When I tell members of my family that I’m taking a class on the Arab-Israeli conflict this semester, the first question they usually ask is, “Is your professor Jewish?” This conversation occurred with my mom and aunt the day before I left for school this fall. I didn’t know anything about my professor at the time, but in spite of the fears of my predominantly Jewish family that a non-Jewish professor would skew the facts of the issue, I hoped that he would turn out to be of Arab descent.
While professors’ ethnic, cultural and political backgrounds are relevant to classes that are political in nature, these backgrounds shouldn’t be a source of alarm. Of course, it’s impossible to be completely unbiased, but a professor should be able to be fairly objective. A professor’s role is to inform students about the various arguments that surround political issues and discuss the possible merits and nuances of those arguments. It’s never a professor’s job to take a political stance on a particular issue. But there is a lingering fear among students and families that professors may support the wrong political party or faction. These fears are insulting to the purpose of the University and should be discarded.
Part of a professor’s job is to be as objective as possible. Even for a dispute as bitter as the Arab-Israeli conflict, it’s possible for a professor to convey the material without casting judgment on the groups involved. On the first day of my class, the professor gave thorough overviews of the main Arab arguments and Israeli arguments. The goal of the class isn’t to determine which side is right or wrong, but rather to understand why members of each group made the decisions they did at various points in history. The professor often explains decisions in terms of political strategy and takes into account the influence of external factors.
To illustrate my point, I’ll summarize the way in which the professor framed early Jewish immigration to Palestine. Zionism, the movement to establish a Jewish homeland, arose in response to Jewish persecution in Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century. After World War I, Great Britain and the United States, neither of which wanted its own massive inflow of Jewish immigrants, supported Jewish immigration into Palestine. Palestinians, who feared they would become a minority in their own land, were openly hostile to this idea. Obviously, there are many more complicated details to be discussed. But the goal of the discussion is to understand how the conflict arose, without ascribing the sense that one side is right and the other is wrong.
So what happens if a professor is extremely biased? Believe it or not, I think students are capable of determining when this happens. In other words, there’s no reason to fear that biased professors are brainwashing clueless students. There was a history teacher at my high school that was notorious for his liberal slant on American history. His students — most of whom considered themselves liberals — complained about it all the time. Our ability to identify the biases of sources and our teachers is one of the most important skills that we develop in our education, both in high school and college.
While I used the Arab-Israeli conflict as an example in this article, the students’ fear of biased professors applies to many political topics. For example, when giving examples of political concepts, political science professors often feel obligated to mention Democrats and Republicans with the same frequency, simply to prove to students that they are not slanting toward one side. And in sociology classes, I have heard students’ remark that the discipline is inherently Marxist, even though that is a ridiculous conclusion to draw about an entire group of professors. Sociologists may teach about Marx, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily promoting his views. It’s easy for students to make these generalizations, but in reality, most professors manage to keep their personal opinions to themselves.
Students should realize that professors aren’t usually trying to jam a political agenda down our throats. Bias may be inevitable, but the notion that a professor’s political background will automatically hinder his or her teaching ability needs to go.
Jeremy Levy is an LSA sophomore.