10/30/2014 03:37 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

What Professors Shouldn't Teach

kristian sekulic via Getty Images

In his book, Save the World on Your Own Time, Stanley Fish takes the position that faculty may not advocate political or moral views in the classroom. Indeed, he claims that if "an idea or policy is presented as a candidate for allegiance -- aided by the instructor, students are asked to decide where they stand on the matter -- then the classroom has been appropriated for political purposes."

If the primary purpose of the professor is to persuade the students to his or her point of view, then Fish has a point. But Fish goes further. He thinks the personal determination of professors and students as to what they believe should be no part of a university classroom life (though he thinks it permissible to evaluate particular pieces of discourse advocating policy positions).

In teaching the First Amendment for many decades, along with many, if not most, law professors, contrary to Fish, I have long asked students how they would decide important cases. Many professors will do this and hide the ball as to their own views. I tend to advocate positions in the classroom. The views I advocate are those the students are likely to disagree with, and most of the time those views are those I actually hold. Generations of students have rejected my views. Would I like to persuade some? Sure. But that is far from my primary goal.

My predominant purpose is to challenge students to think about how to argue for the positions they at least tentatively hold and to make them think that First Amendment issues are more challenging than they had previously thought. At the same time, I tell students they should listen carefully to the arguments of those who resist the positions I take because law school is calculated to develop the ability to argue both sides of difficult questions and to take both sides into account in developing your own positions. John Stuart Mill was not speaking purely out of his imagination when he suggested that this process is well calculated to further the pursuit of truth.

Fish's notion of professionalism is impoverished. If implemented, it would undermine the teaching of many political theorists, philosophers, and law professors, just to mention a few. More generally, it would make it far more difficult to prepare students for civic life in a democratic society.

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger has a more sophisticated conception of what should happen in university classrooms, but I have some reservations about his position as well. In a lecture on academic freedom before the Association of the Bar of New York nearly ten years ago (see here), Bollinger rightly said, "We should not accept the argument that professors are foreclosed from expressing their opinions on the subject in the classroom," and he also said "We will not tolerate intimidation of students in the classroom for appropriately expressing reasonable and relevant points of view." There is, of course, a risk when a faculty member takes a position on a moral, political, or legal issue that some students will be reluctant to speak out. That is why faculty members who do take such positions need to encourage opposing views and try to promote debate among the students on such issues. Fish seems to view this as the blind leading the blind. I think this fails to appreciate the extent to which persons with different backgrounds and experiences have something to contribute on controversial issues.

Bollinger, I believe, would part company from Fish here as well. He believes the academic community most values qualities of mind that have "the imaginative range and the mental courage to take in, to explore, the full complexity of the subject. To set aside one's pre-existing beliefs, to hold simultaneously in one's mind multiple angles of seeing things, [and] to actually allow yourself to believe another view as you consider it." This to my mind is an extremely attractive type of mind to promote. And Bollinger does not suppose that it is or should be the goal of every course in the university. Bollinger understands that a crucial function of a university is to transmit human understanding and new knowledge to the next generation.

But there is a little bit of Fish in Bollinger. He suggests that the "question is not whether a professor advocates a view but whether the overall design of the class . . . is to explore the full range of the complexity of the subject." Bollinger, of course, knows that no class can possibly explore the full complexity of the subject, but I take him to be suggesting a kind of "fairness doctrine" for courses. Let all sides be heard or as many sides as possible. This kind of prescription risks sacrificing depth for breadth in pursuit of the mental qualities Bollinger prizes. Perhaps, however, the prescription is simply designed to prevent a professor from simply exploring his or her own point of view in a course. But here I would also contend there should be a place in the university for courses in which professors teach their own point of view. Imagine seminars in which Rawls, Dworkin, or Nozick had advanced materials designed to pursue in depth their own political theories. Bollinger might say that would capture the full range of the complexity of the subject, but if the professor can define the subject to fit his or her own views, Bollinger's game is up.

It seems to me that seminars of this character are enormously valuable. Similarly, I know of conservative and liberal professors in law, philosophy, and government who would do a far better job of exploring their own positions in depth that they would in trying to adopt the neutral pose of on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand-let-me-hide-the ball. And students might well benefit from examining and questioning the in depth analysis those professor really believe in.

If Fish has an excessively narrow one-size-fits-all view of the profession, Bollinger appears to tip the scales too heavily toward promoting certain qualities of mind. There is room for the kinds of professors and classes Fish and Bollinger have in mind, but there should be room for much more in a first class college or university.