Thursday, May 15, 2008

Politics in Classroom?

Law professors are generally a pretty opinionated lot, and there's always a question of how much to bring one's own views into the classroom. This is especially true in a class with as many charged issues as constitutional law.

My classroom approach is to try to avoid proselytizing, on the rationale that the class isn't about me - it's about the Constitution.

Just the other day I received an anonymous e-mail from one of my students confirming this is the proper approach, at least for me. I'm grateful to this student for sharing the e-mail with me - this is about as good as it gets for a teacher....

With that person's permission, here's the e-mail:

"Now that the semester and finals are over I wanted to take a moment and thank you for your teaching methods this semester in Constitutional Law II. When I refer to your teaching methods, I am referring to your ability to stay politically neutral. Before I took your class this spring I was very concerned about your position on the political ideology scale. I had read your blog a couple times and to say the least, you and I are on opposite sides. Or to sum it up better, you despise President Bush and I believe that he is doing what he believes is best for our country. With Constitutional Law already being such a politically driven subject, I was actually considering not taking the class with you as the professor. In the past, throughout undergrad and lawschool, I have had an overwhelming majority of “liberal” professors and many (most) of them have in some way or another tried to persuade the class to believe as they do, and many of those were business classes which have no real political influence.

"Although a conflicting political viewpoint should never be a reason to avoid someone, if you are in a position to avoid it, most do. During this semester our class had many different discussions over many different topics and you did an amazing job as a mediator. Some professors believe that if they throw in a joke about both sides it clears the air about who they are really attacking, but most of the students in the room know what is really going on. You on the other hand did not do this a single time, you did not voice your opinion on any major controversies, and even with most trivial subjects you avoided giving the class your point of view. You allowed and encouraged class discussion on both points of views on every subject.

"This type of control is very hard to come by with any person, let alone a very political person teaching a very political class topic. Sorry for the rambling, but I am just trying to make sure you realize how much I appreciated you throughout the semester. You allowed me to focus on Constitutional Law, and not my personal objections to your beliefs and because of this, I feel I was able to grasp the content of the class. Even if in the end I did not do well on the final I believe that I understood the subject, and would recommend your Constitutional Law class to anyone.... Thank you again.

MSU Law Student, Constitutional Law II, Spring2008"

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Dems' Day of Reckoning

So today is the Democrats' (latest) day of reckoning - this time in North Carolina and Indiana.

As the race for the nomination continues, we're getting a clearer picture of the character of candidates Clinton and Obama, and what we might expect if either are elected President. As David Brooks puts it in today's New York Times:

"Th[e] contrast between combat and composure defines the Democratic race. The implicit Clinton argument is that politics is an inherently nasty business. Human nature, as she said Sunday, means that progress comes only through conquest. You’d better elect a leader who can intimidate. You’d better elect someone who has given herself permission to be brutal.

"[By contrast,] Obama’s campaign grows out of the longstanding reform tradition. His implicit argument is that politics doesn’t have to be this way. Dishonesty and brutality aren’t inevitable; they’re what gets in the way. Obama’s friend and supporter Cass Sunstein described the Obama ideal in The New Republic: “Obama believes that real change usually requires consensus, learning and accommodation."

"That’s regarded as na├»ve drivel in parts of Camp Clinton.

"Campaign issues come and go, but this is a thread running through the race. One believes in the raw assertion of power, the other the power of communication."

Brooks offers the rivals' differing appearances on last Sunday's talk shows as Exhibit A:

"Hillary Clinton went on “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” incarnating her role as the first Democratic Rambo. The Clinton campaign seems to want to reduce the entire race to one element: the supposed masculinity gap. And so everything she does is all about assertion, combat and Alpha dog dominance.

"A few questions in, Clinton rose from her chair and loomed over Stephanopoulos. The country hasn’t seen such a brazen display of attempted middle-aged physical intimidation since Al Gore took a walkabout on the debate stage with George Bush. It was like watching someone get elbowed in a dark alley by their homeroom teacher.

"But her attempt to take over the show was nothing compared with her attempt to dominate the truth. For the first 30 minutes, she did not utter a single candid word, including, as Mary McCarthy would say, “and” and “the.”

"She peddled her sham gas-tax holiday and repeated her attempt to blame Indiana’s job losses on outsourcing and Nafta. Stephanopoulos asked her to name a single economist who thinks a tax-holiday plan would work, and the daughter of Wellesley and Yale took the chance to shove the geeks into their lockers: “I’m not going to put my lot in with economists.” ...

"Barack Obama gave off an entirely different vibe on “Meet the Press.” His campaign has been in the doldrums for the past few months. He’s never come up with an explanation about how he would actually transform politics, and his conventional substance is beginning to overshadow his unconventional style.

"But, as Sunday’s contrast made clear, Obama still seems like a human being. He still seems to return each night to some zone of normalcy where personal reflection lives. He wasn’t fully candid when answering questions about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but there are some inner guardrails that prevent the spin from drifting too far from the truth. Thoughtful and conversational, he doesn’t seem to possess the trait that Clinton has: automatically assuming that critics are always wrong.

"Obama still possesses his talent for homeostasis, the ability to return to emotional balance and calm, even amid hysteria. His astounding composure has come across as weakness in the midst of combat with Clinton, but it’s also at the core of his promise to change politics. He vows to calm hatred and heal division." ...

"Still, amid the storms of the presidency, their basic worldviews would shape their presidencies. Obama is instinctively a conversationalist and community-mobilizer. Clinton, as she says, will fight and fight. If elected, she’ll have the power to take the Hobbesian struggle she perceives, and turn it into remorseless reality."

So Democrats, and all Americans, do have a real choice - and having seen the candidates' behavior in this hotly-contested race, we'll get what we deserve.