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ISSUE 117 VOL 13 PUBLISHED 3/12/2004

Intellectual diversity

By Emelie Heltsley
Staff Writer

Friday, March 12, 2004

With the presidential election coming up in November, and the country engaged in a war, things are more political than usual at St. Olaf. This, along with recent controversy has added to the heated debate over the presence of political bias in college classrooms. A movement to incorporate "intellectual diversity," which is related to political diversity, in the classroom has begun on college campuses around the nation -- including St. Olaf. What is intellectual diversity? Is St. Olaf intellectually diverse?

"I believe, in general, that the recent discussion of 'intellectual diversity' is really a discussion of 'political diversity,'" Professor of Music Peter Hamlin said. By incorporating "non-traditional approaches" to music composition, his classes include intellectual diversity, but "[aren't] really 'right' or 'left' in a political sense."

Nevertheless, Hamlin believes there is no doubt that "intellectual diversity" flourishes on the St. Olaf campus, at least by his own definition. The wide variety of classes and majors are telling of the intellectually diverse education offered. But is St. Olaf intellectually diverse in a political sense?

All interviewed students answered that political diversity abounds among students on the St. Olaf campus. One group in particular, the recently formed St. Olaf Committee for Intellectual Diversity, seems especially sensitive to instances in which students become aware of a professor's political viewpoints. When students gain knowledge about a professor's bias, this knowledge alone can affect their class participation. "I don't need to know their [political] opinions to get a well-rounded education. Professors shouldn't be putting their opinions into topics where they don't belong," Britt Haugland `04, a leader of the Committee, said.

Professors have also joined the conversation regarding politics and the classroom. "While I know that there is a range of political thought represented here, there appears to be an unwritten orthodoxy that leans strongly to the left. This is problematic only in so far as it comes out in the classroom, and through example and otherwise communicated expectation, becomes a 'norm' governing thinking, expression, and discourse, Assistant Professor of Classics Jon Bruss said. Some see a problem when this "political norm" begins to infiltrate the classroom, curriculum and book lists, especially in a liberal arts education that stresses the importance of presenting a large breadth of topics.

In order to decide if a liberal education must be politically diverse, one must first define "liberal." The Oxford American College Dictionary defines "liberal"(in the educational context) as an education "concerned mainly with broadening a person's general knowledge and experience, rather than with technical or professional training."

A number of students and professors agreed with this definition. "A liberal education is an education for free people. It is a freeing education that allows us to live without parochialisms," Bruss said.

Haugland believes that a liberal education is one that strives to be objective. "A liberal arts education consists of non-biased information on many viewpoints so students can determine their own views on issues," she said.

One professor cited the importance of quality rather than quantity of information. "In a liberal education every view that's out there and deserves airing should not be suppressed, Professor of Mathematics Paul Zorn said.

While most professors and students agreed that a "liberal education" should include multiple viewpoints, problems with teaching every opinion, valid or invalid, surfaced. "Should the Chemistry Department start teaching Alchemy? Should every scientific hypothesis be a part of the curriculum?" Zorn asked.

Jumping across the curriculum from math to the humanities, History Professor Robert Entenmann was in agreement with Zorn. "A liberal arts education does not obligate professors to present all views, such as those that are misinformed or driven by ideology. For example, the theory that the Holocaust never occurred -- that's not a legitimate historical argument," he said.

Some professors do not deal with political discourse in their classrooms. "In math, [political comments] are not an issue I have to face," Zorn said.

It is impossible, however, to avoid political controversy in other disciplines. "Some subjects do have political topics, and when they do come up, I try to let them be non-partisan, not non-political," Entenmann said.

Although some professors agreed that voicing political opinions in irrelevant situations is "absolutely inexcusable," most did not feel it was a major problem at St. Olaf. "I'd be surprised if any professors are suppressing views of students," Zorn said. Entenmann agreed. "Almost all professors would treat students with respect, regardless of political opinions," he said.

