A couple of points regarding ideologies, of which I hope there can be no disagreement: first, the deeper your commitment to your opinion, the harder it is for you to recognize that opinions exist. The opinions you hold are facts; your opponents’ are dangerous emotional bias. Second, your ideology is always the underrepresented one, and your enemies’ control the world. We all like to fancy our perspectives as marginalized. That’s why there are still problems, after all — because we aren’t in charge.
These points come to mind whenever students, or certain professors, complain about ideological biases at universities. For every person who rages that academia is infected by radical leftists with Marxist or feminist agendas who don’t understand the ‘real world,’ someone else rants that academics are all too old, privileged, and male to be in touch with the ‘real world’ outside of their ivory tower. The implication is not merely that our enemies are everywhere, but that they’re in power, and using that power for no good.
Rather than debating which way the supposed bias faces, we could ask instead: is it even a problem? Should academics not be opinionated?
My first-year political science professor told the class that if his teaching worked, we shouldn’t be able to determine his politics. This is a noble aim, but it’s not infallible.
For example, let’s imagine a professor who believes in laissez-faire economics. They think the invisible hand of the market is the warmest hand to hold and have read every rebuttal to Marx ever written. Yet they wish to teach their students both perspectives equally and select literature they consider representative of each side.
Here, already, is a problem: if they have given more years to studying free-market literature than Marxist literature, they will have a far greater selection of anti-Marxist material to draw from. They know the foundational texts of the ideology they oppose, but how much do they know beyond that?
Even if they sincerely seek to give both equal attention, the odds are against them before the lecture even begins. It does little harm to students for them to disclose their beliefs. In fact, there are more insidious issues if they claim impartiality, but their lessons quietly favour particular viewpoints.
Of course, revealing one’s own opinion is not the same as being biased, but we tend to call opinions “bias” when they contradict our own. If someone in a position of authority espouses a point with which we agree, we may not recognize it as a subjective opinion at all, but simply a fact.
If a professor announced, “capitalism is broken,” “the Illuminati controls our government,” “crime is worsened by inequality,” “the illuminati should control our government but they don’t,” or “the Illuminati broke capitalism,” this would register to some students as a troubling intrusion of personal politics, and to others as clearly observable truths which need no explanation.
While it seems straightforward to tell professors to keep personal opinions out of lectures, it’s not so simple for them to do so. The deeper your research, the more likely you are to encounter topics on which there is debate, even amongst authorities.
We want our lecturers to be passionate and exceptionally knowledgeable about their subjects. It’s difficult to imagine someone dedicating their life to learning about something, and emerging with no strong opinions.
If their subject interacts in any way with human society — which subjects tend to do — some of those opinions are going to be political. So, let’s hear them. If anyone’s going to lecture us about politics, why not the people to whom we already pay large amounts of money to for their knowledge?
Good teaching forces us to confront our own biases. If we already knew everything we wanted to know about the world, we wouldn’t come to university. Learning from a professor who regularly says things you disagree with will ultimately be a greater learning opportunity than learning from one who confirms everything you already believe. Some of my most fulfilling moments at U of T have come after a professor said something that I opposed entirely, and I had to turn the statement over in my head for a long time. Even if I ended up holding firm to that initial opposition, I came to have a stronger grasp of my own opinion and why I stand by it. Working in a university requires you to know a thing or two, unlike working in government — which requires you to be an illuminatus.
Your professor might not successfully convert you to communism, but you won’t have many opportunities in life to have a reasoned debate with a well-informed opponent whose job it is to encourage you to share your thoughts — cherish them whilst you have them. We’re in school to be challenged; no one expects you to follow blindly. And if you feel like your professor is trying to indoctrinate you, they must not be doing a very good job of it.
Jacob Harron is a fourth-year English student at Victoria College. He is an Associate Senior Copy Editor.