Not sexist! Not racist! Don’t tell Lot’s Wife!
Back in the 1980s, it was left-wing students who used to complain about lecturers expressing inappropriate political views. Due to an attack on him in the Monash student newspaper Lot’s Wife, my criminal law lecturer, the late Kumar Amarasekara, had to preface his often hilarious jokes with the above disclaimer.
As the SMH reported this morning, now it is the turn of Liberal students to complain about political bias. According to their ‘Education. Not Indoctrination.’ campaign they want (getting in on the fashionable language) ‘inclusive’ universities that ‘foster intellectual diversity’. Incidents of bias could include:
* a verbal opinion offered by a teacher or lecturer that is overtly political or ideological
* a method of teaching that is hostile to opposing views
* the use or presentation of one-sided course materials or textbooks
* the promotion of a particular political ideology by university authorities
When I was a tutor, I used to try to keep my own political views from the students. That’s pretty hard to do in the Google era, but if you are teaching knowledge that is the subject of reasonable dispute I think professionalism demands that students be made aware that such disputes exist, and made to feel confident that they will be assessed on their ability to collect evidence and make an argument, even if it arrives at conclusions with which the assessor does not agree. That was my experience as an undergraduate, and I hope that was the experience of the undergraduates I later taught.
If the Liberal campaign reveals instances of the middle two problems that will be a good thing. Such departures from professional standards should be highlighted. But I’m not sure that a lecturer simply expressing an opinion is necessarily a problem in a class which has an open academic ethos. This is especially the case with later year classes, once students have worked out that, unlike school, success does not come from simply learning a set curriculum.
And as ‘university authorities’ don’t micromanage what lecturers say in the classroom, I am not sure that whatever views university administrators may express or promote are relevant to intellectual diversity on campus.
And the SMH article again highlights the tendency, revealed in their VSU stance, of some Liberal students to support freedom except when they don’t like the results:
“At this stage we’re encouraging universities to act of their own volition. Obviously if they don’t we will consider our position,” [ALSF President Tim] Andrews says. “Students for Academic Freedom has been pushing to get universities to institute polices which explicitly protect students from bias and to actually monitor universities. [emphasis added]
As with VSU, I encourage the liberal responses of voice (complaints, criticism) or exit (take your business elsewhere). But even if every anecdote about academic bias I have ever heard is true, it does not remotely constitute a case for further government intervention in Australian universities.