Discourse could not truly exist without discord, and neither could we. Cynical as it may sound, people will always disagree with each other. Only in repressed societies do we find one-party regimes, with any and all dissent unnaturally quashed. However, we need not view discord as a necessary evil but a virtue: Discord means we are trying to solve a problem. The more ideas we test out, the more likely we are to succeed in solving that problem. Universities embody this process and make it their mission. Therefore, in discussing the political role of university professors and employees, we must judge any potential change by how much it allows for natural discord.

There are better places in which to find a robust defense of the virtues of freedom of speech, but nevertheless it must again be emphatically stated that any attempt to muffle the ideas of any individual or group intellectually involved at Columbia will invariably harm the furtherance of the university’s mission and the education that students receive. As a conservative, I do appreciate the sympathy from those who, citing University decorum, might propose a reduction in vehemence and frequency of criticism on my views and my character. Nevertheless, I respectfully decline the offer; if the administration were to engage in censorship on this issue, the next target would surely be those who hold minority views—the very “beneficiaries” of a reduction in professors’ political vociferousness.

Already I can imagine penalties—using the justification of a supposed interest in preserving students’ mental health—for Columbia faculty and students who might propose tighter restrictions on immigration or resist the use of nontraditional gender pronouns. Such a reality would be authoritarian and indeed antithetical to the very idea of a university. Any student—indeed, any ostensible future leader of the world—who cannot tolerate disagreement, no matter how fundamental, does not belong at a university. Not only does this type of student fail to appreciate the fruit of the university, they sometimes actively attempt to stifle discord.

However, a strict laissez-faire approach to the political role of faculty and staff also fails to fully preserve a natural, beneficial discord. First, a professor’s frequent and vehement censure of opposing viewpoints might cause a student to worry for the fair evaluation of their work, prompting cautionary self-censorship. To address this possibility, the university should establish a more accessible channel through which to report reasonable suspicion of discriminatory grading on any basis—racial, sexual, or political. This would hopefully be rarely used, but its mere existence would both remind graders of their obligation to impartiality and alleviate hesitation on the part of students to express their ideas.

Second, the frequent assumption that most everyone shares similarly progressive views stifles dissent. Statistically speaking, in the case of an individual Columbian, the assumption is perfectly fair. But in a class of at least 20 students—never mind 200—a right-leaning student is virtually guaranteed, and yet professors often talk as if there could be no dissenters in the room. Regardless of intent, a right-leaning student might interpret this assumption as indicating that conservative ideas are invalid and unwelcome. Indeed, when dissenting speakers are labelled “white nationalists” to thunderous applause (despite having explicitly disavowed white nationalism), it becomes clear why introducing discord might seem like social suicide. We must remain conscious of assumptions that impede discord’s free expression.

In terms of policy, professors should have no obligation to make students feel comfortable or to validate their views—indeed, intellectual growth requires the opposite. In the interest of a rigorous discourse, professors would do well to at least acknowledge potential dissent to encourage healthy discord, as current policy requires. Discord does not only benefit those students—it benefits everybody.

Discourse could not truly exist without discord, and neither could we. Cynical as it may sound, people will always disagree with each other. Only in repressed societies do we find one-party regimes, with any and all dissent unnaturally quashed. However, we need not view discord as a necessary evil but a virtue: Discord means we are trying to solve a problem. The more ideas we test out, the more likely we are to succeed in solving that problem. Universities embody this process and make it their mission. Therefore, in discussing the political role of university professors and employees, we must judge any potential change by how much it allows for natural discord.

There are better places in which to find a robust defense of the virtues of freedom of speech, but nevertheless it must again be emphatically stated that any attempt to muffle the ideas of any individual or group intellectually involved at Columbia will invariably harm the furtherance of the university’s mission and the education that students receive. As a conservative, I do appreciate the sympathy from those who, citing University decorum, might propose a reduction in vehemence and frequency of criticism on my views and my character. Nevertheless, I respectfully decline the offer; if the administration were to engage in censorship on this issue, the next target would surely be those who hold minority views—the very “beneficiaries” of a reduction in professors’ political vociferousness.

