Teaming up in order to challenge Harvard students

One way to balance course offerings for his Harvard students is through team teaching, social studies head tutor Robert Amdur said as I very nearly sat down on his baseball fielder's mitt.

In the case of Marxism, for instance, he explained that "team teaching means pairing someone who is sympathetic to Marx with someone who is not."

Dr. Amdur said that as his instructors lead students through the intricacies of Locke and Bentham up to modern writers, "We try to present each of the theorists in a favorable light. Under ideal circumstances we try to make the most powerful case for the theorist that we are reading each week and try to show what sort of criticisms might be made."

He pointed out that "Some of our tutors have strong commitments, going in various directions. Some go toward Marxism, a few have a strong commitment to Freud, and some are committed liberals."

Such commitments present no problem, he said, because "the students come to understand which theorists their own tutors are most sympathetic toward."

Professor Amdur agreed that "like everyone else I am concerned about achieving balance."

But he explained that he does not see the question of political balance in terms of giving equal time to an endless variety of differing viewpoints. Instead, his aim is "to seek to present the sides that the students themselves are most likely to have ignored or not taken seriously."

So reading assignments and course emphases change. After a long pause for thought, he said: "We try to make some effort to get students to question the assumptions they come here with. The questions that we raise, from both the left and the right, depend on what the student's assumptions are."

Recalling his 1962-1966 undergraduate days at Princeton, studying constitutional law, this specialist in political theory said: "Students then thought the criminal-justice system functioned perfectly, so it was very useful to have teachers point out some of the ways in which it didn't work."

He took a different approach when he began teaching. As a teaching fellow at Harvard he found himself dealing with "students who didn't think it was ever possible for a poor person to get a fair trial, who had a sense that every trial was political trial, and that the various constitutional guarantees were of no value." His response to this different student need was to focus on the values students were ignoring.

When there are such changes in student assumptions, the professor said, "clearly students need to be asked different sorts of questions, and be nudged in different directions."

Passing a wall poster of Karl Marx, I came to Michael Smith's office. Fresh from a stint at Oxford, this young social studies teaching fellow also gears his teaching directly to student needs -- and believes that nudging students in new directions is part of his job.

He is straightforward about his own position: "I would put myself on the left , but that is not something I would like my students to know." He wants students "to make up their own minds," while his concern as a teacher is "to get the student to take a variety of arguments seriously."

He accepts that a teacher's own views may show through to an extent. He feels generally that "it may be that you have to work harder to get Harvard students to take left-wing views seriously."

But all depends on the time and the place.

When he taught at Oxford two years ago, he found that students had "much more tendency to adopt left-wing arguments" than Harvard undergraduates have today. So in teaching a course on the Russsian revolution, his questions have differed:

"At Oxford, the question was whether Stalinism is inherent in Leninism. Here , the question is whether one can achieve revolution without a Leninist vanguard."

Michael Smith very specifically leads his students "to question some of the assumptions that America is based on."

But his goal, he says, is not to undermine. Instead, he feels that if his students are forced to question such assumptions, "they will come out with a stronger sense of what is good about liberal democracy."

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