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Advocacy on Controversial Matters

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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To approach a topic sincerely and in depth, a professor must unveil and reveal her own thinking on it. Gold argues that the cost of substituting a neutral stance for one's own genuine view is too high. The instructor who lacks passion and conviction becomes insincere and shallow.


The posting below looks at pluses and minuses of professors advocating positions on controversial matters in the classroom. . It is from Chapter 2, Teaching Controversy: Advocacy, Indoctrination, and Neutrality in the Classroom, in the book, Rights and Wrongs in the College Classroom: Ethical Issues in Postsecondary Teaching, by Jordy Rocheleau and Bruce W. Speck, Austin Peay State University. ISBN 978-1-933371-14-6, Anker Publishing Company, Inc., 563 Main Street, P.O. Box 249, Bolton, MA 01740-0249 USA. [] Copyright ? 2007 by Anker Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Advocacy on Controversial Matters


The argument so far supports classroom advocacy which helps to promote concern for and awareness of threats to uncontroversial human values. It rejects the case for strict instructional neutrality. This leaves unresolved the question whether professors may advocate for their views about more controversial matters, such as whether the Iraq War was justified, abortion is morally acceptable, same sex marriage should be legalized, or God exists. It is professors' defense of and attempt to sway students on such issues which has lead to criticism of professorial advocacy. Conservative critics of liberal academics are less concerned with the promotion of general human values than with liberal professors' application of these values to support progressive conclusions about divisive social issues (Kupperman, 1996).

In such cases the costs, risks, and objections to advocacy are heightened. Such advocacy supports relatively questionable conclusions and is relatively likely to alienate students or create divisiveness in the classroom. Furthermore, because professors are advocating a position in which there is ideological competition, and in which they may be emotionally vested in their view's acceptance as correct, they are more likely to slip into indoctrination.

While such advocacy has costs and risks, we give it a conditional defense. First, for the educator to take a neutral stance on such issues would tend to give students the relativistic message that no answers are better or closer to the truth than any others regarding moral, political, and religious questions. This is to promote a dubious doctrine that students are too ready to embrace out of laziness, defensiveness, and postmodern cultural influences. A neutral instructor could try to preempt this relativistic implication by notifying students that her own refusal to advocate a position is due to the neutrality required by her role and not because of personal indifference or the lack of objectively correct answers. Yet such an explicated neutrality still has the disadvantage of failing to model a concerned but responsible defense of a position. Such modeling may contribute to the educational goal of creating engaged and independent citizens. A professor who never advocates conclusions can model critical reasoning but not commitment. The neutral professor might try to further close this "commitment gap" by giving examples of sincere engagement by other intellectuals and activists. For example Pope John Paul II's opposition to abortion could be contrasted with the arguments and stories of feminists defending abortion rights-thereby giving students models of engagement to choose from. However, such pedagogy still has a cost. Students would not encounter flesh and blood individuals taking a stand on contemporary issues-commitment would only exist on paper or in classroom videos, not in professors.

Students' education can be enhanced by an awareness of their professors' individual backgrounds and beliefs. Students desire to know where their professors are "coming from"; having a sense of the professor's individuality and humanity helps many relate to the subject matter. If students do not get a sense of their professor's interest in the subject matter, they may not be able to relate to it themselves. In her essay, "A Teacher Is Either a Witness or a Stranger," Penny Gold (1996) argues that effective teaching is in large part self-disclosure. To approach a topic sincerely and in depth, a professor must unveil and reveal her own thinking on it. Gold argues that the cost of substituting a neutral stance for one's own genuine view is too high. The instructor who lacks passion and conviction becomes insincere and shallow. Many of us recall that our most influential professors were advocates, passionately and idiosyncratically defending particular approaches to intellectual and social issues. Indeed, one suspects that critics of advocacy forget their own academic influences and, to the extent that they are engaged professors, probably fail to heed their own ethical admonishments.

There is a risk that such personalization and advocacy will result in the curriculum being too much about the professor and not enough about the subject matter. We are familiar with professors with distinctive personalities cultivating a following of "disciples." We may wonder whether students in such a professor's classes would not be better off with an instructor committed to leaving conclusions open. Yet there are safeguards that can and should be taken against this, short of rejecting advocacy. First, when advocating, professors must remember the norms against indoctrination. If professors attempt to foreclose questions and challenges to the views they defend, then they probably do as much or more disservice to adoring followers than to those who are inclined to disagree with them. Second, students should be encouraged to take a wide range of courses with different professors-both in satisfying their general education requirements and within their majors-so that they encounter professors advocating a range of different positions. Philosophy students benefit from encountering professors who defend libertarianism, existentialism, Marxism, and feminism. They probably learn more by encountering advocates of diverse positions than they do with taking classes from a series of professors who all present "neutral" accounts of the field.

Of course, there is also room for professors who refrain from advocacy on most of all controversial issues. Individual instructors may pursue neutrality for various reasons. Some may be genuinely uncertain about the proper conclusions on controversial social issues and thus feel that there is not clear correct view to promote. Others may be personally predisposed to a nondirective model of teaching, or be convinced of the pedagogical advantages of teachers refraining from articulating a definitive viewpoint. Most professors probably withhold their own views for most of the classroom discussion about most issues. They allow student discussion to be the last word on some issues, while stating their own conclusions about other matters. There are various ways of advocating or indicating what one takes to be the right view. Rather than lecturing on the superiority of a position, one can present it at the end of a discussion as a possible solution. Instructors must balance the pedagogical advantages and disadvantages of the different forms of advocacy and neutrality.

