Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

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

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

More on Academic Freedom

Recently, I posted on the proposed Florida legislation purporting to ameliorate the supposed vicious liberal bias on Florida's public college campuses. The debate, of course, continues.

David Bernstein at Volokh Conspiracy posts on the publication of Columbia's internal report concerning its recent (if ongoing) row over alleged anti-Israeli bias demonstrated in the classroom by pro-Palestinian professors. I usually enjoy Bernstein's posts, and I'm in no position to get into the Columbia debate, about which I know very little. If he's right about the limitations imposed on the Times in order to guarantee them an exclusive on the report, it does sort of smell fishy. It seems a Faustian bargain, albeit a common one I imagine, for a newspaper to promise to substantially restrict its substantive coverage of something that's destined for public consumption just to get in on the frenzy a day early.

I want to focus on one narrow aside from his post. He writes, with unusual vitriol:

Is it the job of professors to indoctrinate their students with propaganda, and the job of students to sit back and be indoctrinated? (For a professor who actually argues something very close to "yes," see the comments of a philosophy professor quoted over at the Leiter Report--doesn't everyone know that the only plausible interpretation of Plato is opposition to the Iraq War?!)

Because I like Bernstein's work, and because I once had occasion to correspond at some length with Brian Leiter (years ago, I was admitted to and considered entering the Philosophy Ph.D. program at his UT-Austin), I decided to check out Bernstein's citation.

First, to be clear, Leiter's post just reproduces another philosophy professor's screed, so it does not necessarily reflect Leiter's views. This is what the professor in question actually wrote (excerpted from Leiter's excerpts):

I’ve written a cover piece for our local paper, New Times, entitled “The Politics of Restraint,” on this subject because I felt it was important for the community to know that if college teachers clarify fact from fiction, if they explain the truth on the invasion of Iraq, that Saddam was not responsible for 9/11, there were no weapons of mass destruction, and therefore he could not have been an imminent threat to the U.S, conservatives howl in agony that the teacher is spreading “anti-Bush indoctrination....”

* * * *

Shroder wrongly claims that I yelled at my students, “If you like Bush or Limbaugh, LEAVE NOW.” I admit, I like the sound of it, but it’s flatly untrue. This woman has never attended my class. I have, however, mentioned to my students that the Bush administration’s favorable take on Iraq is being played 24/7 on all the corporate media networks and talk radio shows.

This explains why conservatives are now going after college teachers. Given the massive media control, it’s the last arena left where students are introduced to a humane and rational approach to serious moral issues, where they’ll be exposed to critical analysis, such as examining how the Iraqis, students their own age, feel about the U.S. invasion, an evaluation which has been deliberately ignored from the American corporate media reports from day one of this invasion. Not surprising, my students had never considered what it would be like to be in Iraqi civilian shoes, to be occupied by foreign invaders. It was the first time anyone asked them to think about Iraqi families from an empathic angle.

After we discussed Plato’s theory of Justice, I asked my students if Plato would agree or disagree with Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. Most of them understood the connection between Plato’s assessment of war and the fact that Iraq is the 2nd largest source of oil in the world. Plato argued that “the desire for more things will soon exhaust the resources of the community and before long, we shall have to cut off a slice or our neighbor’s territory…and they will want a slice of ours. At this rate, neighbors will inevitably be at war. Wars have their origin in desires which are the most fruitful source of evils both to individuals and states.”

* * * *

Students labor under the false presumption that philosophy is about the expression of “their” opinions and that all opinions are equally valid. Never mind that most students haven’t read a single philosophy book in their entire lives. Never mind that they do not hold a single college degree on the subject....

Nevertheless, college students believe that they have equal status with their professors. And that is how this movement began—with the absurd notion that students’ opinions, no matter how stupid or wrong those opinions may be, have as much validity as academic scholarship....

Here’s a follow-up question for Republican legislators: Some students still believe that Saddam was responsible for 9/11. Now if I were to tell them that even the Bush administration has announced that Saddam was not responsible for 9/11, under this bill, if passed, would students have the right to sue me because I clarified fact from fiction? Do I now become a Big Bad Liberal Dictator for challenging misinformation?

In today’s FOXTV-anything-goes-media, lies are facts. So it makes it exceedingly frustrating for teachers to question media-repeated lies, distortions and misinformation.