Already I can imagine penalties—using the justification of a supposed interest in preserving students’ mental health—for Columbia faculty and students who might propose tighter restrictions on immigration or resist the use of nontraditional gender pronouns. Such a reality would be authoritarian and indeed antithetical to the very idea of a university. Any student—indeed, any ostensible future leader of the world—who cannot tolerate disagreement, no matter how fundamental, does not belong at a university. Not only does this type of student fail to appreciate the fruit of the university, they sometimes actively attempt to stifle discord.

Joseph Siegel is a sophomore in Columbia College studying philosophy and economics. He will gladly argue with anyone at anytime about anything, including hand dryers, improper use of automatic doors, and seat-belt laws. Joseph is on the boards of CUCR and CPU and resides in Jazz House.

Read More
By JOSEPH SIEGEL
Article Image
Alison Li / Staff Illustrator

Discourse & Debate: For professors and Columbia staff, how political is too political?

Discuss the political role of University employees, especially in light of growing tension toward the federal government. Do professors take openly criticizing Trump or his administration a step too far? What about other employees, such as in the Office of Multicultural Affairs, where addressing the stresses of minority students’ is considered foundational to its mission?

On Nov. 9, 2016, like so many other people, I was a zombie. It wasn’t until the afternoon that I was jolted out of my stupor. Packed in the corner of one of the elevators of Broadway was a lone skinny kid. He stood out because as we descended he—likely emboldened by the conversations around him—had tentatively put on a Make America Great Again hat.

His downcast eyes and faint smirk told me that his hat wasn’t worn in irony. Rather, he was basking in a newfound sort of power, wherein a piece of clothing marked him as a winner in an institution where his political persuasion had previously been a source of shame. It was the first time I realized that there were actual Trump supporters at Columbia. Obviously, I was vaguely aware of a contingent of people who found the liberal tone of the university stifling, but it was the first time I regretted never engaging with them. I was blindsided by Trump’s win because I hadn’t been listening—I had become so comfortable in my liberal bubble that I had forgotten that the point of college was to be in a place of exchange, where you were not only expressing yourself but engaging with those who disagreed with you.

In an institution that seeks to produce citizens who think critically by arming them with the sort of canon that allows for intelligent debate, the classroom is meant to be a training ground for the future. Discussion sections often devolve into conversations about how the given text is refracted in our contemporary society, and it is often here that people get to articulate their perspectives on the world to people other than like-minded friends. Professors should comment on current events and spark debates among students. Still, even through the testing ground of the classroom, it is hard to ignore the power dynamics: At the end of the day, the professor standing in front of you holds your grade and a potential recommendation. Academics benefit from the privilege of credibility. Their opinions—even at their most visceral and reactionary—carry the sort of weight that professors must be conscious of. But this is no excuse to shy away from being the arbitrators of respectful and intelligent discussion. Our professors are professionals, and as such , we should expect that their biases will not cloud their judgement, and we should not let the prospect of being uncomfortable—or at times insulted—prevent us from having important discussions. The imbalance of power does not mean that professors should not participate in the debate, but rather that they must be conscious of the weight of their opinions and avoid being pedantic. The issue here is mediating the tone of a professor’s statements due to their weight, rather than asking them to feign neutrality.

In the same vein, University administration has a duty to encourage productive debate on campus. In all honesty, the statements made by many of the administration are always generic, vague, and uninspiring. These emails and press releases speak more to a culture of appearance than any sense of leading a discussion among any sort of community. We would be outraged if the University did nothing, but these timely statements have more to do with validation of our personal values than effecting change. As a person of color, the anxiety I have over the federal administration’s limited notion of who matters in America demands that the University do more to help students develop into citizens across the political spectrum who can engage critically and productively in the political sphere. If that means more openly political statements, so be it.

On Nov. 9, 2016, like so many other people, I was a zombie. It wasn’t until the afternoon that I was jolted out of my stupor. Packed in the corner of one of the elevators of Broadway was a lone skinny kid. He stood out because as we descended he—likely emboldened by the conversations around him—had tentatively put on a Make America Great Again hat.

