Phi Beta Cons

Gettysburg College – Indoctrinate or Teach Students to Think for Themselves?

If I learned anything during three decades working in the international chemical industry, it was that there are usually no obvious answers to tough questions. For example, if a company evaluated the shutdown of a chemical plant in the United States, to replace it with a similar one in India, there would be many arguments on both sides of the proposal. Arguments favoring the proposal might include easier access to global tariff-protected markets, lower manufacturing and distribution costs, and the like. Arguments on the other side would center on the need for a major capital expenditure, lost American jobs, environmental cleanup costs at the plant site, etc. These types of decisions were never easy, and we placed a premium on developing executives who could examine the arguments objectively, and make decisions that were in the best interests of as many stakeholders as possible, knowing that it would be impossible to satisfy all of them.

When I moved from industry to work on the faculty and staff at Ursinus College, a well-regarded liberal arts college, I tried my best to challenge my international business students with real case studies that demanded their best efforts to understand facts, to evaluate their impacts and to recommend strategies in complex situations. My role was not to guide them to a “right” answer, but to help them engage in a thought process that was rigorous and complete, regardless of their eventual conclusions. In doing so, I believed that I was helping to prepare them for life in a complex world in which individual and group advocacy are real forces to deal with.

In those semesters in which there was a presidential election, the class as a group exercise would attempt to analyze the candidates and the party platforms in terms of their impact on international business issues, and students ( they were almost all seniors) felt that they became more knowledgeable voters as a result.

With this as a backdrop, I was disheartened to read that at Gettysburg College, or in at least one professor’s course, indoctrination seems to be “trumping” (if I may) independent thinking among students. Professor Kathleen Iannello, who teaches a course in American government, has recently penned a commentary in The Philadelphia Inquirer in which she states that, despite all of her usual efforts to hide her own biases, she simply cannot be silent on Donald Trump. In her words, Trump is just too “harsh”, too “unhinged”, too “distasteful” to occupy the office of president. As Professor Iannello states in her closing sentence, “It is a disservice to students to attempt to provide balance when I know that balance is an offense to the truth”. Of course, this refers to truth as Professor Iannello happens to see it. 

Don’t get me wrong. I have serious problems with both of the candidates in this election, but that doesn’t change my view that college faculty serve a much more important role than just telling students what the professors think is right, no matter how tempting that may be. Much better to challenge the students to think effectively for themselves. After graduation, a professor’s opinion will matter very little to them. What will be important is their ability to successfully navigate their way through the minefields of a complex society. 

Vic Brown had a thirty-year career in the chemical industry with FMC Corporation, where he held senior positions and worked internationally in sales, marketing, manufacturing, information technology and procurement.

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