Teaching Controversial History: Four Moves

Inspired by some recent conversations and experiences, I have been thinking about how I approach the task of teaching controversial topics.

Much of my approach, I think, is directly inspired by having been a fairly prickly kind of student myself. I still see a lot of myself in students who aren’t prepared to buy what their instructors are hoping to sell. (Let’s assume, for the sake of simplicity, that we instructors are correct, though of course that is not universally the case.)

I think I can reduce my approach to four basic instructional moves. These moves strike me as both pragmatic and principled; I make these moves because they tend to work, but they work because they’re the morally right thing to do anyway.

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College Students Mostly Feel Comfortable Speaking in Class, Study Finds Despite Itself

This week, Heterodox Academy—an organization founded in 2015 to promote “open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement” in universities—released the results of a survey conducted in the fall of 2020 on U.S. college campuses.

This second annual Campus Expression Survey, in a report authored by Melissa Stiksma, a doctoral student in industrial-organizational psychology at George Mason University, purports to substantiate Heterodox Academy’s claim that “students and professors have been ‘walking on eggshells,’ censoring their opinions and thereby depriving others and themselves the opportunity to learn from counterarguments and constructive debate.”

Republican students are especially susceptible to self-censorship on campus, according to the report. To be sure, the report attributes this self-censorship primarily to the fear of other students’ opinions, rather than to fear of reprisals from professors or administrators. But Stiksma told Inside Higher Ed that it shows “that Republican students are not part of the conversation on some of the biggest issues” on American campuses.

These are bold claims related to heated public debates about the future of American higher education. But I find that the survey—on the whole—does not support these assertions.

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Is Trump Turning Students Against Conservatives?

In 2016, American undergraduates who had started college in the fall of 2015 (more than 7,000 of them at 122 institutions) said that their opinions of both conservatives and liberals had dramatically improved during their first year of college. Half of all students had already become more appreciative of conservatives; nearly half had become more appreciative of liberals.

But when surveyed again in their final year of college, those same students had changed their minds. Across almost all religious groups, the appreciation that these undergraduates had gained for conservatives had been “nearly or totally erased” since early 2016. In fact, by the time the class of 2019 graduated, its students from every major religious group—including Mormons and evangelicals!—were more likely to report a high opinion of liberals than of conservatives.

These are the (not yet published) findings of researchers running a project called IDEALS (the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey), who discuss their work today in an essay at Religion & Politics.

Matthew Mayhew, Kevin Singer, Alyssa Rockenbach, and Laura Dahl write that “students of all faiths in the class of 2019 were warming up to political conservatives at the end of their first year in college, which was during the final year of Obama’s presidency. Now, three years into Trump’s presidency, conservatives can only wonder what could have been.”

The researchers blame students’ plummeting approval for conservatives on “the Trump effect.”

Allow me to make some observations of my own.

I do think the “Trump effect” explanation for these findings is basically plausible. It is also consistent with my experiences working in higher education.

There has been a dramatic shift in student political temperament since early 2016 on the campuses where I have worked, and it does seem to be connected (in various ways) with the Trump phenomenon. Undergraduates in 2020 tend to identify conservatism with Donald Trump, in my experience, and they tend to hold conservatism in much lower regard than the undergraduates I taught a decade ago. But for the purpose of evaluating the IDEALS study as a piece of research, I do approach the idea with some caution.

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Conservatives and Liberals Are Different (and Both Thrive in College)

Like a lot of other Americans, I grew up in a conservative subculture that assumed college would be a hostile environment. Many of my acquaintances took for granted that America’s overwhelmingly liberal or left-wing professors are tempted to discriminate against conservative students.

I have reason to believe this expectation hasn’t gone away. Actually, it seems to be more widely shared by conservative Americans today than it was then. It’s a big part (though only part) of what people are talking about when they debate liberal or left-wing “bias” on campus. But is there evidence for it, beyond anecdotes and rumors?

This spring, a team of researchers led by a self-described “lifelong Republican” released a working paper called “Is Collegiate Political Correctness Fake News?: Relationships between Grades and Ideology.” (A working paper presents research results that have not yet been formally vetted by a peer-reviewed publication.)

Analyzing survey responses from more than seven thousand students who attended U.S. four-year universities from 2009 to 2013, the researchers (Matthew Woessner, Robert Maranto, and Amanda Thompson) looked for relationships among students’ self-reported political views and grade point averages.

What they found was … complicated.

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Religious Beliefs in History: Viewpoints versus Conclusions

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In the wake of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History’s recent annual conference, L.D. Burnett presents historians in the society with a question that relates to teaching as well as research. It’s a question about treating religious ideas with respect:

[S]hould we treat religious thought differently, as a special case, from other kinds of thought? Should we refrain from critiquing arguments as racist, or sexist, or anti-gay, or anti-woman, or anti-intellectual, because they proceed from a position of deep religious conviction?

That was the suggestion offered to me in conversation at USIH. …

These are the kinds of questions I have to think about as the editor of this blog. For, at the conference, someone suggested to me that religiously conservative intellectual historians feel unwelcome in this space.

I wasn’t a party to the original conversation and can’t address its particular context or nuances. But the question is important, and I think it comes up a lot in different forms.

For example, this question is part of the subtext of current academic debates over “viewpoint diversity.” (I hate that term, but it’s fairly widely used now.) In my understanding of the term, a viewpoint isn’t the same thing as a scholarly conclusion, so viewpoint diversity is different from what academics usually mean by “academic freedom.” It describes a much greater degree of intellectual openness and tolerance.

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Cass Sunstein’s Curiously Contradictory Case for Conservative Professors

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This week, the legal scholar and sometime Obama-administration official Cass R. Sunstein published an essay arguing that American professors are mostly liberals and that this is a problem. Notwithstanding the banality of that claim, his essay seems worth a reply, if only because Sunstein is a famous example of the liberal professors in question.

But upon closer inspection, the essay is remarkable for another reason: Sunstein has co-opted boilerplate conservative talking points about academic bias in order to make what appears to be a liberal argument for changing nothing about the liberal academy at all.

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