His downcast eyes and faint smirk told me that his hat wasn’t worn in irony. Rather, he was basking in a newfound sort of power, wherein a piece of clothing marked him as a winner in an institution where his political persuasion had previously been a source of shame. It was the first time I realized that there were actual Trump supporters at Columbia. Obviously, I was vaguely aware of a contingent of people who found the liberal tone of the university stifling, but it was the first time I regretted never engaging with them. I was blindsided by Trump’s win because I hadn’t been listening—I had become so comfortable in my liberal bubble that I had forgotten that the point of college was to be in a place of exchange, where you were not only expressing yourself but engaging with those who disagreed with you.

In an institution that seeks to produce citizens who think critically by arming them with the sort of canon that allows for intelligent debate, the classroom is meant to be a training ground for the future. Discussion sections often devolve into conversations about how the given text is refracted in our contemporary society, and it is often here that people get to articulate their perspectives on the world to people other than like-minded friends. Professors should comment on current events and spark debates among students. Still, even through the testing ground of the classroom, it is hard to ignore the power dynamics: At the end of the day, the professor standing in front of you holds your grade and a potential recommendation. Academics benefit from the privilege of credibility. Their opinions—even at their most visceral and reactionary—carry the sort of weight that professors must be conscious of. But this is no excuse to shy away from being the arbitrators of respectful and intelligent discussion. Our professors are professionals, and as such , we should expect that their biases will not cloud their judgement, and we should not let the prospect of being uncomfortable—or at times insulted—prevent us from having important discussions. The imbalance of power does not mean that professors should not participate in the debate, but rather that they must be conscious of the weight of their opinions and avoid being pedantic. The issue here is mediating the tone of a professor’s statements due to their weight, rather than asking them to feign neutrality.

Ayo Osobamiro is a senior in Columbia College disappointing her parents by studying History and French Literature. You can usually find her on campus schlepping various items for the student productions she works on, cracking cheesy jokes on her URC tours, or binge watching reality TV in Butler.

Read More
By AYO OSOBAMIRO
ADVERTISEMENT

In Youngstown, Ohio, priests tell you who to vote for.

I’m struggling to keep my six-year-old eyelids open, because my father insists that we go to 7 o’clock mass. He maintains that getting up with the sun is the only path to a productive Sunday—or else, he just wants the free donuts the parish sets out after mass. My head is resting on his shoulder, and while I may be drifting back towards dreams of Ninja Turtles,Father Matthew’s words still reach my little ears from behind the podium. His homily this week is about the upcoming election, between George W. Bush (“a man of faith”) and John Kerry. The priest openly endorses Bush, and claims that all good Catholics will do the same.

A week later, in the mock election held at my elementary school, I check the box beside Bush / Cheney. Look at me, I think to myself, being a good Catholic.

College students are less impressionable than first-graders. Moreover, it does seem as though leaders of faith do have a greater capacity for persuasion, since lots of people believe them to be their own neighborhood link to salvation. But the account above still holds a compelling maxim: those who instruct, lead, and educate have a large capacity to influence the way their pupils think. This is why religious leaders in many countries (including the U.S.) are forbidden from endorsing specific positions or candidates, and why professors who are openly critical of the Trump administration in the classroom on the basis of personal belief are, in my view, out of line.

Educators have a special obligation not to disclose their personal beliefs. First, they may persuade students based on the power dynamic that exists between instructors and students, and not on the merit of their argument. Second, students will be more likely to play into those beliefs when completing coursework—consider my six-year-old self pretend-voting for George W. Bush just so that my parish priest would think me pious. Moreover, the most objective view possible is the one we ought to take when dealing with a figure such as Trump, as discussions fueled by emotions and passion lead to intense polarization and a lack of sensitivity.

The role of the educator is not to spread their own values and beliefs, but to facilitate an environment where students can discover their own. While Trump is certainly deserving of criticism, and it is the obligation of any good citizen to speak out against the injustices of his administration, that critique should come from students. We shouldn’t allow our educational spaces to be flooded with the opinions of the instructor; we should leave students’ values and beliefs some room to breathe. In a classroom environment, either the teacher or student is forced to self-censure. Students do not hold the obligation to shift the way they participate in class discussions—teachers do.

