"History has a liberal bias," one of my undergraduate professors informed us on the third day of class. His comments were in response to a student who asked why all his professors seemed to be left-leaning. I thought about that statement a lot throughout graduate school, as I met professors and students who, with very few exceptions, embraced liberal or left-wing politics in one capacity or another. Most historians, myself included, hold a commitment to social justice that informs our scholarship, alters our interpretations, and influences our teaching.
But taking graduate classes and teaching undergraduates are two very different things. When I started my teaching career, I often wondered about the appropriate level of political discussion, and I noticed that professors seemed to fall into two camps. Let's call the first camp the neutrals. These professors have deeply held opinions about politics that tend to overlap with their study of history. But they make it a point to never reveal their personal viewpoints to students, preferring instead to play devil's advocate from a variety of perspectives. For example, I had a friend who was incredibly active in local Democratic politics who proudly proclaimed, "My students aren't sure if I'm a Republican or a Democrat." Other professors (let's call them the activists) don't believe in that kind of separation between the personal and the professional. They assume that in a marketplace of ideas, students are capable of interacting with different political viewpoints, even if the person expressing those views is responsible for grading their papers. I don't have a strong preference for either of these approaches, and I think they are each appropriate at times. It's up to the professor to determine which style works best in the classroom at any given moment. A student who might respond well to authenticity at one moment may need the devil's advocate approach in the next.
One thing I've realized over the past several years is that there really are no easy answers. I think we all believe deeply in academic freedom and trust faculty to determine appropriate classroom interactions. But how would we feel about a professor openly opposing marriage equality in the classroom? What about racism or sexism? What if a professor used her classroom to promote a particular brand of religion? If a professor's freedom to share his viewpoints creates an environment of intimidation or prejudice, does academic freedom protect him? Probably not.
I'll close by throwing out one idea: There is a difference between overt partisanship and the expression of broad political ideals. Advocating for a particular political candidate might be inappropriate, while expressing support for basic human rights is an integral part of most of our courses. My sense is that many historians view our work as vital to the cultivation of democracy, equality, and justice. How adept we are at expressing those ideals in the classroom will determine what kind of changes we create in society.
I'm interested to hear from others on this topic. What do you think?