Telling Your Students Your Beliefs


Adam See (Brooklyn College) wrote a letter to his philosophy students at the end of the past semester. It begins:

Dear students,
I am no longer your professor. Throughout the semester many of you have asked me what my personal beliefs are on the topics we’ve discussed. As I understand it, the reason that professors are reluctant to discuss their own beliefs comes from an attempt to instill and retain some veneer of objectivity in class discussions. There are virtues to this ideal. But when considering the role of the educator in society, there are other considerations to be made; and when designing and teaching a course on social, political, and ethical issues, things are never that simple. Insofar as your professors are people, their intellectual and moral proclivities will always surface somehow or somewhere in their curricula, offering distinctive personalities that students may choose to identify and/or contend with.

The rest is here.

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Jeff Sebo
7 years ago

I tell my students my beliefs throughout each semester. I start on the first day by telling them that I think that the aspiration to objectivity in philosophy education (especially ethics education) – where objectivity is read as neutrality or silence – is a mistake. The main point of an ethics class is to challenge our beliefs and values, and the best way to do that is to be open and honest with each other about what they are. So I do that, and I encourage my students to do the same – though I also make it clear that the class is a safe space where we should all feel free to express and explore our ideas together in a compassionate, respectful, and mutually supportive way. I think that this is good for several reasons: it helps my students know how to interpret me (i.e. they know how my perspective might be shaping my presentation of the material); it models good philosophical practice for my students (we can be rigorous and respectful at the same time!); and it underscores the connection between theory and practice (our discussions in this class have implications for how we should live, and we should discuss what they are). Also my students like hearing what I think and they like sharing what they think (and they have no problem disagreeing with me). I do think that it requires great care to be open and honest with your students without making them feel pressure to agree with you (and this approach might be more compatible with some teaching styles than with others). But I also think that, if we approach these discussions with enough sensitivity, then we can preserve the benefits of this kind of approach while minimizing the costs. And I really do think that the benefits are significant.Report

Anon
Anon
7 years ago

I enjoyed this thoughtful post and fully agree in spirit, but I suspect (1) it frames itself against a straw man, and (2) I’m not sure it goes far enough.

First, I don’t think most teachers who withhold details about their personal views do so out of adherence to some mythical classroom neutrality or some naive version of all views are equal objectivity. Instead, I think they do it out of a recognition of the psychology of classroom power dynamics and out of a non-neutral desire to influence students, but to do so *in the right way and for the right reasons*. I hope my teaching and material will change students for the better *as I understand it*, but only if that change comes from charitable consideration of the best arguments. The fact of the matter is that the classroom is a variation on the power dynamics of a family, and like a family, it often produces either rebellion or a cult of personality–either a desire to be the teacher or overthrow the teacher.

I’m happy to have students leave the class in thoughtful agreement with me, but not as followers. And I’m happy to have students leave as thoughtful opponents, but not as arrogant rebels. In my experience, many teachers abuse this psychology of cult of personality: “You and I, we’re smarter than those rubes outside this classroom. Unlike them, we really get it, you know?” I think that makes not only for bad people, but bad philosophers. A naive non-neutrality is as bad as a naive neutrality. If I tell my students: here are my cards, I admit my biases, I’m not trying to fool you, I’m still manipulating them into thinking, “Wow, so honest and reasonable, keeping us on our guard for the sake of objectivity!”

Second, I think the actual views the post expresses don’t go very far. That’s part of the manipulation: I openly express relatively uncontroversial views and make a point of demanding everyone see that, so that I better deflect attention from implicit controversial views. “Action. Free inquiry. Moral consistency… That’s what I believe in.” Yes, but that’s what *everyone* believes in. But let’s be honest: you don’t pick Zinn, Singer, and Malcolm X because you want the students to be free, moral consistent agents about any ethical or social political views, it’s because you think some ends for which we can freely and consistently act are more reasonable than others. Go further, you are right, for example, to want to influence your students away from freely and morally consistently joining the Republican party, the Scientologists, or ISIS–as long as your influence was encouragement of careful, charitable, intelligent philosophical reasoning.Report

rdxdave
rdxdave
7 years ago

I don’t explain to my students my beliefs on certain subjects. The reasoning is not about pure objectivity, but about fairness to the students that may have the opposite view. I want them to participate but if they know that I disagree with them they will be less likely to chime in. Currently I am teaching a bio-ethics course (although it’s called something different) and I will not, for example, let them know whether I am pro-choice or pro-life, it would serve no purpose for them to know my position.

However, I do not fall victim to fairness bias. Not all opinions are equal and I let the class know on the first day that a bad argument is a bad argument. If a student wants to argue that planned parenthood ought to be defunded because they make all of their money from third trimester elective abortions (something I believe Michelle Bachman stated), I’ll shoot them right down because that’s grossly incorrect. Indoctrinating students into anything other than critical analysis is against the spirit of a philosophy course.Report

Anon
Anon
7 years ago

Another reason to withhold personal opinions is to encourage the students to see philosophical debate as something they should be engaging in with each other, rather than with the teacher. As beginners in philosophical boxing, they should be practicing with people in their weight class, and the more the focus turns to the teacher, the more they’ll see that person as their sparring partner.

It’s also of motivational value: I find that when the students direct debate primarily to me (even if it’s when I’m playing devil’s advocate, not expressing my own views) it can be intimidating to many, the less confident students don’t join in because they don’t want to “lose” too badly in front of the class. So encouraging them to focus on discussion with each other helps them build philosophical confidence.Report

Avi
Avi
7 years ago

Telling students where one stands on ‘controversial’ questions encourages students to mimic the teacher’s position and regurgitate the teacher’s arguments in order to get a better grade, and students will often succeed in this strategy without learning anything about how to reason. In teaching ethics, I actually try to choose non-controversial examples (e.g., sex slavery, killing to avenge an insult, rescuing a drowning child, volunteering to alleviate illiteracy) in order to encourage students to reflect on the nature of moral reasoning and to examine their own moral intuitions. They can do this free of the burden of trying to pretend they agree with the professor and free of the temptation to think they must form a view on everything, even things about which they have insufficient knowledge to have an informed perspective. There is more to ethics (and phil of law and political phil) than controversial cases. I would agree that this approach may not lend itself to certain topics in epistemology and metaphysics (and phil of biology) where some students will hold views (e.g., creationism) at odds with those many philosophers and scientists consider ‘non-controversial’. There may, too, be areas of meta-ethics or normative ethics where this qualification applies.Report