The Pedagogy Paradox for Conservative Professors

Conservative philosophy professor Daniel Bonevac (University of Texas at Austin) has decided no longer to teach his popular ethics class with a thirty-year pedigree, Contemporary Moral Problems. The reason, he explained to The College Fix, is that “it’s not possible to teach the course the way I used to teach it.” Why? Because “students clam up as soon as conversation veers close to anything controversial and one side might be viewed as politically incorrect. The open exchange of ideas that used to make courses such as Contemporary Moral Problems exciting doesn’t happen.” This has been evident during my teaching as well. “Clam up” is a good way to describe it.

In his interview with Tucker Carlson, Bonevac also mentioned examples of bullying tactics recently taken up against him:

One student—who apparently hadn’t even taken Bonevac’s course—stood up to use the remaining minutes of the last day of class to denounce the course as one-sided. This surprised Bonevac (and his students), who “tries to do things in a very politically balanced way.” That is my teaching philosophy as well. I despise proselytism by professors in the classroom, and so aspire to teach in as unbiased a manner as possible by presenting both sides of a debate as convincingly as I can.

I always believed this should be every teacher’s goal. Disclosing to students, even subtly, what you believe about controversial topics can have a profound influence on them, and for that reason ought to be done, if at all, with fear and trepidation. For as obsessed as leftist academics are with power dynamics in relationships, it’s ironic to see how eagerly they take full advantage of their positions as teachers to indoctrinate their students. Perhaps it is for this reason that Carlson quipped, in response to Bonevac’s expressed aim to teach in a balanced way, “that’s always how you know the professor is conservative.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this. In discussing pedagogy with a fellow conservative philosophy professor a few weeks ago, he told me that he too tries to teach in a balanced way, and for that very reason often gets pegged as conservative by his students. There is something of a pedagogical paradox here for conservative professors: if we ought to conceal our own beliefs by (inter alia) teaching in a balanced way, but that very pedagogy reveals our beliefs, what ought we do? It would be nice if leftist professors did us the favor of not being classroom activists. And I’m sure they’d love it if we held our breath until then. But we won’t. So what is a conservative professor to do?

Federal Philosopher

Federal Philosopher is a philosophy graduate student in New Jersey. She was awakened from her political slumbers after reading biographies of Margaret Thatcher. She loves philosophy, but thinks the profession has been hijacked by a bunch of leftist bullies who are little more than partisan journalists that happen to know philosophical jargon. She carries a recurve bow and quiver full of arrows at all times, so as not to trigger leftists by saying she packs a .380 in her purse.

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14 Comments

  1. Even more important than being balanced in teaching (and let’s face it, it’s hard to be balanced when you think that one side has worse arguments) is being open to hearing arguments from the side you disagree with–plus encouraging disagreement. Sometimes I’ll be quite frank in class and say, look, here are the arguments and this is how I see things, but by all means come at me. Let’s air it all out. For one, it makes for a more enjoyable class. To be able to do that, though, a teacher has to reach a point where he (or she) is either extremely confident that he is right or doesn’t care whether he’s wrong because he’s more invested in following the argument wherever it leads than holding onto a cherished view.

    • @AR-15 – your problem is clearly intellectual honesty, an artifact your leftist liberal peers long ago dispensed with.

      Forsooth, sir!

  2. “…he too tries to teach in a balanced way, and for that very reason often gets pegged as conservative by his students.”

    This is all too common. Everyone – both students and professors – is assumed to be progressive or left-leaning, and any dissenter is seen as regrettably abnormal.

    Here is my view: everyone should figure out which of their beliefs on the relevant matter are most critical to their position, and then those beliefs, and the arguments supporting them, should be aggressively attacked. Once new beliefs are formed on the basis of this process, the process is repeated. Students should have gone through a number of different belief stages by the end of the semester.

    The goal should always be to move as quickly as possible to the most sophisticated and persuasive lines of argument in the literature and to never feel really ‘settled.’ You should start to feel like your relevant beliefs are being updated on a day to day basis (even if that is a flawed view of what is actually happening cognitively). Robust intellectual humility is the goal, even if it needs to be metaphorically ‘beaten’ into you.

    One should eventually grow a bit of a distaste for preaching to the choir.

  3. The Left learned decades ago that the easiest way to prevail in a dispute is to make sure the other side’s arguments are ruled inadmissible. That is done by insisting all opposing points of view and those who hold them are by definition ignorant and/or hateful. Doubt man-made climate change, or the cosmogenic myth called “Evolution?” You are “anti-science,” and it would be both foolish and immoral to allow you to be heard. You believe a government’s inability or unwillingness to control illegal immigration does not bode well for that country’s future? You are obviously a xenophobe, and anyone who allows you to speak is assisting in your genocidal agenda. Believe marriage is sacred, and between one man and one woman? You are a deplorable homophobe, and anyone who platforms you occupies the same moral lowground as the KKK. Etc. & etc. Small wonder academics who are not “down with the Revolution” are loathe to discuss controversies in the classroom or anywhere else. The Left’s self-appointed Speech/Thought Police are everywhere, and they brook no dissent.

