Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Losing Freedom to Rights

On July 5, 2005, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed House Resolution 177 inspired by David Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights.” The Pennsylvania resolution establishes
a select committee to examine the academic atmosphere and the degree of which faculty have the opportunity to instruct and students have the opportunity to learn in an environment conducive to the pursuit of knowledge and truth at State-related and State-owned colleges and universities and community colleges in this Commonwealth.


“Atmosphere”? When the government starts investigating “atmosphere,” I get worried.

Now, before I go further, I have to admit that I have a personal interest in this issue. Not only am I a resident of Pennsylvania, but I teach at one of those “State-owned colleges and universities.” If I am biased as a result of that, OK—as long as you are aware of the bias, so can make your own judgment without feeling I am trying to manipulate you.

The resolution contains “WHEREAS” after “WHEREAS,” most of them quite innocent in sound. The first one, for example, posits that
Academic freedom and intellectual diversity are values indispensable to the American colleges and universities
Few of us would argue—unless we looked closely.

What’s that phrase “intellectual diversity,” for example? Am I reading in too much when I imagine it’s the old “there are two (legitimate) sides to any issue” ploy? Will that make us teach creationism in Biology classrooms, in the interest of diversity? Will the Holocaust deniers be shoehorned into History classrooms and discussions of the Second World War?

Putting “academic freedom” and “intellectual diversity” together in one statement makes it seem as though the two are compatible values—but they are not. “Academic freedom” is a value I can understand. It allows scholars to pursue lines of research that, for a variety of reasons, might make certain people uncomfortable. It’s insurance that our gathering and gaining of knowledge will not be limited and it gives rise to ‘intellectual diversity,’ but from within its own dynamic. “Intellectual diversity,” on the other hand, makes absolutely no sense to me as a precedent to an academic context. It is a value external to the acts of research and learning. It’s an imposition from outside of intellectual discussion of a breadth of competing viewpoints, each given equal standing. Intellectually (ironically), this has no validity—diverse opinions do not have equal weight simply because of diversity, but each has to prove itself through such things as the scientific method and experimental replication and logical formulation. When this happens (and it does), new ideas can be accepted as part of the genuine intellectual debates—but they arise through their own merit, this way, instead of being imposed by some outside authority. A “theory,” in other words, cannot be thrust upon the academy simply because it exists; it needs an experimental pedigree that has withstood challenge. Also, it needs to be open to modification or rejection as new experimental data comes in. Mandating “intellectual diversity” does not help this happen.

The next “WHEREAS” says that
there is no humanly accessible truth that is not, in principle, open to challenge
Again, that sounds fine. But, here again, is an opening for that “there are two sides to every issue” shibboleth. There is a point in challenging the long-held assumption that slavery is bad, for example—but that does not mean that the opposite “view,” that slavery is good, makes any sense at all. Challenging the assumption that slavery is bad allows us to examine the condition of slavery more carefully, exploring its different manifestations and different times—but a challenge does not contain within it a championing of the other side. For a statement such as the one quoted to be valuable, this has to be clearly stated and understood.

The next “WHEREAS” brings back that “intellectual diversity” idea, coupling it with “independence of thought and speech.” Emphatically, mandated “intellectual diversity” does not ‘protect and foster’ “independence of thought and speech,” but impedes it. Again, intellectual diversity arising from research and experimentation can and needs to be protected and fostered, but this must be done regardless of the result. If the entire intellectual community comes to one conclusion eventually (“the earth is round,” say), it is not necessary to find a competing view simply for the sake of this so-called “intellectual diversity” value. If anything, a focus on “intellectual diversity” impedes real “independence of thought and speech” by its implied insistence that there is always a continuum of equally acceptable beliefs.

