‘Teaching Sociology’ Is an Ideological Nightmare

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from an article originally published by The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal on July 10, 2024. It is crossposted here with permission.

An empirical study of what is being taught and learned in university sociology courses around the country would be challenging to carry out. But American sociology provides a convenient site for observing how the discipline is taught in the form of a research journal produced by the American Sociological Association (ASA).

Teaching Sociology has existed since 1973 and advertises itself on the ASA website as “advanc[ing] the quality of sociology instruction.” I admit having never looked at it during the entirety of my quarter-century in the discipline until writing this essay. I came to graduate school under the influence of a pre-1960s generation of social scientists, and I shared their belief that rigorous scientific study of human behavior and social organization was possible. I learned early in my career that sociology is in intellectual decline. My walk-through of Teaching Sociology offers bitter evidence of just how great the distance is between the early scientific promise of sociology and what is taught to students in sociology courses today.

The teaching of sociology is understood by the journal as straightforwardly political, in a univocal ideological vein. “Social justice,” “mindfulness,” “a compassionate orientation,” “an emancipatory project,” “a trauma-informed and survivor-centered pedagogy,” and “a radical critique of society for the purpose of reducing inequality” are among the descriptives commonly encountered in this literature.

One representative article (“Help Me See the ‘Magnificent’ Side of Sociology: The Outcomes of a Community Action and Involvement Course Designed to Help Undergraduates View Themselves as Agentic”) affirmatively cites a student’s account of a typical sociology class in this way: “We have spent this whole course seeing how bad things are in the world. […] I do not like the way society is, but I do not know how to change it.” In other words, sociology serves to show students how warped human societies are from some pristine ideal. Not enough of what happens in sociology courses, such thinking goes, is about straightforward political action to try to produce the utopia imagined.

That said, much of Teaching Sociology does describe, and cheer, how much activism is going on in the sociology classroom under the guise of teaching and learning. Many articles positively discuss class assignments that are straightforward ideological training and exercises in naked partisanship.

One example describes a class op-ed assignment. I know this sort of thing to be common in the discipline, as I have heard many in my own department describe such assignments. Every student topic described in these articles originates from the political left. The topics include “bail reform and parole reform, sexual assault in prison, capital punishment, and ‘ban the box’ laws intended to help ex-felons gain employment by prohibiting employers from inquiring about past felony convictions” (“Teaching Civic Engagement through an Op-Ed Writing Assignment”).

“Active learning” is championed as a method for getting students “beyond” mere knowledge and into a dedication to political action, always of a progressive tenor. Emotional appeals to empathy and compassion are foregrounded.

I found little interest, in Teaching Sociology articles, in the evaluation of the efficacy of knowledge-production in class—that is, in the objective expansion of student expertise with facts and theories. There was, however, considerable interest in tracking and enhancing the way in which courses push students to “the … motivation to ease suffering.” The goal is “not only to understand the reciprocal connections between personal troubles and public issues … but also to alleviate social inequalities” (“Values, Compassion, and the Role of Active Learning in an Introduction to Sociology Class”).

Other articles describe the sociology teacher’s job as centrally involving monitoring student mental health. “Grades are major stressors for students,” writes one sociologist, so “instructors may … wish to consider alternatives to traditional grading, such as ungrading … a technique in which students assign their own grades.” Such practices “may not only have pedagogical benefit but could also foster psychological resilience” (“Mental Health in the College Classroom: Best Practices for Instructors”).

Much attention is given in Teaching Sociology to the imperative to teach critical race theory, queer theory, and other approaches that move away from sociology as a science and enthusiastically embrace activist political projects.

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  • Alexander Riley

    Alexander Riley is professor of sociology at Bucknell University and a senior fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. His writing can be found at https://alexanderriley.substack.com/. All views expressed are his and do not represent the views of his employer.

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