March 5, 2017

GROSKAUFMANIS | Pursuit of Perspective

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I think the “we all need to talk to people we don’t agree with” conversation has been beaten to death from every angle, but I also think it’s really true, and can be hard to do here at Cornell. I’ve always known that Cornell’s student body and faculty are overwhelmingly liberal, but I only recently took a look at how the composition broke down in numbers. If I’m being honest, I’ve never cared about the political leanings of my professors because I haven’t given it much thought in the first place — most likely because they’ve always been subtle or consistent with my own. If you’ve ever read this column, you know that I’m a pretty liberal person. In my time at Cornell, I’ve found that there’s something comfortable and satisfying about hearing my convictions confirmed in the classroom. On the other hand, I think an argument can be made for the merits of learning from faculty with whom you disagree. For the overwhelmingly liberal population at Cornell, that means conservatives.

I understand that hiring more “conservative” professors isn’t a straightforward initiative, particularly because conservatives in the United States are overwhelmingly white — a group that certainly has not been barred from representation in academia throughout history. But assuming we could hire more conservative professors and professors who are diverse in other respects, why wouldn’t we?

As a student, I feel like I’m missing out on the opportunity to explain my thinking, because I don’t usually have to. In my experience, one of the easiest ways to determine where I stand on an issue or develop the logic behind an argument is to be challenged on it. While at Cornell, I’ve been lucky to learn from some of the smartest people I’ve ever met, but none of my major assumptions have been challenged in the classroom in any capacity other than “devil’s advocate.”

The one concession I’ll make in defense of keeping the status quo is that I’ve never had a professor try to teach his or her opinion. For this reason, I don’t see the majority liberal faculty as an urgent issue or an assault on conservative students, but rather just an interesting phenomenon that could be looked into. I’ve been lectured on theories of democracy, the legislative process, mass incarceration and election strategy, but I’ve never learned “Trump bad, Hillary good.” Or anything close to that.

That said, a conservative student might receive the same lectures differently; I have no idea. The fact that I don’t notice the political leanings of my professors is probably a consequence of the fact that I most likely am in line with all of them. In fact, I don’t even know how to compare a liberal professor to a conservative professor because I’m not sure I’ve ever had a conservative professor. And while some may argue that this is irrelevant, I think that’s an oversimplification. In an intro biology class, sure, political leanings don’t matter, but in a class on presidential power, healthcare or global economics, it’s absolutely relevant — or at the very least, interesting.

A friend of mine who transferred to Cornell last year said that two of her economics classes — which covered relatively similar material — were taught in different ways, because one professor was expressly in favor of free trade and the other was openly critical of it. Both, she said, were legitimate academic perspectives, but the professor’s personal beliefs still framed the material in subtle ways. “I wouldn’t say it impacted the course, because they were pretty standard econ classes, but it impacted the way I used the information outside of class,” she told me. I don’t think the ideological leanings of faculty is something that necessarily needs to be fixed, in part because I don’t even know how this kind of reform could take place. But it’s definitely something that we should recognize, even if just for ourselves.

I believe in liberalism and progressive ideals, but, as a caricature of the Idealistic College Kid, I guess I’m still pretty sold on this whole “bipartisanship” thing. If the thought of adding one or two moderately conservative professors to a department that currently has none seems antagonistic to you, take a look at the ‘ideological pool’ that exists just miles from our upstate blue bubble. Besides, the hiring of conservative faculty wouldn’t mean the imposition of a conservative course load; it would just be an option for those who are curious. We all ultimately have say in what we study and who we learn from.

By the time students reach college — particularly if they’re studying political science —– they’ve developed their political identities. My guess would be that if a bunch of staunch Bernie Bros had a really awesome conservative professor, they wouldn’t all be going out and buy Make America Great Again hats at the end of the semester. On the reverse, I don’t think our liberal professors are “indoctrinating” us (contrary to what The O’Reilly Factor may believe). So why not put those political assumptions to the test? Ask a liberal to explain their logic, for a change, and give their evidence, and practice being the ideological underdog. I’d like to think that I know how to argue my points, but sometimes doing so feels like a monologue.

 

Jacqueline Groskaufmanis is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at jgroskaufmanis@cornellsun.com. The Dissent appears alternate Mondays this semester.