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How to be a (Respectful) Gadfly in the Classroom

Cropped image by Jenny Ondioline via Flickr. Cropped image by Jenny Ondioline via Flickr.

I’m currently enrolled in a business law course. Apparently, The Powers That Be decided finance majors should take a basic law class. I agreed wholeheartedly. But, unfortunately for me, I failed to read the fine print of my educational contract.

One morning my professor, after stepping down from his soap box, proclaimed to an enraptured audience, “I don’t pretend to be nonpartisan.” My peers laughed. I nearly gasped. To be fair, I was perfectly aware of his ideological leanings; he made no obvious effort to obscure them. As conservative students, we’ve observed firsthand the unfortunate nature of academia in the twenty-first century, which has become the shameless bastion of liberal indoctrination wherein the new religion is evolutionary theory and Darwin is their Prophet. Indeed, capitalism is ridiculed and spat upon as the practice of lesser, animalistic beings, while socialism is upheld as the apogee of human development. What I didn’t expect, however, was such a deliberate statement of disregard for the educational enrichment of his students.

If this sounds like an exaggeration, then I envy you. On my campus, there is only one voice, and it is the siren’s song of liberalism. Entire departments are enraptured by its spellbinding intoxication, just as Odysseus’ men were in the classical epic.

If a university is supposed to be a temple of learning and a vehicle of translatio studii, then you would think that discussing ideas is its most important function. When a student enters a classroom, his/her paradigms should be challenged and interrogated. What better way to strengthen the mind? But if your view is supposed to be challenged, then it’s only reasonable that your classmates are equally challenged as well (modern America loves equality, right?). The academic community, however, takes particular views for granted. It's a perfect dismissal of the methodology of that original gadfly, Socrates, who stood ready to question anyone and anything: “[F]or a human being a life without examination is actually not worth living” (The Apology of Socrates).

Is it possible for a teacher to disregard deeply-held beliefs? Of course not. Personal preferences leak from even the most carefully pursed lips. But rather than snuffing out the flame of personal belief, educational institutions should instead feed the open fire within the hearth of debate and discussion. Few students have the courage to stand before a professor and engage with him and his tenured mind on the lecture floor. It's not easy defying the man or woman who controls your grade.

So let's be prudent, not brash. Let's imitate the great instructor and gadfly, Socrates, by proposing questions to the self-ordained priests of knowledge, rather than throwing dissenting punches.

What are your professor’s most fundamental assumptions? If they are hidden behind layers of pedagogy and turgid rhetoric, bring them to light for the class through simple, guiding questions. Maybe the professor will appreciate your efforts to improve the course of the lecture. Or, maybe he will identify your intentions and combat them accordingly. Either way, you are forcing him to clarify his language, support his assertions, and iron out his argument from behind a lectern as he shuffles around pages of notes and races through PowerPoint slides.

As Nelson Mandela said, “A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don't have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed.” Mandela would have understood the importance of interrogating ideas.

We have an obligation to defend those ideas which we attach to our own framework, not assert intellectual dominance.


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