Blog and opinion
5 April 2019 • Dave van Ginhoven
This Brainwashing Balderdash
I had mixed feelings when I heard recently that they were pulling the plug on this year’s National Student Survey, because I worked hard to get students do it, but I’ve never been its biggest fan. Then I heard about another kind of evaluation that I like even less.
Allegations of “leftist indoctrination in education” aren’t new, but I never used to take them seriously. If it came up, I’d just point out that if I had the power to brainwash students, I’d use it to get more of them to laugh at my jokes and fewer of them to wear jogging pants to class before getting in to politics. But now that a popular political party is asking a new kind of child hero to inform on their teachers through a national tipline – when they’re not busy doing it on social media – I am a little unnerved, and I know I’m not the only one.
Teachers are people, and it’s logical that their personal views sometimes pop up in places, but I don’t think that’s what this is about. I suspect that, in a lot of cases, it’s about students not wanting to participate in discussions where they have to listen to other perspectives or to question their own – activities that are painful, but part of the point of higher education.
It might also have to do with the fact that schools like ours have to have rules for such discussions. As a public institution with a diverse student body, we have a duty to make sure that all students feel safe, welcome and valued. That doesn’t take topics off the table, but it does require everyone to mind their table manners. Some might see this as an attack on free speech, but it’s really just common decency.
Usually, when you hear about free speech in (higher) education, it’s because allegedly politically correct, left-wing “snowflake” students are said to be overreacting to something that offends them. Critics roll their eyes, joke about these kids needing a “safe space” and then they actually argue the same thing I just said: that young people need to be exposed to different opinions if they ever want to achieve adulthood. Why then isn’t the same reaction applied to right-wing snowflakes when they feel triggered? If this is the sauce for the goose, shouldn’t we also pour a little on that owl everyone’s talking about, just to see what it tastes like?
Our job is to create a climate where students learn that there are more things in heaven and earth than they’ve dreamt of in their philosophy or read about on Reddit, because otherwise they really will be at risk for indoctrination. It’s a hard job and it won’t get any easier if we have to look over our shoulders for fear of political punishment. That will compromise the quality of your work and your own quality of life and that’s no good, because we’re supposed to feel safe, welcome and valued here, too.
If you want to create the right environment for working and learning, you have to be yourself and encourage your students to do the same, in a respectful atmosphere where we sometimes have to agree to disagree. That’s all any of us can hope for. Besides that, I just hope that if anyone wants to drop a dime on me, they quote me accurately and remember to spell my name right.
But that’s just one guy talking.
Dave van Ginhoven is a senior lecturer at European Studies, which he’s happy to promote to anyone who will listen. Before that he used to be a journalist and a Canadian. He loves to talk, but don’t take him too seriously. He’s only one guy.