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Challenging Authority

The former president of Hampshire College (Mass.) discusses advocacy in an age of conservatism.
University Business, Nov 2008

Every year the popular press runs articles on the demise of higher education, often pointing the finger of blame at the “liberal bias” of college and university professors. The remedy, according to one school of thought, is “institutional neutrality,” an environment absent of perspective and personal opinion, in which all sides of an argument are presented and students are left to make up their own minds. Former Hampshire College (Mass.) President Gregory Prince says that approach leads to disengagement and, ultimately, much bigger problems. In his book Teach Them to Challenge Authority: Educating for Healthy Societies (Continuum, 2008), Prince argues that neutrality itself undermines the ability to teach critical thinking, and that neutralists don’t appreciate young people’s capacity to see through bias and rhetoric. He recently spoke about it in a conversation with University Business.

A: If you lump them together as advocates of neutrality, they see the students as people who have to be civilized before they become productive citizens. Therefore, it is urgent for them to protect these passive, malleable individuals from the bias of professors. The professors will have too much influence on them, and professors become dangerous if they are too biased and too arrogant. Some professors are always going to be like that. I just don’t think students are as much at risk as they do. So we don’t disagree in that an arrogant, biased, closed-minded professor is not a sound pedagogical platform. But that isn’t my biggest fear, because I think students know how to deal with those individuals. They’re not at risk. If the solution to the fact that some of those professors exist is to make everyone neutral, you create a much bigger problem and a much greater danger.

That is the purpose of education. Both sides agree with that. The question is, which is the best context for it to take place? Their argument is that the only context is one in which issues are laid out on a table and students are left to make up their own minds. I argue that one of our responsibilities is to have students learn how to challenge authority because that is part of the role of a democracy. And what safer place to have them do that than in a college or university, where, yes, the person has authority over them, but it is a controlled environment. Being neutral in a classroom is an appropriate pedagogical device—but as I say over and over in the book, it is not the only one.

That is true, but it just doesn’t go far enough. To be fair to Stanley Fish, he is saying that at whatever level the student ends up, the goal is to develop the curiosity to pursue knowledge and to know how to do it, and to be aware that there are different modes of inquiry and different ways to pursue that knowledge. But the idea that education goes no further than to get the students to pursue that inquiry does not, in effect, get those students to take account of why they are doing it and what they are going to do it for. They don’t think through the ethical implications of what they do with that knowledge. He stops at a point where I would have thought that he, of all people, would urge them to take the next steps and ask about the implications of what they do.

I think much of it has arisen from the conservative viewpoint, expressed by people like Robert Bork, who blamed all the excesses of the sixties on liberal faculty that brainwashed the student body. He felt the academy was being compromised—and there were many times that it was—but the issue is not those excesses. Instead, I would argue that people had stopped listening to young people for so long that they dealt with them as these passive objects. That was the root of the problem—not that they had been brainwashed into this activist mode, but that no one was listening to them. That’s why I spend a lot of time talking about how one should include students and listen to them when it comes to making decisions about their education.

'If we were so good at brainwashing, then why are so many young people voting Republican?'

The conservatives fear this undue influence, and therefore they are putting a barrier down. To me, I would think that, naturally, they’d go past that barrier, but they don’t. They are afraid that, because they don’t control the academy, harm will be done by those who are in control of the academy. Ultimately it is an argument about change. If the conservatives controlled the academy I don’t think this would ever become an issue. But you have to ask: If we were so good at brainwashing, then why are so many young people voting Republican?

Some things may change with the next president, but I don’t know how much. We’ve gotten to be very “exam oriented,” to use the Singapore minister of education’s phrase. At the same time, a Harvard commission came out recently with a report that said we were relying too much on board scores like the ACT and SAT. But people have been saying that for years, so how much impact the Harvard study will have, I don’t know.

I’m not sure how long it will take to turn the ship away from this approach. I think it will turn, but it is going to be very slow. We went through this 20 years ago when Japan’s education system was considered the Holy Grail, and people kept saying, “look at how they do it in Japan.” The Japanese education model is not one that I would want to follow. It’s very exam oriented all the way through high school, but when students made it into college, they stopped. They’d made it and they stopped working. College was the reward and not the next step in an exploration. So we’ve backed off that model somewhat, but we’ve been chasing this idea that accountability is best determined by exam results.

Different culture, different model. In Singapore they’ve adopted the Oxford-Cambridge model of liberal arts education, but it was married with the Chinese role of the exam in society as a great equalizer. There is a lot of merit in that but, carried to extremes, it leads to a very subservient attitude toward authority, and that leads to a lack of innovation.

I think it’s fair to say that if you are always neutral it is read as being too disengaged. You can care about the students and show all the interest, but if you are always the judge you can’t really engage in a way that they are going to have to engage in their lifetime. They’re not going to see you engage in the way that they will have to engage with their boss, or with their spouse, or with their children or their neighbors. It’s going to become artificial, and that can lead to cynicism. It goes back to the premise of the book: Our real responsibility is to model the values we’re trying to instill in young people.

Each institution has its mission, and that is what drives its type of engagement. If it’s a liberal arts college where the goal is to create students who are going to become leaders in society and who are going to engage in society and stand up for truth and honesty, then the institution has a responsibility to model that behavior. They shouldn’t sit back and say, “Do as I say, not do as I do.” That generates cynicism, and cynicism is the biggest problem. That will turn people off, erode the society, and undercut values, systems, and institutions.

There was no outcome other than that the older adults that came were incredibly impressed with the younger adults. And the younger adults had the experience of speaking to authority, having them listen, and feeling a part of the system. Unfortunately we didn’t have the resources to go beyond that, but you plant seeds and you never know what will come out.

That was one of many efforts—which I do often—to set up situations where the students actually get to participate. So there was no outcome for that day, but collectively and over time I hope there is an outcome. Young people will make it happen one way or another. I have faith in their intuitive potential versus their educated potential. People like Bork feel they just have to go through the process of education—and they do—but at any point in time there is also an intuitive strength that these young people have—if they are given the chance to show it.