Politics in the Classroom
I’ve followed a number of discussions on Facebook and elsewhere on the Internet about the desirability, or lack thereof, of professors discussing politics on the classroom. My impression, although I didn’t literally count, is that virtually every professor who is somewhat libertarian and who has discussed the issue thinks it’s a bad idea to do so.
My view is different. I think that, done right, discussing politics in the classroom is another way to extend the learning process that professors are trying to achieve.
I’ll say first how my view is similar to the views of those who think discussing politics is a bad idea. The examples they point to are typically examples of a professor lording it over the students and telling them what they should think about an issue and, often, even worse, telling them not to think about the issue but simply to agree with the professor’s bottom line. That’s horrible in so many ways and I trust that readers of EconLog don’t need to be persuaded of that.
Even worse, of course, is rewarding students for agreeing with the professor and giving extra credit for showing up at rallies and taking one side, the professor’s side, of course, of the issue.
But notice that that’s not really discussion. What I defend is discussion. When you have discussion, there’s a temptation to tell the students your own views. Most professors I talk to say that they resist that temptation. I used to, but I don’t any more.
When I started out teaching in 1975, my view was that one should come across as objective and leave the students guessing about what side of the issue I’m on. That’s, I think, how many assistant professors start out.
There’s one major problem with this: I don’t have a poker face. I find it very hard to discuss an issue that I’m passionate about—say, the minimum wage or rent controls or the draft—and not show my passion. So I did a poor job of hiding my views. Still, I tried for years to hold to the approach I had started with—don’t indicate my views.
Then, in about 1987, when I had been at the Naval Postgraduate School for about 3 years, I got Potomac fever. I persuaded my wife to consider moving back to D.C. and I interviewed for a couple of jobs in D.C. While all this was going on, I taught what I thought might be the last economics course I ever taught. So I decided to try what I always wanted to try—applying the tools more than otherwise to economic policy issues and, if asked, explicitly stating my views.
In the first class of my microeconomics course, after laying out the standard highlights of the syllabus and telling them, subtly, that this would not be an easy A or even an easy A-, I said something like the following:
Because this is a course in microeconomics, one of the ways I make it interesting and relevant is by applying the micro tools to policy issues. I have definite views on virtually all the policy issues I’m applying them to. In the past I tried to hide my views. I didn’t usually succeed. If after this class is over, you invite me to a poker game, I will say no because I will lose. I don’t have a poker face. So you’ll probably figure out my views anyway but might wonder why I tried to hide them. I’ve been wondering about that too. It would be weird for someone who has studied and/or taught economics for over 15 years not to have views on the issues he has studied. So let me state my overall philosophy upfront. I am a small “l” libertarian. I believe that people should have a huge amount of freedom in their lives. Now, you might wonder to yourself how I’ll treat you if, as is likely, you’re not a libertarian. Will I hold it against you if you don’t agree with me? No, I won’t. But how can I make that commitment credible to you? Only by what I actually do in grading and in feedback in class. But here’s one thing I can say to comfort you a little. Because I’m in a political minority, I’m used to being disagreed with almost all the time. So I can handle it. If I lashed out at people who disagreed with me, I would be lashing out all the time. I don’t.
That was the first really successful class I taught at NPS, in the sense that I taught the students a lot about how to apply economics to the world. And I was blown away by my ratings in the student opinion forms (SOFs) that I got to see after the grades were in. I got high ratings on most categories, which was not unusual. What was unusual was the written comments. Numerous students said that it was so refreshing to see a professor admit that he had views. They said that they felt that professors were not being straight with them when they acted as if they didn’t.
I had not expected that.
It turns out, of course, that I didn’t take a D.C. job. The one firm offer that came through was for a salary below what I was making in academia on a 12-month basis. There were also unexpected conditions attached. And, to top it off, it came in an early day in February when there was a huge snowstorm in D.C. and I had taken my daughter to the beach in Pacific Grove because the temperature had gone above 90 degrees. Someone was trying to tell me something.
From then on, I taught all my courses that way. And the students learned that they could disagree and that we could have good discussions of economic policy.
