Turning Point USA keeps a watchlist of professors who “discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” Many professors on that list, like this person, this person, or that person, deserve to be called-out. Many others, like this person, this person, or this person, are listed for fairly benign reasons: assigning left-wing perspectives as class readings or tweeting left-wing opinions. I don’t want to dunk on the low-hanging fruit that is Turning Point USA (In a debate I had with a Turning Point representative, they argued against the existence of the FDA. If a restaurant serves contaminated food, they said, people will stop buying from them.) But, teachers do fear these types of criticisms. And, as a result, they often hold back from sharing their perspectives, which ultimately inhibits the quality of our education.
It is commonly held, and rarely questioned, that teachers ought to teach their material objectively. “Bias” is often equated with “intolerance” and “unfairness.” Now, I have had teachers — yes, oftentimes left-wing — that felt like peddlers for their ideology. This is indeed a problem in higher education, especially in humanities classes that study controversial issues. Pressuring teachers to throw away their “biases”, however, is a misguided solution. If you’re a philosophy professor who has read the entirety of Marx and dreams of a communist utopia, I want to hear your opinion. If you’re a history professor who studies the collapse of the Soviet Union and hates communism with a burning passion, I want you to hear your opinion too. I’m not paying $50,000 in tuition for you to dance around your true thoughts.
Similarly, media organizations claim and receive pressure to avoid bias, which ultimately hurts their credibility. During the 2016 election, CNN’s Anderson Cooper said in an interview: “I don’t vote. I don’t think reporters should vote.” To him, and CNN’s brand, reporters should avoid having political opinions; “bias” only taints the objectivity of their reporting. This is likely a big reason why CNN receives more hate from conservatives than the comparatively further left MSNBC. If you assert that you are an “objective” source of information, you assert that you have a god-eye’s view of the world when you are, in fact, an organization made-up of humans. And, as humans, you will inevitably see and report world affairs through your own lense. Even in purely expository news pieces, journalists must choose what information to include, and those decisions are made from the author’s opinions. It is much better to be open about your biases than to pretend that you are some robot without any (And modern research suggests that even AI has biases.)
Likewise, professors who hide their beliefs when teaching political topics risk being dishonest. Certain courses — especially those that study race, gender or class — have an inherent bend toward critiquing culture and existing systems. Though these classes catch a lot of controversy, it’s incredibly valuable to give students a critical lens of our society. However, we should not pretend these classes are ‘unbiased,’ or ‘not political.’ They are, in-fact, usually left-wing perspectives, and teachers should own that fact. Hiding from it undermines those disciplines, and to an extent, academia in general.
There are spaces in left-wing academia where free, healthy discourse is lacking. Deviations from certain opinions can, in some classes, lead to unwarranted social or academic backlash. But, this issue is not exclusively tied to a professor’s political beliefs. Take Harvard’s former professor Cornel West: In 2001, West resigned after a dispute with Harvard’s then president, Larry Summers. West later lambasted Summers in a piece detailing their meeting:
“[Larry Summers] started our conversation by saying that he wanted me to help him f*** up Professor Mansfield, a leading conservative professor who has openly disparaged the sizable presence of black students and women at Harvard, President Summers apparently assumed that because I am a deep black democrat I would relish taking part in bringing Professor Mansfield down. To his surprise, and I would imagine embarrassment, I told him that Professor Mansfield is a friend of mine, my former teacher, and a respected colleague… Professor Mansfield and I had taken part in many public debates on race, which had been wildly popular with students, that I had lectured in his classes, and that though I vehemently disagreed with Mansfield’s views we never reverted to ugly language or nasty name-calling.”
Cornel West is a self-described “socialist” and fierce advocate for progressive values. And, he openly shared those values to his students. Larry Summers, on the other hand, holds famously centrist beliefs: he served under both Democratic and Republican presidencies and advocates for uncontroversial, economic policy. Yet, by most accounts, West rallied for open-discourse, while Summers sought to stifle it.
There is no catch-all criteria for the difference between a teacher sharing their perspective and a teacher being oppressively ideological. It may be, like the Supreme Court famously said about pornography, a “I know it when I see it” ordeal. It’s great that there’s concern with ensuring free inquiry on college campuses prosper — but, pressuring teachers to avoid ‘bias’ is a foolish way to get there.
Bobby Becker is a student at Tulane University studying philosophy and computer science. He is the founder of The College Contemporary.