In Friday’s editorial we defended faculty political advocacy outside the classroom. Professors, as members of the University community, should be allowed to engage freely in social and political activism in their free time outside of teaching. In today’s follow-up editorial, we will look at the other side of the equation: the impact of faculty members’ social and political involvement inside the classroom. A recent Washington Post op-ed by Hoover fellow Peter Berkowitz alleges that quality of education at top universities has diminished as a result of curricula that prioritize activism over learning, citing a research report on the UC system by the National Association of Scholars.
Although there are flaws in the logic of Berkowitz and the NAS – for example, they seemingly ignore the fact that today’s students spend far less time studying when searching for the cause of declining quality of education – the report and editorial raise important questions about whether the content of an academic course should be explicitly infused with the faculty member’s, or anyone’s, social and political views. Should college courses become training grounds for activism and social engagement? Though this Editorial Board acknowledges the importance of some Stanford courses directed at this goal, we worry that an overemphasis on creating agents of social change will endanger courses that deal with relatively esoteric subjects or focus on content mastery.
One example of the move to transform some Stanford courses into sites of social and political activism is the letter to the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES) committee by the ASSU Community Action Board (CAB). In addition to advocating increased faculty diversity, which the Editorial Board supports, the CAB hopes that the curriculum can be more reflective of concerns over power structures, identity engagement, and political access. The report reads, “We believe that it is imperative that Stanford establish a curriculum that not only ‘engages difference’ and ‘appreciates cultural difference,’ but one that internalizes questions of access, power, and identity.”
What would it mean for the Stanford curriculum to internalize these social questions? Would Aristotle be excluded because his view that women are by nature inferior to men reinforces patriarchal structures of power? Will a class on Nietzsche be viewed as suspect because some used his philosophy in support of Nazism? These questions are hyperbolic, but the rhetoric surrounding socially engaged education makes them relevant. Though the views of CAB are not necessarily representative of those of the student body, the letter to the SUES committee presents a potentially alarming view of liberal education in which a course’s ability to engage questions of identity, access, and power is used to justify its place in the curriculum. A view of the value of liberal arts education in which courses should become training grounds for social activism threatens to marginalize thinkers who fail to engage in socially relevant questions or who present less tolerant views on women, minorities, and privilege.
This Editorial Board values courses that may have nothing to do with social issues, that feature thinkers who may not offer politically correct views, and that may be irrelevant to good citizenship. Although we believe faculty members should still be allowed to teach classes that promote social engagement, if approved by their department, these classes should occupy a minority rather than majority of the liberal arts curriculum. Indeed, there remain many sites for social activism outside of the classroom, while there are fewer opportunities to deeply engage in more theoretical subjects beyond the classroom walls. Just as we should trust the ability of Stanford students to formulate their own political viewpoints that stand apart from the viewpoints of their professors, we should trust their ability to act as socially engaged citizens without necessarily taking classes that promote a social agenda.
A student taking classes in Greek metaphysics and German literature is not necessarily less socially engaged or a worse citizen than a student taking courses in education equity and food sustainability. Although we disagree with Berkowitz and the NAS conclusion that politicized classrooms result from left-leaning political affiliations, we agree that an over-emphasis on courses geared toward social engagement can diminish the quality of a liberal education. The closing of the Stanford mind occurs not when faculty members engage in social activism outside the classroom, but when a focus on courses as training grounds for social activism marginalizes or crowds out courses that have no such aim.