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Pat Buchanans need not apply

Here’s a serious question: is there a “correct” set of political values?

My Duke education has brought me closer to answering that question “yes” than I ever imagined. And I can define those values very precisely.

The correct political values, for Duke, are socially liberal and fiscally conservative. Free trade is sacrosanct. Anyone who questions gay marriage is a bigot. Anyone who questions abortion is anti-woman. The U.S. war in Iraq was a grave mistake, just as U.S. involvement in Latin America in the 20th century was utterly evil. Democracy works, taxes don’t and tariffs are practically criminal.

Such is the Duke political bias. It’s not as purely liberal as the Duke Conservative Union would have you believe, but it’s definitely present and has a substantial effect on the educational experience Duke offers. And it should be acknowledged.

The gospel often spreads subtly. It starts in the classroom, where an economics professor might highlight the gains from unfettered trade at length before conceding, “There are some who don’t accept free trade as a path to greater wealth and prosperity for all. In the economics profession, we call them ‘the unenlightened.’” Or in an English class, your professor might engage in a querulous interrogation of a W. supporter, as if being a conservative were the most bizarre thing in the world.

Sometimes, professors aren’t subtle at all. One of the most insulting moments of my Duke education occurred in an ancient Chinese history class in Spring 2003, when the U.S. was preparing to invade Iraq. Our teacher took a break from Confucius and the Han Dynasty to stage a puzzling “teach-in” about Iraq in conjunction with some national organization. During this supposedly neutral discussion, she regaled us with facts and assertions suggesting that the Iraq war was scandalous, foolish and doomed to fail. It was clearly unsafe to come forth with any contrary views. When a member of the class started using our class e-mail list to post protest times and dates, I was disgusted and felt compelled to request a return to ancient Chinese history.

We shouldn’t really be surprised when professors bring their political biases into the classroom. Given a faculty of intellectual, passionate, socially aware and often socially active scholars who also happen to be pretty sure of themselves, it is natural for them to want to share their convictions and educate students in more than the caste system of 11th century France. While the overt proselytizing of my Chinese history professor was inappropriate and could have been controlled, it is impossible to expect faculty members to shed all vestiges of their political perspectives.

Nor would we want them to. Like race, socioeconomic background, gender and other factors, political orientation can color the way someone views the world. We would never ask an Asian American professor to “turn off” his race when he steps into the classroom. In addition to being impossible and disingenuous, that act would abandon what could be a useful educational tool. Similarly, we should not ask a professor to pretend to “turn off” his or her political convictions for the sake of a supposedly neutral lecture or class discussion. The bias is going to seep in, regardless, and we might as well be honest about it rather than play dumb and let the Duke political outlook seep in insidiously and undetected.

Once we acknowledge the political bias in our classrooms, we can begin taking corrective action. I think it is time to include political orientation as a factor in the hiring process, on an ad hoc basis like race or gender. There should be no quotas for conservatives (or fiscal liberals, for that matter), but departments should pay close attention to the political orientation of their faculty and hire more political minorities to ensure a diversity of views. The same rationale for race- and gender-based affirmative action applies here: we are a stronger community when we have competing voices that do not allow us to slip into complacency, narrow-mindedness or, worst, bigotry.

The people of our University are not generally bigoted toward those minorities who do not fit the Duke political mold, but we have become complacent and narrow-minded. It will take a courageous leap to acknowledge our bias and an even bigger one to rectify it.

And since you’re asking, no, I’m not an archconservative. Wouldn’t you know it, I’m actually socially liberal-to-moderate and fiscally moderate-to-conservative. Hey, maybe I’ve been brainwashed.

Andrew Collins is a Trinity senior and a former University Editor for The Chronicle. His column appears Tuesdays.


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