Tuesday, February 06, 2007

College values

There was an article in the Guardian yesterday written by a professor who had taught a theatre class at an American university. As part of the assessment of the course students were required to view a particular play and write on it. At one point in the play two men kiss. One of the students informed the professor that he wouldn’t be watching the play, and when asked why not he replied (“with a smile” – the smile is crucial!) that he couldn’t, because he was a Christian.

In the article the professor was speaking out against the view – apparently gaining in popularity – that the student should have the right to opt out of that assessment. His reason was that universities are bastions of liberal thought and values, and that we should simply come clean and admit that it is these values that we are teaching to our students. And if you don’t like it? Tough, no one forces you to be here!

I agree with his conclusion – that the student shouldn’t have been able to opt out of this assignment while still remaining in that class – but for completely different reasons.

I don’t think universities should be in the business of trying to impart liberal values on our students; or any values for that matter – we should be trying to educate our students to enable them to come to an informed decision about their beliefs and values. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t set as an assessment a play involving a homosexual incident, for the simple reason that to set such an assessment isn’t to teach, or even endorse, the values that the play might expound.

If a professor sets Mein Kampf as a course text, that doesn’t mean she is forcing Nazi values on her students, nor does it mean she is endorsing them. What she is doing is teaching students what those values are, which will hopefully lead them to make an educated choice regarding those values.

Provided the professor is marking an assessment based on the quality of the arguments and not the particular conclusions that are defended, I don’t see how there can be any problem over setting as an assignment a piece of work that preaches values that might be different from a student’s. If the Christian student believes that homosexuality is wrong, and if he thought that made an impact on the aesthetic quality of the play, then he can say that in his assignment. If he makes his case well, then it shouldn’t matter to the professor what his conclusion is; and if he doesn’t make it well then he should perhaps think harder about why he believes what he believes.

So no – this student shouldn’t have been able to opt out of this assessment. But it’s nothing to do with liberal or conservative ideologies; the point is simply that what you think of an assigned piece of work shouldn’t have a bearing on whether you participate in the assignment – it should only affect the content of your assignment.


Nick T said...

Hi Ross,

I've thought about this issue too, as I'm teaching a philosophy of art course this semester and am requiring students to watch Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. I tend to agree with your view on the issue, but I wonder about certain cases. For instance, suppose you were teaching an introductory ethics course. Would you have any hesitation about _requiring_ that students watch X, where X is the most hardcore and violent pornography legally available?

Ross Cameron said...

Hi Nick,

Yeah, I've worried about the same point.

Part of me thinks that it would be okay to set this as an assignment provided (i) it wasn't compulsory that students took the course, and (ii) it was well advertised that if you signed up for this course this would be an assignment.

On the other hand, I think there is a consistent and quite attractive position whereby it's persmissible to require studetns to watch Triumph of the Will but not hardcore violent porn. It looks like there's a bunch of considerations that arise in the porn case that don't arise in the case of Triumph of the Will.

One is that, while Triumph of the Will might *offend*, there is less real chance of it affecting one's behaviour than there is with hardcore porn. You also don't seem to have the problems concerning the exploitation of those involved that you do with porn. And while some lunatics might be inspired to violence by watching Triumph of the Will, porn arguably *is* violence against women, and so the violence is both intrinsic and essential to it.

So I think I don't need to be committed to the permissibility of setting hardcore porn, because there's outweighing considerations that aren't present in the other cases.

What do you think?

Nick Treanor said...

Ross, my main hesitation with requiring the assignment I mentioned even where students are not required to take the course and the assignment is well-advertised ahead of time is that doing so would de facto exclude certain people from the classroom, where this would be unfortunate both for them and for the rest of the class. (Suppose as a matter of empirical fact that people who have been victims of rape are more likely to find such an assignment psychologically intolerable. It seems unfair to them and bad for the rest of the class to have an assignment that effectively excludes them from taking the course.)

I think there is an important distinction to be made between three issues:

(i) what we should think of mandatory assignments that involve the mere representation of some entity, act, value, etc., that is at odds with a student's deeply held beliefs

(ii) what we should think of mandatory assignments that involve exposing students to something such that it is reasonable to think that a subset of them will find the assignment psychologically intolerable (i.e., they will not merely dislike the assignment, but that completing it would have some kind of serious psychological impact on them)

(iii) what we think of mandatory assignments that require that, if a student completes it, s/he violates a deeply held (religious principle)

The pornography case seems most like case (ii). (Notice that a student could have no moral objection to violent pornography but still find it psychologically intolerable.) Another case like (ii) would be one where you screen a movie about war and one of the students in the class is a former solder with a serious case of PTSD, such that watching the movie would give her nightmares for weeks, etc. The original case you mentioned could be seen as either (i) or (iii). You interpeted it as a case of (i)....that is, that the student was saying something like "the film represents x and x is against my religion.) But the student might have thought it was a case like (iii), saying "the film requires that I view activity x and viewing activity x is against my religion". Now it seems to me somewhat implausible to think that merely viewing a gay kiss is against any strain of Christianity, but whatever, the point is one could easily imagine an assignment that does require that a student violate a deeply held religious principle.

If these distintions are right, then I am inclined to think:

case (i) -- they have to do the assignment (but should have no objection to doing so once one points out the point you made in your original blog post)

case (ii) -- they can do another assignment that approximates as well as possible the goals of the original assignment

case (iii) -- I don't know....I think this one is tricky.

What do you think (either of these distinctions, or of how you might respond to a case of each kind)?

Ross Cameron said...

Excellent points. I think I'm entirely in agreement.

Case (ii) is tricky, though. I mean, I can imagine someone finding Triumph intolerable - if they were a Holocaust surivor say. But maybe any assignment that approximates the goals of the assignment at all will prove intolerable. If so, I don't know what to say - I'm tempted to say they can just do another course.

I agree that in case (i) they should do the assignment. And this is the case I was thinking my original case fell under. In this case, the student has no grounds for complaint.

Case (iii) is a minefield. I guess I think that in the case of a *some* religious beliefs, the student shouldn't have to do the assignment. But not (possible, if not actual) religious beliefs don't seem to me to warrant dispensation not to do the assignment. One could have a religious belief that doing assignments was wrong - but we shouldn't let them off the hook for believing that, they must still do their work.

Likewise, I'm not sure we should take seriously any claim that a student can't watch this gay kiss because it's against their religion. We should take seriously their claim that homosexuality is against their religion - but since watching the play doesn't involve them in condoning homosexuality, that's not an issue.

Nick Treanor said...

I agree with you that case(ii) is tricky and case (iii) is a minefield.

Regarding case (ii)....you're probably right that if any alternative project would be psychologically intolerable, then the student is likely in the wrong class. (Their finding any such assignment intolerable would likely mean that it is something about the philosophical problem or issue itself that is psychologically intolerable, in which case the student deserves sympathy but is likely such that s/he's just not in a position to engage with the issues at this point in life.)

I suspect that in many cases, there would be a suitable alternative project, and think that something like decency and fairness requires that an instructor make such an option available in cases of genuine need.

Cases like (ii) are probably really quite rare, and I can imagine as an instructor being worried that students were presenting cases (i) and (iii) as case (ii), when they're really not.

Regarding case (iii), what a nightmare. I suppose one would have to give attention to whether the religious restriction impeded merely the ability to do the assignment as designed, or impeded the ability to intellectually engage with the issue at hand (and in a way that involves being evaluated as to how successfully they have done that). If the first disjunct, then redesign the assignment on grounds of fairness. If the second disjunct, well, then tough luck for them. (I suspect that in the actual world there would be few second disjunct cases.)