Reading key to balanced viewpoints

There's unanimity among Northeastern University's political scientists on at least one point -- that Prof. Steven Worth is the only left-winger in the department.

But this lack of lefties does not mean the curriculum is unbalanced, explains department chairman Robert Gilbert.

Leading radical theorist G. William Domhoff is taught alongside the classical theorists. And the variety of thought seems to suit this busy urban campus, which packs 16,500 undergraduates and 2,200 faculty into just 50 acres of asphalt paving, gray glazed brick, and converted warehouses without a trace of ivy.

As part of their required reading, students encounter such telling passages as these from Domhoff's latest attack on capitalism, "The Powers That Be: Process of Ruling Class Domination in America":

"I believe most political and economic problems in the United States must be understood in terms of the conflict and compromises between the interests of two basic social classes that are rooted in the social organization of production. These two classes are the ruling class, which owns and manages the major business enterprises, and the working class, which owns no income producing property. . . .

"On top of the gradually emerging social layers of blue- and white-collar workers who comprise the working class and make up 85-90 percent of the population, there sits a very small social upper class which comprises at most 0 .5 percent of the population and has a very different lifestyle and source of income from the rest of us. . . . [They] play backgammon and dominoes at their exclusive social clubs and travel all over the world on their numerous junkets and vacations."

According to Professor Domhoff's figuring, this one-half of 1 percent has held about 23 percent of US personal wealth over the past 30 years. He argues that while such an imbalance is expected in other countries, it creates a serious contradiction in America where it runs counter to the professed belief in egalitarianism.

Professor Gilbert makes no apologies for Domhoff's radical-left views. Instead, he provides a range of material from the other side of the political fence. For balance, his students are required to read such books as "The News Twisters" by Edith Effron. "She is a conservative who attacks the media in this book strongly," he explains. "I don't agree with the book and I back up my views."

The same critical approach is applied to the Domhoff book. "I use readings to provoke thought," Professor Gilbert says, "to expose students to a viewpoint that they might not be familiar with, so that we can discuss it in class."

Because he applied the same critical standards to each new subject, he believes that the liberals and conservatives among his students "probably both think that I am in exactly the opposite camp."

He stresses that "I never let them just read the book. They would assume that I agree with it. And the students start out agreeing with whatever is the latest book they're reading."

To break down the students' tendency to latch on to new left or right ideas which promise quick, schematic answers, Professor Gilbert continues the critical process: "I ask questions, I keep prodding them and prodding them, until finally we analyze the book. I tell them what the problems are, and then I bring up points from other research."

But the final step is up to the students: "I let them decide. It's up to them."

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