Other employees of the University should feel free to share their opinions, especially in an effort to alleviate the pressures that the current political climate places on a large portion of our student body. An employee of the Office of Multicultural Affairs who tells a minority student that Trump is a white supremacist may be considered praiseworthy if that opinion helps to assuage the stresses of the student. But that praiseworthiness is derivative of an obligation that is not shared by professors—the obligation to make students feel secure.

Instructors have a different obligation: to help students develop their own beliefs. And while I’m sure the position is rewarding, it comes at the cost of suppressing your values to foster them in others.

In Youngstown, Ohio, priests tell you who to vote for.

I’m struggling to keep my six-year-old eyelids open, because my father insists that we go to 7 o’clock mass. He maintains that getting up with the sun is the only path to a productive Sunday—or else, he just wants the free donuts the parish sets out after mass. My head is resting on his shoulder, and while I may be drifting back towards dreams of Ninja Turtles,Father Matthew’s words still reach my little ears from behind the podium. His homily this week is about the upcoming election, between George W. Bush (“a man of faith”) and John Kerry. The priest openly endorses Bush, and claims that all good Catholics will do the same.

Dan Driscoll is a Columbia College sophomore studying philosophy and English. His interests include professional baseball, Kurt Vonnegut, and the use of the semicolon. Message him on Facebook if you’re interested in playing some Four Square.

Read More
By DAN DRISCOLL

A professor’s role in the classroom is to facilitate thought-provoking discussions that challenge different perspectives, and to give students the chance to grow intellectually by forming their own opinions. Those roles should not change when it comes to discussing politics.

Regardless of which side of the aisle you sit on, everyone can agree that the current federal government has handled various social and political issues in very idiosyncratic ways. Professors should be allowed to critique Trump and his administration as a learning opportunity for students. This university would be doing a disservice to its students if it did not allow professors to discuss the sui generis nature of this administration and give their own opinions of the president.

With that being said, professors should refrain from moralizing or indoctrinating students. If a computer science or engineering professor shared their political affiliations during class, it would force students to align themselves with a particular ideology in courses that are not directly political. Conversely, in classes that deal with topics such as politics or culture, it would be fruitful for professors to form a discourse around politics as real-world examples. When professors share their views, they should do so in a tactful manner that offers room for the students to come to their own conclusions without feeling as though their beliefs will impact the way in which professors view them.

In the same way that students can challenge professors over the validity of communism or the second amendment using personal examples, both students and professors should also be permitted to discuss politics and offer individual perspectives. Censoring professors from sharing personal views on the world makes it difficult for students to connect with them, and prevents the professors from being honest in their convictions. Conversely, a professor in favor of Trump and his administration should also be permitted to share those thoughts with their class in a way that applies to the coursework and generates complex dialogue among the students. One of the benefits of having a liberal arts education is that our professors can show us real-world examples and ideas, even if they are controversial.

Similar to professors in the classroom, employees in the Office of Multicultural Affairs should have the opportunity to criticize the government and identify deficiencies in legislation that directly affect students of minority backgrounds. Being a minority student is inherently political, and employees in the Office of Multicultural Affairs are compelled to discuss the impact that this administration has on its minority populations. With motions such as the repeal of DACA, Multicultural Affairs employees need to be honest with students and support them, even if that means critiquing the president and his actions.

Ultimately, Columbia does not exist in a vacuum; censoring Columbia employees from sharing their thoughts on the current administration will not make tension against the government go away. Our community has been cultivated through discourse and protests that began in the classroom and throughout campus, and which should not be stopped for fear of professors and employees overstepping their political boundaries.

A professor’s role in the classroom is to facilitate thought-provoking discussions that challenge different perspectives, and to give students the chance to grow intellectually by forming their own opinions. Those roles should not change when it comes to discussing politics.

