With 1,465 faculty members guiding more than 24,000 students through a web of 94 majors, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst seems bound to offer diversity. But is there balance?
To some, the radical Marxists dominating the economics department and spilling over into the political science department have put UMass on the intellectual map.
Dean Alfange, a political science professor who single-handedly turned the economics department to the radical left in 1973, explains that the university could never compete with Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by offering the same type of economics courses. So the obvious answer was to offer what other universities were rejecting: serious consideration of Marxism.
According to this view, the Marxism at UMass is balancing in a very small way the overwhelming weight of conventional economics being taught at American universities as a whole. And it is pointed out that even within UMass itself, the radical Marxists are vastly outweighed among the faculty as a whole.
Critics of the UMass experiment with Marxism, however, feel that ideology has no place on the campus -- particularly when it is a case of acknowledged Marxists who reject capitalism but have no scruples about their salaries being paid from the proceeds of capitalism.
Between these two positions, there is Assistant Prof. Jeffrey Sedgwick. He has taught political science here for two years, coming straight from graduate school. This earnest young man wears his politics on his sleeve -- part of a beautifully tailored tweed suit complete with waistcoat and gold watch chain, an unusual sight in classrooms which are now far more used to Levi's, on students and professors alike. His office is dominated by portraits of Lincoln and Jefferson and an inkwell with a fine quill pen.
Professor Sedgwick describes himself as the department's "token conservative" -- and clearly enjoys this distinction.
His teaching style places heavy emphasis on class participation. In one meeting of his course on the role of the Supreme Court, the questions and answers quickly led the students into a lively discussion of the Watergate tapes battle -- and to the conclusion that the system worked because public opinion forced President Nixon to accept an otherwise unenforceable court ruling.
Professor Sedgwick continued with other examples, such as busing and censorship, to show how the American system successfully resolves the conflicts that naturally arise within a complex society.
He explained how Supreme Court justices, as trained legal scholars, have used their role as interpreters of the Constitution to lead public opinion gradually forward. He described them as particularly cautious "when they know that public opinion is decisively wrong," as in the case of handling down the "outrageous" Dred Scott decision.
While I listened, Professor Sedgwick led and his students followed. But what he always strives for is "to get someone in my class who disagrees with me." That sparks debate and the testing of ideas -- and so this young specialist in policy analysis is always ready to argue on any side of an issue, "which makes them think I'm off the wall because they can't tell which side I'm on."
He explains that "I deliberately try to force them out of their cocoons, to shake them up." And remembering advice he was given in graduate school, he says his message to students is: "If we have been successful in educating you, you are going out of here dissatisfied the rest of your life." His role as teacher is to make sure that "the student knows what the problems are and is dissatisfied with the present answers to those problems."
Where he differs most with his Marxist colleagues is that he feels it is the politician's role, not the teacher's, to offer answers to society's problems.
Professor Sedgwick wants to be part of the search for answers, but warns that the teacher must be careful, since "teaching becomes indoctrination when you reach conclusions for the student."
He points out that "for four years we give students a large degree of immunity from their parents and from the law, we give them wide latitude for experimentation in social terms, so that the student has the opportunity to make choices on his own. He will not find the same freedom to experiment for the rest of his life. Academically, we must not do something that is incompatible with that freedom. . . .
"They are here to have their horizons broadened, not here to reach conclusions. . . .
"Politics is a matter of judgment," he explains. "I can't teach them judgment, but I can teach them the necessity of judgment."
He argues that trying to force a student into either rejecting orm supporting capitalism is equally wrong. Yet he finds it stimulating to work with dedicated Marxists, because this has forced him to sharpen his own reasoning and given him a firmer conviction that Jeffersonian democracy has a lot to learn -- and a long future ahead.
Speaking from the other side of the fence, Thomas Riddell, a radical economist, finds it equally refreshing to work with young "neoconservatives" like Professor Sedgwick, because "for the first time there is an acknowledgment that the work that radicals have done is legitimate and respectable."
He explains his own position this way: "Like many radical economists I have come to a socialist position. . . . I find a society that emphasizes social concerns and doesn't put people against each other more desirable than a society based on private motivation which pits people and groups against each other."
Every question, he feels, "boils down to the issues of capitalism vs. socialism. If you are in favor of capitalism, that is going to affect the way you teach, the problems youfocus on, and the solutions you suggest. It will affect your attitude toward socialism. And if you are socialist, it's going to affect the way that you teach capitalism as an economic system."
What these two young professors can agree on is that teaching is never value-free. They both argue that the best way to provide balance is to let students find it for themselves among professors who are honest enough to acknowledge that what they believe is bound to affect their teaching.
For Professor Sedgwick, checking his pocket watch, "If you think you are moderate and providing a scientifically objective balance, you are probably in trouble."