Help them think for themselves

July 15, 2005

Academics should resist abusing their positions to influence students' views, writes Susan Bassnett

Earlier this year, a pressure group inside the Association of University Teachers persuaded the union to vote for a boycott of some Israeli universities. Protests followed and members overruled the vote. It was an unfortunate episode that made headlines and did nothing to help the image of academics as sensible, rational people interested in teaching and research. More significantly, it raised questions about freedom of speech in university life and the role of academics in promoting that freedom as a cornerstone of equality in education.

Individuals are entitled to their views. But academics are not entitled to force their views on students. Rather, they should offer students different perspectives, because one primary objective of a university education is to teach critical thinking. As a parent, I would be profoundly unhappy if my daughter were being taught by an academic who publicly flaunted his or her espousal of a political cause that had known associations with terrorism, or by any academic who publicly proclaimed any kind of discriminatory political, religious or personal agenda. Sadly, some academics do just that. Absolute objectivity was long ago shown to be impossible, though we continue to strive for some degree of objective evaluation. But extreme subjectivity has no place in the seminar room.

Never forget that the balance of power between lecturer and student is unequal: the lecturer will ultimately sit in judgment on the student's exam performance. It is therefore essential the lecturer does everything to ensure that all students are treated fairly, even though they may hold different views.

Sometimes, a lecturer's bias emerges not only in opinions expressed but, more covertly, in reading lists, for example, that fail to give a broad spectrum of methods or approaches to a subject. The lecturer constructs a course according his or her viewpoint and fails to offer students alternative perspectives. Even more sinister is the marking down of students who fail to toe the party line. You can spot this when acting as external examiner because, in such cases, either students write what they know the lecturer wants to read or the tutor's comments show that personal bias has outweighed professional responsibility.

What is the ideal balance between personal belief and professional behaviour? This is a tricky question, but every academic should be able to answer it. Personal belief is just that: our Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, is a member of Opus Dei, but she has stated that her personal faith is not on her professional agenda. It is not only possible but desirable for private views to be set aside in the seminar room, where the real business is moving beyond the subjective.

No academic should seek to convert students to a creed or a political position or even a specific opinion. The task of academics is to offer a range of perspectives, to show students how the same idea, situation or text can be seen differently and to help students arrive at their own conclusions. In short, to teach them how to think for themselves.

The best way to achieve this is through reasoned debate. Play devil's advocate occasionally, just to challenge students to argue back. Make sure that you have not produced a biased reading list, and if you have, then add a work or two by scholars whose opinions you view critically. Above all, respect diversity of opinion and reserve your bigoted opinions for the kitchen or the pub.

Susan Bassnett is professor at the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies, Warwick University.

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