Fred E Foldvary
Oct 5 2018 at 2:35pm
In microeconomics, when the effect of price controls are taught, is it inherently political to point out the shortages and surpluses and the loss of social surplus?
Oct 5 2018 at 3:15pm
Good question. No, I don’t think it is. What made it seem “political” when I pointed those things out is the passion with which I did so. My tone was the opposite of Ben Stein’s in his Clear Eyes commercial or his Ferris Bueller segment. Implicit in my tone, with the content, was the message: this is bad.
Oct 5 2018 at 2:50pm
David, Great post. I used to occasionally tell students my own view on an issue, but also try to present the opposing view in a fair way, i.e. citing the Card and Krueger study on minimum wages, etc.
Oct 5 2018 at 3:17pm
Yes, after Card-Krueger came out, I altered how I taught the minimum wage but pointed out that there were some problems with their study. I also pointed out that the minimum wage increase they studied–in New Jersey–was relatively small and that proposals to increase the minimum wage a lot were virtually certain to put unskilled people out of work.
Oct 6 2018 at 3:31am
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with expressing one’s own views in class and, in some cases in the social sciences, it may be almost inevitable that one gives it away. I can see it being better to be upfront and direct about it, as it’s easier to be fair that way.
When I was an undergrad, in social science and humanities classes (generally not econ classes though), professors would surreptitiously infuse their politics into the class. They would take some unnecessary ‘snipe’ at someone or something (Walmart was a favorite target), or an ideology or policy position. It often took the form of, “aren’t people who hold X view dumb/ignorant/evil?” And the view or ideology was often one held by 50, 60, or 70% of the general population, yet it either didn’t occur to them or they didn’t care that, even in a prestigious university, they’re probably insulting someone in their class. I had one professor who actually asked something to the effect of, “does anyone here really doubt that basic premise of Marxism is correct?” As though it were self-evident, before a discussion.
This tendency to “poison the well” was frustratingly common among the (overwhelmingly left wing) professors I had. The professor is an authority figure who is responsible for your grade, so not many undergrads who might disagree will raise their hand and say, ‘yeah, I’m one of those malicious idiots you just mentioned, and I’d like to defend that position.’ Injecting politics into the classroom via (usually heavily biased) offhand interjections just throws cold water on the potential for open discussion and only helps turn the classroom into an echo chamber where only those who agree with the professor are comfortable discussing things.
In juxtaposition, I had one professor who taught a class on Marxism and was also very left wing, but, since he was also unusually respectful and also because the very purpose of the class was interrogation of the politically charged material, the class proved to be a great opportunity for open discussion of conflicting views. I think because the ‘politics’ of the class were so front and center, inviting challenge – as opposed to taking the form of an occasional gratuitous snipe at an opposing viewpoint – this class on a specific, very polarizing political ideology was actually more conducive to open and respectful debate than most of my putatively more apolitical classes.
Oct 6 2018 at 6:19pm
Very thoughtful comments. Thanks, Mark Z.
As probably won’t surprise you, I never took snipes, not only not at Wal-Mart, which I love, but even not at Ted Kennedy, whom I despised (except for his two huge contributions–on immigration in 1965 and on airline deregulation in 1978.)
The following wasn’t a classroom situation exactly, but I followed the same rules for the event I was speaking at. While an assistant professor at Santa Clara University in 1981, I was invited to speak to a bunch of businessmen. Reagan had just been inaugurated and there was a lot of enthusiasm for him. I was laying out some free-market policy view (I’ve forgotten on what) and one of the people in the audience said words to the effect, “Well, of course, that’s why we all voted for Reagan.” It was clear from the context that he meant everyone in the room had voted for Reagan. There were about 40 people in the room and so my view was that the odds of his statement being correct were under 10%. I’m good at reading audiences and I looked around and noticed a couple of people looking uncomfortable. So I looked at them and smiled slightly, and then looked back at him, saying “What you mean we, kemo sabe?” The two people I had been looking at beamed with wide smiles. What I was doing was keeping them in the conversation so that they wouldn’t feel alienated and left out.
Oct 9 2018 at 2:17pm
That’s a good (and, to me it would be at least, difficult) thing you did.
