On the Ethical Obligations of Midwifery: Advocacy, Activism and Pedagogy


I want to start this blog post with a heavy caveat: I respect the right of every faculty member (within legal limits) to teach and research as they consider right under the protection of Academic Freedom. I am asking my colleagues to consider their ethical obligations; I am also asking a community of professionals to open up discussion about how we approach our ethical responsibilities in the classroom, and also how we interact with students. That said, as a philosopher I work with the image that Socrates often used. He claimed to be a midwife of ideas – that is, he himself was barren and had no ideas or knowledge of his own, but helped others give birth to their ideas.

Recently I had lunch with a junior colleague (as I do in summer, to catch up and find out their concerns for the coming year) who had been to a joint workshop with members of two interdisciplinary programs. In the course of the discussion, one faculty member observed that if faculty were not advocating for certain positions in the classroom, they were failing their students. My colleague was expressing concern with this point of view and asking for guidance. I shared that another colleague and I (who is an ardent and smart feminist, pragmatist who works on animal rights) have had this on-going debate for 15 years around this issue.  Her view is that in her courses that deal with feminism and animal issues, she has an obligation to advocate, be an activist for certain points of view and to challenge points of view that are at odds with this. She sees this as part of her ethical obligation as a feminist scholar and professor.

In another interaction with the head of one of these programs about a year ago, the faculty member expressed concerns that her students were perhaps too much, ‘true believers’ and unwilling or unable to be critical about their point of view, commitments and entertain and engage other points of view.  I would say that this is an issue with some students we have encountered in a variety of majors and programs, not just those related to social justice and diversity issues. Again, the question arises: what is our ethical obligation as professors and to our students, especially?

I would label the first as the ‘professing’ professor model, which I think has had a following in certain circles, but with the advent of movements around Social Justice and Diversity, has come into more prominence. But it is not just this constellation of ideas. When I first arrived at my university 19 years ago, there was open discussion amongst some faculty (not all) about it being the job of faculty to disabuse our students of their fundamentalist and conservative religious (and sometimes political) views.  That it was our ethical obligation as professors to root out and challenge these ‘false’ ideas.   I think the impulse is the same, regardless of the topic at hand.

As a philosopher, I am trained in Socrates and the Socratic method, but also the radical inclusion of John Stuart Mill who in his famous book On Liberty argues that the only reason to repress free speech is to prevent physical harm to others. He argues that the contest of ideas (even with false ones) is necessary to discover truth and also to discover why the truth is true. It’s not enough to just claim that certain ideas are obviously or clearly true without subjecting them to debate and possible revision and challenge. In the end, Mill thinks this process (in the long term) avoids tyranny, appeal to authority and group think that he thinks produces conformity and prevents new truths and ideas from emerging.  As an academic, I am committed to Mill’s project – although I recognize how radical his argument is. (My students often think they agree with him, until the implications of his view become clear. Then there is lots of waffling and “yes, but….”)

There is another problem that I have not really seen addressed in a deep, systemic way. (Which is likely my own ignorance!) There is a clear power dynamic in the classroom. Despite attempts to create a democratic space of mutual inquiry (my feminist colleague is a good Dewey scholar), it is impossible to escape the fact that I give grades and my students are dependent upon those grades and other favors (letters of recommendation) that I might bestow. I have knowledge and expertise that they do not, and students often look to faculty as pseudo-parent figures or at least as an authority figure and mentor.  Students may admire and look up to faculty members in a way that presents a serious asymmetry of power that must be acknowledged. There is no way around this power dynamic and to ignore or minimize it fails to acknowledge a basic ethical obligation that faculty have: to provide an education to students, or at least the opportunity for it.

That is not to say that there are no moments of mutual inquiry and learning, but we are not and cannot be peers in any meaningful way.    

Which returns me to Socrates. For my faculty colleagues I would offer the following admonishment, which comes from love but tough love nevertheless: THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU.   This is not your baby. Your job is to help and facilitate students delivering their own baby, developing their own ideas and perspectives. IF they completely mirror yours, in own my view that you have failed in your ethical responsibility as a professor which is to provide the guidance, knowledge, activities and context for their growth into the humans that they are meant to be.  I get it! It’s a charge to have disciplines. To have students that you connect with, can do research with and can discuss ideas in a way that is supportive and invigorating. But we are not in the business of religious movements or creating disciples.  We are in the business of equipping and preparing our students to go live their life, lead in the world as they choose and make their own unique mark.

We can disagree about how we do this, of course. My view is that the relative youth and inexperience of most of my students (I teach undergrads, so bear that in mind) and the power dynamic in the classroom means I have to be very careful about what I say about my own views. I must leave space – really authentic, not perfunctory space – for the exploration of a variety of views and arguments and allow my students to encounter these ideas on their own terms, albeit with some guidance from me. But this guidance needs to as light as possible. In war terms, I need to use the minimum force possible to achieve the mission.  In most of my classes, I try not to reveal my view (if at all, and if I do with many caveats, late in the course and with an invitation to critique) because that opens the space for the contest of their ideas, which is what the class is about.

If students want pundits, it seems that there are many venues for that and/or they can Google my scholarship. (Which they sometimes do.) There are courses where I am more forthcoming and candid about certain views, but it is always heavily caveated and designed to facilitate and not shut down discussion. It also varies according to level of the students and their experience. I am more candid in upper division classes and classes related to my scholarly expertise (Experience of War, Capstone, Military Ethics), where in my general philosophy courses (100-200 level courses) I am very leary of allowing my own perspective into the course, unless my students ask me.  Now some might argue that this is disingenuous: students can Google you, you have a view so you might as well be honest and come out with your perspective.

This is true, but there is a difference between discussing Trump in the hall with a colleague and discussing him from the pulpit or lectern. The pulpit and the lectern bring authority and power to whatever is said that makes it more difficult to critique without critiquing the power and authority of the office of the person in question and one who has power over you.  I am not asking my colleagues to do or refrain from anything; the classroom is your purview. I am asking us to think about our ethical responsibilities to students and also to the larger society. I am asking us to be transparent and honest about what we are doing in the classroom and why. I am asking us not to pretend there are no power, gender, race, class and institutional dynamics and privileges involved in our work.  I am asking us to think about our motivation and why we are doing what we do.  Are we facilitating discussion and exploration or are we (unintentionally) shutting it down? Are we dismissing what we think are false views, or are we helping your students find for themselves why these views are problematic and how to answer them on their own?  Are we teaching them to follow us or are we giving them the knowledge, skills and confidence to forge their own path?

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