Are Students A Captive Audience? Constructive Disagreement And Classroom Politics


by Claire Potter

Recently I was reading a discussion of the relationship between campus speech codes, sexual harassment, and free speech doctrine.  Because I am not a legal scholar I won’t dwell on the details, but the dilemma for educational institutions is this:  how might one seek to regulate classroom expression that creates a hostile environment for students in a protected class without infringing on freedom of speech? Such utterances by a teacher or another student might include:  “Students of color are only here because of affirmative action;” “Tammy sure is easy on the eyes;”  or “Learning disabled people get extra time for the test, but I don’t believe that anyone deserves accommodation.”  (I made all these up, but I once knew a male prof who was famous for saying to any female student who had a hyphenated last name:  “Your mother must be one of those feminists.”)

The answer to the questions I began with is this.  While individual speech acts in a classroom might be found to violate the right to work or learn in an environment free from harassment, speech codes do violate the right to free speech, as well as academic freedom. Furthermore, speech acts are only taken seriously as discrimination when perpetrated by a faculty member against a student.  In 2008 a member of the Dartmouth faculty sued in 2008 on the claim that her students had created a hostile environment, and was mocked by the national press as a result.

Faculty are, in fact, perceived as having an almost uniquely destructive power to harm their students intellectually by forcing their views on them.  One way of thinking about this is what is called in labor law “captive audience doctrine,” by which employees are forced to listen to political, religious or discriminatory speech.  If said employees resist, or refuse to participate as part of an audience for such speech, and are threatened with reprisal as a result, the captive audience doctrine might be invoked. (Note:  since the National Labor Relations Board is a mere shadow of its former self, actually winning a discrimination case or a grievance under captive audience doctrine is very difficult.)

Sound familiar to you?  This is more or less the principle on which conservative groups like Students for Academic Freedom (“You can’t get a good education if they’re only telling you half the story”) and Minding the Campus assert that so-called “liberal indoctrination” in the classroom establishes a hostile environment for conservative students.  As the Student Bill of Rights published by SAF states:

Professors are hired to teach all students, not just students who share their political, religious and philosophical beliefs. It is essential therefore, that professors and lecturers not force their opinions about philosophy, politics and other contestable issues on students in the classroom and in all academic environments. This is a cardinal principle of academic freedom laid down by the American Association of University Professors.

In an academic environment professors are in a unique position of authority vis-à-vis their students. The use of academic incentives and disincentives to advance a partisan or sectarian view creates an environment of indoctrination which is unprofessional and contrary to the educational mission. It is a violation of students’ academic freedom. The creation of closed, political fiefdoms in colleges, programs or departments, is the opposite of academic freedom, and does not deserve public subsidy or private educational support.

Contained in this statement, which mirrors what might appear to be a worthy standard for professional pedagogy, is language that points to a growing source of resentment among students:  faculty often tell them things that don’t support, and even contradict, the world view that they brought to college in the first place.  What many teachers see as factual information, such students perceive as “opinions” that they must pretend to replicate, even if they have another “opinion.”  What faculty see as reasoned argument that is well supported in the literature, and requires equally reasoned and well-supported argument to rebut, students can perceive as “indoctrination.”

The two paragraphs I quoted above set the stage quite neatly for an application of captive audience doctrine to the classroom.  In the second, the faculty member’s “unique position of authority” is emphasized, a position that is buttressed by “academic incentives and disincentives” (grades) that can be used to reward students who accept indoctrination and punish those who don’t.

But are students always a captive audience?  Do faculty always hold a position of unique authority?  Does the fact of grading itself mean that the faculty member’s unique authority is always already abusive?  And what are the implications of all of this for a liberal arts education — which ought to be about debate, disagreement and transformation?

These may not be important questions for teachers of math and science (I am sure commenters will inform me on this point), but they are for those of us in the social sciences and humanities.  They are particularly serious questions for teachers of feminism, race, colonialism, post-colonialism and queer studies, who are repeatedly harassed by students and conservative organizations, and risk having the institutional support for their work withdrawn, because their work challenges centrist and conservative (and perhaps even liberal) views about race, sex, gender and empire.  However, a central issue for all social sciences and humanities scholars, regardless of field,  is that our very work and identities are built around the idea of constructive disagreement as a path to knowledge.  Useful disagreement depends on the notion that truth is not always an absolute value, and accepting the possibility that those things that are obvious are not always true.  If students do not believe they are empowered to disagree with us, and if disagreement itself is viewed as destructive in a classroom context, in what context can students be transformed into scholarly thinkers?  Conversely, if all student views — no matter how factually incorrect of interpretively flawed — have to be deferred to for fear of being charged with “indoctrination,” under what conditions might a class acquire a body of knowledge about a subject, or a set of intellectual tools that constitute a recognized approach to that body of knowledge, at all?

Piece crossposted with Tenured radical