As Felicia Ackerman (1996) argues, students are better served by various faculty teaching in the manners that best suits them, rather than having all of them embrace identical Socratic pedagogy. If teachers avoid indoctrination within a classroom and if the curriculum involves an encounter with educators who adopt a range of views and educational strategies, then students are not done a disservice.

Classroom advocacy is valuable not only in engaging students, but also in promoting underrepresented views. The academy has traditionally served as a forum in which new ideas are developed and undervalued perspectives and theories are promoted. One of the main arguments for academic freedom is that it facilitates the development and discovery of new ideas. Although professional research is probably the most common locus for the development of new theories, discussions in the classroom help to test and revise new ideas. The classroom is a principle venue through which such ideas can be introduced into the public sphere, leading to social change. Although the academy certainly has not been the only source of movements such as feminism, antiracism, peace, environmental, and human and workers' rights, it has been a major one.

Advocating unproven, controversial views is defensible to the extent that professors have reasons to believe that the positions they advocate are not taken as seriously as the evidence and arguments for them warrants. This kind of advocacy promotes new or minority ideas to provide a kind of balance for the students' normal intellectual climate. This advocacy need not take the form of indoctrination; indeed it can emphasize particular arguments and evidence, without attempting to thwart dissent. Professors commonly engage in devil's advocacy in order to push students to defend their everyday views. Professorial defense of unpopular ideologies can encourage students to take these views more seriously. In this context, advocacy fosters rather than inhibits student intellectual inquiry. One might object that a principle which states that we may advocate for any and all of our beliefs. After all, don't we all think that society would do better to take all of our ideas more seriously? On the contrary, professors are sometimes able to recognize that the ideas and values we are concerned with are given sufficient credence in society or in the academic community such that one has no reason to offer it additional favor or weight in the classroom. In liberal arts colleges and humanities programs in which liberal and progressive values are emphasized, there is little reason for professors to attempt to promote such values. However, for professors who teach in conservative schools and business schools, the case is different. Professors have an obligation to not waste time "preaching to the choir." Education should broaden student perspective and stimulate their reflection. This requires the questioning of dogmatically held views and the presentation of possible alternatives. Paradoxically, when professors do come under criticism for their advocacy, this is a sign that education is serving an important function in challenging received views. The advocacy which fails students as autonomous individuals is that which perpetuates uncritical adherence to views which they are predisposed to by national culture or subcultures in which students move.

Judgments about when advocacy is justified are complicated by the fact that there are different levels at which ideas or values can be underrepresented. A view can be undervalued in the class, in the wider community, or society as a whole. Some colleges and courses will be filled with students with countercultural values. Socialist, feminist, antiwar, and other views that are poorly represented in society may be disproportionately present in the classroom. In such cases, contributing to student critical reflection indicates that the socialist, feminist, antiwar professor should play "devil's advocate." Advocacy could be defended as needed to further advance the new ideas being developed by students, which are needed in the community outside of school. Ideally, professors will find some balance between promoting activism and promoting reflective thinking. There will inevitably be room for judgment about when a view is underrepresented in the education of a group of students and warrants advocacy. This means that on some controversial issues, professors will be justified in advocating on either side of the issue. For example, professors may emphasize arguments for or against the Iraq War, abortion, or the existence of God. These are the kinds of conclusions in which professorial advocacy must take pains to avoid indoctrination, acknowledge uncertainty, and encourage student discussion and debate. The most common and justifiable form of advocacy is negative advocacy, which attempts to explain why commonly accepted arguments fail to prove a particular conclusion. Yet making a positive case that a particular argument justifies a conclusion is itself sometimes justified. In order to determine when to advocate for what views and how, professors will have to take into account the effects in the classroom as well as the social contexts for the issues under discussion, leading to difficult judgments. Neither a blanket prohibition nor endorsement of advocacy is appropriate.


Our discussion of advocacy yields the following proposal:

1) Professors should avoid indoctrination in their advocacy. In particular professors should not:

* Attempt to influence students to believe things without regard for the evidence

* Coerce student agreement or silence to secure the prevalence of their own views

* Lie about or distort material

2) Professors must support independent intellectual inquiry. In particular they should:

* Make clear that different views and questions are welcome

* Present a balanced discussion of reasonable alternatives and relevant considerations regarding

issues discussed

3) Professors should avoid advocacy which prevents the accomplishment of course goals.

4) Professors should only advocate positions which they have good reason to believe are correct.

5) Professors should only advocate when they have reason to believe advocacy will contribute to student development. The value of advocacy may include:

* Fostering values necessary for education and inquiry

* Teaching basic humanitarian principles and virtues necessary for good citizenship

* Promoting views that are not taken sufficiently seriously by students

6) The pedagogical value of advocacy in item 5 should outweigh any costs of advocacy in class time or the unintentional alienation or intimidation of students.