Teaching Can Be Dangerous

Ashley Thorne

Cross-posted from NAS.org, "An Unsuccessful Education Can Ruin You": The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article, "Course Reminds Budding Ph.D.'s of the Damage They Can Do," about a seminar taught at the CUNY Graduate Center on the ethics of teaching. Steven M. Cahn teaches the class, and he seeks to dispel the notion that all education is innocuous:

"People often think that education works either to improve you or to leave you as you were," Mr. Cahn says. "But that's not right. An unsuccessful education can ruin you. It can kill your interest in a topic. It can make you a less-good thinker. It can leave you less open to rational argument. So we do good and bad as teachers—it's not just good or nothing."

Cahn discusses with his small class the meaning of academic freedom ("How free should instructors be to proclaim their beliefs in the classroom? And how sensitive should they be to their students' personal commitments?") and the question of university neutrality ("Do colleges have an institutional duty to stay out of certain public debates? Or is that kind of neutrality actually undesirable or impossible?"). His students enjoy tackling these issues; as future professors, the subjects they consider in Cahn's seminar will soon become very real for them. This course covers the very same fundamental higher education debates in which the National Association of Scholars has found a voice for the last twenty-two years. These are conversations well worth having - they ponder "What does it mean to be a university of integrity?" The existence of the CUNY seminar is encouraging. Now if only all faculty members and administrators took this course, perhaps we'd have a better foundation for teaching the next generation.

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