Discussing politics, religion in the classroom

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Dr. Vincent Clerk indiscriminately welcomes all sorts of discussions in his classes as long as they are relevant to the case study. Photo by Henry Lubega

by Humphrey Musila

Staff Reporter

hmusila@jccc.edu

A majority of students are exposed to news and current events across the country on a wide range of issues, including politics and religion. With 2016 being an election year, politics and religion often come up as topics in the classroom, and some professors do take the opportunity to work these issues into their class discussion. When and how professors bring the conversation into their classrooms is something all instructors don’t necessarily agree on, however.

Both the teacher and the student might have strong opinions concerning political subjects. According to Vincent Clark, history professor at the college, the issues of academic freedom are well-drafted by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). He notes the AAUP has spent many years and still continues to work on what academic freedom means and the rights and protections it gives and what the limits are.

“Most colleges and universities give at least a lip service to academic freedom,” said Clark. “We need to be sure that we safeguard our academic freedom, which means that instructors and students can discuss relevant subjects and say pretty much anything they want to about things that I said are relevant to the class and the professor has expertise in.”

Susie Sympson, psychology professor, said it is inappropriate if someone comes in and starts talking about their religious or political beliefs without it being tied to something in the course.

“I think oftentimes what is taken as the professor’s opinion is when the professor relates facts and studies, and that, I think, is completely relevant as long as it is the aim of the subject matter,” said Sympson. “My job … is to educate the students, and I think sometimes you need to shock them a little bit to do that. My philosophy is that if students don’t question themselves, then I’m not doing my job.”

Not all professors agree that there is a time and a place for personal religious views in the classroom though. Bond Faulwell, political science professor, said he has no reason to share his religious or political ideals in class.

“I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to get up and to be spending my time in class talking about my religious views or my political views,” said Faulwell. “What I’m really interested in and what I want to achieve in class, particularly when I’m teaching like American government for example, is to get students to understand the importance of getting involved in government. I don’t care whether they choose Democrat or Republican as long as they get involved and that they approach things from a factual basis.”

The role of academic freedom plays a key role when professors are teaching their students according to Political Science professor George Belzer.

“I am a firm believer in academic freedom, and once you start defining what professors should not be allowed to say in the classroom, that academic freedom no longer exists. Having said that, I believe the role of a professor is to teach students how to think rather than  what to think,” said Belzer. “It is very hard for us teaching political science to keep our political views completely hidden, but I do not think we should try to force them on students. When I taught American government, I would tell my students that I didn’t care who they voted for, but I did care that they voted.”

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