Thursday, September 18, 2008

Tolerance and Intellectual Diversity

As teachers in the philosophy classroom, we raise controversial issues and encourage discussions of those issues. Many outside of academia are suspicious of those of us who teach at colleges and universities in the United States because they think we are using our influence or platform as professors in unethical ways to push some political agenda.

But is this suspicion warranted? From my own experiences as a student, usually not. I do recall a couple of professors from my undergraduate days who used the classroom as a soapbox. However, most were generally fair and tolerant enough of those who disagreed with them. Last month, an article at discussed this issue in the context of the charges of David Horowitz and others, who seem to want affirmative action for intellectual perspectives. However, according to the study cited by the article, students believe that other students are more of a problem than professors. Less than half of those surveyed said that they believed other students were tolerant of the political views of all students. By contrast,
Asked about what professors do in the classroom, only 13 percent of students said that they believed professors had presented their own political views in an inappropriate way. A larger percentage — 23 percent — said they had felt that they had to agree with a professor to get a good grade — although the majority of those students felt this had only happened once in their time in college. Even with these findings, there is evidence that suggests classroom expression isn’t necessarily squelched. For example, of those who believed that professors had inappropriately presented their views, 62 percent said that they felt free to argue with the professor. And of those who said they had felt they needed to agree with a professor to get a good grade, only 42 percent said it was because of something the professor said.

Ideally, if we can foster tolerance by modeling it in the classroom, perhaps over time it will become more prevalent in many of our students both during and after college. My question, then is this: What have you done or seen done in the classroom that seemed effective at fostering tolerance in the classroom?


  1. An excellent topic, Mike. My approach to this has been to try to win students over to the idea that, despite the controversy or disagreement that might surround philosophical issues, the aim of our classroom enterprise to learn nevertheless. I then pose the question of what attitudes and practices are needed in order to learn in such a context. For example, in my introductory ethics classes, I have an exercise I do where students enumerate the features that discussions of ethical issues often have in our culture and ask whether these features actually allow participants in these discussions to learn anything. (This is Socratic only in the law school sense that I guide them toward a negative response.) I then ask them to brainstorm the characteristics that discussions of ethical issues should have if their objective is that the participants would learn from one another. The contrasts are usually pretty stark. The word 'tolerance' doesn't usually end up on the list of these characteristics, but many tolerant behaviors do: listening and not just hearing, a willingness to acknowledge fallibility, distancing a person from their position, etc.

    I've found that this tends to create explicit buy-in from the students and, therefore, a tolerant atmosphere. Most students will desire to learn (or if they don't, they have a second-order desire to desire to learn), so it seems effective to illustrate how tolerance is important to learning in this particular pedagogical setting. It's certainly more effective than telling students they have to be tolerant or foisting tolerance-promoting rules of classroom discussion, etc., on them. Of course, this isn't modeling tolerance in the way I think you had in mind so much motivating and operationalizing it.

    I can't resist a small comment on the Horowitz-type proposals for intellectual diversity-based affirmative action: Wouldn't this actually backfire in terms of promoting tolerant attitudes among students? Suppose that such a proposal were actually put in place. Students might well be able to figure out which faculty are intellectual diversity hires. I think there are two likely effects of this: First, some students would flock to the courses of those faculty whose beliefs echo theirs, hardly a 'tolerant' result. Second, many students would simply conclude that this practice shows that genuine tolerance is impossible. Faculty diversity, on the Horowitz view, is necessary to remedy the perceived intolerance of faculty. The faculty who benefit from this form of affirmative action are there to counter one bias with another. But if I'm a student, my likely reaction is that if genuine tolerance takes a backseat to factionalization even among educated people, then tolerance is impossible.

  2. I agree with Michael that this is an excellent topic. What I do is include this statement in my syllabus:

    "You will not be graded on whether or not you agree with my position. You will only be graded on how well you demonstrate an understanding of the issues being discussed, and how well you argue for the points that you are trying to defend."

    I utilize the Socratic Method in my teaching so that often I am putting a line of reasoning out there that may be seen as 'one-sided,' but my intention is to get students comfortable with becoming critical of what is being stated. Often I will use comments made in the media by leaders from business and politics and ask if anyone agrees with them and then ask them to explain what the statements mean. For example, McCain recently claimed that human rights start at conception. I then ask a student who agrees with this statement to explain what a right is, or what 'conception' means and then we discuss the answer, or how do we resolve conflicts between rights. We then discuss the answers.

    As I do teach mainly ethics, I always let students know what my position is as I think they have a right to know, but I make it clear that I will not think ill of them if they challenge my position. I am trying to get them to see how the ideas of the philosophers being discussed relate to their own thoughts on the subject and to critically evaluate their own beliefs. My motive is to get them to feel comfortable with ‘questioning authority' which I think is one the great practical benefits of the Socratic Method. The vast majority of students who state that they disagreed with me in their course reviews think that I was fair. (But, the do warn people to be prepared!)

  3. In my lower level classes--critical thinking and ethics--I often use examples related to environmental issues or women's issues which definitely have some political content. If there were universal agreement on them, they wouldn't serve the purpose of modeling discussion.

    But I've found that the students whose political views differ from mine or lie outside the mainstream often appreciate the opportunity to express and defend their views. For instance, I had one student who believed that climate change was not accelerated by human actions, and he happily took every opportunity to explain to the class why he believed that.

    The strongest resistance to thinking about "politics" in the classroom comes from the apathetic. They don't know anything about climate change, and they don't want to be told that they should have a view.

  4. While statements such as, "I don't grade you on your viewpoint, but on how well you argue for it" are probably good ideals, I wonder whether we can assert them as actual facts about our grading/evaluation processes. Like the statements that a person "hasn't a sexist (or racist, or classist) bone in their body", the claim that our grading is based solely and entirely on demonstrated understanding and argumentative goodness seems to me to overlook well-established evidence about the presence and effects of various kinds of bias and implicit assumptions.
    I sometimes think that in the interest of fuller disclosure, I should "admit" to my students that I'm susceptible to many of the same cognitive biases that they are, while adding that my training and experience have made it easier for me to be aware of such biases and to try overcoming them (I'm assuming that that last part's true, but I don't know whether it's true). Or is that going too far in the direction of honesty, causing more problems than it solves?

  5. I admire your courage and self-awareness, Vance, but to your question:
    "Or is that going too far in the direction of honesty, causing more problems than it solves?"
    the answer has to be yes.

  6. I agree with Vance that much of the perceived bias in academia creeps in subtle and implicit ways. I recall from my college experience several instances of bias. At the time, I thought the professor was a caricature of the leftist academic foisting his views on his students (and there was some truth to this). But now after much more experience and reflection, I think much of the bias that showed up in grading and otherwise was implicit and unintentional. Arguments for positions that he thought were wrong had a much tougher road to a positive evaluation, while arguments for positions that he thought were correct were not subject to as much criticism.

    In my own teaching, I watch out for this subtle bias, making sure I don't let something slip by merely because I happen to be in agreement with the content of the argument. Sometimes I think I even overcompensate! Often, however, those making arguments for positions to which I am personal committed are doing so only because they know or suspect that and hope it will make things easier for them. So, it's usually a good lesson for them.


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