, not to provide answers. If I give a thought essay such as, to be extreme, “pro-life or pro-choice – defend.” I’m awarding points for well reasoned responses on either side of the issue and don’t want anyone to think they will have an easier time by picking the view I happen to espouse or a harder time by going against me.

As per the OP, I’d find it a job well done if student A thinks I’m a liberal and student B is sure I’m conservative on both any particular topic and on a series of topics.


Wendy 03.05.14 at 5:37 pm

54: “As per the OP, I’d find it a job well done if student A thinks I’m a liberal and student B is sure I’m conservative on both any particular topic and on a series of topics.”

I disagree. Because if A thinks I’m liberal, and B thinks I’m conservative, then one of them is wrong, and my goal isn’t to make my students wrong.


Trader Joe 03.05.14 at 7:46 pm

@55 Wendy

Why would one of them need to be “wrong.” They can both be right depending upon the perspective and arguments they have used to build their viewpoint. “A” might be a tea party conservative and there may be almost no views I could hold that wouldn’t brand me a liberal. “B” might be a sufficiently far-left liberal that a plain old Clinton-Democrat can be painted as nothing but conservative….

In social sciences data is rarely unambiguous enough for a right or wrong – being able to synthesize a position and defend it is skill being taught.


Moz in Oz 03.05.14 at 9:38 pm

I think that the statement, “The absence of women in philosophy cannot be accounted for by women’s capacity nor their preferences,” while having an empirical structure, immediately raises a whole host of normative issues.

Not least the narrow definitions of “capacity” and “preference” often used. My simple rejoinder is “many women have a preference not to be the subject of micro-agressions and a limited capacity to deal with mistaken assumptions about their abilities”. To which a common response is “I was talking about their capacity and preference to study engineering”… so was I, mate, so was I.

There’s an interesting continuum between “able to understand arguments and formulate their own” and “skilled debater, able to promote or defend ideas without regard to their substance”. Things like modern politics focus a lot on the latter, which means for some students they need time to adjust to the idea that argument can be a rational intellectual enterprise.

Wendy/Trader: I think the ideal being discussed is to be sufficiently neutral/ambiguous that all students see you as centre of their position, which inevitably means opposed to that position.


tony lynch 03.05.14 at 10:56 pm

Fascinating Derridean reflections from oldster.

I simply meant to point to the capacity of a good teacher in the kinds of areas we are discussing to – as a teacher – suspend judgement, with a certain tranquility, as they consider the weight, pro and con, of the various considerations students might offer on the topics at hand.

Maybe it was the Greek.


Ed Herdman 03.06.14 at 1:32 am

@ TheSophist:

Maybe this isn’t helpful, but when I see climate science denial, I don’t think that somebody will climb out of that hole by themselves. There is an objective fact you can appeal to – the settled opinion / testimony of the majority of climate scientists. Even if you did not believe global warming is happening, I think that one has a duty to lay that out there. Nobody is going to agree that the disclosure step comes when deciding whether or not to inform the student of your own beliefs in magical illusions that create the mere appearance of global warming. Anybody who argues in that realm is going to try and bring a scientifically acceptable argument.

There’s reflections of the philosophy of science in regular philosophy, but at different points there are different standards of evidence or argument.


feliquid 03.06.14 at 5:04 am

Oldster and Z, it may interest you to know that Atarax is the brand name for an anti-itch pill.

(It is my second favorite drug name, tadalafil being the clear winner.)


oldster 03.06.14 at 11:39 am

Tony, I’m not sure what you mean by referring to my “Derridean reflections”, unless you are simply pointing out that Derrida, too, was a serial troller who thought he was marvelously witty and struck everyone else as a tedious bore.

If that’s what you meant, then, sure.


Harry 03.06.14 at 2:22 pm

But, oldster, Derrida really was a tedious bore, whereas you have been neither tedious nor boring. Perhaps because you understand that wit is pithy and he….didn’t.


Eli Rabett 03.06.14 at 3:36 pm

Although this is being discussed as a problem in ethical issues, allow Eli to relive a very unpleasant experience in his Partial Differential Equations class. many decades ago. While difficult to believe, there are styles in mathematics. In this particular class the professor insisted that any proof had to replicate the ones he presented and would mark as incorrect any (we thought) improved versions. The class was right up there with having to memorize the kings and queens of England and the dates of their coming and going.


floopmeister 03.06.14 at 10:58 pm

Oldster and Z, it may interest you to know that Atarax is the brand name for an anti-itch pill

Some comedy show/comedian/blog (obviously can’t remember whom/which) once proposed Mycoxaflopine as a better name for Viagra


oldster 03.07.14 at 12:24 am

Harry @62–


Now I can’t even talk, because the teacher was so supportive that he made me feel too bashful and self-conscious.


PatrickinIowa 03.07.14 at 1:28 am

“Another way of putting this would say love and respect were all there is, but put a particular interpretation on “respect”, as not simply an attitude to the people, but a disposition to learn the techniques that will help you do well by them.”

Yes, exactly. Thanks.


Tony Lynch 03.07.14 at 2:24 am

Am I being reprimanded for thinking reflections on the weirdness of the ancient greeks naming a psychological state after what I presume is a contempotary italian band are”derridean” in style?


oldster 03.07.14 at 3:38 am

Not by me, Tony, not by me.

Possibly by the endless chain of signifiers–we can defer that question for later.


floopmeister 03.07.14 at 10:11 am

Is my comment still in moderation (posted hours ago) because I mentioned a medication that starts with V?

Honestly – it might not have been that funny but it is most certainly not a spam message asking your readers to purchase said medication… please call off your anti-spam attack dogs! :)

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