Free speech in the classroom

The Right Campus

The following is an adapted version of a speech Eagle columnist and Students for Academic Freedom president Josh Kraushaar gave to AU's Ann Ferren annual education conference in January. The speech was given at a panel discussion titled: "Free Speech in the Classroom."

In my mind, the controversy surrounding the teaching of controversial issues is overblown. In fact, I think the phrase "controversial" is somewhat of a misnomer. If a subject is taught well and responsibly, it's not controversial. It may be heavily debated. Many students feel very passionate about certain hot-button subjects: abortion, the war in Iraq, the Middle East, to name a few. But these subjects are not inherently controversial and can be discussed intelligently. However, too often professors can unintentionally promote an environment where harsh rhetoric prevails over logical, factual argument.

What can happen in a classroom environment is what I call "sports talk radio syndrome." For those who have listened to a sports radio station, especially if you're from New York or Boston, callers say anything they feel like saying. Vinny from the Bronx will want to fire the coach, Steve from Manhattan will call last night's Knicks game a disgrace. Anything goes, and there's no standard for debate. The same applies for news-talk radio. Those who hate President Bush call him an idiot, callers to Rush Limbaugh and similar conservative shows likewise parody liberals, like Hillary Rodham Clinton. It's a means of venting. Whatever a caller feels like saying is broadcasted over the airwaves.

This type of discussion is fairly common in the classroom. Whenever a professor asks what students think about an issue, you'll see many students say whatever they feel - facts be damned. Usually it's pretty harmless. For example, offering an interpretation of a literary novel that isn't supported by the text isn't going to cause much of a stir. But when dealing with a provocative issue, students stating opinions without having any supporting evidence provides ample opportunity for students who disagree to be alienated and unproductive discourse to prevail. It is a professor's responsibility to always play devil's advocate and to challenge students to think and offer well-reasoned comments. If necessary, the professor should play devil's advocate in a discussion with students. Let me include two examples: one good, one bad, offering real-life examples based on my experiences as a student at AU.

Several years ago, I registered for a history class on the modern Middle East, and immediately expected to drop out of it. From my limited experience, I have found many classes dealing with the topic to have been excessively politicized, and I doubted the professor would be able to navigate through the treacherous terrain. I was thankfully proven wrong.

The professor was refreshingly fair, assigning texts from all sides and always challenging students to back up their points of view, no matter if they were pro-Israel or pro-Arab. I knew that if someone said something outrageous, something that might pique my attention, that the professor would always challenge him. I recall one class when a student referred to Israel as a racist state. The professor immediately forced her to back up the unfounded assertion. The same applied for pro-Israeli students who offered unsubstantiated comments. There weren't any cheap shots in the class. Everyone had to provide factual evidence with their comments. This professor made what could have been an extremely contentious, politically-charged class into a welcome, challenging atmosphere where facts won over fiction. It was one of the best, most informative classes that I have taken at AU. And it was so good because the professor challenged all of us to defend our viewpoints.

The opposite situation happened in a course focusing on American foreign policy which I took the semester of 9-11. The professor had some preconceived notions toward the subject. But more consequentially, the class felt more like a therapy session during discussion than a learning experience. For me, it was bad therapy. Students said whatever they felt - sometimes they felt that the U.S. was indirectly responsible for 9-11. I wanted to learn facts, but instead it was a slew of hostile opinions - all from the same point of view. When I spoke up, offering a contrary view, I was shouted down. The professor, instead of acting as an informed moderator, thought all opinions - no matter their factual content - were valid. Whatever anyone felt was satisfactory. Since I was outnumbered and I didn't shout as loud as some of my classmates, it was hard to learn and get a fair shake. I withdrew from the class soon thereafter.

The big difference between the two classes was that one professor expected no less than well thought-out, well-defended comments from students. When you're dealing with provocative issues, professors need to challenge students and debate issues based on fact and merit, and not based on feeling and passion.

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