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Holitza: Professors disclosing political beliefs could benefit students

A white board displaying various reasons why students voted this year on The Plaza Nov. 8, 2016. (Forrest Czarnecki | Collegian)

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

Many students encounter situations in which a professor’s political background may influence the way they present a topic. The professor might do it unconsciously, or they could be fully aware of it. Students, though, will often take notice. As a result, both students and professors benefit when professors are forthcoming with their political opinions. This only works when it is done with care, thought and to add context to their perspective on controversial or complex issues. This ultimately carries the benefit of cultivating a better relationship between teacher and student.

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Although many professors disclose their political leanings in an educational way, some make statements reflecting a political opinion without disclosing political bias beforehand.

By hiding their political opinions or alluding to them out of context, professors create unhelpful lessons and disingenuously teach about political topics. There is also the danger of a professor pushing their own opinions on still impressionable college students.

Political issues should be discussed, but it’s important for discussions to remain impartial.”

Professors’ words carry weight, and even subtle comments convey that prejudicial or judgmental opinions are okay. The rise in hate crimes and the number of brazenly racist actions taken by extremists recently demonstrates that racism and hate is everywhere. This means that the actions of educators matter more than ever. These are the people who we look to guide us. If their opinions are pressuring students politically, that should not be tolerated.

When there is trust between professor and student, and both parties cultivate a nurturing rather than abrasive environment, political discussions benefit the learning experience. They can draw the students in and make class more like a living story and less like a lecture. They also let students see a small bit of humanity in educators. They, too, are humans with thoughts and opinions. This strengthens the connection between educator and student. 

In an interview by NPR’s Steve Drummond, the authors of “The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education,” Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy, cover the question of whether to include politics in the classroom. They conclude that classrooms should be political but not partisan. Political issues should be discussed, but it’s important for discussions to remain impartial. When the professor is expected to mediate these discussions, it is important that the student trusts them to do so fairly.

The authors discuss the context in which sharing political views might be appropriate. Hess commented, “What we learned from students when we interviewed and surveyed them is that they make a really clear distinction between a teacher sharing his or her own view and a teacher trying to push his or her own view. Students, not surprisingly, report that they don’t like being pushed.”

That being said, Hess remains ambivalent about whether teachers should bring politics to the classroom.

“What we found is that there were teachers who were doing an excellent job who shared their own views with students, and there were teachers doing an excellent job who didn’t share their views,” Hess said. “So we don’t believe that there is one right answer to this. And we think, empirically, we can show that there’s not.”

Hess still believes, however, it is important to only discuss unsettled political issues.

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“We suggest that there are some issues that are settled and should be taught as settled and to not do that is being dishonest with young people,” Hess said. “For example, the question about whether climate change is occurring — that’s a settled issue. The question is, what to do about climate change? That’s an open issue.”

Political discussions in class should then come at the discretion of the professor and won’t always matter to a majority of students unless those opinions drastically affect discussions. Opinions can be a valuable addition to a learning experience, yet it is a fine line to remain impartial yet political in this highly sensitive political climate. Lots of political issues should be given room for discussion in classrooms.

Mason Holitza can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @MHolitza.

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