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Profiles in Teaching: Montero aims for calm amid political storm

March 23, 2017 at 10:26 am
By Thomas Rozwadowski

You won’t find Al Montero giving a personal opinion about politics in his classroom. Spirited dialogue and differing viewpoints—absolutely. But his own thoughts? Nah, he’d much rather play devil’s advocate or promote diverse reading material to keep students “constantly questioning.”

However, Montero recognizes that political debate extends well outside the boundaries of classroom or campus. After a long, divisive presidential race, escalating tension between students on opposite (or even the same) sides of the political spectrum seemed almost inevitable. But a Carletonian article in January about conservative student reactions to 2016’s election results gave Montero serious pause.

Of the six right-of-center students quoted in the article, only one used his name. The rest requested anonymity out of “fear of backlash,” the Carletonian reported. And these weren’t comments exclusively from the far right, Montero noted. They were Carleton students who identified as moderate, Republican, libertarian, or independent.

“I wasn’t surprised by the opinions expressed in the article, but I was disheartened by the anonymity,” says Montero, a political science professor and director of political economy. “How can we, on a campus with the kind of commitment to diversity that we have reflected in our diversity mission statement—which includes political orientation, as it does religion and sexual orientation, a lot of things—how can we have a piece in the Carletonian where students feel like they can’t express themselves openly?”

'Living in your bubble'

It makes sense that post-election fractures filling Facebook feeds or spilling into mass protests and town hall meetings would also surface on campus. But not feeling comfortable to even say you’re a conservative at Carleton? That felt newly problematic, Montero says.

“Now we’re talking about close-mindedness and the very real danger of only living in your bubble. As a member of the political science department, I felt I needed to do something about it,” he says.

Montero reached out to several conservative students and hosted a private, informal conversation to ask how Carleton could create spaces where they felt welcome to express their political views in front of a mixed audience. He also used his own political evolution—from Republican as a Cuban-American raised in the Reagan ‘80s to Democrat while in college to independent for the past two decades—to reflect how age and life experience can (and should) shape and re-shape worldviews.

“Ideological polarization absolutely closes down the ability to listen,” Montero says. “I’ve been around long enough, and studied politics long enough, to know that no single creed, theory, or approach explains everything. If there were, we’d all have it.

“You have to be open to the possibility that you are wrong. Not wrong about everything, of course. But you have to be able to listen carefully and take in ideas that you don’t have.” 

Montero’s meeting with conservative students spawned what he dubbed a “political communication event” in late February. The forum, held with liberals, conservatives, and independents, had two basic rules: 1) No partisanship and 2) Discuss, don’t debate. Montero also handed out copies of Carleton’s diversity statement as a welcome to everyone in attendance.

Students talked about the origin of their values and political orientations, with religion and parental influence surfacing as dominant sources. The goal was to listen and relate to personal experiences in the room rather than immediately counter with a rebuttal or attack, Montero says—“an understanding that, yes, not all arguments have the same weight, but that this is part of a longer process. And maybe at another time we can delve into deeper disagreements about policies or issues.”

Carls of all political persuasions found common ground in their skepticism that government alone could solve problems. They also agreed that Carleton professors do not impose their personal beliefs in the classroom, but instead encourage open, critical thought from all angles.

Reducing fear and violence

As for future events, there is still work to be done. When a speaker pointed out that there weren’t enough students of color at the February discussion, Montero acknowledged that this was “only the beginning” and “we all need to expand the circle to include everyone.”

“Higher ed is built for these kinds of conversations,” Montero says. “This is our job as teachers, to get intentional about creating these occasions and spaces—to encourage a framework that is welcoming to everybody. We have to broaden the discussion to include multiple viewpoints. We have to reduce fear in the room.”

Later that same week, student protestors at Middlebury College in Vermont made national news by shutting down a talk from controversial social scientist Charles Murray. Murray has been criticized for promoting views that link social inequality to genetics, and the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled him a white nationalist. The incident has weighed on Montero’s mind ever since.

To Montero, the formula is simple: Suppressing views leads to frustration. Frustration leads to anger. Anger leads to baiting. Baiting leads to more suppression and—in a worst-case scenario—violence.

“Look, you’re not supposed to agree with everybody," Montero says. "I’ve listened to plenty of speakers that I disagreed with. But people who are invited should be welcome to speak on campus, and while that doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed comfort as a speaker, you are guaranteed a place at the table. The day we lose that is the day we no longer call ourselves a free and open institution.”

PROFILES IN TEACHING

Al Montero, Frank B. Kellogg Professor of Political Science and director of political economy

  • At Carleton since 1998
  • Education: University of Miami, Columbia University
  • Sample courses taught: Capitalist Crises, Power and Policy; Democracy and Dictatorship; Cuban Politics
  • Teaching and research interests: Economic development, party and electoral systems, Latin America
  • Hometown: Miami, Florida