Stealth advocacy in the classroom
Commentators have been accusing California faculty of breaking state law and indoctrinating students by advocating for Prop. 30 in their classrooms. It seems that most charges of indoctrination and law breaking are either false or exaggerated, and it’s important for faculty and administrators to avoid overreacting by stifling legitimate classroom discussion. Anticipatory self-censorship isn’t pretty.
Depending on the course topic, trying to keep political discussion out of the classroom may also reinforce a real threat to university education, which is what political scientist Roger Pielke calls “stealth issue advocacy“: pretending to stick to one’s area of expertise while implicitly advocating a political position.
A friend pointed me to a recent example in a Los Angeles Times report on a Cal State Fresno professor who gave the following assignment to a class on California state and local politics:
Argue for virtues of Proposition 30 by referring to relevant parts of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s political philosophy (Note: You will not earn any credit at all just by saying what Prop 30 is all about. Your goal is to demonstrate that you can use J.J. Rousseau’s ideas and concepts to explain the rationale for Prop. 30.)
With an apparently boundless confidence in the virtues of dialog, the professor tried to defend the assignment on a conservative talk radio show. He barely got a word in, and the hosts kept yelling at him, but the professor managed to explain that his class actually discussed arguments for and against Prop. 30, and that his goal was for students to apply philosophical concepts to a current political issue.
One of the hosts objected: “Their writing this essay exam could influence their thinking on voting yes, something that Cal State Fresno would directly benefit from, so it’s a clear conflict of interest, and it’s a violation of the law.”
The professor said, “They are all adults. Having been able to articulate virtues, I’m sure they’ll be able to argue for cons, that is, opposition to [Prop. 30].”
On the question of influencing students, I agree with the professor. It’s silly to think that an essay assignment is going to change how students vote. It’s also probably misleading to view this assignment out of context, and it doesn’t sound like the professor meant to address the issue in a biased way.
But taken by itself, this assignment looks like stealth advocacy: it asks students to articulate one side of a political debate in the guise of a neutral academic exercise.
Stealth advocacy is rampant in everyday politics, and it probably happens a lot in the classroom as well, often without the stealth advocates even knowing they’re doing it.
According to the AAUP report on “Freedom in the Classroom,”
It is not indoctrination when, as a result of their research and study, instructors assert to their students that in their view particular propositions are true, even if these propositions are controversial within a discipline. It is not indoctrination for an economist to say to his students that in his view the creation of markets is the most effective means for promoting growth in underdeveloped nations, or for a biologist to assert her belief that evolution occurs through punctuated equilibriums rather than through continuous processes.
It’s true that these instructors aren’t indoctrinating their students, but it also looks like the economist may be doing some stealthy advocacy work. The biologist speaks to a dispute that is largely confined to evolutionary biologists, but the economist addresses a topic that is controversial in both the discipline of economics and everyday politics. The topic involves both expert disagreement and political controversy.
Faculty can avoid stealth advocacy on such topics in at least two ways:
1) Avoid the stealth: openly advocate a political position and, when in the classroom, do everything possible to ensure that other positions receive equal treatment; a classroom that includes advocates from all sides of an issue is often more “fair and impartial,” and probably more educational, than one that doesn’t include any.
2) Avoid the advocacy: present as much of the expert knowledge on the topic as possible, including claims typically emphasized by each side of the dispute, highlight uncertainties and disagreements within the field, and make clear that expert claims do not by themselves justify any particular political position.
Students aren’t sheep, and stealth advocacy isn’t going to indoctrinate them. But it undermines faculty credibility and public trust.