Greta Goerss `04 does not believe that "any St. Olaf professor would ever prohibit a student from speaking in class because of [his or her] political opinions." For Goerss, the problem comes when students "feel stifled within a classroom from expressing their personal beliefs for fear of being in disagreement with their professor."

Other students said they had experienced the negative effects of the St. Olaf faculty's leftist leanings. "There have been times where I could have said something but chose not to, because of the possibility of fellow students and [professors] looking down [on me]," Haugland said. On the other hand, there are students who do not fear the judgments of classmates and professors. Suzanne Myers `07 admitted that she's "not one to hold back comments" but noted that the college atmosphere "feels more liberal in the classrooms."

Bruss sympathized with students who feel that their classrooms are not open to all political viewpoints. "In the best case scenario, students wouldn't know or have to worry about their professors' viewpoints," he said. "If they did know them, they would still be able to regard the classroom as a forum for open, respectful, and mutually beneficial exchange of political ideas." This seems not to be the case in certain, perhaps not egregious, instances here at St. Olaf.

Professor Zorn disagreed. "I don't believe that [the victimization of conservative students] happens, at least to any significant extent." What would be a significant extent? "If I heard of any -- even a handful -- of situations in which I thought faculty were mistreating a student's political views, I would consider it a problem.

Zorn did stress, however, that if a student "gets poor grades from a professor, the student perceives to [have different political views], although it's theoretically possible, it is by no means certain that the student is being politically oppressed." Maybe the professor is just reacting to poor argumentation or research, he said.

All interviewed students and professors agreed that even the lowest level of victimization based on political views should not be tolerated. Opinions of what constitutes "victimization," however, were a matter of debate. Haugland considers "an uncomfortable feeling" in class to be a problem. "Discomfort says something," Brttany Larson`05, the co-leader of the Committee for Intellectual Diversity, said. Myers agreed, extending on the opinions expressed by Haugland and Larson. "If a student does not feel like they can speak up or share opinions in class, the college has failed in their mission," she said.

Is St. Olaf's current political climate a problem? "I didn't see the political climate of St. Olaf as problematic until a few months ago. Counterpoint and other groups have created a problem out of something that doesn't exist," Goerss said. Recent conservative group tactics aimed at bringing liberal leanings into the public's view are "disheartening" to her. She believes that this issue is being debated on campus means that political diversity is alive and well. "Political diversity is a fiery subject, and clash is good," she said.

Conservative students cling to the legitimacy of their allegations. "We didn't make up this issue; we're just exposing it. We're trying to build up St. Olaf into the just community of ideas it should be, not tearing it down," Larson said

The political climate of St. Olaf does not bother Entenmann. "Political diversity is not in as short supply as some people say," he said. "Exaggeration, not political diversity, is the real problem."

"There is a range of opinion, and a wide consensus in a lot of issues. While conservatives may be in the minority, I'm pretty sure we don't have any Marxists on staff either," he said. Zorn admitted that the "[St. Olaf faculty] are indeed more likely to be political liberals than political conservatives." St. Olaf is definitely not the only institution of higher learning dominated by a liberal faculty.

Bruss sees the liberal bias of college campuses as a problem. "When we participate in this orthodoxy in our teaching, especially when it comes across as an 'official position' or is delivered in a dismissive manner & we fail to be liberal educators," he said.

What should students do if they feel victimized by a professor? All professors interviewed stressed that if any student feels victimized, they should talk to the professor or the department chair. "If you are, squawk like hell. It is your responsibility as a student," Zorn said.

The St. Olaf Handbook, under the section entitled "Student Rights and Academic Freedom," states that students "are free to take reasoned exception to the data or views offered in any course of study and to reserve judgment about matters of opinion, but they are responsible for learning the content of any course of study in which they are enrolled."

As the handbook suggests, learning -- both through the current debate and within the classroom -- must continue to be a priority.

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