It’s no secret that Middlebury is a politically liberal institution. From the students to the faculty and even to the staff, an overwhelming majority of people here consider themselves progressive, liberal, leftist — or even a budding Socialist. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing — countless students involve themselves in social justice initiatives on campus, combining their studies and political beliefs to enact real change. But when this left-leaning outlook dominates the classroom, we blur the lines between an academic and a political institution.
When we come into class with our own personal biases towards an idea, we eliminate the possibility for true academic inquiry, one that fairly considers all possibilities first, then comes to a conclusion based on a rational discussion of the issues. For example, outside of the classroom, many of us — myself in included — may be opposed to free trade. But when we walk into the classroom, sporting our fair trade coffee and locally grown apple, indignant to evils of corporate America, we eliminate the possibility for an honest discussion of international commerce. People joke about how Middlebury is a bubble, but why not embrace it? For four years, we have the opportunity to set aside our politics and prejudices, shelter ourselves from the politically charged nature of public debate in the “real world” and discuss the facts as we see them.
The same goes for our professors. Some attempt to move the discussion in a particular direction by subtly favoring one side of an issue over another, often times by assigning reading that explores just one side of the debate. Even if his or her personal research directly contradicts that of another scholar, that professor has a duty to his or her students to provide a wide range of opinions. If the opposing viewpoint is so unsubstantiated, then why not give students the opportunity to critique it at face value? Returning to the free trade example, why not let the WTO defend itself, in its own words?
When we jump to what we think are the answers — and ultimately we may be right — we take out the most important step in education: analysis. After our finals in May, most of us will forget the content from our classes. What we won’t forget, though, is the process we took get to our conclusions, a process that is bypassed when readings, discussions and reflections do not include a variety of points of view.
Though we should try to keep ideology out of our classes, in the end we must recognize that being entirely apolitical is impossible. Instead, we can attempt the opposite; we can be “omnipartisan.” We can read WTO publications as we read critiques of free trade. We can follow Professor Dry’s example and read the Anti-Federalist Papers side by side with the Federalist Papers. And we can even consider the arguments of climate change critics as we build the — hopefully winning — Solar Decathlon house. But what we shouldn’t do is allow ourselves, or our professors, to limit our point of view, especially when the topic is as personal as gay marriage or as political as international development.
The possibilities extend to how we treat other students, as well. We can encourage people with points of view alien to our own (read: conservative) to speak up in class more often. We can treat them and their ideas with respect, instead of automatically assuming that they believe in big business because they hate poor people.
In my International Law class last week, a lone conservative soul spoke up in class, noting that maybe, just maybe, the Bush administration was right in redefining the legitimate use of force because international terrorism is a threat never before seen. While not everyone agreed, this comment greatly enlivened the discussion, leading us to question whether new circumstances required new rules.
So let’s not jump to the back of the book and peek at the answers, eliminating the critical thinking that is at the very essence of a liberal arts education. Let’s shed our prejudices and actually consider alternative points of view, not merely disregard them as inherently flawed and unworthy of a fair analysis. If the political right is so wrong, it won’t need us targeting it; it will fall on its own as we give it a fair trial — and a fair defense.