MoonOverPittsburgh

Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

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Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

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Saturday, March 26, 2005

Florida, Desperate to Find A New Right Wing Controversy to Keep It in the National News

Academic freedom, such as it is or shall be, has been in the news a lot lately. The Lawrence Summers brouhaha, the Ward Churchill scandal, and the ongoing battle between the supposed pro-Palestinian bias of far left academics and their pro-Israel adversaries, have been brewing just below the fold for months now.

Now comes the Florida legislature, looking to codify for its state universities principles of academic freedom, so long as this means that the right's views will be equally represented (quantity? quality?) by an academy that skews left rather dramatically, to insure that holocaust and moon-landing denyers and the like are granted equal time in the classroom.

Okay, that's the take at dKOS, and is maybe a bit over the top, but equally absurd results may follow this legislation. If it isn't already (and with dKOS on the case, it probably is), the left side of the blogosphere is sure to be all aflutter with this story within the next couple of days (the left, too, has to fill the vacuum about to be left by Terri Schiavo's death). And if you read the Independent Florida Alligator article on the legislation, it might seem to be cause for great concern, not least in virtue of the comments being made by the legislators supporting the bill, as well as those dems opposing it.

While promoting the bill Tuesday, Baxley said a university education should be more than “one biased view by the professor, who as a dictator controls the classroom,” as part of “a misuse of their platform to indoctrinate the next generation with their own views.”

The bill sets a statewide standard that students cannot be punished for professing beliefs with which their professors disagree. Professors would also be advised to teach alternative “serious academic theories” that may disagree with their personal views.

According to a legislative staff analysis of the bill, the law would give students who think their beliefs are not being respected legal standing to sue professors and universities.

I guess I'm most curious where the staff analysis finds standing to sue in the bill, which does not speak explicitly to provide such a cause of action. Don't get me wrong, the bill is riddled with internal contradictions and non sequiturs, but if the right to sue under it would exist it would have to come from somewhere outside the bill itself (and I'm no expert on Florida law, so perhaps someone can give me a hand here).

I'm going to resist the urge to pick this rather long-winded legislation apart clause by clause, and provide a brief set of observations. First, predictably, the initial WHEREAS clauses emphasize the importance of academic freedom of inquiry, the need to provide the tools necessary to foster critical thought, and so on. Interestingly, this wordy initial language pretty clearly has far more to do with the freedom of academics, not students. Next, however, the bill gets down to its true business: "Students should be free to take reasoned exception to the data or views offered in any course of study and to reserve judgment about matters of opinion." Then it gets down to its true business at the end of its WHEREAS sections:

WHEREAS, the value of the life of the mind was articulated by Thomas Jefferson when he stated, "We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it," and
WHEREAS, the education of the next generation of leaders should contain rigorous and balanced exposure to significant theories and thoughtful viewpoints, and students should be given the knowledge and background that empowers them to think for themselves . . . .

My biggest issue with this legislation as drafted is that it appears to rely on the idea that students are not free to go out and learn independently from sources antithetical to their teachers' views. That wasn't my experience of undergraduate life. If a teacher seems to promote views with which you are uncomfortable, no one is stopping you from hitting the library. If a teacher is responsible for providing students with every possible viewpoint on every topic touched upon, education will be impoverished rather than enriched, because so much less material will be covered. This is a generation of spoonfed children, and bills like this only make sense if we conclude that students are not responsible for learning anything outside of class. This accession to the worst in education is nothing that needs to be codified; teachers, like journalists, are human beings, and even if they try to be objective they will fail.

The bill provides

Students have a right to expect a learning environment in which they will have access to a broad range of serious scholarly opinion pertaining to the subjects they study. In the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts, the fostering of a plurality of serious scholarly methodologies and perspectives should be a significant institutional purpose.

Who's denying them access, is the question? Even if, and it's a big if, certain professors are going to grade students down a bit for failing to simply regurgitate the professors' views on various topics, merely recognizing what those views are and effectively regurgitating them is a part of the learning process; if you don't understand the difference between views and facts, you have yourself to blame. And if you spend all of your time partying, and never wander afield of the syllabi, is that the professor's faults?

(3) Students have a right to expect that their academic freedom and the quality of their education will not be infringed upon by instructors who persistently introduce controversial matter into the classroom or coursework that has no relation to the subject of study and serves no legitimate pedagogical purpose.
* * * *

(6) Faculty and instructors have a right to academic freedom in the classroom in discussing their subjects, but they should make their students aware of serious scholarly viewpoints other than their own and should encourage intellectual honesty, civil debate, and critical analysis of ideas in the pursuit of knowledge and truth.

