Less Liberal in the Liberal Arts

Conservative columnist Ann Coulter once dismissed me as “a novelist no one has heard of and also teaches creative writing at CUNY.” The former aspect of the ad hominem attack worked on me because, yeah, well, you know, she was right (Doh!); the latter part, poor phrasing aside, probably played much better with her far-right audience since nothing screams elitism (and irrelevance as a result) like college professor, from the Northeast no less. While this anti-academic stance is in large part a result of the decided lack of intellect on the far right, we in higher education should be careful not to give merit to such denunciation. The idea is not to appease the likes of Ann Coulter; it’s to take the higher road that higher education requires. In order to do that, we should check our liberalism at the classroom door.   

College instructors often engage their students in matters beyond the course focus and their own academic expertise. The logic being that educators on the highest level are generally informed people with the authority to speak on matters beyond their official authority. Classrooms are also often spaces where conversations about the world at large take place; current events can be threaded into practical lessons. We are tasked, especially in certain disciplines such as the Liberal Arts, with helping young minds make sense of the real world so they can transition from adolescence into informed citizens of a democracy.

Too often, though, we must admit, professors use classrooms as platforms to express personal feelings about matters dear to their compassionate hearts and personal worldview. The podium becomes a soapbox to voice subjective opinion about politics and social justice and various cultural matters. This is understandable, especially in such a fraught political environment, but we as educators should remain objective in the classroom to allow our students to process the information at hand and form their own opinions without undue influence from an authority figure. We want to foster critical thinkers, those who consider all sides of a matter in a logical and thorough manner to form their own reasonable conclusions that are consistently challenged.  

We don’t have to hide our personal beliefs; those beliefs should not be at the forefront of our discussions. It’s not about us; it’s about empowering students to think, but too often we let our passions and personal convictions lead the conversation and, as a result, undermine learning outcomes and the mission of higher education.

Obviously, the 800-pound gorilla in every classroom is Donald Trump. And while the limited time available for non-specific subject instruction would leave little ability to even brush the surface of this amorphous phenomenon, there’s also other - suddenly more quiet - matters worthy of discussion, like the complicated issues of white privilege or Southern history or racial profiling or immigration or modern feminism or American exceptionalism (my topic that set off Ann Coulter) or what Kanye did this time.   

Whichever issue comes up, we can help our students make sense of them and these complicated times and allow their participation as citizens to be informed by their balanced education, not inspired by the personal passions of their professors and the grievances we may want to voice in the classroom (as tempting as it might be).

I often imagine that there’s a student in my class whose father watches Fox News. I wouldn’t want that student to feel like her father or her father’s beliefs are under attack; I wouldn’t want that student to think that I think her father is immoral or unintelligent or an asshole; and I most certainly would not want that father to think his child is being influenced (possibly at their expense) by some liberal elitist pushing a political agenda. I’d want that father to think his child is being educated, not indoctrinated.

I’ll save my personal opinions for parties with my elitist friends and opinion pages.

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