What Do Profs Do?

Darry SragowDarry 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.


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  1. In the U at which I am employed and go to graduate school, an adjunct professor, Deandre Poole, recently went viral for conducting a “stomp on Jesus” exercise. In both of these cases I tend to side with academic freedom in the classroom. I do ask that professors act professionally when they disagree with matters (e.g., Mormonism, Republicanism, etc.), but taking this issue to the internet is a little petty, in my judgment. Did he go to the professor, not in a Matt. 18 way, but in a spirit of understanding, informing the professor that it “offends” him and that he doesn’t think it germane. This way the professor has the opportunity to explain to the student that his methods are not the student’s methods and his ways are not the student’s ways.

    Is the academe very “liberal” in the Machen sense? Yes. Does there remain much profit still? Yes. Disgruntled students can really make some issues for universities and its (non-tenure track) professors. I hope the student considers the fact that he is taking classes at a public university in California and not being taught by his bishop in private.

  2. I’ve seen the infringement of student academic freedom go both ways. At the same time, I have former colleagues from all sides of politics who refuse to divulge their political views to their kids.

    For the most part, I have taught Computer Science and Math courses. But, because I went to seminary (WTS during the late ’70s) I was allowed to teach a World Religions course. Expressing personal opinions played an important role in teaching the class. So I like Dr Clark’s statements opposing the idea that professors are merely walking encyclopedias.

    But one can interject one’s own opinions into class without forcing students to accept a particular view. The best student from the last World Religion class I taught was the student I disagreed with the most. He was the best student because he excelled at what I wanted the students to do; he involved himself in the course material. He was a conservative Republican and I am a leftist and those differences came into play when we discussed the religious issues regarding Israel-Palestine. My opinions came out in the form of questions I used to challenge him regarding his view of Israel. But I asked the same questions that I asked him when dealing with the Muslim response to Israel. The questions I asked were:

    1. What is a government’s moral responsibilities to protect its people?
    2. What is a government’s moral responsibilities to the world as it tries to protect its own people?

    What I wanted the students to do here was not to replicate my views but to realize that both questions must be answered in a way that makes any government accountable for its actions. So I wanted the students to give well thought out answers, regardless of my agreement with their personal views. Was I personally disappointed with the some of the students’ viewpoints? Certainly! But was I fair in challenging all sides of the issues with the same questions? Yes. And did I punish students for their personal opinions? No.

    The point here is that having strong personal opinions on issues discussed in class can give both the students and the professors a great deal of energy, enthusiasm and interest in learning. And those three factors play a crucial role in education because, as one Harvard Professor said to his students, what is important in his class is what the students discover, not what is covered.

  3. Liberal professors see themselves as bearing the liberal gospel, which is to say, tell you what to think and why and that how you thought previously was wrong and old fashioned.
    I am a history major and I still can’t escape their liberal biases. For instance, I am taking a class on the biographical sketches of the Kennedy family and Richard Nixon. The guy swears up and down that Nixon is a sociopath and a psychotic, and that Kennedy was the greatest man who ever lived. Not to mention he’s always interjecting his views on economics, politics, etc. He’s a very nice man however, it is annoying. He’s not the only one I’ve had who does that, and when they all talk about economics, it’s all at least second or third hand Keyesian sayings (since there is a Keyesian captivity of economics) with stuff like “the reason that the economy tanked more in 1937 was that we didn’t spend enough” or “a deficit is actually a good thing” and so on but, I digress.

    • “Liberal professors see themselves as bearing the liberal gospel.” A bit of an overgeneralization perhaps? What about the liberals I know who refuse to divulge their political leanings to their students?

    • It is an overgeneralization. There are professors who’s political orientation I can’t tell that I have had. But, the ones who spoke up were all liberals and in one way or another a bit hostile just divulging whatever at will.

  4. I agree with your view of a professor’s role, but I’m not sure that I agree with your reading of the interview. The student stated that the professor did not allow the students’ in the class “agency,” and a charitable reading of this is that he was protesting the professor’s refusal to “teach the debate,” and that the prof. was not allowing for students who disagreed to ask questions or share their viewpoints. In the brief video that I watched, the professor was not respectfully advocating for his point of view in a way that created an atmosphere of lively debate and dialogue, but instead creating an atmosphere of monologue and intimidation. Professors who do this quash student agency and expect passive acceptance, uniformity, and smiling, head-nodding obsequious agreement. Professors have to remember, too, that they are in a clear position of power, not only in terms of their authority to determine grades, but also in terms of their superior credentials, knowledge, experience, and oftentimes rhetorical ability. If a professor uses this power to indoctrinate–another word the student in the interview used–instead of to cultivate and challenge, that is a breach of professorial ethics, a clear abuse of power. FWIW, I think this was what the student was getting at.

