When Professors Pretend to Teach and Students Pretend to Learn


(The author of this blog has requested anonymity –Ed.)

I recently graduated from a small liberal arts college in Texas. It is a nice school. There’s a beautiful campus, I made great friends, and I enjoyed most of my classes. Out of all my classes, I enjoyed my philosophy classes the most. The study of philosophy encourages us to check our presuppositions, question the nature of reality and existence, and to think critically about difficult questions.

In the three philosophy courses I’ve taken, “Religion and Philosophy”, “History of Philosophy I”, and “History of Philosophy II”, we as a class read a wide variety of philosophers, all with opposing viewpoints on many different subjects. We were instructed to analyze their arguments, show what evidence supported them and what logical fallacies they may have committed. Even if my professors agreed with some of the viewpoints espoused by some of the philosophers, they did a good job hiding it. They would spend just as much time critiquing the philosophers as they did praising them. No thinker and no idea was exempt from criticism. The majority of the class would ask thoughtful questions about the material and many students even engaged in lively but civil debates with the professor. These classes demonstrate what college should be.

This was not the case in another class I was required to take as part of the school’s core curriculum. The objective of the class, as described by the professor, was to “analyze social problems” in America. While this is a necessary and noble objective, its execution was highly flawed. Virtually all of the readings assigned in class were written from a Marxist or Post-Modernist perspective. Aside from a short video of Milton Friedman or Christina Hoff Sommers every once in a blue moon, we were practically never exposed to the other side of the debate. In fact, my professor even said that he didn’t believe the right had any real solutions to social problems. It became abundantly clear just after a few weeks into the class that the goal of the class was not to teach you how to think about social problems, but what to think about social problems. I actually have my professor on record saying that the only reason he included the video of Milton Friedman was because he didn’t want us to think he was conning us into Marxism, openly admitting that that was what he had been doing. The majority of the students in the class didn’t ask questions about the reading material or challenged the professor (except for me). The only time students spoke up was to reinforce what the professor already believed.

I don’t believe that my professor was a bad guy, I just think he was misguided on most issues. I’m not even sure how much he really understands about the philosophies he would criticize. One day during class, this professor asked me – the class’s resident, outspoken libertarian – how libertarian economic policy would deal with two people bickering over a property dispute. I told him that it would be the government’s job to enforce property rights. He then said, “Wouldn’t a free market allow businesses to send in thugs to break into their competitors’ facilities and start ransacking the place? “No,” I said, “Because that would be a violation of property rights and an initiation of force.” Neither of these were complex questions about advanced economic theory or challenging questions that would be impossible to answer. These were questions about the basic tenets about libertarian philosophy that can easily be answered by a quick Google search or by picking up any book by Milton Friedman or Friedrich Hayek. It was very surprising that a college professor teaching a course dealing heavily with political and economic policies didn’t even understand the basic positions of his opponents.

One of the requirements for the class was an assignment known as the “Civic Engagement Project”. The goal of this assignment was to “get students out of the classroom and into the real world in a manner that will benefit both its students and the community in which we live.” You were to given the option to volunteer at a number of different organizations. Now there is nothing wrong with volunteering with local charity organizations…on your own time. It is a noble and virtuous thing to voluntarily help those who are struggling and disadvantaged, but that is a task for private charities and non-profit advocacy groups. The point of the university is to instill in students a liberal education and to pursue knowledge wherever it leads us. Many of the organizations listed as options to volunteer with were noteworthy charities such as Mobile Loaves & Fishes or The People’s Community Clinic, but among those choices was the option to volunteer at organizations sympathetic to left-wing causes. These included a social justice group (Austin Food not Bombs), two organizations for open borders (Austin Tan Cerca de La Frontera, American GateWays), three LGBT groups (Allgo, OutYouth), and two outright political organizations, the pro-union groups Equal Justice Center and Workers Defense Project. There were no options to volunteer with similar organizations aligned with the political right.

This was clearly used to train students to become left-wing, social justice advocates, not to learn more about philosophy and what the proper policies for a prosperous society are. Imagine if a university required or encouraged students to volunteer for right-wing advocacy groups like Americans for Prosperity or FreedomWorks, or if they were told to volunteer for organizations that advocated gun ownership and the 2nd Amendment, the right to work, or religious liberty. They would be reprimanded for recruiting students for the right. But this is commonplace in many universities today.

This is the stark contrast between a class that encourages discourse and lets students examine different ideas and arrive at their own conclusions, and a class that attempts to get students to accept the professor’s political agenda and become an activist for their cause. The latter does far more harm than good to help students prepare for the real world. Although I was able to learn a few things about the opposing side from this class, I fear that other students going into this class will not get a fair and balanced view of the world that they would’ve gotten if they had chosen to take any basic philosophy course. In the days of the Soviet Union, workers used to say, “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.” In these social justice classes, professors pretend to teach, while students pretend to learn.

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