Political strife in the classroom

03.18.03

This evening, something strange happened in my French class at Université de Montréal. It’s something that didn’t happen at all in three years at Concordia – Concordia, the school known more for its riots and anti-American, anti-Zionist politics than for its academics. And despite that, never once did I have this problem. But this evening, in the middle of verb conjugations and vocabulary lessons, my teacher decided to vent her political views. And the classroom rapidly turned into a bastion of America-bashing, right before my very eyes.

It’s not so much that she chose to express her opinion (which pretty much consists of the standard leftist line on how the US was going to war for “no reason” and how it’s such a tragedy because innocent people are going to die so Bush can get oil, etc.). It was the fact that she allowed the rest of the class to use her opening as an opportunity to bash the United States. And of course, the inevitable non-sequiteur tie-in to Israel, as Rachel Corrie’s name was bandied about within seconds.

And I just sat there, fuming.

Of course, I could have said something. I could have said a lot of things. I’ve never had a particular problem of being in the minority — as I clearly was in this case. In fact, I think I was the only one who doesn’t consider it a badge of honour to have been out at the anti-Bush (er, anti-war) protest on Saturday. But I’ve never been one to shy away from debate before.

The point is, I felt it was inappropriate. It wasn’t the time or the place to get into a political debate. We were all there to learn about possessive pronouns, not possession of weapons of mass destruction. I thought it was horribly inappropriate for the teacher to start the conversation, and I didn’t want to compound it by turning the anti-American free-for-all into a full-fledged debate. In French, no less — and I must admit that being somewhat inarticulate in French was a factor that motivated me to keep my mouth shut. So I just sat with my arms folded and did my best to give the teacher a dirty look.

In the second half of the class, however, I decided I needed to say something — quietly. I told the teacher I felt uncomfortable with what had happened, and while I didn’t think it was appropriate to say anything at the time, I don’t share her political views and I’d appreciate if she kept differing opinions in mind. I talked about how I could have explained my position but I didn’t want to turn French class into world politics class.

Her reaction was interesting. She was very polite, and said it was never her intention to be insulting — and indeed, she never was. But she continued to hold that “it’s an issue that touches all of us” and claimed that she was very upset and needed to share her thoughts. She also seemed unable to comprehend that there were people out there who weren’t opposed to war in Iraq on principle. She took it as a given, and seemed genuinely surprised to hear that other viewpoints exist.

Still hoping to avoid a political debate, I ended the conversation right then and there. But I learned a few valuable lessons.

First and foremost, it’s all too easy to understand why an overwhelming majority of university students hold the same antiwar views. Quite simply, they want to fit in. They want to feel like they belong. And everyone else thinks it, and most of them don’t have enough background information to form a strong counter-position. So they just get swept along with the tide.

I also learned why even innocent offhand comments by a professor in a classroom are so dangerous. Freedom of expression, yes. Freedom of speech. But with the role of teacher comes the responsibility not to abuse that position. My French teacher is a very nice person, and she had absolutely no malicious intent. The problem is that not all professors are so innocent. Just check out Campus Watch for a few examples.

Certainly I don’t expect everyone to conform to my views. But there’s a time and place for debate, and that wasn’t it.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jonny 03.19.03 at 6:55 AM

It was really not the appropriate time or place for such a discussion.

Think I’ll nominate Corrie for a Darwin award.

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2 Alan Anderson 03.19.03 at 7:53 AM

That reminds me of just about every law tutorial I attended during my studies. There is something truly repulsive about the self-righteousness of the contemporary Left.

Still, despite the best efforts of the professors, young Australians have been slow to join their aging hippie parents to man the barricades against war in Iraq. Some of the Woodstock set are denouncing their children’s conservatism. Perhaps there is hope for the future after all.

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3 Jonny 03.19.03 at 10:13 AM

Hey Alan, are you Australian?

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4 jb 03.19.03 at 2:41 PM

You were more than patient. However “nice” your French teacher is, I find it hard to believe she doesn’t know what she’s doing. She created a forum in which she is not simply one among equals voluntarily participating in a debate, and she knows that full well. It took courage for you to confront her.
I was a student on campus in the 60’s when the left confronted the “established” faculty. Now the tables are turned. It is now the left which is establishment and it is reactionary in its political alliances. I sense the groundswell of a new movement to challenge complacement faculty assumptions.

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5 Tali 03.20.03 at 2:23 AM

It’s not just the left: my college experience was filled with professors who graded students based almost entirely on politics, and preached incessantly in class – from the right.

The usual method they used was a classic game of bait-and-switch.

This method was especially popular in economics classes. The prof would set up problems using very simplified assumptions. This is fine: basic economics is usually taught this way, and one needs to learn oversimplified examples to understand basic principles.

The problems came in when the professors snuck real-world politics into the oversimplified problems. What this does is stack the deck: in an oversimplified universe of basic economic rules, the most extreme forms of free-market economics always produce the best results.

Over and over again, professors who were themselves Republicans would use this sort of bait-and-switch to spend entire class periods telling a captive audience why an unrealistically simple problem (about two people with perfect information and no startup costs trading corn and coconuts between deserted islands, for example) proved beyond a doubt that voting Republican was the only logical course of action for an educated person. Woe betide the poor student who attempted to point out that the textbook was not reflective of the real world, or that other solutions to complex real-world issues were possible. Unlike your French teacher, my profs generally reserved the right to grade down student who didn’t toe the party line. After all, anyone who didn’t agree with the professor just didn’t understand economics!

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6 segacs 03.20.03 at 3:56 AM

Yeah, Tali, that’s what I always hated about economics too.

Ever hear the joke about the three men who get stuck on a desert island? One’s a chemist, one’s a physicist, and one’s an economist. The only food they have is a can of frozen peas, but nobody has a can opener.

So they’re all sitting around brainstorming on ways to get the can open.

The chemist suggests mixing up sea salt and some plants to create an acid that will burn the top off, but they nix that idea because it’ll contaminate the food.

The physicist has an idea of a way to create an explosive that will blast the top off, but it’ll also blast the food apart.

The economist then breaks in and says “why don’t we just assume that the can is open?”

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