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Is it Appropriate to Hold a Class Lecture at an Ideological "Teach-In"?

No, it's not. Is there a plausible argument on the other side? This issue arises from an article about the feud between Joel Beinin and David Horowitz:

[Horowitz] is incensed that in 2003 Beinin held a class lecture at a "teach-in" against the Iraq war in Stanford's quad. The lecture that day on the Gulf War happened to be relevant, Beinin said, but was "definitely an act of solidarity with the teach-in." "This is as close to the line of putting politics in the classroom that I've ever done," he said. "I don't hide my opinion."

But I don't think the issue here is whether, or to what extent, a professor should hide or express his opinion in class. The question is whether it's appropriate to require students to attend an ideological event to see the professor's own scheduled class lecture. Put another way, Beinin may not have put politics in the classroom, but he put the classroom in politics.

Steve:
It seems inappropriate to me, but if I were in favor of the war, I'm not sure it would be a big deal. I mean, I'd most likely sit there watching the protest, thinking "what a bunch of losers." Is the objection that my presence helps inflate the attendance of the anti-war rally?
8.8.2006 12:22pm
jallgor (mail):
At UCLA my torts professor held a lecture at an anti-prop 209 rally. It had nothing to do with the class. Several of my classmates were very upset and refused to attend the lecture. I don't think it ever occurred to him that someone in his class might support prop 209 or that he might be doing something wrong by making his students choose between attending a rally and going to his class that day. Even the smartest among us can have blinders on sometimes. I am over simplifying here but for those who don't know Prop 209 ended affirmative action in California.
8.8.2006 12:31pm
Hanah Volokh (mail) (www):
My high school government teacher gave extra credit for voting. But some of us weren't 18 yet.
8.8.2006 12:36pm
John Jenkins (mail):
It's absolutely wrong. There's nothing wrong with being open about one's biases or positions in the classroom, but forcing people to attend a political rally is simply wrong. I guess it would make sense for certain classes (sociology, psychology, etc.) if the purpose were to observe the rally as some kind of natural laboratorym but that doesn't appear to be the case here.
8.8.2006 12:37pm
DK:
Forcing people to attend rallies is also counterproductive. If the media isn't totally asleep or is supplemented by blogs, it will be reported that "most of the rally attendees were just students attending class and thus the crowd doesn't mean the rally actually has popular support; if these causes actually had real support they wouldn't resort to this sort of trickery."

I always disliked Gay Jeans Day at my college for the same reason -- it doesn't give a reliable signal of support, which seems to defeat the purpose of sending a message.
8.8.2006 12:59pm
U.Va. 2L (no longer a 1L) (mail):
What about the analagous case of a professor who refuses to cross a picket line holding class in her basement, a reception hall, or something similar? My gut reaction is that it's just as wrong.
8.8.2006 1:16pm
Harbey headbanger (mail):
of course it appropriate -- it's college, expand your mind and stuff, it's not going to kill anyone, don't get your panties in a wad
8.8.2006 1:20pm
Constantin:
Sure thing, Harbey. So if some guy at the University of Arizona decides to have class on the border at a Minuteman event--of if anyone anywhere in America takes class outside to an anti-abortion rally--all will be well, right?
8.8.2006 1:25pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Harvey. You think teach-ins teach anything more than that morons in a bunch reinforce the ambient moronicity? I'd guess most undergrads already know that. If you think that's a mind-expander, I think you have a problem.

There are lots of things that don't kill anybody. Like having to listen to a Christian prayer over the school loudspeaker. For which the "it's not going to kill anyone" defense is unlikely to prevail. For non-Christians, it would have the benefit of expanding their minds, too. Why don't I write the ACLU about this. I can tell them Harvey had the idea.
8.8.2006 1:28pm
Master Shake:

I always disliked Gay Jeans Day at my college for the same reason -- it doesn't give a reliable signal of support, which seems to defeat the purpose of sending a message.
I think you're kind of missing the point. They're trying to irk those, like you, who then go through the effort of pointing out that everyone wears jeans anyway, writing letters to the editor, or posting on blogs. It works like a charm.
8.8.2006 1:39pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
Back in the late-60s/early-70s, I had professors who stated, baldly, that they would flunk you if you didn't attend an anti-war rally. I also had those who stated equally explicitely, that they would flunk you if you did attend.
8.8.2006 1:55pm
egn (mail):
I can still think that Horowitz is a joke, though, right?
8.8.2006 2:16pm
U.Va. 2L (no longer a 1L) (mail):
I can still think that Horowitz is a joke, though, right?

