In late January 2019, Kenneth Mayer, a political-science professor at the University of Wisconsin, drew the attention of a Republican state legislator for language in his syllabus that described Trump as “a president who gleefully flouts the norms of governing and presidential behavior.” His supporters see this as “not a bug, but a feature,” the professor wrote in his syllabus, adding, “To others, he is a spectacularly unqualified and catastrophically unfit egomaniac.” In response, the campus issued a statement supporting Mayer, stating that he “leaves his political opinions at the classroom door and asks his students to do the same.” Regardless of one’s views of the current administration, it is difficult to support the claim that Mayer’s opinions stayed at the door, given that they’re embedded in the course syllabus. Professor Mayer’s endorsement of a singular political perspective in the classroom points to a larger problem that plays out more broadly and has serious implications.
We can trace the current level of political polarization to multiple sources, but, whatever the causes, we could arguably reduce polarization by increasing our ability to see issues from perspectives other than our own. Given its potential to bridge divides, nurturing this ability should be a high priority. And yet, this is neglected in one of the places where it could do the most good: the college classroom.
Our universities are failing students by teaching them that there’s only one right way to understand our most vexing inequalities and social problems. This undoubtedly disproportionately affects students focusing their studies in the social sciences, but the near universality of cross-disciplinary general-education requirements (such that many students, regardless of their area of study, are required to take courses in the social sciences) suggests that almost no student is immune.
In sociology, for instance, we teach students about a wide range of social disparities. This entails conversations about the causes of those differences. Yet we do students an enormous disservice teaching them only about the possible structural causes of those disparities — aspects we can blame on the “system” or on “institutions.” Students learn, for example, that the gender pay gap is due to systemic labor-market discrimination against women and a devaluation of women’s work. These are likely contributing factors. But when pressed on the topic, most students can’t name a single additional factor that might contribute to the wage difference (such as variation between the sexes in job preferences or priorities).
I have had a chance to see this firsthand in an undergraduate course I am currently teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Aptly, the course is called Social Problems. It is an intro-level course in the sociology department and serves as a gateway to the major. On the first day of class, I told students that I would be teaching from multiple political angles — i.e., from a “heterodox” perspective — an approach that would necessarily include conservative viewpoints that are likely heard less often in their other classes.
We’re now almost four weeks into the semester and it’s clear that these bright, engaged students are not being exposed to the range of perspectives that they will need in their lives after college. I expect that, in this regard, they resemble students at many other institutions across the country. They are led to believe that our most difficult problems have simple causes and that those causes are rooted in structural bias that the right policies will fix. In addition, they are taught that this is the only right way to view these challenges.
For example, consider the Gillette advertisement that sparked so much controversy in January 2019. The ad used the idea of “toxic masculinity” to suggest that men should discard aspects of stereotypical “male” behavior. After showing the ad in class for the students, I asked them what they thought was positive about it. They gave thoughtful answers, including the messages to men and boys that it’s okay to show emotion and that fighting is not the best way to solve problems.
Then I asked them why they thought someone might object to the ad or to the idea of an overly broad application of “toxic” as a description of masculinity. After a few quiet moments, a couple of hands went up. The consensus was that people might object to the ad because they’re consciously or unconsciously afraid of letting go of old gender norms. I responded that, yes, that might explain a viewer’s objection, and then I asked for other suggestions. When none were offered, I asked, What would it mean if there are biological differences between men and women that might lead to certain behavioral differences? I gave the example of men being more aggressive. I pressed on, asking, What would it mean to pathologize certain male character traits if some of them are biologically determined? Curious silence was the answer. The students seemed open to considering the implications of that possibility — that biological difference may account for some behavioral differences. Not a single student seemed familiar with the notion.
This kind of example is not unusual. A similar scenario played out when we talked about “white privilege.” I asked students first why it’s a useful concept, to which they generally replied that it helps people become aware of their unearned and unacknowledged advantages in society. Again, a perfectly reasonable response. I then asked them to break into groups and discuss why someone might object to the concept. The response in the majority of the groups was that someone might object because they think it means a denial or a minimization of the hardships they’ve faced in life. There was only one group (of the seven or eight in the class) that offered the suggestion that the concept might be divisive.
This way of thinking is reinforced in the textbooks we use. In the book I am using, when individual — as opposed to structural — determinants of poverty or racial disparities are mentioned, the textbook authors present them in the same context as theories of biological inferiority, thereby implying a conceptual link. Or, in another example, an opposition to redistributive policies is presented as a manifestation of “modern racism.” In this environment, the message is actively conveyed that nonstructural perspectives on social problems are synonymous with viewpoints that are racist, sexist, etc.
Students can and do go through entire courses and indeed through their entire undergraduate (and in some cases graduate) education never encountering the possibility that there can be valid reasons to think differently about how to approach social problems. The only possible causes and solutions are structural. These students then go out into the world and interact with many people, some of whom have a similar background and some of whom do not. And the only response they have to someone who, for instance, objects to the notion of “toxic” masculinity is that such a person must be invested in maintaining antiquated gender norms.
This myopia is a disservice to the students themselves and to anyone with whom they interact who thinks differently. Some may make the point that there are people, to continue with the same example, who object to the idea of “toxic” masculinity because they in fact wish to maintain traditional gender norms. But there are other possible principled justifications for an objection — students should know that many people object in good faith and should be open to the possibility that they may even be correct to do so.