One of my faithful readers has raised an interesting question about my description of the life of the mind, and its role in my ideal college. She wonders about the ideological component of the "great ideas," and whether it is acknolwedged or plays a role in the education of the college. I responded that of course there is an ideological component in all argument, indeed even in music [as Herbert Marcuse suggests in a brilliant passage in ONE-DIMENSIONAL MAN.] But, I added, I was dead set against trying to use education to advance an ideology or indoctrinate my students.
It occurred to me that I could make this point more forcefully with a story than with a harangue.
Many years ago, during one of the interminable budget crises that has afflicted the University of Massachusetts, some members of the faculty decided to hold teach-ins [remember those?] in their classrooms to prep students for pressuring the State Legislature to reduce the severity of the budget cuts scheduled for the university system. It was agreed that on a certain Tuesday, we would all use our classroom time that day for the teach-in. The prior Tuesday, as it happens, I assigned my students a short paper, to be handed in at the very next class, on Thursday. One of the students, a rather serious and quiet young man, chose not to write on the assigned topic, but instead to pen an impassioned libertarian argument against state funding for education. It was, he said, inappropriate for me to use the classrooom time to advance an agenda, as though no one could possibly be opposed to it. I was troubled by his paper. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that he was right. By choosing to devote the class to the teach-in, I was compelling him to be complicit in a political position that he adamantly rejected. At the end of the Thursday meeting, I handed back the papers, and then told the class what the student had written [without identifying him, of course.] I ended by saying, "I have concluded that he was right, so, there will be no class on Tuesday. We will not hold a teach-in here. If you wish, you may attend one of the other classes at the same time where teach-ins will be in progress." As I picked up my papers and started for the door, I saw in his eyes a look of almost pathetic gratitude, that someone had actually heard him and paid attention to what he was saying. For many years after he graduated, I received complimentary copies of Cato Institute publications, where, I assumed, he had gone to work.
I think I was more truly a teacher that day, than on any of the days when I allowed myself, as I so often did, to give voice to my intense ideological commitments.