I am not conservative by any stretch of the imagination. Every fall break I have gone to campaign for liberal causes, and as an underclassman I was on the board of the Columbia University Democrats. But the more time I spend in class the more sympathy I have for conservatives, not necessarily for their beliefs, but for the position they have in public discourse at Columbia. My perspective may be skewed since I am a Middle Eastern studies major, but in my classes it is taken for granted that the set of liberal positions is a list of objective truths. I don’t think it is funny when professors crack jokes about the IQs of Republicans. It makes it more difficult to have genuine political discussions at best, and it perpetuates the stereotype of the Ivy League as a circle-jerk of liberalism at worst.
In Leo Schwartz’s last column, he talks about how once we leave Columbia we will leave the domain of constant self-congratulation and enter a world that is skeptical of our institution. It is not that professors collect empirical evidence to support liberal claims that makes the world sneer at places like Columbia. It is the self-righteous attitude, the certainty of conviction that comes from an institution whose purpose is to foster doubt and balanced discourse and critical thinking. I find myself writing papers in which I haven’t even had time to consider whether I agree with my thesis, because all of the reading is on one side of the political spectrum. In fact, in many cases, I am not really sure what the spectrum of opinion on a topic is, because I have only been exposed to a single part of it. I understand that universities are places where professors can espouse their beliefs. I recognize that tenure is meant to protect professors’ ability to maintain opinion. But it should not be the case that students feel uncomfortable voicing dissent because of the tone a professor has set.
In one of my classes, the token conservative occasionally responds to the professor’s matter-of-fact claims by rehashing basic tenets of conservative ideology. Everyone in the class rolls his or her eyes, but I have come to appreciate it because it is nice to at least be aware that there are differing opinions. Opinions really aren’t of much value without at least the pretense of deviation from them. In my classes almost nobody makes conservative comments, which leads me to wonder whether Columbia actually has no conservatives or whether they don’t feel comfortable enough discussing their opinions in public. I don’t know which is more disturbing. I think we should respect whatever diversity of opinion we have on campus instead of making jokes about how President Bush couldn’t pronounce “nuclear” properly.
I don’t mind listening to lectures about the military industrial complex or the destruction that capitalism has caused. I do mind realizing in the first lecture that my professor has an agenda so apparent that it stifles the ability of the student to make judgments or suppresses his or her comfort when it comes to bringing up issues.
That being said, I have had some professors whose lectures manage to communicate opinion without condescension. I have had classes with respectful discussions where everyone felt comfortable sharing opinions, so long as they were supported by evidence—it is possible. I am not saying professors cannot have opinions. I am not saying that an objective truth within a field is unimaginable, but I do think it is the responsibility of academics to foster a tone that is conducive to learning and—just as important—to debate.
Jake Goldwasser is a Columbia College senior majoring in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies. Thinking Twice runs alternate Thursdays.
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