The Education of a Classically Liberal Educator

Campus wokeness still exists, but it doesn’t have to define the job.

I began teaching at the university level in June 2018, while I was still a graduate student at George Mason University. This upcoming year, I’ll begin a tenure-track assistant professorship at Nicholls State University in Louisiana.

While it may be strange to have reflections on such a relatively short teaching career, I’ve found that my experiences contain nuggets of wisdom for the classically liberal educator.

Much has been written about an illiberal turn in higher education. It seems one cannot open a trade paper or blog without reading stories about a tenured, well-respected professor getting in trouble or fired for making politically incorrect statements. Classical liberals have much to be concerned about.

But I wish to share some reasons for optimism from my relatively short career and to discuss the actions that have allowed me to thrive in higher education.

DEI, as instituted in many universities, is probably the single largest threat to liberal education.How can I be optimistic? There certainly are causes for pessimism about the future of freedom of thought, education, and the press. During my job search, many schools required DEI statements. In some of my interviews, DEI was the focus of questions. In one interview, a DEI officer was present and taking notes during the interview. Such behavior is chilling and reflects a lack of attention by the institution to ensuring quality education and a focus, rather, on certain non-educational goals.

DEI, as instituted in many universities, is probably the single largest threat to liberal education in the U.S. right now. My point is not about DEI goals per se, but rather the methods universities are choosing to achieve those goals.

DEI is starting to retreat, though. Some places, like the University of North Carolina System, have banned mandatory DEI statements for professors and students. In other cases, DEI supporters have turned on one another. These types of movements have a habit of eating their own tails and killing themselves in the process.

But I see other signs of optimism here concerning the protection of liberal education. For one thing, the kids are all right. Despite handwringing from the political Left and Right that students (kindergarten through undergrad) are being exposed to “wrong” or “treasonous” ideas or being “groomed” in school, I don’t see extremist attitudes developing in my students. Most pay the minimum lip service to various DEI and other requirements, then go and do their own thing.

More importantly, these students treat extremism with the ridicule it deserves. It is said that the one sound the Devil cannot stand is laughter, and these kids know how to laugh. On the campus of Western Carolina University this past year, we had several political demonstrations that I witnessed. One, a recurring event in the South, was a “doom and gloom” preacher who came to campus to shout how we’re all going to Hell for various reasons. This particular individual shouted insults at students, too, trying to rile them up. But WCU students did not take the bait. Rather, they laughed and satirized him. They treated this protester as if he were doing stand-up comedy and heckled him off the stage.

I see signs of optimism concerning the protection of liberal education.Similar responses happened with left-wing groups, as well. A group trying to recruit students for the “Democratic Socialist” caucus of the local Democratic party was also beset by students laughing at and teasing them. What’s more, many of the same students were in both groups. Again, these are just my observations of a mid-sized university in western North Carolina, but I have heard similar stories from friends at other universities.

Third, time is on our side. As a social science, economics doesn’t have many laws that are as constant and repeatable as physical laws. However, one that comes closest is the Law of Demand, which states that as the cost of something increases, the quantity demanded falls. An implication of the Law of Demand is that the longer a cost remains relatively high, the more time and effort people will put into finding ways to avoid the cost.

And let me tell you: DEI is costly. It is costly both for the university doing the hiring and for the applicant. Both face incentives to get around DEI requirements. Over time, these requirements will either become irrelevant (because everyone just ignores them thanks to substitutes and workarounds) or be removed (as is the case within the UNC System). Patience is a virtue.

Optimism is all well and good, but counseling patience can be frustrating when the problems we face are immediate. What can one do to survive and be successful in the current academic climate? I have found several tactics that work. These tactics focus on students, as I have found they can be kingmakers.

Don’t be neutral with students—be honest. A mistake many teachers make when they first start, and one that I made as well, is to try to be neutral about the material they present. While the goal of being dispassionate and fair with the material is laudable, true neutrality is impossible. As university professors, we have 15 weeks with our students. It is our job to make sure those 15 weeks are full of what the students need to know. Consequently, that means a lot of things are left out.

Rather than present lots of information and introduce controversy (which may needlessly confuse a student), professors should teach what they feel is most important and be honest (both to the students and themselves) about the choices they have made.

Those who are hostile find it harder to think that a conspiracy is being perpetrated when you are honest.Each semester, I introduce the concept of scarcity in economics (there are not enough resources, least of all time, to do everything we wish) and then explain how that simple fact has influenced what I choose to cover. I am honest about who I am: I’m a kid from Cape Cod who roots for the Sox, Pats, Celtics, and Bruins and who was introduced to free-market economics when I was their age and studying at George Mason University. That training and experience influences my choices in my class. I encourage students to keep that information about me in mind and to search for the things I am leaving out. I encourage them to come to class with questions about what they have found. I challenge them to challenge me.

Students react positively to this level of honesty. As Adam Smith said, “Frankness and openness conciliate confidence.” Those who may be hostile find it much harder to think that some conspiracy or fraud is being perpetrated when you are honest. Indeed, one student at GMU (who was a self-described “UnKoch My Campus” progressive) said the honest approach forced him to reconsider his stereotype of economics. Plus, honesty encourages students to do outside research and to truly engage with the lessons.

Respect is crucial, and it’s a two-way street. It’s very difficult to get respect if one does not give it. Treating students with respect goes a long way toward averting problems. Students who respect teachers (even if they disagree with them) will find alternative solutions to any problem that may arise.

Respect comes from treating students as adults. Even simple things like eye contact and full attention can go a long way. I realize this sounds like common sense, but I have seen so many professors show disrespect by not making eye-contact, by checking emails when talking to students during office hours, etc. A personal relationship is key to surviving.

Some professors like to say things in class for shock value. They will try to come up with a visually or intellectually jarring example in order to get students to remember an important point. While there may be pedagogical benefits to this approach, I find the costs outweigh those benefits because of a parallel to one’s legal Miranda rights: Anything you say can and will be held against you. Bombastic examples can backfire and land one in trouble. It takes only one belligerent student to put your career in jeopardy.

There is a difference between giving a surprising example for pedagogical purposes and being a troll.This doesn’t mean giving in to the DEI and “woke” crowd. Prudence has long been a classically liberal virtue. Plus, there is a difference between giving a surprising example for pedagogical purposes and just being a troll. There are many surprising examples, but one calculated to cause offense is just sowing the seeds of trouble.

Let me end with this thought—be an ambassador, not a missionary. The best way to defend classical liberalism in the academy and promote intellectual freedom is to be a good ambassador for it. Rather than trying to convert students, we ought to live our values so that others can see what liberalism looks like. Show the virtues of a liberal education by living them.

That can go a long way toward earning students’ respect, as well as not providing any excuse for one to be targeted or terminated. In the short run, protecting yourself by being prudent and liberal will pay dividends. In the longer run, I look forward to the day when my students will enter the world as adults. I think there are brighter days ahead.

Jon Murphy is an assistant professor of economics at Nicholls State University and a fellow at the Institute for an Entrepreneurial Society at Syracuse University.