Darry Sragow is in the news and not in a good way. Watch the video of what Mediaite calls his his “greatest hits” below. What most of the media coverage has missed so far, is that he’s more than a political science prof, he’s a political strategist for hire. In fact, that’s his real job. He’s not a full-time prof at USC. He’s an adjunct prof, which is academic speak for part-time.
Nevertheless, this episode raises some interesting questions about what we should expect a prof to do. I saw an interview last night with the student who is taking his course this year and who secretly recorded the lectures. At one point in the interview the student argued that the prof is wrong for expressing his opinion to the students. Rather, the student argued, the prof is supposed to provide the students with information and allow them to make up their own minds. It’s with this contention that I want to take issue because I think it gets at a significant problem. I don’t think the student is alone. He’s speaking for a great lot of people in his generation.
First, some context. Clearly Sragow is a a political partisan. As a political consultant for hire to corporations and native tribes (according to his bio) he’s a part of the big-money political machine in California, which makes his rant about evil-Republicans not only hypocritical but also cynical. Yet, I don’t doubt that he really believes the stuff he says here. He gets paid for telling people what he thinks and that’s what he was doing in class. Further, I’m not defending the substance of his opinions. Based on what has been released that don’t seem based in fact. They seem bigoted. I can’t tell if he’s being intentionally or unintentionally ironic when he laments the stubbornness of “old white men.” If the latter, then he’s a fool.
The question, persists, however: is it Sragow’s job simply to provide raw data or information for the student to analyze or does a prof have the a duty to propose a thesis, to address objections (real or potential) and to argue for that point of view in a reasoned and even passionate way? I’m concerned that this student and others in his generation have been shaped by Wikipedia, that they’ve come to see teachers as walking encyclopedias, whose job it is to supply information without analysis or criticism. I really don’t know whence students have got this idea but it’s entirely foreign to the great history of western and classical education.
A teacher should certainly provide information but he is not an encyclopedia. That’s why we have encyclopedias. Another assumption has developed as a corollary to the “prof as encyclopedia” assumption, i.e., the student shouldn’t have to look up anything, that it should be given to him in a tidy package. Here I wonder if there is a generational difference. I spent much of my school life in the library. When I asked a question it was not unusual or shocking to get the answer, “Look it up.” My teachers and profs did not think that they had to try to replace the encyclopedia. I knew where the library was. My legs weren’t broken. A question might result in a research assignment, i.e., look it up and report back to class.
There’s a third, parallel assumption I see operating regularly: if he didn’t say it to me personally, he didn’t say it. Discussion of the built-in, highly-developed mass media filter of today’s student would take us too far astray from this post. File it under &#discuss later.”
Part of what students are buying when they pay tuition is the considered opinion of the prof. We’re paying for his research, his reflection, his synthesis of various points of view, his interaction with other interpretations of the data. For more than a millennium profs have proposed theses. Medieval education was built on the disputation (e.g., Luther’s famous 1518 Heidelberg Disputation), where opposing points of view were proposed and debated. Lectures are mini-versions of the disputation. Instead of featuring both parties, the prof is to fairly state both points of view and then give reasons why he favors one or the other.
Under the assumption stated by the student, Luther would have been muted. He did not simply provide data about the Psalms, Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews. He analyzed the text in light of the history of interpretation and proposed theses, conclusions, about what he was reading and he argued for those conclusions. As he did so, in light of his own education and experience, his theses actually changed as he (his mind) was changed. He actively sought to take the students with him on a journey and he did so by arguing a point of view, not by giving mere facts for them to do digest autonomously as they will. He provoked them, in a good way, and in so doing he turned the western world on its head.
Our problem with Sragow shouldn’t be that he expressed opinions pointedly and colorfully (here my bias may be showing a little) but that he was bigoted. In the best sense of the word “liberal” denotes a broad-minded tolerance of a range of views, a fair-mindedness. This fellow Sragow may be a leftist but he appears to be more evidence for the case that the left is not truly liberal. A truly liberal arts education means exposing students to a variety of points of view but also includes advocacy of a particular point of view. Students shouldn’t be forced to adhere to it. They shouldn’t be penalized for disagreeing with it. That would be illiberal and contrary to the very nature of education, which is the reasoned, intelligent, and even passionate exchange of views. Whatever education is, however, it is not the mere transmission of data.