The last “WHEREAS” seems to promote a state-mandated protection of students and faculty from “ideological orthodoxy”:
faculty members have the responsibility to not take advantage of their authority position to introduce inappropriate or irrelevant subject matter outside their field of study
Whoa! The legislature wants to tell me what is and is not part of my field of study? If not they, then who? Should anyone be limiting academics in such a way? My teaching fields are, primarily, American Literature and Composition, but I publish in Cultural Studies. Tell me: who is going to define the limits of what can come up in my classroom, of what I can research and write about? Who, after all, is more competent than I and my department to make such decisions? Quite frankly, no one—certainly not a legislature composed of people who, for the most part, have never taught a class of any sort.

If, on the other hand, it is really my responsibility as a faculty member (as the quote says), then why bring that up? If the implication is that the responsibility can be taken away, then it was not my responsibility in the first place—I was only acting on legislative sufferance.

The Resolution calls for a committee to study the issue, including whether:
(1) faculty are hired, fired, promoted and granted tenure based on their professional competence and subject matter knowledge and with a view of helping students explore and understand various methodologies and perspectives;
(2) students have an academic environment, quality life on campus and reasonable access to course materials that create an environment conducive to learning, the development of critical thinking and the exploration and expression of independent though and that the students are evaluated based on their subject knowledge; and
(3) that students are graded based on academic merit, without regard for ideological views, and that academic freedom and the right to explore and express independent thought is available to and practiced freely by faculty and students


As I have written in other diaries, there are serious problems in the universities surrounding tenure and promotion—and even hiring. But the idea of legislatures getting involved in that (even the hint of oversight) scares me. I don’t want my “professional competence and subject matter knowledge” judged by someone completely removed from my field of expertise—and I see no way that a legislative committee can ascertain that I am appropriately judged. Perhaps some of “our” academic procedures need change—but that change can only come from within, or the effect will be stultifying. Of course, I do want students to “explore and understand various methodologies and perspectives,” but I cannot abide the idea of mandated variety (“intellectual diversity”) that may force me to present differing theories as intellectually equal. Sure, I want any student to be able to present any idea—but no theory can be allowed to stand equal to another if it falls to challenge. Just because someone believes something does not provide it academic legitimacy—but the subtext in (1) above is simply the opposite.

The scariest part of (2) above is the line “that students are evaluated based on their subject knowledge.” Strangely enough, much of the rest of what has been presented in this resolution undermines the very idea of “subject knowledge,” forcing the “subject” to be broadened for the sake of “diversity.” The implication, here, may be that standardized tests are desirable, even on the university level, that we professors should be teaching to a codified body of knowledge that all students taking the particular course, no matter where, should “master” (as if standardized tests can rate “mastery”!). This would not only limit future intellectual exploration by the implied assumption that the body of knowledge is sufficient, but would remove almost all the joy of real debate from our classrooms. It would restrict just what (2) claims to promote.

When I was an undergraduate, a fellow student deliberately failed a course by smoking in the classroom (the professor was one of the only ones, in those ancient days, who did not allow smoking). The professor said, the first day, that anyone smoking would automatically fail. My fellow decided to smoke and accept the “F.” (3), here, would take that professor’s ability to flunk the student away, and would seriously erode authority in the classroom. There is (and should be) ability to appeal grades, but it must be extremely limited. These days, parents get involved in contesting student grades and try to get deans and provosts to take on the cases. That’s bad enough. Can you imagine getting legislators involved, too? Our classrooms would degenerate into chaos.

On first reading, House Resolution 177 may not seem particularly dangerous or significant. It’s not a law, after all, and I doubt it would be possible to convince the state House, Senate, and Governor Rendell to all approve of the sentiments expressed in it. But it is a first step towards direct legislative involvement in the classroom, and it must be stopped.

Sure, there are plenty of things needing changing in our universities. But, if the changes are mandated by our politicians, our education will really become simply political indoctrination, with syllabi determined by the political powers of the moment.

No matter what the problems in our universities may be right now (and problems are here), they are nothing compared with what things would be like if the road HR 177 points to is followed. The “atmosphere” would quickly become unbearable.

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