I am not sure if there was ever a time when politics did not intrude into the university classroom. Nevertheless, there certainly seems to have been an increase in political debate around teaching in higher education in recent years. From one side (broadly speaking, the left), there is increasing concern that courses reflect a narrow dominant perspective, leading to efforts to increase curriculum diversity, particularly in terms of gender and race. From another (broadly speaking, the right), there are fears that efforts to protect students’ emotional wellbeing through things like trigger warnings prevent students to being exposed to controversial views that challenge the left-leaning orthodoxy.
In common with the left critique, I want to explore the diversity of perspectives to which students are exposed. Like the right critique, I want to take seriously the possibility that right-wing viewpoints may be sidelined. This is not intended as a challenge to the left critique – I’m merely suggesting that conservative views might be among those disadvantaged. However, whereas the right critique has tended to focus on the overt restriction of topics from discussion, I want to discuss more subtle forms of potential bias.
Academics are considerably more likely than the general public to be on the political left. As the chart below, produced by Chris Hanretty, shows, around half of higher education staff supported the Labour party between 2014 and 2016 and about as many supported the Green Party as the Conservatives:
As Linvill & Grant document, perceived liberal bias has led to significant hostility towards universities from the political right in the US and Australia. A 2004 opinion poll found that 51% of the US public thought academics improperly brought their left-wing politics into the classroom. Higher education does not seem to have been dragged into such a ferocious culture war in the UK, but here, too, some on the right have raised objections.
I am part of the dominant left-leaning majority. What’s more, I teach a course touching on a number of highly politically contentious issues, including trade unions, the welfare state and immigration. Naturally, I have been reflecting on how this might influence my teaching and whether I should make any changes.
Linvill & Grant distinguish two versions of the claim that university teachers’ political ideology influences their teaching. On the one hand, there is what they call the “benign form”: that teachers might argue more strongly for their beliefs, but present these as one alternative among many. On the other, they describe as the ‘libellous form’ the view that teachers unprofessionally use the power they hold to inculcate a certain worldview in their students.
However, this clean distinction between acceptable and unacceptable partisanship is rather simplistic. To me at least, it seems that there is a something of a spectrum from providing a perfectly neutral perspective on an issue (which is practically impossible) and presenting outright propaganda. There are various ways that we can depart from the pole of neutrality: by presenting fewer perspectives, by spending more time discussing certain perspectives, by discussing certain perspectives more enthusiastically, by being more encouraging to student responses that chime with a certain perspective. The more of these things that we do, and the greater extent to which we do them, the further away from neutrality we get.
I am sure that I departed from neutrality over the course of my teaching. There were times in class when I definitely struggled to ‘ventriloquise’ conservative views. For example, when a student asked my why some people are uncomfortable with ethnic diversity I had difficulty making plausible an intuition I did not share, for all that I have read about it.
Given the impossibility of perfect neutrality, the key question is where to draw the line – how neutral ought we to be? Kelly-Woessner & Woessner, using a US survey, provide some evidence on the effects of discernible partisanship. They find that students who believe their teacher to be of a similar political orientation to them report “more learning, higher levels of effort and greater interest in the subject”. This chimes with some of my personal concerns in teaching this year – the worry that conservative students might feel inhibited and disengaged from the course.
There is, of course, another way to read the Kelly-Woessner & Woessner findings: if students do better when taught by a perceived political ally, then neutrality might worsen the performance of left-leaning students. If these comprise the majority, overtly ideological teaching might even be the better course of action.
Another possibility is that this is altogether too calculating. It is worth considering the value of authenticity. Being open with students about teachers’ ideological commitments, and trusting them to distinguish their own views might strengthen teacher-student relationships. Indeed, Smith et al’s focus groups with US students found that many would prefer teachers to be more forthcoming about their political positions. Then again, Linvill & Grant suggest that students may use perceived ideological bias to reject criticism or feedback from teachers, so such openness may undermine teachers’ authority to some extent.
Ultimately, I do not think there is a clear straightforward answer to the question of how to address ideological bias as a teacher. A certain amount of bias is inevitable and perhaps even desirable (for authenticity’s sake). Full-on indoctrination is clearly unprofessional and most likely ineffective and counterproductive. But somewhere in between there exists an elusive, probably uncodifiable, perfect balance.