As a student who frequented public schools for 12 years, I know that religion in the classroom can be a touchy subject. Many students will find a way to take offense from a statement made by a peer or instructor based on their own religious views. This begs the question of whether or not professors should even mention their religious views, allow themselves to be open with their students or abide by a “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy.
A handful of Elizabethtown College professors have expressed their opinion on this sensitive subject. Professor of Political Science Wesley McDonald stands by the notion that, while professors can hold their own positions and make arguments related to the matter, they should always invite their students to express their opinions in class without fear of a decrease in grade percentage. He further believes that “the purpose of expressing a public opinion in class should be to encourage students to look at an issue from a different perspective, not to win converts.”
Associate Professor of Religious Studies Michael Long upholds a different stance about whether or not professors should express their religious views. While he also agrees that professors should never try to “proselytize [their] students,” he conforms to the belief that professors who express their religious perspective freely with those in the classroom will “subtly pressure [their] students” to match the views of the authority figure who can pass or fail them with the click of a button. He states that professors should never say, “Your belief is wrong because this is what I believe.” Instead, a professor should maintain an engaging conversation with his or her students to entertain certain perspectives.
Dean of Faculty Fletcher McClellan agrees with the above professors on the subject, but states that the Faculty Handbook asks that educators “not introduce into their teaching controversial matter that has no relation to the subject.” His view is that professors should always explain to their students why it is essential to the class to voice their religious views, while stressing that the students’ opinions will not affect their overall class grade.
Professor of Political Science April Kelly-Woessner offers a more neutral view on this political subject. She says that it would be unfair to students if the professor expressed their religious opinions. If a professor is open about his or her ideas, the students’ views will be repressed, as they are fearful of disagreeing with the professor and receiving penalties to their grades. For example, a student will write a paper based on an opinion they don’t agree with because they think it’s what their professor wants to hear. As a result, she believes that professors should always try to be neutral in the classroom with any political subject. Through observations and surveys Kelly-Woessner has given out, most professors appear to believe that they are being neutral in the classroom and that their students know nothing of their religious views or if they are liberal or conservative; however, their viewpoints “flow into interpretation,” information leaks out and students can easily identify where their professor stands.
As a political science instructor, Kelly-Woessner is aware of these biases and thinks that professors “need to be aware of them [too], and try to counteract them” for the benefit of their students. Oftentimes, a professor might look for more flaws in one paper than another because it supports an opinion with which he or she disagrees. Kelly-Woessner says that she “at least tells [her] students where [she’s] coming from, so they can take [her] comments with a grain of salt.”
Assistant Professor of Sociology Rita Shah puts a unique view on the playing field; she tries “not to reveal [her] personal beliefs because [she] want[s] the students to build their own beliefs based on the information discussed in lecture and in the readings.” However, she does not make any extra effort to cover up her religious beliefs. She is perfectly comfortable with revealing her religious perspectives should a student have questions about them. In some of her classes, she believes it is necessary to offer her religious views to aid class discussions. Shah explains that “it helps to see a different view, as it allows me to model civil discussion and disagreement.” She encourages religious and political debate — including dissent — in the classroom, as her students should never be timid about disagreeing with a professor’s view.
I agree with our aforementioned faculty members that professors should keep an open mind when discussing a sensitive political subject. They must be careful when addressing their students about controversial issues and always try to remain neutral when not discussing a political matter. Political subjects do not necessarily belong in the classroom unless one is taking a political science class. Regardless of whether or not religious or political views are mentioned, students should never be penalized for voicing their own opinion, as our Nation’s First Amendment gives us that sacred right to free speech.