This goes without saying.
8.8.2006 2:25pm
JosephSlater (mail):
Horowitz is definitely a joke, although not a particularly funny one (see, among numerous examples, his pathetic testimony in front of the Pa. state legislature in which he essentially admitted that he had no evidence for/made up claims of supposedly outrageous incidents).

On the other hand, I think requiring students to attend a political rally as part of class is generally wrong. I haven't noticed that sort of thing happening a lot, but I generally wouldn't approve of it.

The refusing to cross a picket line example given by U.Va. 2L (no longer a 1L) [may I call you "U.Va.2L" for short?] is somewhat different. If there is a picket line, EITHER decision by a co-worker -- to cross or not cross -- is equally politically freighted. The decision to teach, but at an alternate location, strikes me as the best possible compromise between the union position (the strike should stop work being done at the employer) and the employer's position (co-workers and customers should cross the line, thus preventing the line from having an effect, thus allowing the employer to win the strike). Indeed, if anything, that compromise is closer to the employer's position -- because the work is being done and the product is being consumed -- than it is to what the pure union line could be.
8.8.2006 2:31pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
As many posters have noted professors inflict their political beliefs on their class all the time. Every time a professor wears a 'I voted' sticker to class they inflict their belief that voting is good on all the students for the entire class period. Similarly with not holding class to honor picket lines as other commenters have noted.

Now if these students were oligated to stay for the lecture then sure this goes farther. But I know I almost never went to class during college and at most good schools you can just skip lecture whenever you want. Since these sort of political type lectures are usually obviously not going to be on the test any student who doesn't want to listen can just get up and leave. Thus they are forced to hear no more propoganda than they would if the prof canceled the class in honor of the day.

Besides if you invoke this standard is it now out of bounds for HS classes to offer extra credit if you attend some local speech on international relations or a visit by the president to talk about medicare? Surely it is sometimes appropriate for a teacher to ask students to view certain media with a political bent for their general edification.

Sure you can argue that it is only okay to make students view political material so long as you do so in a balanced fashion (say the prof had invited in someone else to give a rebuttal). However, the very choice of what counts as balanced is a political view itself.

Frankly I'm pretty liberal on many issues but I wouldn't have minded a prof subjecting me to a lecture defending Bush's tax cuts in one of my economics classes. I might not have agreed but I would have been edified by being exposed to those views.
8.8.2006 2:45pm
egn (mail):
There was a fascinating, drawn-out discussion at PrawfsBlawg on needing to cross a picket line to teach/attend a class, and the most politically neutral response to same. It culminated here.

I tend to concur with those who would advocate temporarily moving to a different location as the least burdensome solution, at least politically. The notion that doing so forces students to support the strike, and that this is at least as bad as forcing students to cross the picket line, seems like shenanigans to me, if only on the basis of an activity-passivity distinction.

As for this, well... I wouldn't have appreciated essentially being forced to contribute to a political cause. Mandating students' presence at a "teach-in" seems a mere step removed from a required donation to one organization or another. ("Contribute to the Lamont campaign for bonus points"?)
8.8.2006 3:16pm
microtherion (mail):
What about a biology professor holding a lecture in a natural history museum?
8.8.2006 3:18pm
JRL:

Frankly I'm pretty liberal on many issues but I wouldn't have minded a prof subjecting me to a lecture defending Bush's tax cuts in one of my economics classes.



Does that qualify as a sign of the times or something like that? Would have ever thought that tax cuts would need to be defended.

Oh, and forcing students to attend the rally is bad. I actually had a professor my freshman year of college who would not let us attend a speaker that the whole college closed down for. He insisted that he was having class at his normal time regardless and gave a quiz to ensure attendance.
8.8.2006 3:27pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
FWIW, I think it's wrong for professors to inconvenience students, and also hold classes in inferior facilities, to avoid crossing a picket line. The profs are paid to teach at a particular time and place, and should meet that obligation.

