Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Tolerance and the Search for Truth

Controversy in the college classroom and beyond

University professors often raise controversial issues and encourage discussions of those issues in the classroom. This is especially the case in my own field, philosophy. I teach courses mainly in ethics and philosophy of religion, so we discuss issues like abortion, the death penalty, affirmative action, arguments for and against the existence of God, and other controversial topics. Many outside of academia are suspicious of those of us who teach at colleges and universities in the United States because they think we are using our influence or platform as professors in unethical ways to push some agenda.

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But is this suspicion warranted? From my own experiences as a student, usually not. I do recall a couple of professors from my undergraduate days who used the classroom as a soapbox. However, most were generally fair and tolerant enough of those who disagreed with them. Back in 2008, an article at insidehighered.com discussed this issue in the context of the charges of David Horowitz and others, who seem to want a form of "affirmative action" for intellectual perspectives.

However, according to the study cited by the article, students believe that other students are more of a problem than professors with respect to tolerance of diverse intellectual views. Less than half of those surveyed said that they believed other students were tolerant of the political views of all students. By contrast,

Asked about what professors do in the classroom, only 13 percent of students said that they believed professors had presented their own political views in an inappropriate way. A larger percentage—23 percent—said they had felt that they had to agree with a professor to get a good grade—although the majority of those students felt this had only happened once in their time in college. Even with these findings, there is evidence that suggests classroom expression isn’t necessarily squelched. For example, of those who believed that professors had inappropriately presented their views, 62 percent said that they felt free to argue with the professor. And of those who said they had felt they needed to agree with a professor to get a good grade, only 42 percent said it was because of something the professor said.

I don't think these numbers are good enough; I'd like to see more impartiality and fairness present. Students should never have to agree with the professor to get a good grade, though sometimes this feeling is more of a reflection of the student's psychology than the practices of the professor. Nevertheless, these statistics do show that some of the criticisms in this context are a bit overblown.

Personally, though I don't always share my perspective in class, I like it when students challenge my views in the classroom. It can lead to better discussion and can help us discover something together. The best classes I had as a student were those in which the professor shared his or her views with us. Ideally, professors should seek to foster tolerance by modeling it in the classroom. Then, perhaps over time the virtue of tolerance will become more prevalent in professors as well as in many of our students both during and after college. And that may raise the bar for our political, ethical, and religious discussions, which would be a welcome result indeed.

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Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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