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.