Regardless of which side of the aisle you sit on, everyone can agree that the current federal government has handled various social and political issues in very idiosyncratic ways. Professors should be allowed to critique Trump and his administration as a learning opportunity for students. This university would be doing a disservice to its students if it did not allow professors to discuss the sui generis nature of this administration and give their own opinions of the president.

Elise Fuller is a junior in Columbia College majoring in anthropology. She serves as the inclusion and equity rep for CCSC and the campus liaison for BSO. You can always find her in Café East discussing the nuances and diversity of bubble tea flavors.

Read More
By ELISE FULLER

The modern university (and Columbia in particular) sells us a contradiction. As first-years, we are initiated into our studies with the exhortation of Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living” and the observation of Aristotle that “man is a political animal.” Yet, when we then attempt to synthesize those two things, namely, thinking and acting upon that thinking, we find ourselves derided as “activists” or deprecated as “social justice warriors.”

This critique is not only directed at allegedly naïve undergraduates—seasoned professors are perhaps the greatest victims of the depoliticization of our campus life. A professor who promotes a radical cause can expect swift backlash from both the university administration as well as the mainstream media.

Our professors, we are told, ought to be men and women of the world, but they must not care too much about that world.

This leads us to the root of the issue: the confusion regarding the word “objective.” People think that professors cannot be objective if they are politicized, because they think that to be politicized means to not be objective. The opposite of objective is not objective—that is all. That a professor can affirm certain politics while remaining a master educator presents no logical contradiction. Bertrand Russell was political, but no sane person would add to the list of The Principia Mathematica’s admittedly numerous weaknesses the charge that it possessed a liberal bent. John Stuart Mill was political—a member of Parliament and supporter of female suffrage—but few would contend that On Liberty was worse for it.

To affirm a political position and argue for its implementation in the public sphere reflects nothing more than the natural progression of the human mind. Should we prefer that our instructors remain silent about their ideological commitments? If we are truly concerned that our professors possess all sorts of unsavory biases, let them be aired in the open—the better for honesty and debate. If our professors are closeted anti-fascists or crypto-confederates, I say, let the controversy rage.

Some may claim that advocating for a professorial “right to politick” affords professors a bully pulpit from which to cudgel their students into intellectual uniformity. Admittedly, for the purposes of this piece, I am assuming that our professors operate in good faith. I take for granted that our educators embrace their current calling in order to enlighten and sharpen the critical thinking skills of their charges, not as an insidious means to manipulate their students’ minds. Of course, every tree produces a few bad apples, but even the most ambitious deforester wouldn’t use such reasoning to justify cutting all trees down.

Even if we were to concede this contention, I would like to suggest a crucial distinction. A professor of Calculus III may have no business stumping from their lectern, not the least because such activities bear no relevance to the course material, but also because Calculus III possibly constitutes a setting in which students are ill-equipped to adequately challenge their instructor’s political commentary. Nevertheless, to assert that, say, a poli-sci major cannot withstand their professor’s political advocacy is to invite disbelief. Those students are made from stronger material.

The political life is simply the life of the mind upon exiting the cloistered environs of the college campus. For four years we are taught to think long and hard about our most pressing societal disputes, encouraged by the attendant promise that doing so will help us “make a difference.” Surely it is paradoxical to prevent those who have thought the hardest and longest—our professors—from taking a stand as well.

The modern university (and Columbia in particular) sells us a contradiction. As first-years, we are initiated into our studies with the exhortation of Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living” and the observation of Aristotle that “man is a political animal.” Yet, when we then attempt to synthesize those two things, namely, thinking and acting upon that thinking, we find ourselves derided as “activists” or deprecated as “social justice warriors.”

This critique is not only directed at allegedly naïve undergraduates—seasoned professors are perhaps the greatest victims of the depoliticization of our campus life. A professor who promotes a radical cause can expect swift backlash from both the university administration as well as the mainstream media.

Benjamin Apfel is a senior studying philosophy at Columbia College. Before arriving at Columbia, he spent a year in an ultra-Orthodox seminary in Jerusalem where he studied talmudic texts in Yiddish.

Read More
By BENJAMIN APFEL

To respond to this installment of Discourse & Debate, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

From Around the Web
Newsletter
Recommended
Related Stories