During office hours, a conservative professor explains to his students that Senator John McCain, a Vietnam War veteran, may be the best candidate to negotiate and make peace as president. A liberal professor cracks a joke at the expense of conservatives. To what extent (if any) should a professor express his or her own views? Furthermore, do the professed biases of a professor compromise a student’s academic freedom and integrity? There are lies, damned lies and statistics, along with facts and damned facts, and sometimes a professor’s personal opinion, that shed some educated light on political hot topics.
During a critical four-year period when students are said to find themselves, convert or completely reject religion, adapt to a new environment and meet people with profoundly different opinions, now and again the controversial and sometimes conservative words of professors come into play. As students gather in the hundreds around an individual with up to 50 years more life experience, classrooms become the very place to either change or solidify ideas about the world. With that in mind, the effects of professors on the minds of their young protégés is a subject of dispute. A professor’s opinion passed off as fact, or inserted subtly in a lecture, would seem to have the ability to seep into the minds of students. Or are we smarter than that?
In a study published in 2008 by Gordon Hewitt of Hamilton College (a Democrat) and Mack Mariani of Xavier University (a Republican), 6,800 students from 38 universities were observed from their freshman year to their senior year. The results were negative in terms of a professor’s ability to change the political leanings of students. In the study, 60 percent of the students remained with the same or very similar political outlooks. Movement on the political scale did tend to lean toward the left, but that is in line with the shift that 18 to 24 year olds generally undergo.
It seems there are a higher proportion of liberals than conservatives on campus, but that may simply be because liberals tend to seek higher education. This is reflected in the fact that academics tend to be more liberal than the average population. While conservatives claim that the educational system seeks to weed out conservatives and their views, others feel it is a matter of personal traits akin to liberals that make them more likely to travel the path of academia.
Aside from polarization toward the political right or left, professors do sometimes express their opinions in the classroom, particularly when speaking about history or modern foreign politics. Nikoo Heidarzadeh, a first-year political science major, feels that “hearing various approaches of an issue is very crucial to the learning process.”
“I’ve realized that opinions, no matter how biased they may be, are vital to hear if one is interested in fully understanding an issue, Heidarzadeh said.” It becomes a matter of openness when hearing a professor’s political view and hearing the different sides of the story.
Others, however, feel that staunch political opinions belong outside of the classroom. Professor Bojan Petrovic of the School of Social Sciences said, “Although I don’t think that instructors, when teaching, can ever entirely exclude their political views, I strongly believe that instructor’s political activism does not belong in classrooms. Objectivity in teaching political science is an unattainable goal; yet to me, it is an ideal worth pursuing.” In this sense, objectivity becomes a way for professors to allow their students to arrive independently at their own conclusions. Classrooms are often seen as a place separate from the world of political events and function as unbiased environments where students can learn facts and craft their opinions accordingly.
Is it even reasonable to expect professors to give an unbiased presentation of information on the world’s most contentious topics, such as the presidential candidates, conflicts in the Middle East or revolutionary cases? Shaw Davari, a third-year political science major, said, “It is simply delusional to ask someone to stand in front of a captive audience for three to six hours a week and not talk about their own opinion.” Davari also noted that different ways of presenting opinions are distinguishable. “There is a distinct benefit of hearing a well-educated opinion. Whether or not the opinion is liberal, conservative or other, if the opinion of the professor is well thought-out and properly explained, there is no problem expressing it in a classroom.”
The complexity lies in determining which opinions are well founded and whether or not students simply absorb opinions from someone of higher authority. In allowing personal opinions in the classroom, students must make that distinction and learn to better their education by challenging the knowledge of their superiors as well as learning from the experienced faculty that UC Irvine has to offer.