Thank god for liberal professors

Liberal professors help keep us open and understand where we stand.

Trent M. Kays

I’ve been privy to the all-too-familiar slur that college professors are liberals. This political stereotype is often spoken with a degree of consternation, and I can’t help but wonder why so many are so angry with so few. College professors certainly are not in many spaces we occupy. They are usually found buried under their papers in their offices or lecturing in front of classrooms. Yet, a certain stigma has been attached to them: many, if not all, are “crazy, godless liberals.” This is far from even a semblance of truth.

Even more bemusing is the charge that college is a liberal place. People are liberal — institutions are not. I can think of few places more averse to change than a university. So, essentially, you have people who may or may not be liberal in a place that often spurns transformation. Still, the degree of hate thrown at college professors for even having a political position seems disproportionate to the harm it does for them to hold said position. The very nature of college is to investigate and encounter positions with which one may be uncomfortable. That’s the point. Such encounters teach us about the world inside and outside the university environment.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first appearance of the word liberal as one designating a sort of political position shows up in 1772 in Nauticus’ “The Rights of the Sailors Vindicated”: “How must it excite the indignation of a liberal mind, to behold the rights and privileges of more than one hundred thousand of the bravest subjects in the world, trampled upon, by an itinerant state-quack.” Now, Nauticus was referring to the impressment of sailors as a form of slavery through which their rights were removed by the state. However, it is important to understand the appearance of a word that is now hurled about as one of hate against those who teach in college. The notion of the word liberal is a notion meaning openness to new things. It is a notion of embracing change and embracing forward cultural and societal movement.

Recently, an organization called Campus Reform called on students to videotape their liberal professors and send in the video for a $100 bounty —  the organization’s goal being to catch the liberal professor in action thereby exposing her to the world. As laughable as this premise is, it is absolutely true. As a teacher myself, I find it quite amusing to picture students silently, and perhaps clandestinely, videotaping their professor’s lecture in order to catch him in an act of liberalness. I suppose some organizations have to justify their existence with something or anything, but I’d hope it would be something better than ferreting out the liberal boogeyman.

The sense that one can spend their career thinking about progress and thinking about how the world is shaped by ideas is a liberal notion. The reason you don’t find many conservative professors isn’t because they are singled out; it’s because they are less open to new things. In order to survive in a college environment, you have to be open to new ideas and ways of thinking. It’s the only way you can survive in the world. The emphasis of social justice and reform, which is dominant in the minds of liberals, is also dominant in university environments. One of the goals of education is to give people the tools to lift themselves out of their oppressive circumstances. So, why are so many surprised this profession attracts people who want to do that in one way or another?

For some reason, professors who tend to be politically liberal irritate or bother those who are staunchly conservative. Perhaps this stems from the belief in objectivity that many assume lives within the university establishment. Unfortunately, objectivity does not exist. Nothing can be objective because everything we have done and will do is influenced by the culture in which we live. The mere act of choosing what to include in a column and what not to include is an act of subjectivity. The point then becomes how much subjectivity we are willing to tolerate in certain contexts.

We need people who aren’t afraid to improve and move forward, and these people should be teachers. Teaching is an adaptive exercise and one fraught with complications that need to be solved quickly and creatively. Teaching is an exercise of the mind and a life of the mind. It is an intellectual endeavor, and it seems that liberals are more open to thinking about things before acting. Having a liberal professor is a good thing because it is more  likely you’ll actually get to challenge their perspective.

The idea of politics in the classroom is a sensitive one. Indeed, I think about it every time I teach. I consider myself to be quite liberal, yet that has never stopped any of my students from challenging my position or me. I do my best to show multiple sides of an issue and offer it up for debate. That’s how it should be done. As a writing teacher, it’s imperative to show students how to create and identify propaganda in whatever form. It exists in any political leaning — conservative or liberal.

All I know is that from my experience, liberal professors have given me new ideas; conservative professors have given me the status quo. I’m not happy with the status quo anymore, and I don’t think anyone should be.