Debate key to learning

I am always saddened and disappointed when university students, who are now passed the obligatory age of education, get upset about being “forced” to do things in their college classes (i.e. participate in peace or war projects, support anti- or pro-war demonstrations, do community volunteer work, attend guest lectures on/off campus, etc.).

Certainly, students have every “right” to express their concerns and engage actively in their education. It’s even more discouraging when parents call in and complain about how college campuses are “indoctrinating” their “children” (I suspect that the vast majority of our students are 18 and over) into “liberal thought!”

Yes, students should know their rights and responsibilities and continue to be engaged in their educational process! And no, professors should never use the power of the grade to impose their viewpoints onto students!

However, both professors and students alike have the right to academic freedom, the foundation of higher education, without the threat of being investigated if they express different, dissenting, or even “offensive” views. Indeed, the abuse of power and misconduct on the part of professors or students should never be tolerated. Nevertheless, it’s odd, I never seem to get those complaints from progressive or so-called “liberal” students (and parents) about how the university is still a very conservative and elitist institution that reproduces and reinforces the social, hierarchies and economic inequalities of our society.

Anytime, a viewpoint disguised in “objectivity” or “the norm” supports the status quo or ideologies and beliefs that conserve the foundations of our society (be they just or unjust), I rarely hear opposition or complaints being mounted! And yet, these are subjective viewpoints open to being contested as any viewpoint that may be “overtly political” or challenging of the status quo.

There are always requirements students must follow at the university, just like there are requirements professors must follow as well. Students are “forced” to read textbooks that their instructors assign. They are “forced” to take a set of GE requirements. They are “forced” to take certain courses for their majors/minors. They are “forced” to take prerequisites before certain upper division courses.

They are “forced” to take the GREs, LSATs, and MCATs for graduate and professional schools. They are “forced” to take tests and complete assignments that their instructors devise. They are “forced” to take courses in which professors privilege this mathematical method over that one or this sociological paradigm over another.

Students at CSUN are “forced” to interact with students, faculty, staff, and members of the university community who come from all walks of life.

Like it or not, everything is political. The real world is political whether one can see the “overt politics” in it or not. (One should ask why some events, activities, viewpoints, and realities get named “overtly political” whereas others do not. There is power in the political invisibility of those events, activities, viewpoints, and realities that are not named “political!”)

What a wonderful opportunity for students to experience different perspectives, to do a variety of class assignments, to read books not sold at Barnes and Nobles, to listen to radio stations that are not mainstream, to watch documentaries not available in Hollywood Video, and even to sharpen their own dissenting views from their professors!

Where else will one have this opportunity to engage in fierce, creative, passionate discussion and debate other than on a university campus? Isn’t that why so many of us love the university (where a “universe of differing ideas” can be debated, researched, taught, learned, and challenged)?

What is happening to our college campuses? Where is the critical thinking? Where is the creativity? Where is the innovation? Where is the understanding that what we learn in the classroom is directly connected to the world at large (i.e. war and peace; poverty and wealth; racism; sexism; homophobia and so on)?

I feel the onset of a very chilly climate on college campuses across the U.S. in which left-leaning scholars and professors or even mildly dissenting viewpoints are being targeted as “political,” “biased,” “one-sided,” and “subjective.” Let’s not mistake the poor or excellent grades students earn based on academic performance from the poor or excellent evaluations students receive in their classes based on their so-called “political views” that agree or disagree with those of their professors.

Teresa Williams-Leon is associate professor and chair of the Asian American Studies Department.