  4. I strongly sympathize with Prof. Bonevac. HIs lectures are on youtube and they are fantastic.

    All that being said, lets dig deeper. Inadvertently, liberal education (as a whole) does transmit the message that in ethics there is no truth to be had. So why do we blame students from not wanting to go through the tedium of argumentation, but rather go straight for their party line?

    This is a deeper problem that predates student close mindedness.

    It can be avoided somewhat by treating the subject as theoretical and not practical “what have people said about X?” “what will courts say about Y”. The culture is tired of framing things like “what would you do in X”.

    • law lecturer,

      “Inadvertently, liberal education (as a whole) does transmit the message that in ethics there is no truth to be had.”

      This is true. I found in some places where I once taught that the very set-up for an introduction to ethics class lends itself to fostering ethical relativism or nihilism particularly in a state school where the only philosophical course the student will take is the intro to ethics course. You present Mill, Kant, Virtue Ethics, a little of this a little of that…and even if you put forward your best case that morality is objective, the nature of the course cuts against the grain of objectivity, at least with most of the students who are not deep thinkers. There’s very little common ground. I doubt Aristotle would’ve bothered trying to teach such a class.

    • It’s not just ethics classes, although I can see why the specter of relativism would loom more prominently in ethics classes. In my experience, disagreement in general is sufficient for the lazy mind to endorse relativism.

    • Oh well. I moonlight in ethics and I can only complain about virtue ethics having been normalized and therefore gutted (one more flavor of ice cream. This one focusing on character). Part of the problem is the idea that there is no moral method that cuts closer to the bone than just getting a lot of intuitions and making them “coherent” whatever that means.

      I wonder whether the problem is lazyness. Ethics teachers are earnest to a fault. This days I might take MacIntyre’s line and say that our culture does not have the resources to stay off relativism / nihilism. This might not be a problem fit for an individual solution. Some strands of Marx are very insightful on all this.

      I second doubts about Aristotle. I teach law not ethics. And I always say that the latter is not my job. If your parents could not do it there is nothing I can do.

    • In a philosophy class a took as an undergrad student about 15 years ago, I remember the professor asking the class something like “do you think morality is objective or subjective”. I was the only student who didn’t say “subjective”. He asked why I thought so and I said “because anyone can justify anything”. I swear the other students were baffled. To them morality was no different than ones preference for food. This was 15 years ago. I can only imagine what students think today. I vaguely remember Dennis Prager talking about how students today don’t even comprehend the question. Asking what my professor asked sounds like “what is the temperature of a triangle” to them.

    • “Asking what my professor asked sounds like “what is the temperature of a triangle” to them.”

      This is true until you start talking about human rights and social justice, then moral realism becomes immune to argument – or even reflection. A while later some of the smarter ones will have a bout of cognitive dissonance, short-lived though it may be.

    • “‘Asking what my professor asked sounds like “what is the temperature of a triangle” to them.’

      This is true until you start talking about human rights and social justice, then moral realism becomes immune to argument – or even reflection.”

      Absolutely true. As bizarre as it may seem, weather torturing babies for fun is objectively wrong is a much less compelling an example than whether racism is objectively wrong. This makes me wonder whether students really understand the meaning of “objectively wrong.” I’ve come to think that Urban II’s fears might be right: students today have a real hard time even understanding the objective/subjective distinction, whether in the moral domain or not.

  5. no paradox here. Keep teaching in a balanced way. If they peg who as a conservative, so what? That doesn’t mean you have to spew out all your beliefs on any given topic. Just keep it even. And in my experience, it is nice when Professors divulge a little on their personal feelings or understanding (this obviously needs to be done sparingly). It makes a prof seem more honest and committed to the course if you know he or she has grappled with the ideas in a personal way. And a student can always look up a profs’ publications and see what their views are if they really want to anyway.

    • “And in my experience, it is nice when Professors divulge a little on their personal feelings or understanding (this obviously needs to be done sparingly). It makes a prof seem more honest and committed to the course if you know he or she has grappled with the ideas in a personal way”

      Yes, this is certainly true, and I do try to pepper my lectures with personal anecdotes when I can. Students always perk up when I do that. But I suppose it takes wisdom and discernment to know when to do that, and how much of one’s own views to disclose is best. I err on the side of caution.

  6. ‘So what is a conservative professor to do?”

    Teach in a balanced way??? Balance is best served (never achieved in today’s climate) by relentlessly presenting critique’s of the usual liberal arguments in moral and political philosophy and exposing students to the best conservative arguments on the issues. They will very likely not get such perspective in their other classes. You are morally and pedagogically obligated to show your bias. They will get the liberal perspective in 95% of their other classes.

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