Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about whether or not professors should talk about anything political in their classes. Not surprisingly, this question has come up from material I’ve been teaching, as there seem to be times it is unavoidable. Other times, it would seem to be sheer pretense to avoid the political issues that the literature is raising.
First, in U.S. Literature, I teach Henry David Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government.” Even if I only talk about what Thoreau is saying, I’m expressing a political viewpoint. Granted, I’m talking about his political viewpoint, but, even then, I’m filtering it through my experiences. I’ve heard everyone on the political spectrum, from Libertarians to raging liberals, use Thoreau as a defense for their approach to our political system. I don’t know there’s any way I can read that text and talk about it without letting some of my political views slip in to the conversation, even if I try to use examples from across the political spectrum.
In Contemporary Literature, we deal with a whole host of political issues that the literature raises. We’ve been reading literature that deals with life after September 11, so we talk about terrorism and Islam, which most people would expect. However, we also talk about how technology affects us and issues of gender and race and class and ethnicity and on and on. Again, I can try to keep my political views out, but I’m not sure they don’t sneak out, regardless of what I do.
And I’m not sure they shouldn’t, as long as I don’t turn the class into a bully pulpit, where students feel they must agree with me in order to succeed in the class. Over a decade ago, just before I was leaving my current job (I came back a year later), I did a survey of one of my classes to see what they thought about a particular political issue. I was trying to understand how they thought about the subject. One student came to see me, as she wanted to talk more about it. We talked openly, and I explained to her that I didn’t want to talk about it in class, as I didn’t want to unduly influence students. I even told her about the approach that many of us do, where we hide our particular viewpoint under the lead-in, “Well, some people argue…” She responded that students needed to hear what professors thought about complicated issues, especially if they respected those professors.
I’ve thought about that comment for years, as she was a good student whom I respected. I wonder if we’re so afraid we’ll influence students that we miss out on an opportunity for meaningful conversations about issues that are truly important to them (and us, I hope). I have felt perfectly comfortable talking about the fact that I don’t own a cell phone because of the effects technology is having on our society, but I’ve avoided more controversial subjects. I don’t want to offend students in such a way that they will shut down and avoid any kind of discussion. I also don’t want them to feel my class is nothing more than a place where I’m putting forth a particular political viewpoint. When a subject comes up naturally, though, it seems we are doing students a disservice not to discuss it.
Thus, when my class was reading Frederick Douglass’s Narrative just before the break, we ended class by talking about what the issues of their generation are and will be. One student pointed out that we certainly haven’t figured out race, even more than 150 years after Douglass, to which I added gender, as well. She also added sexual orientation to the conversation, especially focusing on transgender issues. We talked about how the church says one thing and does another, which is the main point of Douglass’s appendix, and I brought up this quote: “He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence, and leaves them to the ravages of wholesale pollution. The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families,—sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers,—leaving the hut vacant, and the hearth desolate.” I admitted that there’s no way I can read that passage today without thinking about same-sex marriage.
Some would accuse me of pushing an agenda, but I wanted to be honest with them about how I read the work. I often argue that literature that doesn’t have anything to say to today’s world isn’t worth very much. If that leads to such conversations, I think I’m willing to have them. I’m still not sure about when I should go that route, and I’ll keep thinking about how to do so, but I’m beginning to believe that we need to have these conversations more rather than less often.