Philosophers have a long tradition of questioning conventional norms and popular beliefs. Socrates was accused by the mob for being unpatriotic because he didn’t believe war with Sparta and the poorly planned Sicilian invasion were good ideas. As it turned out, he was right and they were wrong. Athens was demolished. He was promptly executed on trumped up charges, “Corrupting the Youth” and “Atheism” (gee, that sounds familiar!). In other words, Socrates was found guilty for being a critic of society, which made him an “enemy of the state.”

The intended goal of this bill is to allow students the opportunity to express FOXTV lies or misinformation, and their conservative views, in the classroom without teachers getting in the way. If the teachers challenge their Limbaugh or Hannity views, then the teacher will be sued, tarred & feathered and thrown into prison in the name of “Academic Freedom.” Oh, and let’s not forget the Hemlock.

Clearly, the professor's thesis is that undergraduate Philosophy courses are not simply venues for opinion-expressing free-for-alls. Indeed, the proper pursuit of philosophy is all about the disciplined critical thinking discussed here by an even more conservative, or perhaps just less interesting Volokh Conspirator.

If you take her account at face value, and in the absence of any reason not to I will, nothing in what this presumably liberal philosophy professor said suggested she force-fed students the idea that Plato would have opposed the Iraq war. In light of his theory of war as, by and large, the product of ever-dilating desires (a worthy, if reductive thesis on its terms), she claims to have asked her class whether he would have approved. (Of course, I wasn't in the classroom, but neither was Bernstein.)

It seems to me that this sort of question, this sort of thought experiment, is the very essence of what a philosophy professor does. An historian of philosophy, perhaps, might be wandering afield with such an exercise, but surely Bernstein agrees that a working philosopher must make the subject current for untrained young students to maintain sufficient appeal to keep her classes full. Indeed, if philosophy has no currency, why waste resources on philosophy classes in the first place?

If, after inviting open debate on the speculation of Plato's take on the Iraq war, the teacher professed her own opinion that he would have disapproved, that also would be well within her province. Even less than it is the journalist's job, it certainly cannot be the professor's job to offer so deracinated account of her subject matter to suggest an absence of perspecitve or opinion. That's not what I paid for. And I'd be willing to bet it's not what Bernstein delivers to his students either.

The issue, the only issue, should be orthodoxy, which in this context I define as open hostility to countervailing views rigorously articulated and defended. Nothing in the Leiter excerpt, absolutely nothing, suggests that the professor in question was guilty of the conduct rather glibly and injuriously imputed to her and decried by Bernstein. And while it's finally a small offense, it's still indicative of the right's apparent desire to replace what it claims to be orthodoxy with its own, presumably superior, orthodoxy rather than the reasoned debate it claims to be seeking. Of course Plato would have had nothing to say about the Iraq war whatsoever!

I will go one step further and defend the professor's use of the word "stupid" to refer to certain ideas (I can't remember if it's in the excerpt above, but it is in the article). Stupid being perhaps a needlessly inflammatory word, surely Bernstein and others are relying on the idea that there are stupid, or bad, or indefensible ideas out there that it falls to professors, as paid experts in their areas, to identify as such and correct, if not with a narrow orthodoxy than at least with the tools to understand why the idea is stupid, bad, or indefensible.

But the Florida legislation in question raises serious questions about whether teachers will feel free to perform that quintissential task -- teaching critical thinking by use of example, by singling out bad ideas (whether articulated by students or others) and explaining what makes them bad, so that in the future the students will be better equipped to perform the same task in the context of their own lives.

At the rate things are going, I'm very happy I got my formal education out of the way by now. An education, I might add, that even in New Jersey English and Philosophy Departments seemed to involve the unoppressed participation of many conservative students none of whom were tattooed across the knuckles with a ruler for sharing their opinions.


Anonymous May said...

The passage in which you point out the difference between a historian and a working philosopher has reminded me of when, less than a month before enrolling in college, I changed my mind and chose mathematics instead of philosophy. Before that time I had already studied philosophy for three years and my teacher, who was a "working philosopher", had warned me about getting a degree in philosophy in my country which would make of me basically a teacher.
That is why I chose something else, something that I still love, after all these years.

2:13 PM  

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