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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Politics in the Classroom

Noelle Lopez and Christopher Kulp

Noelle Lopez and Christopher Kulp

Dealing with the election in a college setting

Miriam Schulman

Noelle Lopez teaches philosophy at Boston College and is a fellow at the Harvard Center for Teaching and Learning.  Back in 2009, she was a Hackworth Fellow at the Ethics Center.  A Rhodes Scholarship and a Ph.D. later, she visited the Center this week to talk about an issue she’s been struggling with in the classroom: How to discuss important issues in our divided political moment.  Center staff, fellows, and scholars shared their own approach to politics in the classroom.  Lopez began with two anecdotes:

The first concerned a student Lopez was working with at Harvard. “He told me about an experience he had in his Latina/o Studies class. He said the day after the election one of his professors walked in, and wrote up on the board, first thing, didn’t say anything, wrote “F--- Trump” on the board.”  Surprised, Lopez asked the student how he felt about the experience, and he reported that the class spent the entire period crying. 

Lopez’ second story came from BC.  The day after the election, Lopez checked in with her officemate about how class had gone that day.  The answer was quite different from the Harvard student’s experience.  “There was a student who voiced how hurt they had felt and scared [by Trump’s victory], and another student who voiced that they felt as if they were being demonized because they voted for Trump… And it turned out that they got in an argument, and there was also crying involved. But there was this conversation about this intense conflict.”

Lopez continued to think about these incidents, wondering how the BC students would have felt in the Harvard classroom, where there was an assumption that everyone thought the same way about the election results.  She is still exploring the question of how much to share with her students about her own views.

That day, she says, she “chose to walk the middle line.”  She asked students what had happened in their other classes and learned that many had already discussed the issue. She got the impression that many of them wanted to leave the turmoil of politics outside.  “So we had a bit of time talking about it, and letting them say whatever they wanted to say, but I didn’t press them a lot to go deeper. I still don’t really know if that was the best route, but then we started talking about John Stuart Mill.”

Lopez’ question opened the door for other professors to share their own approach.  Philosophy Professor Christopher Kulp jumped in: “John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty will be my first reading in the class that starts today.  It’s very important to do that these days because students do not want to hear diverse opinions.” (Mill argues that “there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.”)

Kulp does not usually share his own opinion, however: “My policy is that I do not interject much of my views with regard to politics or even substantive philosophical issues” in his introductory course, Ethics and Society.  “I’m very very, concerned,” he explained.  “I have a lot of first-year students and sophomores in there, and they’re easy to overwhelm.  I don’t want to co-opt their capacity to think for themselves, so I’m very judicious.”

After the election, Kulp asked the class if they wanted to talk about what had happened, and “many of them said no that they didn’t.”  He found them appreciative that he “didn’t jump up on the desk and howl about Trump.” One student even told Kulp that his was the first class the student had had since Election Day because some professors had cancelled in the wake of the results. “I must say I disapprove,” Kulp commented.  “I do not think that is what we should do. And I said I’m sorry that’s happened. I think that we need to be here for students during difficult times.”

Law Professor Deep Gulasekaram is in a different situation.  Because he teaches Constitutional Law and Immigration Law, he believes there’s no way to avoid politics, and he does tell students what he thinks about the issues. Part of his pedagogy is to help students become adept at making arguments no matter who is advocating for the other side.

Gulasekaram always begins the immigration class by asking students to write their own immigration story, connecting it to the large historical movements of people to the United States.  “I was reading them last night, and it was interesting how many people, unsolicited, wrote about why they felt the need to take the class now, and almost all of that focused on what they see as sort of existential threats to themselves, their families, or the idea of creating a country of immigrants.” Gulasekaram saw that theme even from students who claim five or six generations in the United States, as well as students who are undocumented.  “In a class on Immigration, it’s not possible to talk about the topic in any sensible way without thinking about what Attorney General designate Jeff Sessions has planned,” he said, “so you just have to address it.”

Teaching graduate students is different from teaching undergrads, argued Margaret McLean, associate director of the Center, who offers courses on ethics in health care through the Religious Studies Department.  McLean said she keeps her views to herself “because the minute I share my personal thinking about something, the whole class thinks that way. At the end of the quarter, I always give students the opportunity to ask me what I actually think about the conversations we’ve had, but I don’t do that up front.” 

McLean says she has two goals for her students: “to understand what it means to think critically, and then, to be able to take that critical thinking and express it in a way that engages others, whether the others agree with them or not…. I don’t think that putting my big feet the middle of that conversation is helpful.”

Political Science Professor Peter Minowitz has another approach.  He has been teaching political philosophy and talking about the election all year, and he does share his own opinions, though he works hard not to impose them on the students.  On the day after the vote, he reported, “The first thing I did was to say I was amazed at how wrong I was. I was absolutely certain Clinton was going to win, but I linked that to Socrates going around and helping people see that they don’t know as much as they think they know, or that they should know.”


Miriam Schulman is the associate director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Jan 26, 2017

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