(3) is the scariest clause, in my view. Who gets to decide what constitutes controversial matter, and how often must it turn up to be "persistently introduced." This reads more like an op-ed than it does a law. And that's dangerous, vesting too much discretion in the hands of judges (which, by the way, is the sort of thing Republicans claim to loathe, inviting what is loosely called 'judicial activism'). Ditto, the "serious scholarly viewpoints" language in (6). This would seem to protect professors from being forced, for example, to grant equal time to holocaust denyers, but then there are surely judges who don't believe the holocaust occured, and we can't expect them to think anything but that such scholarship is "serious." Finally, I'm really not sure how this legislation encourages "intellectual honesty," when it pretty transparently identifies some intellectual orientations as more "honest" than others.

The rest of the bill states principles I entirely agree with -- viewpoint-neutral (which is not the same as rigor-neutral) grading; viewpoint neutral funding of organizations, and so on. And I'm still not sure I see any really scary language, though of course I find the tone of the bill somewhat odious. If the Alligator is to be believed, however, the former law student that I am, with still-bleeding wounds from that experience, cringes at this:

Students who believe their professor is singling them out for “public ridicule” – for instance, when professors use the Socratic method to force students to explain their theories in class – would also be given the right to sue.

I'm pretty sure that 60% of the point of the Socratic method is to ridicule, and in a class of 100 or more students, the public part is a given. Every section might exposes a law professor to dozens of lawsuits.

Here's the crowning irony of all of this: the right, which despises most of what it calls the left's "moral relativism," in lining up behind this cause du jour, is in legislation of this sort imposing as a matter of law that very relativism in denying professors the privilege of relying on their putative expertise to say, "No, in my opinion, this is wrong." If nothing can be wrong, or subject to ridicule for want of rigor or empiric support, than nothing can be correct, either. It's not critical thinking if criticism is illegal.

The bill's explicit invocation of Jefferson -- "We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it" -- highlights the problem here: reason is always free to combat error, but it is incumbent on students, not legislatures, to take up arms.

7 Comments:

Blogger James said...

Students are presently forced to explain their theories in public!? Thank the legislature that the incumbent lemmings are defending sensitive young minds from hostile inquiry.

2:39 PM  
Anonymous binky said...

"If nothing can be wrong, or subject to ridicule for want of rigor or empiric support, than nothing can be correct, either. "

Sounds like that lefty postmodern relativism to me! Oh wait, I mean, a reasoned stance fomr the right. (insert eyeroll here).

Did you see the quote from Baxley where he said freedom is a dangerous thing? Nice.

And you know, I taught at one of those universities, and got a degree from one too. Once again, I'm glad I left Florida.

10:44 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

Great post Moon. It seems that the right is doing all it can to seek the kind of coddling in schools that they've been yelling about for years. And worse than that - this continues the ridiculous idea that "balance" mean promoting many different ideas. In school you want many ideas to be discussed - but there are many concepts and beliefs that are flatly wrong. Apparently though these people can't deal with the concept that their children would be informed that they aren't always right. And on a strictly pedagogical point, this law is silly. It's saying all classes should be taught the same way when the style of effective classes depend a great deal on the subject matter.

10:47 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10:47 AM  
Blogger Moon said...

lest anyone wonder, the two comments deleted above were merely duplicates of scott's preserved comment. i'm not in the business of suppressing dissent; i leave that to the right. anyway, it would seem my audience is the choir.

12:17 PM  
Anonymous binky said...

Here's another piece, by the way:

http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2005/03/25/acfreedom

Crooked Timber has a nice discussion thread going on too.

This whole thing frustrates me. Florida - like other states with public university systems - has long been in the throes of a battle between the legislature and the universities for control. That this also plays into the hand of the academic "freedom" (read: pro-right) crowd is gravy for those who want to bring universities to heel. Witness WV, where the legislature has seen fit to introduce such gems as the "bill to make WVU play Marshall in football every year." No left-right divide there, but plenty of give-us-what-we-want-or-we're-cuttin' -off-yer-fundin'!

The academic freedom people (http://www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org/) have long sought to make an impact in the social sciences and humanities, which are supposedly rife with relativism. That's they're going after the hard sciences at the university level shows how emboldened they've become (in Florida at least). Supposedly they still support the "pursuit of truth." Somehow I can't shake the uneasy feeling that the pursuit of truth might be pursuing it right out of the classroom, laboratory, and debate.

There is a broader national context too, given the current administration's reaction to science it doesn't like, as well as support (or lack thereof) for certain types of academic research (which Baltar has ranted about on Bloodless Coup, and I won't replicate here).

Again, I might miss the beach, but I don't miss Florida. Lawton Chiles, why did you have to die?

3:46 PM  

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