In Praise of Ideological Openness

Many people, some conservatives included, say we need to get ideology out of the college classroom. Some professors say proudly, “my students never come to know where I stand.”
I practice an opposite approach. I tell students that I am a free-market economist, a classical liberal or libertarian.  And I am not suggesting that it is wrong to be ideologically reserved. Different styles suit different professors.
And of course some professors go much too far in pressing their ideological judgments and requiring conformity, even forms of activism. But we should not fall into simplistic ideals of neutrality and objectivity. There is an ethical high-ground in temperance, but that does not necessarily mean reserve and circumspection. One can open up about ideology without falling into intemperance. Here I meditate on some merits of being open about your own ideology, even somewhat outspoken, when teaching a college course.
When listening to testimony on financial regulation, we like to know whether the testifying expert has a vested interest. And we like to know if he has other sorts of commitments that might affect his interpretation and judgment.
An individual’s ideological commitments are like his religious commitments, in that they run deep and change little. They suffuse his professional and personal relationships; they suffuse his sense of self. They are like vested interests, only deeper and more permanent. 

Don’t we all like to know where the speaker stands?

For a professor in the social sciences or humanities, his ideological sensibilities bear on his professional discourse. Some say, just be truthful. But truthfulness leaves things vastly under-determined. There are a lot of truths out there, most not worth bothering with. Professors must make judgments not only about whether a statement is true, but whether it is important.
Part of the professor’s job is to select and formulate the most important things. Governmental institutions are the most powerful institutions in society. It is natural to instruct students in their understanding of government and in ways of judging its actions and policies.
The professor selects certain issues as most important. For an issue, he or she must select and formulate positions as most important. For each position he must select and formulate arguments, for and against, as most important.
Two professors can each teach a course in labor economics and make all of their statements reasonably true, by our lights. But the two courses may nonetheless be very different in ideological flavor. We may object strongly to one of the courses, not for its errors of commission, but its errors of omission.
Moreover, truth itself is embedded in interpretation. Two alternative ways of interpreting are not always neatly ranked in “truth” value. Different professors will appeal to different authorities, such as those published in the “top” journals or by Harvard University Press. But is HUP an unbiased authority? (One study finds the press tilting left.) In the background the professor makes judgments about the authorities, the evidence, and the materials.
And in satisfying truthfulness, statements are malleable. A statement made categorically might be untrue, but when qualified with “often” or “sometimes” it becomes true, or at least arguably so.
There is courtesy in telling your students your ideological views. It alerts them to watch out for whether you give counter-arguments short shrift. It invites them to think critically about how your ideological sensibilities affect the lesson.
Openness alerts students to the fact that other professors see things differently. I tell students that I think that the minimum-wage law should be abolished, but also that a large portion of economists do not support such a reform. Self-disclosing informs students that economists are heterogeneous. It teaches them a healthy suspicion of those who would pretend otherwise.
Disclosure also clarifies the competition of ideas. They may take you to personify an outlook or philosophy. My students might associate me with the school of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, or Adam Smith, maybe with television personalities such as John Stossel or Andrew Napolitano. Openness helps them relate the classroom to the wider discourse.
Also, openness invites students to go deeper. Knowing that I am interested in advancing classical liberalism, they more readily approach me about that. This is a natural development in the student-professor relationship.
It can be dangerous to pretend that ideology can be separated from scholarly judgment. On such an idea, the universities may assure us that their faculty members know to “keep their ideology out their teaching.” Are you reassured?
And if professors simply make their teaching ideologically bland, is that really an improvement?
For me, “ideology” is not a dirty word. My complaint about the professoriate is not that they are ideological, but that – speaking here within the context of our generally fairly liberal culture – so few of them belong to ideologies of the more enlightened sort.
Ideological self-disclosure has been defended by several economists but especially the thoughtful social democrat and Nobel laureate Gunnar Myrdal (1969). His being enthusiastic for social democracy may have been a lapse in wisdom, even in his small, homogeneous land of Sweden. But his arguments for ideological self-disclosure have many merits.
Adam Smith, too, would likely smile on self-disclosure. He wrote:
“Frankness and openness conciliate confidence. We trust the man who seems willing to trust us. We see clearly, we think, the road by which he means to conduct us, and we abandon ourselves with pleasure to his guidance and direction. Reserve and concealment, on the contrary, call forth diffidence.”

Robert C. Koons

Robert C. Koons is a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas-Austin.

