No Politics in Class
ONE AFTERNOON you walk into section expecting, if anything, the usual exercise in rhetorical questions, when the section leader opens class with a real question--she asks for a show of hands. "Would everyone agree to the idea of holding section at today's abortion rally on campus? Feel free to dissent; nothing will be held against you." It's not quite coercion, but it's wrong.
In the past few weeks, several section meetings have been held at the "Open University" shantytown in the Yard, apparently in support of some or all of the goals of the demonstration. But as laudable as the intentions of these section leaders may be, they should not be forcing their students into making political choices in the classroom. Whatever the distribution of student opinion on such issues as Harvard divestment from companies that do business in South Africa--and campus polls have been far from conclusive--it is not an issue in the question of section meetings at the shantytown. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences should take immediate steps to prohibit this practice in the future.
In addition to the fact that students' political beliefs should not be put on the line in class, the teacher-student relationship is inherently a kind of power relationship. And that inequality--normally not an issue in the classroom--becomes a source of coercion when students' political beliefs are sounded out.
The Faculty Council last Thursday reportedly echoed most of these sentiments but decided to do nothing. This is a puzzling and unfortunate stand--a position that we would like to see changed in the future.
WHAT GOOD IS an education if it avoids political questions? There are very few issues which one can study or discuss without facing questions that are "political." What makes the issues motivating the Open University shantytown seem inappropriate to the majority is that they are controversial. Taking a stand on divestment, on discrimination and on undemocratic governance at Harvard puts students at odds with the status quo. But it seems to us that taking such a stand, trusting one's own considered convictions, is precisely what an education is about.
That opinions about the Open University, and about the propriety of holding classes there, raise more meaningful issues than, for example, those about the conduct of 15th century courtiers is all the more reason for students to grapple with them. Harvard cannot educate people by teaching them to avoid hard questions.