Imagine, for a moment, that you’ve been asked to design an introductory college course on American government and politics. In addition to explaining how American government works, you would probably include some assigned readings from the Federalist papers, Anti-Federalist papers, and letters and speeches from around the time of the writing of the Constitution. You would want students to understand why the Constitution was set up the way it was, why “ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” and so forth. It might also be useful to look at some modern views on the Constitution from various political perspectives.
Alas, one instructor at NC State who teaches an introductory political science class has seen fit to follow a different course, imbuing his students with his own ideology rather than an objective presentation of the facts. John Strange, a graduate student who teaches PS 201: Introduction to American Government and Politics, has assigned readings for his class that argue two main themes: 1) conservatives are stupid, and 2) the Constitution sucks.
I recently obtained Strange’s class syllabus via a concerned parent. I asked Strange to comment on the course reading list, but he hasn’t yet responded. The articles mentioned below are not a complete list but are representative of the non-textbook readings that Strange assigned. The textbook, The New American Democracy by Morris P. Fiorina et al., was fairly balanced. I found in it only a few examples of unfair treatment of conservative opinions, such as anti-gay marriage initiatives referred to as anti-gay rights initiatives and the inclusion of a brief attack on constitutional separation of powers. Perhaps believing that this book was too centrist, Strange supplemented it with numerous outside articles reflecting a liberal (if not radical) viewpoint.
The assigned readings outside the text come overwhelmingly from left-leaning outlets such as The Nation, Vanity Fair, and the New York Times op-ed page. One right-leaning source (the Weekly Standard) made the list, but the opinion expressed wasn’t exactly conservative (in a 2005 essay, Allison Hayward made the unusual argument that voting should be mandatory). I found only one actual conservative opinion piece articulated by a conservative: an article in which Dinesh D’Souza argued against affirmative action.
Overwhelmingly, the readings blamed Republicans and the Constitution for the country’s problems.
The first article assigned for Strange’s class is “Our Godless Constitution” by essayist Brooke Allen. It opens with a swipe at George W. Bush’s intelligence and character. “It is hard to believe that George Bush has ever read the works of George Orwell,” Allen writes, “but he seems, somehow, to have grasped a few Orwellian precepts.”
Allen goes on to discuss the Constitution, minimizing the influence of religion in the creation of the Constitution by taking a close look at the non-Christian pronouncements of four of our Founding Fathers: Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. She seems to be unaware that only one of the four (Franklin) was actually in attendance at the Constitutional Convention. Nevertheless, the point in assigning the essay to students is clear: the Constitution isn’t what you thought it was, having been devised by people whose religion stemmed from a political agenda rather than genuine conviction.
There is no rebuttal in the assigned readings to demonstrate the profound effect religion had on early Americans. The natural law philosophical tradition underlying the Constitution (expressed in the Declaration of Independence as “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”) is similarly slighted.
Another reading is a long essay about the Senate published in The New Yorker in August 2010. Author George Packer attacks Republicans for blocking the progressive agenda over much of the 150-year period following the Civil War. Packer calls their obstructionism “an alliance of Southern racists and Republican corporate shills.” In more recent times, Packer blames “the Senate’s modern decline” on “the election of a new wave of anti-government conservatives” in 1978. He also quotes current Senator Carl Levin bemoaning “mindless” Republican obstructionism.
Similarly, in a Vanity Fair essay from September 2010 entitled “Washington, We Have a Problem,” Todd Purdum casts Republicans as deceitful cynics. President Obama, in contrast, is pictured as high-minded, attempting to transcend partisan cynicism and only occasionally making concessions to the apparently toxic Washington culture.
In Strange’s reading selections, the chief tool that cynical Republicans have used to halt progress is the Constitution. This can be seen in the 2006 essay “It Is Time to Repair the Constitution’s Flaws” by University of Texas law professor Sanford Levinson. Levinson complains that the Constitution cramps liberals’ style when it comes to governing. “I have become ever more despondent about many structural provisions of the Constitution that place almost insurmountable barriers in the way of any acceptable contemporary notion of democracy,” he writes. He calls for new Supreme Court justices with looser “visions of constitutional possibility,” something he doesn’t spell out.
Several other articles complain at length about gridlock, blaming primarily Republicans, legislative procedure, and modern technology. The idea that gridlock could be good, as columnist George Will has argued (“Gridlock is not an American problem. It's an American achievement”), never appears in any of the readings. Nor does James Madison’s discussion of what he viewed as the “great difficulty” inherent in republican government: the problem that government can quickly run rampant; in his words, we must “oblige it to control itself.”
Conservative jurisprudence also takes a rhetorical beating in Strange’s class. For instance, Stuart Taylor’s essay in the National Journal, “Is Judicial Review Obsolete?” complains that conservative jurists who argue for judicial restraint are hypocritical. Although conservatives say they want judicial restraint, Taylor says, “they have used highly debatable interpretations of original meaning to sweep aside a raft of democratically adopted laws.” In a 2006 article for Slate magazine, Seth Rosenthal makes a similar point. He claims that conservative jurists’ restrictions on government involvement in people’s lives are, in themselves, examples of intrusion in people’s lives.
Neither author seems to understand that conservatives do not see judicial restraint as the same as doing nothing. When they oppose “judicial activism,” they mean they want the courts to enforce the laws and limitations that are actually in the Constitution (as opposed to creating new ones, as in Griswold v. Connecticut). Doing so may mean striking down laws that are inconsistent with the Constitution.
Is that contradictory? From where I sit, no, but it’s debatable. However, students in Strange’s class are not able to participate in that debate. They are not offered any argument for judicial restraint from someone who actually favors it (or, it seems, even understands it). This is especially troublesome from an educational point of view because, as John Stuart Mill put it, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”
Considering all of this, what about the “I” word? Does this class count as indoctrination?
Professor Neil Gross recently claimed in the New York Times that college indoctrination is a “myth.” He pointed to a study showing that shifts in the political opinions of college students are not much different from shifts in non-college students. But he didn’t deny that political opinions do shift leftward in college or that biased classes are partially responsible for that shift.
NAS president and long-time professor Peter Wood contends that it is no myth, and in a recent blog post explains how indoctrination happens:
Students aren’t seduced away from their families’ faith traditions or their positive attitudes towards American life in general by reading Aristotle or Bertrand Russell, or by a profound new ability to peel back the layers of theological arguments. It is way easier than that. Students are intellectually insecure. They don’t want to look dumb and they crave the approval of their peers and their teachers. (Emphasis mine)
If Wood is right, schools should take at least minimal steps to ensure fairness, perhaps through greater departmental oversight—the course at NC State was taught by a grad student, after all. Otherwise, the nation will continue to produce graduates who believe their political opinions are well informed when, having never encountered an opposing view, they are anything but.