From the September 2013 issue of Perspectives on History
Letter to an Angry Parent
Alexander Boulton, September 2013
Dear Mr. Smith,
Thank you for your recent e-mail about your son's experience in my world history course at Stevenson University. I understand your concern and anger about my injecting my liberal political bias in class discussions.
I can assure you that your concerns are being taken seriously. I have spoken with the chair of my department, the dean of the school, and the vice president of academic affairs about your comments. I know that we will continue to think about and to discuss the issues that you have raised. So, your e-mail has definitely had an effect. The following comments are some of my reflections on your e-mail, and not those of the school.
I enjoyed having your son in my class. He always arrived early, and we frequently had short conversations about a number of things, usually the weather, sometimes about his plans for his career. He is an intelligent and friendly person. I knew that his political beliefs were different from mine, and did once try to draw him into a conversation about them. I never singled him out in class discussions. I believe that I never gave him cause to worry that his political opinions might affect his grade in my class. Please ask him about this. I hope and believe that he will answer that he was never worried about any "retribution" on my part. Nevertheless, I understand that it can be difficult for anyone to have their beliefs challenged by someone in a position of authority.
Frankly, I am surprised that I don't receive more letters like yours. It is true that I frequently encourage discussion of "hot-button" issues in my classes. In my world history classes, for example, we discuss conservative economic theories and trace their origins and history from Adam Smith to Ronald Reagan to the current impasse over the budget in Congress today. I understand your concern that this might fall under the category of purely domestic policy and not appropriate for a class in world history, but we also discuss the "domestic policies" of Stalin's collectivization policy, his purges of political dissidents, and his five-year plans. We have also spent time studying the rise of China, its ideology of "communism with Chinese characteristics," and the Tiananmen Square massacre. These are "domestic matters" that I believe have global significance. The United States is arguably the most important and powerful nation in the world, and our domestic policies often have repercussions around the world. I believe that they deserve attention in a world history class.
The usual criteria that I apply when making decisions on what to include and what to leave out of the enormous amount of material that might be part of a world history course is its contemporary relevance and its possible continuing relevance 20 or more years in the future. History is not just a long list of names and dates of kings and wars that students must memorize in order to pass a course. It is a way of thinking about the past, the present, and the future and their interrelationships. It requires an understanding of the culture, traditions, and internal dynamics of the great nation states (including our own) as well as a recognition of the significance of ideas wildly different from our own.
It is particularly important for students to be knowledgeable about the issues that frequently roil the politics of the United States today and in the years to come. It is important, for example, for students to know something about the political ideologies of liberalism and conservatism and their histories. Sadly, most students and many Americans cannot identify the major areas of conflict between these two philosophies. I believe that most teachers at all levels in education do not address these issues in their classes because they are afraid of getting letters like yours. The reluctance to discuss these issues reinforces our general ignorance, and prevents knowledgeable and productive debate on important issues.
So, I plead guilty as charged. My classes do frequently discuss these controversial political issues, and other controversial social issues such as race, religion, and gender and sexual orientation. I do not pretend to be neutral on these subjects. I have a strong point of view. On some "controversial" topics such as global warming, evolution, and the Holocaust, I believe there is a strong academic consensus. Some students, nevertheless, will disagree with it. I encourage their comments, while making it clear that I believe these are settled issues. On many other topics, such as economic inequality, social welfare, governmental regulations, gun control, abortion, and gay rights, I understand that intelligent and good people can disagree. When these topics arise, I encourage extended class discussion. This is easier to do in some of my upper level courses with small class sizes, and in which I generally know the students better. In these classes, most of my students are much more conservative than I am, and many of them are very vocal in their disagreements. Many of my students have told me that this is what they like best about my classes. I encourage discussion, and make it clear that I respect the opinions of all of my students. Many of these vocal conservative students take my classes over again and again and again. They appreciate that I recognize that a conservative point of view is a very powerful influence in American society, and that all students should be familiar with it. I say this frequently in my classes. I also make it clear that I disagree with much of it. (I sometimes criticize aspects of liberalism as well.)
Always when discussing controversial topics, I encourage and respect student opinions. This is easy for me to do because I have a personal regard and affection for (almost) all of my students. In class, I identify when I am making a purely personal, political statement, especially when that might be a minority opinion. Always, I believe that I make it clear that I respect opinions other than my own. I believe that a democratic society thrives on free and open discussion and I use my classes as a model of that ideal. Also, I make it a point that I do not have the last word on a subject. After I make my point, I give the last word to any student who disagrees with me. I would be very happy if teachers who were more conservative than myself would use the same approach to teaching as I do.
I recognize that there is delicate balance that a teacher must find when discussing current social issues. I will continue to try to find that balance. In our very polarized world, however, we need more opportunities to discuss our mutual disagreements in a respectful manner, and we should not shirk this responsibility. A college or university is the ideal place to begin.
I am sorry that your son did not have a happy experience with my class. I wish that there had been a possibility of a more open discussion about these issues, in which he would have felt more comfortable expressing his opinions. I would like to think, however, that if he felt challenged by my comments, and even if he was uncomfortable or even angry as a result of my class, perhaps his educational experience at Stevenson has been worthwhile in ways he did not imagine. I am certain, however, that your son now knows a lot more about his own political beliefs than he did before he took my class.
Sincerely, Alexander O. Boulton
Professor of History, Stevenson University
Editor's note: Identifying characteristics of the actual student and parent mentioned in this letter have been altered.