Embracing politics in the classroom

PULL QUOTE: “The goal is not to avoid political controversy but to understand its context”

Several semesters ago, I was reviewing my teaching evaluations and encountered a curious combination of comments. One student wrote I “was too hard on the liberal students and favored the conservative ones.” A second observed that I “clearly was biased in favor of liberal viewpoints.” To top it off, a third wrote, “The GSI was obviously biased.”

Right.

This set of evaluations demonstrates some challenges that most instructors at the University face. What do we do about political bias in the classroom? What, precisely, is that bias to begin with? And more broadly, under what circumstances is it okay to bring politics into the classroom?

Bias is in the eyes of the beholder. Remember, the goal of any instructor is to help students grapple with uncomfortable new ideas. In mathematics, students can be uncomfortable when learning new concepts. But algebraic equations rarely court charges of political bias. In the social sciences, however, we expose undergraduates to some questions that lead students to push back. If you come from a stereotypical family of hippies, you may have distaste for basic neo-liberal economics; if you come from proverbial suburban America, you might find it distressing to confront the state of racial inequality.

One way to remove problems of political bias in the classroom is to eliminate consideration of controversial issues altogether. But that is in itself a political decision. I teach political science. If I don’t introduce politics into the classroom, I fail to live up to my job title.

Despite that trite statement, much of what I teach isn’t controversial. Last term, for example, I taught Introduction to Comparative Politics. Some countries like Britain use single-member districts, in which voters elect a single local legislator to represent their respective small geographical districts. Other countries like the Netherlands use proportional representation. Under this system, the country is one big legislative district, citizens vote for their preferred party and parties are allocated seats in the legislature based on the percentage of the vote they win. Some, like Germany, use a combination of the two.
Boring, right?

Well, even these mundane facts have serious and controversial implications. Systems with proportional representation often have more political parties represented in government. That’s why the German Green Party often has a role in policymaking that American Green Party members can scarcely imagine. Also, it’s often easier for women and other underrepresented minority groups to win parliamentary seats in proportional representation systems. Both of those outcomes have large — and controversial — influences on policymaking.

When we start debating which system is best, it can open up the door to charges of bias. Often, controversy is closer to the surface. Take the class discussion about the 14th Amendment in my section of Introduction to American Politics last week, for example. The text declares that U.S. states must provide their residents with equal protection under the law. A majority of the Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the state of Florida violated this clause in its election recount procedures and effectively handed the election to George Bush. Other important applications of the 14th Amendment have to do with affirmative action, the right to a lawyer and freedom of religion.

I try to separate “positive” and “normative” analysis to defuse tension. Very loosely speaking, positive analysis tries to determine what policies lead to what outcomes (e.g., British-style electoral systems lead to two-party systems). Normative analysis then debates the desirability of the means and outcomes (are two-party systems desirable?) In the classroom, my goal is for students to understand the positive processes behind a given outcome and then begin to consider the normative implications.

It’s okay to be a bit uncomfortable with those implications, but instead of attributing that discomfort to a conspiracy, at least attempt to engage these different conceptions of how the world works. As instructors, we’re generally not asking you to embrace certain worldviews, but we want you to develop more sophisticated ones of your own by helping you confront and understand competing ideas. That’s something to reflect on the next time you’re certain your instructor is “obviously” biased.

Patrick O’Mahen can be reached at pomahen@umich.edu.