11 thoughts on “In Praise of Ideological Openness

  1. Dr. Klein and many of those who left comments are conflating an “ideological perspective” with a “analytic perspective”. That is, one can adopt an analytic perspective drawn from Austrian economics or Marxism (two orientations that have both a political/ideological and academic orientation) without necessarily adopted the political ideology commonly associated with said discipline. For example, I don’t particularly believe that an anthropologist writing in the Marxian tradition is especially interested in fomenting the dictatorship of the proletariat. In the same vein, my own understanding of the social world has been greatly enriched by Smith and Hayek and undoubtedly this shows through in my work but I would not apply a title like “classical liberal” to myself.

  2. I equivocate.
    How open they should be depends on how well-versed and grounded the individual professor is in their own political beliefs.
    Normally one might expect someone who has reached such a level to be an expert on subjects, but this only really holds in their particular field (especially with the decline, and decline in standard of generalist education, at least in Britain).
    So although I might instead insist that those with strong views make them clear, in my experience it is rare that they could keep them under their hat. So perhaps what is missing is the means for students to be able to read a few well-placed and not-too-subtle hints.
    On the other hand I’d ask what establishment employs overtly ideological educators, as a good teaching method should normally moderate incoherent arguments?

  3. I follow this advice in my graduate health policy and related courses, even though I attempt to be fair in trying to present counterarguments as well – explaining both my own underlying assumptions and those of the individuals making the counterarguments. In fact, I emphasize to my students the importance of looking at the assumptions being made – by myself, other researchers, and in fact by themselves – as a cornerstone in the ability to critically analyze proposals, issues, and research findings.
    To be honest, I have had great feedback from the students because I do this, and always get the highest marks on student evaluations for respect for students and respect for differing viewpoints.
    I also see that it really spurs the students to strive to reach new levels of intellectual rigor. Just for an example, I have a student who is doing a course paper looking at state efforts to regulate abortion clinics. She was initially hung up over the strong ideological lines being drawn, but we talked about it and our own assumptions, and her finding that, although we came to the point from different pathways, we both had views on the practical side that were very close and fit neither ideological paradigm well. From their, we discussed looking at the level of regulation placed on these clinics and seeing if it *differed* from regulations on other outpatient surgery centers, a question that carried no ideological baggage. If the results showed they were similiar, it is likely that the regulations were largely about healthcare quality and patient safety. If more rigorous, they were likely motivate more by pro-life ideology (which she would try to confirm), and if weaker by the pro-choice assumptions (also to be confirmed). It allowed her to look at the question in a way in which the data would point her to her conclusions, rather than having those conclusions shaped by pre-existing ideological assumptions shaped by the political rhetoric on the issue.
    With graduate students, intellectual rigor is the critical thing we can teach them – if their undergrad program was worth a damn it gave them a basic understanding of the factual basis of their field- and that is only achieved if we can make them realize that they, like everyone else (including the professor) make assumptions – political, moral, ethical, professional – and show them how to understand and communicate those assumptions, as well as to critically evaluate the effect of those assumptions on intellectual activity. I believe that one solid way to teach this is to model it to the students by acknowledging your own assumptions and acknowledging alternatives.

  4. Most ideologies falling within the scope of economics (this includes Marxism and communism) are allowed by what passes for academic freedom in the US.
    History and political and natural science encompass positions, however, that are so NOT within academic freedom that if I mention either of two that I am thinking of, this comment will not see the light of day.
    Instead, I’ll mention global warming. In a natural sciences department, the wrong view on this subject will get you denied tenure.
    George Mason University (the poster’s institution), particularly its economics department, is a haven in which views such as he expresses can be freely indulged in.

  5. I would like to share my experience as a student not that long ago. I remember very clearly both types of professors. To me, it often felt that the ones who were open about their ideology were much fairer graders who did not let their ideology interfere with their teaching. For instance, I had a Marxist professor who taught an International Economics class and always gave a fair hearing to arguments ranging from his own views to classical liberal or even anarcho-capitalist arguments. I still have great respect for the man.
    On the other hand I had a Public Economics professor who was tight lipped about the fact that he was a liberal but would consistently present only strawmen arguments in favor of libertarian or conservative policies. On a test he once asked us to present arguments opposed to Social Security. Several of us presented a number of reasonable arguments that are often argued by conservatives or libertarians regarding the appropriate role of government, the cost and such. He gave just about everyone a 0 on that question. When several of us complained that those were indeed arguments that were often brought up in the public debate, he responded that while that may be the case, it was not the “token conservative argument” [sic] he had selected for the class and that the only acceptable answer was that conservatives wanted to take money away from the government. I still think that man is a jerk.

