Saturday, April 02, 2005

That Ain't the Half of It!

I’ve been thinking about the group called Students For Academic Freedom whose tagline is “You can’t get a good education if they’re only telling you half the story.” It’s a Horowitz organization (probably arising from him, not students). The group’s mission statement says it is “dedicated to restoring academic freedom and educational values to America’s institutions of higher learning.”

SFAF promotes an “Academic Bill of Rights” that starts of with:

The central purposes of a University are the pursuit of truth, the discovery of new knowledge through scholarship and research, the study and reasoned criticism of intellectual and cultural traditions, the teaching and general development of students to help them become creative individuals and productive citizens of a pluralistic democracy, and the transmission of knowledge and learning to a society at large.

It goes on to say that:

academic freedom is most likely to thrive in an environment of intellectual diversity that protects and fosters independence of thought and speech.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? While you ponder it, let me step back a moment and talk about something else, something related:

One of the arguments for Jeff Gannon’s place in the White House gaggle was that a wide array of political beliefs only helps our political discourse. But that, of course, is a red herring. It doesn’t matter at all what the beliefs are amongst the press corps, as long as its members do their job, which is to challenge official statements with the purpose of clarifying what the officials are saying and, yes, revealing what they are not. Their follow-up responsibility, to write honestly and accurately about what they have learned, is just as important. All reporters have their own political agendas, but these are irrelevant as long as the reporters are completing those basic tasks. The reporter may or may not partake in analysis afterwards, but that means nothing if the basic job has not been done. The question relating to who should be there is one of professionalism, not political partisanship.

Adding any sort of political aspect to those two basic duties (leaving questions of research aside) of a White House reporter makes it impossible for the reporter to complete them well—if at all (it really spells the end of a free press—but I’ll go into that another time). That is, if the reporter focuses too much on his or her political stance the nature of the event necessarily changes: rather than a questioning, a debate (or a love-fest) replaces it. It is no more appropriate for Dan Rather to respond to President Nixon, “No, Mr. President, are you?” than it is for Jeff Gannon to say “how are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?” Both bring the questioner too much into focus, thereby creating that milieu of debate, replacing what should be attempts to elicit and illuminate information. Both remove the press from its role as vehicle for information dispersal to a new role as a player in events (a role that, since Watergate, has appealled way too much to the mainstream media).

Advocates of political diversity in the press corps misunderstand both the role of the press and the place of politics within professional contexts. Many of them, especially on the extremes (and Horowitz has always lived on the extreme, either left or right), think that political stances color everything—a result of a black/white, “with us or against us” views of the world. Those on the right can’t imagine that Ronnie Earle, the Texas district attorney investigating people associated with Tom DeLay, is acting on any but a political basis (though Earle has prosecuted more Democrats than Republicans). Those on the extremes of both left and right were shocked by federal judge Stanley F. Birch, Jr., a rather conservative jurist, did not fall in line with the right-wing political agenda on the Schiavo case. The right certainly can’t imagine that a liberal could honestly report what George Bush is saying, or question their own positions as Martin Peretz is doing. But Earle, Birch, Peretz, and most other reporters (both liberals and conservatives) are professionals. Their duty to their jobs outweighs their political biases. I don’t think Peretz understands the full picture of what is happening in the Mideast, for example, but it is his professional duty to re-examine constantly.

Many on both extremes see a faith in professionalism as naïve. They think that politics colors everything. It does not, however. The demands of a profession come first for the ethical practitioner.

In fact, when we demand that a political element become part of professional practice, we destroy the profession. The free press is no longer free, when any sort of political necessity become a prerequisite. Reporting dies; only the shill survives. Just so, education is effective only when professionalism, not politics, is the prerequisite.

It would be easy to say that this is a core difference between the right and the left, but it is really a distinction between extremists and the rest of us. With its either/or attitude, the new right (like the old left) allows no room for action on a non-political basis, and doesn’t believe such a thing is possible. The new left (and old-fashioned conservatives—who have a great deal, eithically, in common with the new left) has a different set of priorities, including belief that first responsibility for professionals is to the profession, not to politics.

Which brings me back to that SFAF tag line:

You can’t get a good education if they’re only telling you half the story.

Everything, to the new right (like it was to the old left—why do you think Horowitz could so easily shift from one to the other?), comes down to a duality, is either good or bad, one way or another; there is always an opposite side. And, therefore, anything any one person puts forward is only half the story—so politics must be used to force a full picture. After all, one cannot argue both sides. In the press corps and in the university, therefore, you need wide representation.

In a classroom, for example, if a professor of history is covering the holocaust, something is missing—for there’s another side. If a biologist teaches evolution, that’s only half of it. If the predominant ideology amongst the faculty is liberal, then, the students are getting only half the story. So, departments should be forced to hire people believing in all sides—this, it is argued, is what diversity and academic freedom mean.

What it is, actually, is an abridgement of both academic freedom and common sense.

Though many questions are arguable, there aren’t always two sides that have withstood legitimate scrutiny. And, anyhow, at the most basic level, teachers aren’t teaching “facts” but ways of approaching facts and ideas. The most famous of these ways is the scientific method of setting up a hypothesis, developing a test, and examining the results in relation to the hypothesis. Teachers teach students to think, to ask questions and then evaluate answers in light of their previous assumptions. This can be learned from any good teacher, whether that teacher agrees with the student politically or not. Just as any good reporter can elicit important information, whether they agree with the interviewee or not.

There’s lots more to this issue, but I’ve rambled on long enough, for now. Let me end with just one more criticism of the SFAF tagline: it makes the students seem like passive receptacles. Students can only get what they’re told? No, the purpose of education is to give them the tools to explore what they are told, so that they can find out more and come to their own conclusions themselves. It doesn’t matter what they are told as long as they are taught to question it and are given the tools for verification. And questioning ability and research skills are not gained because of any particular political stances—but often in spite of them.

This is as true in journalism as in education.

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