Balance, not bias, the goal for undergrads

Objectivity. Balance. Unbiased teaching. What do US colleges and universities do for their undergraduates to make sure that they are taught -- particularly in economics, political science, government , and history classes -- in an objective, balanced, and unbiased manner?

If you believe the "first" answer to that question given by some deans and presidents, the answer is "nothing." If, after you have been told that "balance is not an issue here," you look astounded, or even just lift a journalist's eyebrow, the laconic "nothing" becomes a lengthy discussion of nearly "everything."

"There are several kinds of balance, Miss Parsons. Just what are you after? Are you looking for an ideological balance or balance in the curriculum? Are you asking about course requirements? Or about academic advising?"

Some academicians want the questioner to believe that it's possible to teach "value free" economics, or history, or political science. Others want you to know that "every subject" is capable of being taught in a biased manner.

But I came back time and again to my original concerns:

How do teachers make sure they include a range of opinions (radical-liberal-conservative) when teaching subjects that lend themselves to political or ideological points of view?

How does each college or university, in some institutional manner, oversee its faculty and what is taught in its classes?

And how are students, particularly those just out of high school, to keep their balance when meeting an exciting array of conflicting and challenging new ideas?

One hears it said: "She was ruined by that professor at University."

Or, "Except for , and , every college in this nation tries to pull our children to the left -- and only a rare few can survive such concentrated attacks on their beliefs."

Or, "We wouldn't send our son or daughter to ; the whole campus is alive with Reds." And on the other side, "They are so conservative at that college they think the range of thought goes from ultraconservative to conservative to un-American."

Staff writer Jonathan Harsch and I visited several college campuses, asking about bias and balance. We'd been told that "most colleges are way left of center," and we wanted to find out why, or even if there were really many that were deliberately left or right of center. We went to large and small, to public and private, to those accused of being "far left" as well as "far right."

And we both received the same initial treatment wherever we went: "This is not a concern here."

Yet it is a concern, and pressed to talk about this very sensitive area, one that journalists seldom explore in any depth, every contact delved deep into thought to tackle the problems posed by combining intellectual integrity, academic freedom, the necessity often to specialize rather than be spread too thin, and students who arrive on campus from high schools almost devoid of any analytical skills.

College presidents, deans, professors, student advisers -- whether we were asking questions at William and Mary in Virginia or at the University of California at Berkeley -- painted today's entering freshmen as both naive and sophisticated.

Yes, they reluctantly agreed, entering students haven't used analytical skills, have been spoon-fed some sort of ideological methodology in high school, and without some sort of help from the college staff might flounder badly. But at the same time these college officials insist that students are arriving with a greater ability to express themselves and have done more thinking about a wider variety of topics than the first-year students who have preceded them.

Every college we visited had a vigorous advising system; every one of them bemoaned the fact that the advising system "wasn't working." Pressing to learn how students were helped to balance their courses, we were told of various types of advising systems: systems under which students were assigned advisers, or advisers were assigned to students, or students chose their own, and so on.

But the general impression is one of every college experimenting with some change in advising, and of students continuing to want to "decide on their own." There is, academicians agree, a great deal of "peer advising," that is, of students advising students.

Several institutions pointed, too, to the rating system used by students to categorize professors. Deans argue that these formal, as well as informal, systems of letting fellow students know about teachers and instructors provide a check on professors inclined to imbalanced or biased teaching. Students were quick to emphasize this point. Many indicated that they had to suffer with one or more "ideologically biased" teachers, making sure they gave them back on the tests what they had gotten in class.

But the true test of unbiased, balanced teaching, we were told repeatedly, is the test of good scholarship. Good teachers make every effort to get their students to think, to analyze, to weigh alternatives, to search for the truth. And good teachers are described as people who think themselves and analyze and weigh and search. The biased and unbalanced teacher is the poor teacher, hence the college or university that has one tries to get rid of him or her.

And when new appointments or hirings are taking place, it is not -- repeat not -- the ideological persuasion of a scholar that those doing the hiring are interested in, but whether the candidate is a sound scholar. Over and over this point was emphasized. At one university, interestingly perceived by some as "left" and by others, equally sure of their ground, as "right," a dean held up a knife and said, "Now, Miss Parsons, let's get this balance business straight. What do you mean by right?" He pointed to the far end of the handle. I said that my balance beam went from conservative to radical, placing liberal in the center.

It was his turn to raise his eyebrows as he assured me that most of the parents of the students at his institution thought the balance beam went from conservative to liberal, and that radical was "beyond the pale."

Yet, as Jonathan Harsch chronicles in several articles in today's section, radicals do have a place on my campuses; they are not only tolerated by their colleagues, but often honored and respected for their scholarship.

At San Diego State University, I met with a group of scholars representing not only several departments in the college, but several points of view about how the faculty did (or did not) deal with the issue of objectivity and unbiased teaching.

At San Diego, and at the University of California at Los Angeles as well as Berkeley, Stanford, and William and Mary, at least one member of each faculty tried to persuade me, as well as his colleagues, that it is possible to teach without passing on the values or ideologies of the instructor.

One history teacher declared, "I couldn't influence my students if I wanted to." Before the words were out of his mouth, his colleagues were taking exception. Most faculty members interviewed not only felt that students were "impressionable," but that it was up to members of the faculty to force them to challenge their own biases and "natural inclinations."

And this, we were assured on several campuses, is why so many students appear "radicalized" when they go home for Thanksgiving their freshman year and begin telling their families about their new learnings (and leanings).

When I asked about this problem at William and Mary, I was told by the president that each year, for the past seven, there had been fewer and fewer complaints from parents after their first meeting with their child after entering college. Asked to say why he thought this was so, he attributed the change to the fact that he had made more of an effort in the past few years to prepare parents for the "changes" they might find in their youngsters as they explored new areas of thought.

More than one professor argued that, given the unobjective, conservative bias of most incoming freshmen, it is necessary to appear to lean rather dramatically to the "left" in an effort to move students from the "far right." And more than one professor agreed with the following explanation proffered by an economics professor:

"Our students come here because they are 'winners' and they come from families of 'winners'; and here may be the first place they learn to know about as well as appreciate the problems of the 'losers.' And it's this exposure which causes many parents to say that such and such an institution "is full of leftists.'"

Repeatedly, college educators told both Mr. Harsch and me that the "search for the truth" was the cure for unbalanced, biased teaching. That is, that the scholar who knows enough to search for the truth himself (herself), and to lead students in this search, can do so whether he is teaching about fascism or about Marxism; whether it's a course in macro-economics or US constitutional law.

Admittedly, the two of us could go to but a handful of campuses, talk with a tiny fraction of professors and administrators, and sit in on too few class sessions. We could (and did) research the literature on the subject, and we could (and did) ask those at the college and university level considered to be experts in these matter what they thought about college and student biases.

We learned that it's not an easy subject to deal with, but we did discover that many are very concerned about the effects of nonobjective and biased teaching. And we also learned that college administrators are quick to say they can do little about "unbalanced" teaching when the professor involved is tenured.

From any college administrators, and nearly all college teachers, we were led to believe that they thought students recognized they were "on their own" at this academic level; that they were learning, as it were, "at their own risk"; and that if they became "confused" or "ideologically influenced," this was their own fault.

Yet, callous as they sounded, at times, they also sounded sincerely compassionate and concerned and said they hoped they were providing their students "with all the help they need to become objective scholars."

We didn't find an "ideal" college. But we did find both concern and interest. Our stories of what we did find are inside this pullout section.

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