Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Academic Freedom = The Freedom to be Ignorant?

Conservative students are suing for the right not to be subjected to ideas that offend them. They accuse profs and admin of liberal bias, of bullying in the classroom and of grading with liberal bias. The profs accuse the conservative students of not wanting to be exposed to new ideas, which is the purpose of a college education. I remember the mindset of these students. And I remember what it was like to feel abused by the teachers who required proof of an understanding of the course material for a passing grade. I remember flunking Genetics in high school because I refused to give the answer I knew the teacher was looking for in a multiple choice test. I do think that was power abuse by this particular teacher. He could have worded the question in such a way that I, and a number of those like me, could have given the answer he wanted with a clear conscience--by qualifying the response with a phrase that put the burden of belief onto the scientists, researchers or other sources, instead of making it sound as though I subscribed to the truth of the answer. (i.e. so and so hypothesizes, or so and so maintains, or such and such an experiment seems to prove that…) But instead he set a trap for all the Creationists in his class and he knew there were at least half a dozen in this class of nearly thirty. And he mined the test with several of these so that missing them required getting a perfect score on the rest of the test just to pass it. I think this was uncalled for in a small town high-school (Longview, Washington) where you are dealing with students who are still minors and thus still living at home and still under the authority of their parents.

But college and university is a whole other proposition. That kind of power abuse would still be uncalled for but at the same time, the intransigent mental insulation that fundamentalists of all stripes practice is also uncalled for in a forum whose whole purpose is to expose ideas to each other in open debate. Learning how to differentiate fact form opinion and to use the first to buttress the second is the whole point of a post-secondary, academic education. Learning how to think for oneself is a mark of adulthood.

The disturbing thing about this development is that it isn’t a few isolated cases but seems to be a concerted and organized movement with a prominent public figure promoting it--David Horowitz, a conservative commentator who was once a liberal activist on campus. Beware the zealotry of converted zealots!!! I daily guard against a similar phenomenon taking hold of me. So I sympathize to a certain extent with Horowitz and his disciples but am deeply concerned that their movement will succeed in subverting the last institutional bastions of freedom of thought for the cause of enforced consensus of conservative agendas.

See also Dr. Teresa Whitehurst’s essay: Careful not to get too much education…or you could turn liberal.

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