Volume XXXVI, Issue 2, November 1, 2013
In her article, “Do Not Take That Arkes Class” (September 12, 2013), AC Voice Editor-in-Chief Liya Rechtman argues that it is the responsibility of every Amherst student to refuse to take courses taught by Professor Arkes. Enrollment in a professor’s course, according to Rechtman, constitutes a “vote of approval” for that professor, and no one, the argument goes, should give such a vote to anyone whose expressions on marriage and sexuality amount to what Rechtman calls “hate speech.” Although I join Rechtman and most other students on this campus in considering many of Arkes’s political views reprehensible (and none more so than those regarding sexuality) I find her argument in this article unconvincing, and feel that I must offer a defense, not of Arkes, but of the choice of Amherst students to take the classes he teaches.
In what way is course enrollment an implicit approval of a professor? Rechtman compares the choice of course enrollment to the concept of “voting with your dollars”—boycotting certain goods in protest of a procedure used or policy advocated by the producer of those goods. An analogous boycott could be made of a professor’s classes, although it is not clear to what end. Just as one might refrain from buying a Chik-Fil-A sandwich in order to protest a political stance taken by that company, one might refrain from taking a particular course because of a professor’s beliefs or expressions thereof. However, unlike the boycott of a product, which puts pressure on its producer by damaging her bottom line, a refusal to take certain classes does nothing to incentivize a tenured professor to alter his politics. Moreover, the mere fact that one could use course selection as a form of protest does not render every instance of course selection an act of blanket endorsement, just like the existence of boycotts does not render every purchase an act of political support. Most of the time, the purchase of a product is not at all politically motivated—it constitutes a “vote of approval” not for the sum total of the thoughts and actions of its producer but only for its producer’s ability to make the product in question.
This, I think, is the only sense in which enrollment in a course could be said to constitute endorsement of a professor: By enrolling in a professor’s course, I signal nothing more than my confidence in that professor’s ability to render the service of teaching the course. To think that someone’s enrollment in Professor Arkes’s American Constitution courses indicates her support of his views on sexuality is as ridiculous as to think that my enrollment in Professor McGeoch’s course “Applied Algorithms” indicates my support for her favorite sports team. Arkes is the only professor in the political science department to teach courses on the Constitution. Should Amherst students interested in the Constitution forgo the opportunity to take an Amherst course on it just because Arkes has expressed odious beliefs regarding the nature of marriage? And if they decide to go against Rechtman’s advice and allow Arkes to instruct them on the Constitution, would anyone really take that as a vote of confidence in anything but Arkes’s competency in the subject?
Perhaps it will be objected that it is unfair to take the American Constitution courses as examples of Arkes’s teaching, even though they constitute a full half of the courses he has taught at Amherst in recent years. If we consider Arkes’s “Political Obligations”, for example, we have a peculiar sort of course on political theory, one in which the professor himself is the major theoretician whose ideas are considered and discussed. Wouldn’t enrollment in Political Obligations, in which Arkes presents the full gamut of his ideology, amount to a show of support for his expressions of the most odious of his beliefs?
I do not think so. Assuming for the sake of argument that Arkes’s expressions of his views on sexuality constitute hate speech, we must recognize that while a course like “Political Obligations” will contain hate speech, it will not contain only hate speech—it will include as well many cogent, thought-provoking discussions, led by an unusual yet intelligent professor, on a whole array of issues. These are discussions in which perfectly thoughtful Amherst students may legitimately wish to engage, even if they must do so at the expense of occasionally hearing Arkes harp on quite offensively about sexuality. To enroll in “Political Obligations” is to provide Arkes with a larger audience, but would we really say that to increase the size of Arkes’s audience is to support or approve of all the things he might say in front of it? In “Introduction to Legal Theory”, Professor Sitze assigns his students John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, yet nobody would say that he and his students, by virtue of buying and reading the book, are supporters of the astounding racism in Mill’s defense of colonialism. Rather, we commend them for giving due consideration to Mill’s influential defense of liberty in spite of and in relation to the reprehensible among his beliefs. Why would we treat a student wishing to engage with Arkes’s political theory any differently?
Courses like “Political Obligations” have a place in Amherst’s curriculum, challenging students to wrestle with a complex political theory that declares human equality and demonizes racial discrimination while it discriminates on the basis of sexuality. No one should take a course with Arkes who does not wish to, or who would feel threatened by his sometimes hateful remarks. But Arkes’s views, even when they are hateful, are worthy of our consideration, and the task of submitting to their expression in order to sort out the right from the wrong is a courageous one from which willing students should not be discouraged. So, if you are interested in doing so, take that Arkes course—and if you detect malice in his argument, do not allow it to go unchecked but proceed ever more boldly against it.