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At University of Pennsylvania, professors don’t try to teach — they try to convince

ANALYSIS: Dissent dies under professors’ monopoly on intellectual authority

“My work isn’t done, sometimes for a decade, until they have that moment.”

So said University of Pennsylvania sociology Professor Camille Charles to a room full of students and faculty last week. She went on to describe “that moment” for one of her former students.

He had called her “in tears” to tell her he finally got it. Having witnessed discrimination in his favor at his local DMV, he finally understood that she had been right, and he had been wrong.

“I don’t shut down debate,” said Charles, “but I say [to students], ‘If you want to make a claim [against mine], back it up with evidence.’”

As a student here, I can say that many University of Pennsylvania professors seem to endorse the same kind of logic: being open to honest debate is as far as they need to go.

At the same time, they feel no need to teach both sides of an argument. This policy puts the onus on intrepid students to add intellectual diversity to the classroom, while students unfamiliar with an intellectual debate – political or otherwise – won’t know what they’re missing.

Charles had offered her comments as one of nine panelists at Penn Law School’s Campaign for Community forum last Wednesday. Founded in September in response to nation-wide unrest on campuses following the events in Ferguson, the campaign’s mission is “to strengthen our Penn community by finding ways to discuss and understand key issues that may appear to be difficult or intractable.”

The other panelists, a mix of students and faculty at the school, each began their remarks by telling a personal story of discrimination, marginalization, or offense they had experienced due to their race or ethnicity.

These stories, and the reactions to them, included calls for “open conversation,” “free speech” and “frank conversation.” Penn has traditionally avoided curtailing free speech, and has not signaled that their policy is likely to change. But what they defend is a different kind of politicization – the kind that Charles’s student witnessed first hand.

Charles’s comments included a defense of affirmative action – an issue it seems her students may have challenged her on before. Decrying – rightly – that she and some of her minority colleagues battle assumptions about their abilities because of affirmative action, she claimed that there had never been a documented case of reverse discrimination. (There is currently a lawsuit underway against Harvard for reverse discrimination against students of Asian heritage.)

She’s not the only professor who would prefer to teach half the story, as confirmed by my personal experience.

Last year, I observed a political science professor tell a large, full lecture hall that there were two schools of political thought: the modernists, who favored more government, less democratic accountability, and less federalism; and the conservatives, who favored less government, more democratic accountability, and more federalism. While he insisted that both arguments had merits, he was frank with the class: he would only teach the modernists, because he was more familiar with them and he thought they were more likely to be right.

Later, he remarked outside of class to a small group of students that, for the vast majority of his 30 years teaching this class, he did teach both sides. It was only a few years ago that he made his personal opinions known in the classroom, because students wanted to know. Dissatisfied with competing arguments, the students wanted a definitive answer, and they looked to the authority to grant it.

Perhaps they should have considered chemistry over political science.

In my economics class the previous semester, a professor made a passing remark about Paul Ryan – not a kind one – and immediately pardoned herself, reminding her students that she was only giving her personal opinion, not economic theory. Students unfamiliar with national economic policy, however, have no way of appraising her statements. If she speaks from authority about consumer theory, why would she not about fiscal policy?

The rhetoric of those on the panel suggested that one-sided teaching may be a way to maintain integrity without sacrificing a political agenda, and the students on the panel seemed amenable.

Charles advocated “safe but open conversation,” while law student and panelist Samantha Miller advocated “classroom environments where all students feel welcomed, safe, and affirmed.” Panelist Kwadwo Agyapong, a student with the Penn NAACP, went a step further, remarking “as a student, I want my professors to be a source of support when I’m feeling down… They should be a human being, not just a professor teaching you three hours a week.”

Most of the panel agreed professors and students need “remediation” in the form of online exercises to eradicate microaggressions. Before their first semester, students are already required to complete such exercises on subjects like drugs and alcohol. They teach students how much alcohol is in a beer compared to a class of wine or a shot, among other things. Although it was never specified, it seems this new race exercise could teach how many microaggressions are in a regular aggression.

Open conversation used to mean beating bad arguments with good ones, honing the best ideas through debate and competition. Now it means starving dissent with a monopoly on intellectual authority.

This is the next wave of campus political correctness. Professors like Charles are open to debate and evidence, but by her own words, their goal is not to teach, but to convince: “My work isn’t done, sometimes for a decade, until they have that moment.”

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Benjamin Parker -- University of Pennsylvania

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