Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Letter from a college teacher to a freshman

Cross-posted by Gary Fouse

Being a political conservative who has been teaching on college campuses for almost 14 years, I have come to some reflections that I think should be shared with an incoming freshman (or woman) about to enter college. To me, the most important thing for an incoming college student is to obtain a quality education that prepares him/her to go out into the world and make a career and living. That also includes the ability to think about the issues of the day, form a belief system, and genuinely care about what is going on in our country and the world. Whether a young person becomes a liberal or conservative is beside the point. The important thing is to really think about issues and form one's own opinion based on considering all sides.

I was a college student during the 1960s and was exposed to a bit of opinions being propagated by professors in the classroom. I basically resented it-especially after I had served three years in the Army and obtained some real life experiences that enabled me to form some of my own views.

Today, as a teacher (English as a Second Language) at the University of California at Irvine, I have set my own rules for what I say in the classroom to my students, not because I fear retribution, rather because I consider it to be my personal professional code of conduct. First of all, my subject matter is the English language, and there is no real need to discuss hot topics in class-even in a speaking and listening class. Unfortunately, many of our textbooks have politically-correct texts in them-especially regarding the environment. In those cases, I tell the students that political opinions expressed in texts are just opinions, and they are free to agree or disagree. As for my opinions, my students have no idea what I think about various issues. If I am asked, I tell them that my opinions don't matter. What matters is their opinion. My only advice is to expose themselves to all sides of an argument and then decide what they think is right. What I am trying to say here is that I don't see it as my role to tell my students what to think about the world or counter the liberal bias that exists in so many college classrooms. I have expressed my views among my colleagues in the office as well as various campus forums outside of the classroom, which I feel is valid, but the classroom is off-limits as far as I am concerned.

So what do I say to a college freshman who is going to be exposed to a certain point of view in the classroom and on campus in general? Well, I would start by the old rule of critical thinking. First of all, what you read and what you hear spoken should be held up to one question: Is it fact or opinion? Is what you are reading designed to inform-or to persuade? There is an old saying; opinions are like noses-everybody has one (only we didn't say noses).

Another question the student must consider is whether they are being given both sides of an issue-and if not-why not? Are both sides being given fair consideration? If not, why not? After all, the very definition of a university is where all sides and arguments are presented-even if controversial. Just because it is considered controversial by some to criticize our country or our president doesn't mean it can't be just as controversial-on a college campus-to defend our country or our president. Ask yourself this question: Which is considered riskier on a college campus-to criticize George W Bush or to praise him? To condemn our actions in Iraq or defend them. To condemn Israel or defend her?

Students should also consider whether or not their university is really living up to its definition when certain points of view are considered unacceptable to express. For example, why should it be risky for a student to express support for the US including its policy in Iraq, the Bush Administration and Israel? Why is it that so few voices are heard expressing those sides of the whole Middle East issue? Why are people in college reluctant to oppose gay marriage or illegal immigration? Why is it that the entire debate is dominated by those who love to criticize our own country, our ex-president and the State of Israel? Why is it that those students and those faculty (and there are some faculty, believe it or not) choose to keep their opinions to themselves rather than risk ostracism, career damage and possibly even physical intimidation?

Also, why is it that leftists are so dominant on college campuses, and why is it that many of them insist on pushing their beliefs down the throats of their students? Why is it that some of them will berate a student in front of the class who dares to express a different opinion? Why is it that some of them will penalize a student's grade for expressing an opinion opposed to that of the professor?

That leads to the next question: Are opposing (conservative) points of view being suppressed in the classroom and on the campus by faculty/administrators? If so, why? Is it because the suppressed views are so inherently evil that they should not even receive a hearing? Or is it because it is feared that if the other points of view get a fair hearing in the free marketplace of ideas that they will prevail? I would submit that the side that suppresses is not the right side.

That leads to the next question a young student should consider: If one philosophy actively suppresses the other, which philosophy should be considered morally correct? For example, the next time you witness a protest rally, watch the level of respect one side shows for the other's right to express their point of view? Which side acts in a more obnoxious manner? Which side has to be restrained by police? Which side engages in violence? Which side's speakers express hatred for America? Now I realize there can be exceptions on both sides from incident to incident, but over time, I think you will see a pattern. Is it not legitimate if one side tends to act like thugs to conclude that their point of view may not be correct?

Of course, many young students know what is happening, but they say that there is campus peer pressure to conform to a certain point of view. They also reply that in a classroom, the professor is an authority figure who can easily win a debate with a student, make that student look foolish and even destroy the student's grade. Many professors are guilty of this, and it is hard to advise a student concerned about his or her grade how to handle it.

What is crucial here, however, is that the students have to recognize when they are being fed facts and when they are being fed opinions. They have to be able to separate education from indoctrination. They have to remain true to their own belief system, and if that is still evolving, they need to get all sides before deciding on their own which is right and which is wrong. Failure to do that will mean that they will graduate with a diploma and little else, for they will be little more than robots. And if that is the result, those students will be good for little more than becoming the next generation of college indoctrinators.


  1. Gary, your students are fortunate to have you - not to mention the university.

    You pose excellent and fair questions that would never be considered by the left, but might by a new college student.

  2. Thanks Maggie. I appreciate that though God only knows how much longer before they get rid of me.