Saturday, January 07, 2006

How About Some Real Academic Freedom

Why on earth did I end up in a state that works so hard to destroy a quality public education for its citizens. While we have temporarily averted the disaster of Intelligent Design, we have another battle to wage against lawmakers who want to continue a witch hunt in our institutions of higher learning.

Despite the fact that PA Rep. Thomas L. Stevenson, the Republican heading the committee entrusted to explore liberal bias and indoctrination in state universities, already concluded that PA's higher learning institutions are doing a fine job, more hearings are scheduled next week at Temple University. Go here to see the reprint of the December 25th NYT article about the ongoing hearings.

Rep. Mike Veon has started a petition to support real academic freedom on our college campuses and stop McCarthyesque witch hunts headed by David Horowitz. Click here to add your name to this petition.

The whole ABOR push from Horowitz and his pack of Students for Academic Freedom is downright unAmerican. The tactics of these groups are to tape record and transcribe lectures of faculty members they deem to be spreading dangerous liberal ideas to their students. While they give the appearance of promoting a greater diversity of ideas, in reality they are intimidating professors, especially untenured professors, to curtail all discussions in the classroom of current political and social issues.

The wanna-be-espionage tactics of student groups seeking to unearth "liberal bias" will no doubt short-change the learning experience of all students, including the conservative students on the lookout for stories of professors imposing their dangerous ideas.

Back in July, I wrote about the Conservative Conference that took place on my campus. What I didn't write about in that entry was the presentation given by a young student heading up an organization for young republicans in PA. His entire presentation consisted of giving "how to" tips to discredit your professors to alumni donors. He focused on hot button issues such as ROTC and the Iraq War. His message was to set up a website wherein you can update content about comments rumored to have been made by liberal professors opposing the war. He also suggested that every time you hear about another looney comment from a professor, you should send an email alert out to alumni to put pressure on administrators to crack down on such behavior.

Needless to say I was rather stunned by this presentation. I attended this conference hoping to hear policy discussions and instead happened upon training seminars to screw over your professors. In the name of free speech, these students were exploring ways to scare the crap out of any professor who dared start a rousing, intellectually engaging conversation in the classroom.

The picture that these student groups want to pain is a vast conspiracy of faculty members forcing students to agree with their viewpoints. This simply does not happen with any consistency, nor as pervasively as the students want to make the public believe it happens.

I won't say that there aren't a few professors out there who won't entertain, seriously, viewpoints that differ from their own. But, they exist on both ends of the political spectrum. And, frankly, the only beatings that I took from professors for my views in college and graduate school were from conservative Jesuits who believed sincerely that women were not rigorous thinkers. I attend Boston College, for goodness sake, the land of Straussians.

The solution to ideologically closed-minded professors, however, is not to launch a wholesale attack on all professors who dare introduce any contemporary political issue into their class. My good friend Jack, the astronomer, is wary of talking about the Intelligent Design issues or Mars Mission funding--even though they are incredibly relelvant to the future of her field, for fear that one of her student will report this discussion on some message board.

Promoting this kind of fear will simply encourage professors to totally disengage from any controversy or meaningful discussion in their classes. While I have tenure, I have noticed that this assault on faculty free speech influences my own teaching. For example, in my Intro. to Philosophy course, I simply do not discuss current issues anymore.

At the end of this semester, I invited in a good friend to do two guest lectures. We were talking about the question: Do you need a God to be Good. I told him he could do whatever he wished with that topic. He chose to discuss the question : does the doctrine of preemptive strike, defended by this current administration, fit with Christian ethics.

The discussion was amazing. Yet, I had avoided delving into these very issues because of the sting I got last year when I discovered that some anonymous poster had made up a lie that I had told my class that bombing Afghanistan was as bad as Al Qaeda flying planes in the the Twin Towers. I never did, nor would, say something that unuanced or final. My role as a philosopher is to spark debate and force students to question their basic assumptions. Yet, seeing this lie spread about me clearly shaped my classroom dynamic.

At the end of the semester, one of my better students came to say goodbye. She is a conservative Catholic student and asked me why we hadn't had more of the kind of discussions all semester that we had when my friend took over the class. I hadn't really realized that I had taken all the controversy out of my classes, but her question really hit me.

If I have changed my teaching tactics, a fairly loud-mouthed activist professor at a liberal arts college, then what do you think untenured professors are doing at State Universities where Horowitz's ABOR can actually lead to law suits brought against them for speaking their minds?