Of course, even if there were unanimity in the crowd, it may be useful (or fun?) to throw a wrench into the room’s consensus. In the off chance one find oneself in, say, a room full of libertarians, what’s to be gained from everyone agreeing with each other on free trade? I aspire to be the kind of person who would steer the discussion toward, say, monetary policy, or something else that may incite debate in such a group.
Oct 8 2018 at 12:49pm
It often took the form of, “aren’t people who hold X view dumb/ignorant/evil?” And the view or ideology was often one held by 50, 60, or 70% of the general population, yet it either didn’t occur to them or they didn’t care that, even in a prestigious university, they’re probably insulting someone in their class. I had one professor who actually asked something to the effect of, “does anyone here really doubt that basic premise of Marxism is correct?” As though it were self-evident, before a discussion.
I agree. This is one of the most infuriating thing about leftists in general, and it is not just a problem in university classrooms. It’s virtually universal in left-leaning social circles – whether it’s academia, or social media or private life. Right-wing people do it too, sometimes, but in those cases were mostly talking the intellectual bottom 30% – not academic elites. By contrast leftwing people up and down the ranks will simply make these declarative statements that their beliefs are self-evidently obvious and/or insult those who think differently, not caring who they offend. That may be because in the environments they live in, there often really is no social cost to doing so. Republicans are pretty much in the closet. That said, in environments dominated by Republicans they can be just as bad (try defending Black Lives Matter on a Republican dominated message board some time). It’s just infuriating in elite spaces because you expect elites to be better than that.
Oct 9 2018 at 2:01pm
I think it’s a natural tendency for a lot of people (not all of course) of all persuasions to try to impose a political consensus in any ‘space’ where they even merely expect to be a majority, and no amount of education or even intelligence inoculates one against it. I often find myself in small meetings with the occasional academic (in an utterly apolitical field) who insists on making random partisan political remarks at every opportunity. It’s very frustrating. People like to do chalk this kind of behavior up to virtue signalling, but I don’t think that’s even it. I think some people just get a sense of satisfaction out of it, and/or genuinely believe that ‘those people’ on the other side live really far away.
One of the most hauntingly incisive (and, morally speaking, loathsome) political scientists of the last century, Carl Schmitt (considered the most intellectually sophisticated defender of Nazism) argued that the essence of politics was the Friend-Enemy dichotomy. All policy questions are essentially subservient to the compulsion to divy people up into a grand, binary, adversarial narrative. I think this is sadly fairly accurate, though Schmitt embraced it (as do some Marxists who like to cite him approvingly; one of those wormholes in the political spectrum where far left and right converge) while I think it’s a dangerous instinct.
Fred in PA
Oct 6 2018 at 2:41pm
When I was teaching management (& marketing) to undergraduates, I faced similar issues. I decided, as you did to be honest about it. (And also reserved / discreet.) One thing I suspect helped preserved openness was the (truthful) message that I don’t like suck-ups: That — while I would try very hard to be objective in their grading — they were at greater risk from that than they were from disagreeing with me.
Oct 6 2018 at 6:21pm
I figured out a few decades ago that I was never quite able to figure out whether someone was a subtle suck-up or genuinely enthused. But what I did was tell them that if they made a bag argument for a correct bottom line, they would lose most of the credit.
Oct 8 2018 at 5:07pm
Good stuff. I taught Money and Banking at Loyola of Chicago. It was very difficult for me to be objective when comparing Keynesian Economics to the Chicago School! George Kaufman, then consulting with the Fed, suggested I teach IS/LM in spite of my intellectual aversion.
Oct 9 2018 at 10:27am
I taught American and World History in public high schools for 34 years until my retirement last June. I made a point of telling my students what my views were for two reasons:
They were far more conservative than those of most of my colleagues who had no problem sharing their leftist world view. I thought that my students needed to know that all of the intelligent people were not on the left.
I believe that one’s own world view cannot be kept out of the teaching of history – that it will creep in even if you try not to have it happen. Therefore, I want my students to know what my views are so that they can take that into account as they evaluate the information that I impart.
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