Monday, March 3, 2014

Should teachers of controversial issues disclose their opinions?

My colleagues Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy will publish a book later this year called The Political Classroom, containing a study of high school teachers who teach controversial issues.  Their presentation at a recent conference for philosophers made me think it might be a good idea to articulate my answer to one of the questions the book raises: whether teachers of controversial issues should disclose their views about the issues they teach about (their earlier discussion of disclosure is included in Hess’s book, Controversy in the Classroom). I’m articulating it not to try and persuade anyone, but to broaden the discussion – I’ve only ever discussed these issues with my students themselves, and with close colleagues.

I’ve taught Contemporary Moral Issues most semesters for the past 22 years. It, or something like it, is a standard offering in Philosophy departments. It is not the most prestigious course – applied ethics basically – but it brings in students for general education requirements, and for most students will be the only sustained encounter they get to have with rigorous and dispassionate thinking about the moral aspects of policy and personal decision-making. In my department it has the largest share of student credits, partly because our Business School, for reasons best known to themselves, designates it as ne of the three classes (all taught exclusively by my dept) that meets the ethics requirement for their majors. [1] Standard topics include abortion, the death penalty, vegetarianism, duties to distant strangers, euthanasia, cloning – you get the idea.   The course is typically taught in large lecture format – my classes are typically 160 or 80, but on many campuses 200-300 would be a normal size.

For some of the issues I teach, it is not that hard to find out my views, if you really want to, and are a minimally competent googler. But I take a pretty hard line on the disclosure question. I don’t disclose my views about the issues I teach. Here’s why.

First, all of the issues I teach are issues on which there are powerful arguments on more than one side. I do not see my job as presenting technical scholarly applied ethics so that they will become interested in the major, but in introducing them to a particular practice that requires certain intellectual resources that my discipline has developed: the practice of moral reason giving and taking. So it makes no sense to teach issues about which, though there is a public debate, the reasons are one-sided. This is why, for example, I do not teach same-sex marriage (I tried, it didn’t work) or gun rights and why, if I lived in the UK, I would not teach about the legitimacy of the monarchy.  I want students really to understand that there are reasons on both sides, and worry that disclosing would give them the impression that, contrary to fact, I regard the issues as settled. (I should add: it might make complete sense to teach such issues in a social studies high school class, especially if the focus is on getting the students to articulate and defend their own positions; the aims of such a class might be different from mine).

Second, I want the students to take seriously the injunction that I have no interest in them coming to share whatever view I have about the issue at hand. Now, I do want them to share my views about what makes an argument strong, and if we expose a contradiction I want them to see it, and understand that it undermines a position. I understand that it is entirely possible for someone to disclose while continuing to convey that they do not regard the issues as settled. It just seems easier if you don’t disclose. I know, furthermore, that many students come to the class believing that some liberal professor is going to tell them what to think about the issues (and only some people who believe this resent it!). I want to frustrate that expectation, and quickly. Non-disclosure, I believe, helps.

Third, even when the class is large, I want there to be a good deal of discussion. I don’t think that students can learn how to do anything much simply by watching me do it, however well I do it. They need to do it themselves. On some of the issues most students do not have strong prior convictions. But on some – abortion is the most obvious example – they do. Most of my students are pretty fervently pro-choice, some ae anti-abortion, and very few in either camp have reasons for believing what they do that would survive a 3 minute interrogation by me. When the student who holds a different view from mine about an issue endures that interrogation, and then sees their peer being subjected to the same thing, I want them not to have in mind that really I might be favoring them, or conversely, their peer. And if, as sometimes happens, very few students in the class hold one view, I have to build an environment in which they feel comfortable giving their reasons – speaking out. I do not think that most students are afraid of their professor’s disagreeing with them, but many are silenced by the fear that their peers disagree with them. The professor has to help them overcome that fear by backing them up, encouraging others to join them. I believe it is easier for them to experience my backing as support if they do not know what I believe (and know that I regard what I believe as irrelevant to the process), than if they know, quite clearly, that I disagree with them and am only playing devil’s advocate.

During one of the early discussions when Hess and McAvoy were starting work on the book, another colleague – someone who is a political conservative (not in my department) and whose practice I know to be very much like mine -- took me to task for generalizing that the practice we both use is the best or even the only right approach to take. He pointed to examples of truly great teachers who not only disclose, but openly and vigorously advocate for their own view on moral and political questions. His specific example was the legendary Marxist historian Harvey Goldberg, who inspired hundreds if not thousands of left wing students in his large lectures on American and on European history, giving a thoroughly Marxists interpretation.

