Why Professors Shouldn't Be Evangelists

We have all heard horror stories of professors treating their classrooms as opportunities for ideological evangelism. Let me tell you about my approach.

I am a philosophy professor.  As an adjunct, I teach at a number of local universities, my assignment typically being one of the foundational courses, either “Introduction to Philosophy” or “Introduction to Ethics.”  I am also a Christian.  This means that out of all of the readings I assign, views I present, and arguments I consider, I naturally sympathize with some far more than I do with others. I have much more in common, philosophically speaking, with Aquinas than with Nietzsche.

But I don’t let it show.

In fact, I studiously guard against telegraphing my religious views. I do this because of what I teach, where I teach, and whom I teach.

I teach philosophy, a discipline known for its near comical aversion to intellectual progress.  Open up any of Plato’s dialogues at random, and chances are you’ll see a philosophical problem that is alive and well today, with no imminent solution in sight.  Try the same with an old science text, and you will read of theories long since superseded.  Aristotle once theorized that stones fall to the earth because they desire to reach their home (a scientific hypothesis), and he also theorized that ethics is largely concerned with the formation of virtue (a philosophical view).  Which of the two do you think is still in play?

For this reason, I don’t begrudge a science professor teaching her students the latest in her field.  In my field, however, the “latest” might be just as compelling as the “earliest.”  There is no settled science in philosophy.  This surely has to do with the nature of the questions it explores – questions far more general and whose evidence base is far more elusive than those from other fields.  Questions such as “What is time?,” “What is the good life?,” and “Does God exist?”  It would therefore be inappropriate for me to show intellectual favoritism when there is little to no shared consensus about which answers to these questions are right.

Although views themselves are eternally disputed in philosophy, there is nevertheless wide-ranging agreement about methodology.  Philosophy places a premium on reason and argument, on critical thinking.  It follows, then, that a main goal of a foundational course in philosophy should be to cultivate habits of rational and logical thinking.  Unless the instructor is being opinionated for a pedagogical reason, perhaps as a foil in order to stimulate logical thinking, it is inappropriate to skew presentations in the direction of one view over the rest.  Doing so fails to model the intellectual virtues that philosophy is uniquely equipped to teach and thereby undercuts its own aim.  The aim of an introductory philosophy course is short-circuited when the professor’s view is presented as dogma to accept, rather than as but one view of many to critically engage with.

Another reason why I keep my cards close to the chest has to do with where I teach.  The various universities that have hired me over the years to teach introductory philosophy courses are public universities, not private ones.  It is perfectly legitimate for philosophy to be taught under the auspices of a particular tradition – so long as this is clear to potential students.  But a philosophy course at a pluralistic university should reflect that pluralism in the curriculum.  This doesn’t mean anything as silly as “Give everyone a voice!” – not all philosophical views are equally plausible.  But it means, at a minimum, to maintain broad ideological neutrality.  There should neither be theistic nor atheistic crusaders treating these courses as opportunities to proselytize.  This is hard for me, since I have very strong views: I think, for example, that Judith Jarvis Thomson’s pro-choice arguments are a train wreck (or should I say “trolley wreck?”), yet the classroom is not the place to sermonize.

Third, I am also sensitive to who it is I’m teaching.  My classes are discussion-heavy, and slanting the material in a theistic direction would undercut the purpose of those discussions.  There is also the risk of creating an environment that is discriminatory against my non-theistic students.  I want all of my students, no matter what their persuasion, to feel they’ve got just as much of a platform to participate in discussions as anyone else.  This goal is sabotaged when students feel the professor is personally committed to one point of view and antagonistic toward the rest.

By keeping my theistic convictions to myself, this doesn’t mean I erase myself from the class.  Judgments, opinions, declarations – these all have their place, even in an introductory philosophy course.  But what I don’t do is reveal certain things about myself that could sabotage the goals I have for the class.  Fostering an environment where students are open to going where the argument takes them requires a dedication to implementing this right kind of neutrality.  Not an “Every view is equally right!” posture, which is self-defeating, but a “here are the major views – which do you think is right, and why?” approach.  It is amazing how engaged students become when they don’t feel they’re being propagandized.

Berny Belvedere is a professor of philosophy and a writer based in Miami, FL.  Follow him @bernybelvedere on Twitter.