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Stealth advocacy in the classroom

October 13, 2012

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.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. Ben Hoyt permalink
    October 13, 2012 3:48 PM

    All the caterwauling about left-wing indoctrination is prevalent here in the UK as well, an editorial in the school paper bemoaned how professors routinely force students to write essays “comparing but not contrasting” fascism to David Cameron’s Conservative party. I’ve always been curious why it is that conservative students, and well pundits, take such offense to teachers having political positions.

    I guess part of the problem is that the student is forced to be in a class, and can’t escape the neo-Stalinist refrain. I’ve never heard anyone garner any public outrage by proving just how right wing his or her employer is. I would suggest that a “worker’s bill of rights” in the style of Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights” would be seen as about as reasonable as a plan to abolish winter.

    I understand the university is a public institution. Since it is publicly funded (at least for the time being) and otherwise paid for by students through tuition, those who pay the piper should get to call the tune, or at least be assured it isn’t a song they find vile. However, part of the point of the university, following what a former professor of mine once wrote, is to teach us to be citizens. In any given society, loads of authority figures and institutions are going to be repugnant to you, and knowing why you disagree with them, by assessing their argument rationally seems a good deal more valuable than assuming they can be shamed into self-censorship.

  2. Wesley Hussey permalink
    October 13, 2012 4:14 PM

    Yay! I’m mentioned as “a friend”. As I discussed with Mark in our earlier email exchange, I believe in strict scrutiny when it comes to faculty even discussing an issue that directly concerns them, i.e. Prop 30. True, everything concerns everyone, but when you are talking about a Prop that will back-fill $250 million in proposed cuts to the CSU, it’s difficult for me to believe that faculty will act as impartial moderators. And that becomes even more difficult if a faculty member’s primary field of expertise is outside of political science, where presumably they deal with this problem on a more routine basis than other fields. But even political science faculty should probably shy away from talk of Prop 30 unless they have really thought through how they plan to incorporate discussion fairly and impartially into their classroom.

  3. October 13, 2012 5:09 PM

    I’m worried about the dichotomy you draw between expert disagreement and political controversy. Perhaps it is strictly true that “expert claims do not by themselves justify any particular political position,” but putting it that way masks complicated ways in which political positions influence expert claims and expert claims adjudicate between political positions. Latour’s use of the term “imbroglio” is apt for pointing out the complicated relations between these things.

    Independent of that, I wonder if there aren’t special grounds according to which faculty ought to be able to advocate for Prop 30. Perhaps a condition on the possibility educating is a certain set of commitments to the values of education on the part of the faculty and the students — without that commitment, genuine learning is impossible. And suppose further that the proposed cuts pose a mortal danger to those values. Then it seems to me that advocating for Prop 30 in the classroom would not be beyond the pale. And this wouldn’t limit the discussion to classes like political science; it would be appropriate in any classroom.

    • October 13, 2012 7:35 PM

      Thanks for the comment, but just because I distinguish between expert disagreement and political controversy does not mean I draw a dichotomy between them. You must have just put fresh batteries in your dichotomy detector.

  4. Bob Friedman permalink
    October 13, 2012 7:20 PM

    The term “stealth advocacy” seems broad and undefined. Clearly, there is a big difference between telling students that they ought to vote for Barack Obama than educating students on the differences between the two candidates.

    However, in educating the students about the differences, one is likely to select some differences as opposed to others and this can be a form of advocacy. I certainly would not want to get into an extended conversation about how one identifies the important differences from the unimportant ones as this discussion barely gets one beyond first principles and would provide no educational value to the students, in my opinion.

    In my introductory class to government, I tell students that the election is one that involves your future and is not about the candidates, which I guess Mark would term “stealth advocacy.”. I do not think that I have once discussed the issue of who is ahead and who is behind in the polls, horserace politics, though I have discussed the problems with political polls. I know that my priority is an issue of values and other professors might choose to discuss horserace politics. However, I cannot see what would be gained by a discussion of what is important to be discussed. First, I cannot see how this would educate the students. Secondly, even though professors may disagree on their emphases about the essential content of class discussion, I cannot see how such a discussion would be of interest to most of my students.

    In general, every class probably has a bias. If one is teaching a class on behavioral economics, one probably wishes the students to understand the theories and their applications as opposed to discussions of whether or not behavioral economics is a relevant way of understanding how the economy works. And, anyway, what could most undergraduate students of economics possibly contribute to this discussion?

    • October 13, 2012 9:51 PM

      Thanks. In case it’s not clear: an example of stealth advocacy on Prop. 30 would be an instructor who only presents information emphasized by proponents, excludes information emphasized by opponents, and then claims that he or she is just stating the facts. Other than that, I guess we disagree on what students need to know. It depends a lot on the topic, but in general I don’t think we do students any favors by pretending that our syllabi have fallen from the sky. Faculty don’t necessarily need to invite students to shape the syllabus, but students should know the limits of whatever approach or perspective they’ve signed up for.

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