October 13, 2008

Stanley Fish and the false dichotomy

In his New York Times column, Stanley Fish argues that while higher-ed faculty and K-12 teachers have a right to political activity outside the classroom, that does not extend to wearing a button to class. In response to my argument last week (and thanks not only for the shout-out but for spelling my name correctly!), he writes,

But the issue is not whether the clothes or, for that matter, the buttons, belong to the teachers; the issue is what they're using them for; and if they're using them as political billboards--announcing their partisan identifications from their chests--the question of the intrusion of politics in the classroom cannot be avoided.

Fish makes the strong argument in favor of such a ban: it is an intrusion of inappropriate material into the classroom. But Fish is wrong, for a very important reason: not everything that is questionable is forbidden. And why that is true in this case, especially, is critical to academic freedom.


Fish's argument (and one that is the focus of his last book) is that one must exclude political material from the classroom environment, because it's not a faculty member's job. In response to Leo Casey's argument that teachers should be a role model for democratic participation, including in campaigns, Fish argues that one could easily model participation by an "I Vote" message as by a partisan button/sticker.

Fish's argument is inconsistent with his general claims that faculty (and K-12 teachers) should not be trying to save the world on the students' time. Why is it any less of an intrusion to encourage students to vote than to encourage students to vote for specific candidates? If Fish claims that politics should be excluded from a math classroom, then one would have to argue that one should exclude any mention of the democratic politics from algebra, whether partisan or not. I assume Fish would not want K-12 algebra teachers or college math professors talking about jury duty, unless there is some connection to the course material. At least for Fish (but not necessarily others), you either have to exclude all messages about democratic participation or acknowledge that there is a role for teachers to model democratic participation.

But not everyone is Stanley Fish, wanting there to be a firewall between the classroom and the rest of the world. Most of those concerned about campaign buttons worn into the classroom are worried about the potential for coercion and interference with learning. So let's think through the potential for coercion. First, consider the elementary and middle-school environment, where students do not and cannot vote. How is someone who wears an Obama or McCain button in a kindergarten class going to influence voting behavior by their students? Er... not going to happen. By the time students are old enough to vote (as juniors or seniors in high school or in college), we generally assume they have a certain level of independence (and teens under 18 argue for more independence all the time). The most vulnerable students are younger, the ones whose ineligibility to vote make the concern about indirect coercion moot. (And I don't think anyone is going to defend direct coercion by a teacher, of the "You must use an absentee ballot and show me your ballot to get a good grade" variety. You do that and you've lost a career, buddy.)

So if coercion is not a serious concern, then someone might argue that wearing a campaign button might be a barrier to learning in the classroom. I've been trying to figure this one out, and I am a little confused: does anyone seriously believe that wearing a campaign button is anywhere on the same level as a teacher who says that girls cannot learn math or who continuously spouts racist jokes? The latter behavior interferes with learning. But let's follow this possibility through a few situations to see where this argument leads us. Consider first a middle-school math teacher who wants to wear a McCain button to class. Her or his students do not vote, so the coercion argument is irrelevant. But could that button make it harder to learn math for liberal students, or students whose parents support Obama? I'm trying to figure out how there is a Republican version of math or a Democratic version of math, and I just can't figure that one out. To argue that a campaign button interferes with learning math, one would have to assume that there are distractors that teachers can present to students without action--that wearing a campaign button by itself is going to make students either distracted or uncomfortable in the learning environment itself. I am skeptical of this claim, but let's assume that there is some psychology literature to back this up. So why are passively-worn campaign buttons more likely to create this effect in a math class than other possibilities, such as a teacher's wearing a cross on a chain, or having a wedding band, or being visibly pregnant, or wearing garish green-and-yellow plaid? By all means, let's ban badly-coordinated outfits by teachers, because that might distract those with Obsessively Coordinated Clothing Disorder! Until someone can provide reasonable evidence that teachers' wearing of campaign buttons by itself is something that interferes with learning algebra, I think we can allow middle-school math teachers to wear the buttons.

Now let's consider someone who teaches government/civics in high school, to classes of seniors who are often 18 and eligible to vote. Ah, here is the case where one should be able to ban all campaign buttons, right? Not so fast: imagine a class where the subject material is the first amendment and relevant court cases. She comes to class wearing a McCain button and begins with the following question: "Do I have the right to wear this button in class?" If you think teachers have the academic freedom to pick material and instructional methods that are clearly relevant to the subject of the class, you have to admit that civics teachers or political-science or law professors would be well within their rights to be slightly provocative to gain student interest. So anyone teaching civics or political science can wear a button as long as they use that button to teach students.

So let's go back to the general claim that teachers can be banned from wearing campaign buttons to class. Wish away all of my arguments but the last one, and assume that the general ban is appropriate. Because of academic freedom in teaching, at the very least we have to carve out an exception for social-studies teachers (in K-12) and political science, history, and law faculty (in higher education), but this is an unusual exception. It says, "you can wear a campaign button if you use it in instruction, and the more you talk about it, the safer you are." If you're willing to say that K-12 civics teachers can wear campaign buttons to class but math teachers can't, you've got to live with that awkward inconsistency. I think it's a foolish stance to defend, but your mileage may vary.

These problems arise only if you think that teachers are either commanded to engage in or forbidden from certain behavior; if they're not supposed to do X, they can't do X. The Fish position is thus a false dichotomy. In reality, there are plenty of behaviors that are forbidden to teachers, and plenty of things teachers should do. There is also a huge range of behavior that is neither mandated nor forbidden. Because wearing a campaign button is a passive behavior--you generally wear a campaign button without shouting, "Look at my Chthulhu for President button!"--it falls most sensibly in the middle category, along with most questions about what teachers wear. I don't wear stiletto heels to class, and I'd be a little confused by colleagues who do, but unless there's a bona fide reason to ban them in specific situations (e.g., in a lab, for safety reasons), within reasonable bounds I think teachers should have the right to pick their own clothing. As I wrote before, I don't think I'd impress students by wearing a campaign button to class, but I'm going to defend the right of my colleagues and K-12 teachers to do so.

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Posted in Academic freedom on October 13, 2008 9:15 AM |