    I would just also add that given your description of a professor’s role and the idea of a truly liberal classroom, I think I would enjoy being in one of your classes very much.

    • Ash,

      I do not object to every criticism that the student made of the professor. I am only objecting here to his contention that it is the job of the professor to provide information so that the student can make up his own mind.

      This is something that I have heard from my students from time to time so I am reasonably confident that he is not the only person in his age group that thinks this way.

  5. Professor Clark,

    This was a refreshing observation in these years. Could it be the generational notion of profs just being walking encyclopedias is simply a “reactive” against caustic partisanship?

    Also, can’t white men ever catch a break? I’m a black man who was adopted by two white Lutherans at three months old. They have been the two Greatest parents in the world! in my humble opinion.

    Sure, I try not to take things personally, because it can make one look a fool and make unwise reflections upon life. At the same time, I’m positively offended white guys like this USC prof are constantly denigrating white men – as if more pressing problems and institutional disrepair (politically) isn’t to blame for severe fiscal dislocation and social impecunity.

    Still, it is a boon to the mind and heart to travel across space (and time) to Heidelblog and actually get some salient and prudent reflections about recovering our reformed confessions and good ideas about Christ and culture in 21st America!

    Keep up the great work, Sir.

    David Beilstein

  6. I hear ya, Professor Clark. But could you just neutrally lay out both sides in great detail like a reporter and then let me make up my own mind? That’s a joke, of course.

    Sorry if I implied that you were objecting to everything the student said; that was not my intention. I’m just saying that based on this interview and others that the student has now given, I think you may be over-reading his comment that you have so strenuously objected to. I don’t really think that is/was his emphasis or even the only way to read his comment. I have, however, run into the professor as pre-packaged information dispenser, student as pre-packaged information regurgitator attitude so no doubt that attitude is out there.

    However, wouldn’t you say that on any issue taught, once a professor has “taught the debate,” synthesized the salient primary and secondary sources, respectfully advocated for his or her conclusions, allowed for and responded to questions and/or challenges, then, at that point, isn’t it ultimately up to the student to form his or her own well-informed, thoughtful, nuanced opinion on the issue? Obviously in some seminary courses or in some issues that come up, this would not be the case. A student desiring to be ordained in a NAPARC denomination obviously would not be able to diverge from the faculty on any number of historical, confessional doctrines such at the Trinity, the full humanity and and full divinity of Christ, the virgin birth, etc. But on issues such as acceptable interpretations of the creation account in Genesis, deaconesses, divorce and remarriage, Christian schools, etc. surely you would want a student ultimately to come to his own conclusions, though of course you would prefer that he or she would come to share your conclusions. It seems to me that that this would even be more pronounced in various disciplines that are not directly spoken to in natural or divine revelation. And ultimately, as much as they should advocate for their conclusions, shouldn’t truly liberal–in the classical sense of the word– professors want their students to come to their own conclusions, however much they might prefer that their students ultimately come to agree with them? Otherwise don’t we have a theoretical, defacto conscience-binding faculty Magisterium in any given discipline?

    Thanks for the opportunity to interact.

    • Well, I only saw the one interview but in it he said three times that he wanted the prof to give information so that he could make up his own mind. We may simply disagree about what he said and what intended to communicate.

      Of course students are ultimately going to make up their own minds, as they should. I’m arguing that, having introduced students to various perspectives on a question, the prof should be allowed (indeed he must, if he is to do his job) argue for a point of view. In that way a good lecture is like a good journal article. The best such introduce the topic, summarize the various points of view on the topic (assuming they exist), and then propose a thesis, explain the thesis, and defend the thesis with evidence and reason. The conclusion re-states the thesis and the main evidences. Now, I don’t follow this formula in every single lecture but I do follow it generally in my teaching.

      I worry that young people (under 30) are increasingly influenced by skepticism and subjectivism with the result that they view claims that “this is correct” and “this view is incorrect” are not truth claims and an attempt to exercise power masked as a truth claim. In other words, behind the desire for “just facts” is really an unconscious skepticism about the existence of truth.

      At WSC we don’t require the students to adhere to a confession to enter or even to graduate. We do hope to persuade them to embrace the Reformed confession with heart and head before they graduate but I think that any prof must propose theses and argue for them rationally and even, as appropriate, passionately.

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