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Politics in the lecture theatre

By Jay Thompson - posted Thursday, 20 March 2008

Have you heard about the leftie academics? You know, those tenured radicals, who have supposedly infiltrated our halls of higher education and who are brainwashing innocent students with their “race/gender/class” mantras?

Apparently, they’re at it again. Or at least that was the impression I got when I opened up the Higher Education supplement of The Australian last week (March 12). The article focuses on a new initiative by the Young Liberals entitled “Education, Not Indoctrination”, which aims to “stamp out bias in education”.

There is an interview with Young Liberals member and law student Natalie Karam, who reveals that she dropped out of a university subject because she felt “marginalised” by the political stance of the lecturer. This lecturer, we are informed, admitted to his students that he was a member of the Greens Party and also included questions about the legal rights of the “Stolen Generation” in an assignment.


Is there is really a left-wing “bias” in university teaching? And can academics teach in a way that respects and benefits all students, regardless of these students’ political opinions? I will focus primarily upon the higher education sector in Australia, although my remarks will hopefully have some relevance to debates about the rumoured invasion of “ideologues” in both overseas universities and Australian high schools.

First, that left wing bias. Yes, it’s true - there are academics teaching in Australian universities who would (either overtly or implicitly) align themselves with so-called left-wing politics. Conversely, there are also many academics who would hold what might be considered to be politically conservative views. And there are many other academics who would choose to remain silent about their political standpoints.

And yes, it’s also true, there are academics of all political persuasions who have “brazenly forc(ed)” students “to agree with their political or ideological views”. This show of “force” can involve an academic exposing their students to only one particular political approach to an issue. An academic may also display hostility to students who happen disagree with their ideological standpoint (i.e. by marking down that student’s work or insulting them in front of other students).

That said, though, there is a difference between force and disagreement. I tutored at various universities in Victoria during the early years of my postgraduate studies, and frequently gave positive and encouraging feedback to students whose political stances (I surmised, at least) did not resemble my own. Karam’s law lecturer may have done the same, though she does not suggest this might have been a possibility had she remained in his subject.

Also, the media does not run many stories about students being terrorised by doctorate-wielding dragons who openly endorse (say) economic rationalism or the policies of George W Bush. Oh, no, these academics represent the “mainstream”. There is no “bias” in their teaching. They are not going to “indoctrinate” their unsuspecting undergraduates.

On this last note: I detect more than a touch of hypocrisy about the “Education, Not Indoctrination” initiative. This initiative really seems intent on “marginalising” all those academics who may not agree with the political philosophy of the Young Liberals. Such academics would include Karam’s lecturer, whose only offences were - it seems - that he was a Greens member and that he suggested that the “Stolen Generation” was something other than a fabrication devised by the black armband brigade.


So what is to be done? Should universities only employ academics who are avowedly “apolitical”? This kind of response is simplistic on a number of levels. First, I would argue that we all have opinions on so-called “political” issues and views - whether or not we disclose them to others. Second, as I have suggested, the term “apolitical” has (paradoxically) tended to refer to political conservatism.

I would instead endorse an approach to university teaching that respects the diversity (“political” and otherwise) of all students. In this approach, academics would respect the arguments and views expressed by their students, even when they differ from those of the academic (and vice versa). Academics would expose their students to a range of viewpoints on a particular issue or set of issues, as well as a range of political and theoretical approaches. Finally, debate and discussion would be vigorously encouraged instead of shut down.

Horror stories about a left-wing bias in higher education are not new. And we have not heard the last of them. However, the stereotype of universities as places which are dominated by “mainstream”-hating “ideologues” is ultimately untrue and unhelpful. Clearly, there is more benefit in discussing ways of creating a learning environment that is inclusive and intellectually stimulating. But this kind of discussion does not sell newspapers.

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About the Author

Jay Daniel Thompson recently completed a PhD in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. His thesis focused on representations of sex and power in Australian literature during the "culture wars"’ of the 1990s.

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