So lets talk about advocacy, as opposed to disclosure, for a moment. Truly great teachers are poor models. I am not, and never will be, a truly great teacher, and what I am interested in is what counts as good practice for the vast majority of college teachers who are at best good teachers. Nor am I sure that even Goldberg could have pulled off the pedagogical goals I have in CMI using my subject matter. I’m pretty sure he couldn’t have pulled them off if he had engaged in the kind of vocal advocacy he engaged in. Its easy to see how being with a Marxist interpretation of history could help turn a student who disagreed into a careful thinker about history, but much harder for me to see how being presented with strong advocacy of a pro-choice view about abortion would help most anti-abortion students weigh the moral reasons (let alone the pro-choice student who, at a school like mine, would most likely have their tendency to complacency reinforced). Finally: even if someone can pull everything off while advocating forcefully, I am suspicious of anyone who thinks that they are that person. Given the absence of high-quality metrics of our performance as teachers, we should all assume a certain level of humility, and believing oneself to be successful at all seems hubristic, let alone believing oneself to be successful while engaging in a practice that there are so many reasons to suspect will only work for exceptional people.

Back to disclosure. In smaller classes, teaching philosophy majors, or students I have come to know well, I disclose more. Most students in my senior level political philosophy classes have a rough idea where I am coming from. And I do not know, for sure, how effective I am as a non-discloser in the contemporary moral issues course (or the freshman seminar I teach about the family, in which I have the same policy). [2] In this, as in other respects, I have sparse evidence about the effectiveness of my teaching. So: Should a teacher of controversial issues withhold their views about the issues?

(Xposted at CT)

[1] Note: I am not complaining about this, I and my department benefit from it enormously, and I even think it is good for students, its just that, in general, being good for students is not the main criterion for decisions abut requirements.

[2] I do have some small bits of data. Examples here are of students whom I’ve taught in one or more classes, and have stayed in touch, so who know me pretty well:

1.    Walking together on election day. S: “I’m off to vote. Are you going?” HB: “I can’t, I’m not a citizen”. S: “Oh you should be so you can vote”. HB: “You should only want me to do that if you think I’ll vote the same way you will. Do you know what my politics are?”. S: “Well…. You’ve never said anything that gives me a clue, but I think you are liberal” HB (disappointed): “why do you think that?”. S: “Well…. The only evidence I have is that I like you, and I think that I wouldn’t like you if you weren’t liberal”.
2.    At a dinner at my house days after the 2010 election (ie, students who know me well enough to have dinner at my house), the issue comes up. HB: S just told me she doesn’t know what my political views are. Do you?”; R: “Kinda conservative I think”; P: “definitely not socialist”; Q: “middle of the road”; T:”I disagree with P, I think you are socialist”. V: “I know you support trade unions. Kinda conservative” (not kidding).
3.    Conversation right around the 2012 election, about who the students will vote for: S has established that she doesn’t feel she knows enough to vote responsibly, and doesn’t know who to vote for. S: “Who would you vote for if you could?”; HB: “who do you think?”; S: “I don’t know, I keep trying to work it out. I know you earn a lot of money and I know rich people vote Republican, so that makes me think you would vote that way. But I know you’re a professor, and most professors here are liberal”. (After the election I told her whom I’d have voted for, and it turned out that she had, after our conversation, educated herself better so she could vote responsibly).


  1. Both disclosure and advocacy are issues I struggle with as a teacher. I tend to avoid both of these, in part for the reasons you give. However, at times I will disclose, and explain why I hold the view I do. My introductory ethics course is usually about 35 students, so perhaps in this environment the problems with disclosure are mitigated. When I do disclose my view, I also explain that these are controversial issues, and intelligent people, including people more intelligent than I am, disagree on them. In upper division courses, I usually do disclose my view. When people in society discuss controversial moral issues, they will disclose and advocate, and I think an upper division course is a good place to model and practice these skills.

    I posted on these topics here, in case anyone is interested:

  2. I'll second Mike's recommendation to look back at the 2007 discussion. The comment I made there still reflects my own views: disclosing and advocating need to be distinguished, and I think the former is relatively unproblematic, the latter more so. A couple of points to add to Harry's post:

    1. I think one advantage of disclosing/advocating is that it can make philosophical issues personal in a good way. I find that I can sometimes provoke students and engage their interest if I articulate my own views very directly.
    2. On occasion, I tell students that my job includes evoking disagreement with me while also providing them the tools to rationally confront and scrutinize those disagreements. I can't be sure to what extent I succeed in this, but as a model of philosophy pedagogy, it's awfully attractive.


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!