The problem with politics in the classroom

Last week, a Chronicle of Higher Education blogger reported, faculty at Ohio State received an email from a senior English professor with the subject line “How to turn students into voters.”

The email begins: “I’ve been in touch with a couple of campus organizers for the Obama campaign, who have asked me to pass along to all of you a request for access to your classes in the next few weeks. If you were willing, they would send along a volunteer to make a pitch to your students about registering to vote.”

While promoting voter registration is an innocent endeavor — honorable, even — the more troubling part comes a few sentences later: “If you were willing, the volunteers could also take a couple of extra minutes to see whether they could interest any of your students in volunteering for the Obama campaign themselves.”

Brian McHale, the author of this email, is a professor at Ohio State. As such, he’s in one of the worst possible positions to be introducing his own partisan opinions.

During the next few weeks, we will hear the partisan opinions of almost everyone we know. We will hear the partisan opinions of a great deal of people that we don’t know. Friends, family, television commentators, celebrities, satirists, bloggers, campaign ads and acquaintances from all aspects of our lives will bombard us with political argumentation as the November election approaches. We’ll hear horror stories, witty sayings, scathing accusations and uplifting speeches.

In an ideal world, academia should be a refuge from all of that.

While engaging in informed political discourse is always beneficial, universities should be where we learn to combat twisted statistics and comically dramatic campaign ads. It should be a safe haven where we learn to analyze emotional appeals and look at controversy logically. The professor is there to act as a guide, helping students to navigate the maze of viewpoints around them and to examine the facts of the matter. When a professor introduces partisan politics into the classroom, he contradicts that goal.

And that goal is especially important now, in a time when the line between news and entertainment often fades into an unintelligible haze, when advocates on both ends of the political spectrum constantly present their opinions as fact, when truth is hard to come by. McHale certainly did not help matters.

Consider how often we hear about the power of an education and the importance of becoming intelligent, active, informed citizens. Students have been told that there is something very special about what they will learn in college that is necessary for most anything they do thereafter. That this will be where they will learn to analyze, become exposed to new perspectives, learn to make connections and tear down contradictions — and the professor is there to help us learn to do these things.

It’s quite a lot to live up to.

Everything about the culture of higher education reinforces professors’s credibility, so a well-spoken professor can be incredibly influential. Making a pitch for any political campaign is an abuse of that power.

According to Ohio State’s student newspaper, The Lantern, McHale stated that he will not repeat his actions now that he knows he was violating university guidelines. However, he believes that “registering students to vote is simply good citizenship.”

Professor McHale, I wish you had realized that you could have practiced good citizenship in one of the most pure and fundamental ways: by teaching young people to think for themselves.

Email Ellen Wexler at


  1. As the parent of a new W&M student voting in her first election, I appreciate this article. We don’t need more unduly influenced “informed” voters. We need more thoughtful voters who have considered the issues at a far deeper level than soundbite politics.


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