The only honorable solution is to hold the class at its regularly scheduled time and place, and, if you're so inclined, also hold it again for students who don't want to cross. If I paid $33K a year to go to Yale Law, and my profs were holding classes in their apartments and in pizza joints (which happened the year before I attended), I'd be very unhappy.
8.8.2006 3:36pm
Greedy Clerk (mail):
If a professor at a government run school forces students to attend a political rally, it seems to me to be a clear violation of the First Amendment. The example of a UCLA professor forcing students to attend an anti-prop 209 rally seems clear beyond dispute to be a blatant violation of the First Amendment -- the fact that a LAW PROFESSOR did that is amazing. I don't think this is a pervasive problem -- if it were, I am sure the ACLU (contrary to what some are implying) would no doubt side with students not wanting to attend.
8.8.2006 3:42pm
Greedy Clerk (mail):
Re professors crossing picket lines, if I were a professor, I would not cross a picket line (assuming I thought that the picketers' union had a point, which they usually do, i.e. janitors being underpaid, etc.) If the school wants to discipline the professor for refusing to cross the picket line, it has a right to do so, as DB notes. And students who are "forced" to attend class in an "inconvenient" place can complain to the administration and ask the professor to be disciplined. But being forced to attend class in another place because of a professor not wanting to cross a picket line is not an infringement on the First Amendment as, unlike being forced to attend a political rally, you are nto being forced to be used as a political prop or being forced to listen to viewpoints which have nothign to do with the subject matter of your class.
8.8.2006 3:48pm
solon (mail) (www):
Rather than make a rule as to whether or not it is appropriate for a professor to require students to attend a political or ideological "teach-in," in general, or a anti-war "teach-in," in particular, wouldn't it make sense to determine what class this assignment would be for?

For example, requiring students in a social movements class to attend a "teach-in" would allow them to observe how a social movement actually exists. While it would be possible to show the film Berkeley in the 60's (which covers the Free Speech Movement), a present day "teach-in" would allow the students to see and feel the environment in a way that they could not from watching the DVD.

Furthermore, by requiring students attend the "teach-in," a professor does not force his or her beliefs on the students. In this scenario, the goal is to see a movement not determine political beliefs. The student would be able to determine how a social movement works; further, while there, the student may determine whether or not the he or she agrees with the movement—like they do for any other social movement presented in class. In a social movements class, all movements are political—there is no way around that since each participate in the social movement is trying to gain political power. Students may even align themselves with "pro-war" activists who are there protesting.

Whether or not the professor teaches at the "teach-in" may not interfere with what the students learn about social movements from attending the lecture. This aspect of the "teach-in" may not be desirable since it could lead to a chilling effect of student speech, but this is not a sufficient cause and effect argument.

Finally, a professor could even assign the students to write a paper on the "teach-in" in terms of types of rhetorical strategies used or success of rhetorical strategies for the audience. These assignments would still not be based on the politics of the "teach-in." I would not try this approach since it may compromise writing and objectivity, but with the proper rubric it would be fair.
8.8.2006 7:52pm
liberty (mail) (www):
"Horowitz is definitely a joke"

I won't defend him in a general sense or suggest that his writings are all full of facts and not bias; or that he always has evidence to back his claims; but he is not a "joke."

He was raised by actual card carrying (and very active) communists and wrote dozens of books as a scholarly Marxist; then he experienced the weathermen, black panthers and sixties New Left firsthand; these experiences helped to bring him to the late realization of the severe moral and practical errors of socialism and leftism; these realizations filled the pages of several books, both personal and scholarly during the 1980s and after.

More recently he has tried to make up for all the work he wrote from the left by writing endless articles from the other side. Some of them are not of high quality. But I think one should not dismiss him entirely as he has said a lot that needed saying. My favorite by far is "Radical Son" which I can relate to on a personal level.
8.8.2006 8:18pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
At UCLA my torts professor held a lecture at an anti-prop 209 rally
UCLA law professor? His initials weren't EV, were they?
8.8.2006 8:41pm
liberty (mail) (www):
Also, I think in large part the relevant point is whether students feel (even wrongly) that if they disagree with the political opinion of the professor, they will receive a lower grade. Or that the bias affects the professors ability to teach.

I had a biochemistry professor who taught us that a certain insecticide had an effect on a biochemical pathway that only existed in plants and not humans or animals as part of the lesson on the pathway; then she said "but still it should be banned because it might leak into the water". After class I asked her why this leakage would be such a terrible problem, considering it it was not harmful to animals or humans -- was she worried about other plants being affected downstream? -- she had no reason, but she adamantly argued that it should be banned anyway "just in case"; it was clearly a political statement.

Another biochemistry professor used to make anti-Bush jokes and statements during lecture; just sprinkling them in at any chance. He considered himself charismatic I think and enjoyed audience laughter, so he would compare molecules to political figures and such absurdities; and he would tell stories invoking poverty in a third world country and then blame it on Bush - all in the name of biochemistry, of course. Since I tended not to laugh at his jokes, I was always concerned that this would earn me negative consideration on the short answer quesions where there is room for discrimination / subjectivity.

