By JOHN D. BARBOUR
I have taught many conservative students over the past quarter-century. Most of them have been either thoughtful participants in classroom discussions or else silent, withdrawn observers. The institution where I teach, like most colleges, has in recent years witnessed a small group of conservative students complain about the so-called liberal bias of academe. They think the preponderance of liberal professors in higher education makes it difficult for them to argue for more-conservative positions. The political and social stance of those students is often related to conservative religious views.
As a teacher of religious studies, I mentally dismissed those students' complaints as right-wing anti-intellectualism and fundamentalism. A few years ago, though, I encountered a student whom I shall call Rick, who aggressively asserted his conservative views in class. Recently I engaged in some soul-searching about whether I had graded him fairly. But if I was unfair, the result was the opposite of what conservative students would object to.n related to conservative religious views.
As a teacher of religious studies, I mentally dismissed those students' complaints as right-wing anti-intellectualism and fundamentalism. A few years ago, though, I encountered a student whom I shall call Rick, who aggressively asserted his conservative views in class. Recently I engaged in some soul-searching about whether I had graded him fairly. But if I was unfair, the result was the opposite of what conservative students would object to....
He expressed his views in class in ways that provoked other students. He sometimes referred to gays and lesbians, members of racial minorities, or poor people as if they were outside the church, and intimated that it was "our" decision whether or not to let "them" in. In what I thought was a respectful way, other students challenged Rick's opinions. I pointed out that he probably thought more like most Christians in the United States than did those of us who considered ourselves liberal or progressive.
I was surprised when Rick told me that he felt attacked. We had had a guest speaker who expressed sympathy for a clergyman struggling between his vocation and a homosexual relationship forbidden by his church, and Rick said he had felt both "personally assaulted" by the talk and unsafe because he had been surrounded by people with radically different views. He also told me he had encountered hostility on our campus and had been treated in insulting ways.
I tried to help him see that Christians can conscientiously and politely disagree with each other on certain ethical issues. "You can't be protected from other points of view," I told him. "That's what a liberal education is all about. You, as well as the students with whom you disagree, are learning to consider other ideas and to think more deeply about your own convictions."
Rick listened respectfully, but he was still obviously agitated.
Throughout the course, I struggled with the question of how to grade Rick. ...
At the root of the situation may have been not Rick's particular political and religious beliefs, but his character and psychology. He needed to be embroiled in controversy and to feel that he was standing up for the truth against an oppressive liberal orthodoxy. Ironically he seemed to enjoy playing the victim, even as he criticized those in our society who claim some kind of special consideration because they are victims of prejudice.
I've taught conservative students who were better than Rick at engaging in dialogue, and who considered other points of view in a more reflective, disinterested way. But maybe my particular slant on what makes a good student reflects a liberal bias, too: I like the more genial, thoughtful, and considerate approach of most of my students better than Rick's aggressive, confrontational style. Perhaps my approach to liberal education reflects liberal political values. ...
I wonder whether I am representative of a larger pattern, in which liberal professors bend over backward to be sure that they are being fair to conservative students. In my course, the issue was theological understandings of homosexuality and poverty; in other academic disciplines, deep convictions might clash on other topics. In trying to be fair to points of view with which we disagree, do we override our better judgment?
I would like to think that Rick deserved his final grade because of the role he played as a catalyst for the class. His outspoken opinions forced the rest of us to think more deeply about what we were studying and our own values. If so, I was right to fudge my grading standards, in effect awarding him a little extra credit for enriching the learning of others.
When I tried out that interpretation on my colleague, however, he dismissed it: "I think Rick bamboozled you, and he may not even know he did it. Rick has a shtick, and it works with people like you. He wasn't a catalyst for thought, but a provocateur. He doesn't really engage with the ideas of his peers. You are trying to be charitable to him, but once again you are bending over backward to make sure that he isn't penalized by the difference of opinions."
Prevailing views at UW, and in the Madison community, are preponderantly left-of-center, compared to most of the country (and particularly off the coasts). In campus meetings, conservative students have said they feel chilled about expressing "non-PC" views on controversial topics. This can be a problem for classroom dynamics in discussion-oriented courses (which most of mine are). Thus, I recognize the issues confronted by Prof. Barbour, and I have also encountered students like "Rick".
I'm not sure there is a "right answer" to the questions presented by this essay (it is worth reading in its entirety), but it's good to see the issue presented in its full specificity.