  6. Good article. I wholeheartedly agree. Students in my Political Science at Utah State were often really interested in the ideological bent of the professors and would spend a great deal of energy and discussion determining where different professors stand on the spectrum. We’re going to figure you guys out so you might as well be open about your ideology. If we don’t figure you out, then, yes, you’re class is going to be incredibly bland and lacking the flavor of academic controversy.
    The only potential problem I see with being too open about your ideology is that students might use this information in selecting courses that confirm their own ideological biases. They might never take a class from you because everyone knows your a libertarian (or conversely not take classes from the leftists in the department) and therefore never get exposure to a broad range of ideas.

  7. Dr. Klein: It’s good for a Prof. to disclose his orientation so the students can watch for biases, BUT the Prof should present all schools of thought (for econ; Keynesian, Aust, Monetarist, etc) so the students get the whole story. Agreed?
    Regards, Dave

  8. Although I first entered college as a freshman in 1967, I only recently completed a bachelor’s (2008) and a master’s (2010). After one sociology class, going down the stairs, two young girls were behind me. Said one to the other, “America sucks, America sucks, week after week it’s the same stuff, America sucks.” Whatever the prof was selling, she was not buying. It does not take much critical thinking to parse out a professor or a student. As a fan of “Cafe Hayek” I would be able to cull a Friedmanite from a Rothbardian and differentiate myself from them. One of my history professors, Pamela Graves, wrote two books on women in the British Labor movement. She once complained that her dissertation advisors were Trotskyites, not her Labour at all. So, where you stand and what you prefer may be somewhat subtle. On the other hand my instructor for college algebra opened the first meeting by witnessing for Jesus. Fortunately, 2+2 still made 4, but I kept my own beliefs (or lack of them) to myself. If I had kept my libertarianism to myself, the professors who gave me the A grades leading to my summa cum laude baccalaureate might have written letters of recommendation for me for graduate school. For the MA, I just stayed where I was.

  9. Thank you for that very interesting view, which I came to through Cafe Hayek.
    I think the underlying issues can be extended beyond the social sciences and their teaching. This view comes from my own work in pattern matching and digital signal processing; particularly those applications that fall into the classifications of artificial intelligence and decision theory. Also, of course, we (nearly) all have political views, irrespective of whether we work in fields that are directly connected with those views.
    I have two points to add to the discussion of the holding of opinions.
    (i) the separation of thought processes from primary beliefs;
    (ii) the separation of external evidence into objective evidence and subjective primary belief.
    On the first, in decision theory, an objective function must be defined, to be optimised by selection of the best of the various possible actions (which one hopes span all possible actions). This objective function may well be a composite of many parts; in fact it usually will be a composite. Then the thought processes that go from the objective function (embodying the primary beliefs) to the decided action must be rational (even logically precise, though that perhaps depends on the domain of consideration).
    On the second point, the various parts of the various arguments in favour of each possible decided action should (aspire to or actually) separate out the subjective and the objective. This should be whether or not the subjective part is in the mind of the author of an evidential reference, or in the mind of the current thinker.
    Somewhat personally, I give a reference (by way of example) on the current issue within the United Kingdom, of the upcoming referendum (5th May 2011) on voting method for the lower house of the national parliament. In this link, I try to separate my own thoughts, particularly on (i) above:
    I hope this view is of at least some interest.
    Best regards

  10. In written evaluations by students about my courses, students either state “I enjoyed your willingness to discuss both sides of issues” or “It is apparent that you are biased and you should act like the other professors who never bring their views into the classroom”. I am convinced that the latter responses are sparked by the errors of omission whereby it is more common for professors to simply never cover the “other side” either because they don’t know/understand it or simply reject it and dismiss it out of hand.

  11. I have no problem with professors who explicitly teach from an ideological perspective, whether it is classical liberalism, Marxism, or traditional conservatism. What I find troubling are the many professors who present a perspective as the unquestionable truth and reject all other views as nefarious efforts to pursue an evil “agenda.” Moreover, I think Daniel B. Klein would agree, based on other writings, unless there is a self-conscious effort to promote intellectual openness, dominant perspectives tend to become orthodoxies. As a consequence, in much of academia today there is very little real debate or intellectual exchange.
    For my part, I prefer to try to present all sides of every question, warning my students that I do have opinions and may give them imperfect arguments for opposing opinions. Since I use my own writings in class, the students know what my ideas are, but I try to encourage them to question my approaches and reach their own conclusions.

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