For those reasons, I think politics should be left out of the classroom unless the subject of the class concerns it.
8.8.2006 8:55pm
Irina (mail) (www):
I think that under certain circumstances ideological "teach-ins" can be useful teaching tools. What do I mean by "certain circumstances?"

1) When the class itself is a class based on a certain type of discourse and the ideological lecture is given by a good professional and illustrates the theoretical arguments being taught in class.

2) When a class is discussiing a controversial issue, and illustrating arguments pro and con would help illustrate that issue. In such an instance, however, when the class is not itself based on discourse, and is merely discussing that issue, such a teach-in would only be appropriate if the students had a chance to see the other side of the argument being illustrated as well, although not necessarily as another teach=in.

3) A teach-in can ONLY be appropriate if it somehow ties in with the goals and focuse of the class. If it's a completely fringe issue or it serves absolutely no informative function or worse yet, has nothing to do with the subject matter of the class in the first place, it is not appropriate.

4) Therefore, in theory, professors (and I mean only professors, not school teachers!) should have the latitude to use the ideological teach-in option in these circumstances. However, the university should be responsible for making sure that the above-mentioned standards are applied consistently and the teach-ins aren't used to brainwash students or detract from class.
8.8.2006 9:43pm
solon (mail) (www):
There seems to be a few crucial questions in this debate: what is "political" and where should professors "draw the line" as to how many political comments can be allowed in class?

It seems to be easier to draw the line in certain subjects in physics and the natural sciences though, this depends on what University or what State. Though some consider Intelligent Design science, Baylor's attempt to have a center for Intelligent Design may be political (in terms of controlling the knowledge of what the students can know, which affects how the students live their lives). When Kansas redefined science, politicians created the new definition, not scientists.

In literature, you can remove the politics from the novel but it may no longer make sense. It is easier to do this with some novels (Changing Places by Lodge) but much harder to do this with a Kafka, Dostoevsky, or Orwell novel (pick any novel). Depending on what field of literature you study, there may be more "politics" in one era than others.

However, when we attempt to remove politics from the classroom, don't the students lose out in the discussion and in their lives? I see a college education as way in which students learn to become good citizens; I do not believe that I should teach students to learn how to be good consumers. By learning to be a good citizen, students should listen to opposing views and controversial positions; sometime these students should even defend opposing views, even if they disagree with those views. Students may be offended but there is no right for a student to not be offended in class.

With this view, professors need to be impartial—not objective—and present multiple views. If this is done, the students may actual take interest in their education.
8.8.2006 9:47pm
Irina (mail) (www):
Forgot to add that in the instances when the ideological event being attended is extremely offensive to someone in the class, the student, of course, should have the option of showing his understanding of the issue in some other way. These events should not be used as methods to intimidate students or lower their grades for not agreeing with the issue.
8.8.2006 9:47pm
Ken Arromdee:
By learning to be a good citizen, students should listen to opposing views and controversial positions; sometime these students should even defend opposing views, even if they disagree with those views.

There's a difference between "listening to" opposing views and *participating* in spreading the other side's views. We'd never, for instance, accept a class where students had to write a letter to their Senator expressing opposition to abortion, regardless of the student's personal beliefs.

There's also the implied threat that if the student disagrees with the professor's views, he gets a lower grade, a threat which is pretty much incompatible with the kind of debate that benefits good citizens.
8.9.2006 12:50am
Steven Jens (mail) (www):
For the purposes of some classes, exposure to an event may contain educational value. Certainly this should be done carefully, and the professor ought to strive for balance. A commenter suggested that determining what is "balanced" is itself an ideological exercise. To some extent, this is true -- someone can be found to object to any arrangement. Similarly, a professor in a subject related to politics ought to be able to voice his or her views, but ought not be able to intimidate students, and there isn't a clear bright line as to what can reasonably be considered intimidation. But there's a point at which good faith is clearly missing.

As for crossing a picket line, it seems to me that if I side with the union, I won't cross; if I side with management, I will seek extra opportunities to cross; and if I haven't picked a side, I won't let the dispute affect my behavior. Crossing the picket line because you were scheduled to have a class on the other side isn't necessarily a "screw you" to the union, it's just a refusal to let them dictate your behavior.
8.9.2006 1:54am
jallgor (mail):
David M Nierponent:
No his initials were not EV. If I recall correctly professor Volokh supported prop 209 and was kind enough to present his views in a very interesting public debate with another professor. Thankfully, he he kept the debate out of his Con Law class.
8.9.2006 10:12am