Here is a challenge: engage your students with issues around the Presidential election this semester, change their minds about something, but leave them guessing about your political leaning and how you will vote. Asking you to swallow a toad might be easier, but it is vitally important for our country and our colleges that we try.

With recent accusations of indoctrination in the classroom, and the widening gap between more liberal professors and more conservative students, it would be easy for faculty to avoid politics, but consider some evidence. While faculty (especially in the social sciences and humanities) are much more liberal than the general population, college does not make students more liberal or less religious. (See, for example “The Indoctrination Myth” by Neil Gross, NYT, March 3, 2012.) Be sad or be happy (depending on your politics) but if you were trying, you’ve failed.

But we also know that college in general is not leading students to more open minds or a greater ability to think critically. There are plenty of other causes to blame for the increasing contention of our political system, but college is the best place to model what open and informed debate can and should look like. If we shy away from demonstrating to students in our classrooms what civil disagreement and real civic discourse looks like, what hope is there for future public debate?

I am not suggesting that we turn our music or biology classes into political forums, but rather that we not be afraid of political issues during this season. A fundamental principle of teaching is that faculty must engage students with questions that matter to them and start with an understanding of student assumptions. We need to understand what our students think, and that includes politics.

If college is failing to open minds it is because faculty forget that it is easy to learn facts without understanding concepts. Eric Mazur at Harvard discovered that even his “A” students in physics, had no idea about basic scientific concepts, so he changed his pedagogy.

More readings and longer papers won’t change minds, but class discussion and the willingness to investigate thoroughly assumptions might—what I call “teaching naked.” Starting with student beliefs is essential in every class. If a college degree is to mean an ability to think critically, then all of us need to probe and ask students to examine their assumptions. This is not indoctrination, it is learning to think. It also probably won’t endear you to all students, but it is our job. If we are not willing to try, who will?

So the next time your students tell you Mitt Romney is not a Christian or Barack Obama was not born in the United States, you know what to do. Democrat or Republican is much less important than thinking or not-thinking. It is our challenge to create a nation of thinkers.

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