Monday, March 20, 2006

Don't Confuse Me With the Facts

I am supposed to be writing a paper to deliver this friday. The subject is "teaching in today's politically charged atmosphere." In preparation for writing up my remarks, I read the entire manual that Students for Academic Freedom(SAF) put out to help start SAF cells on campuses. What struck me most about this document is how non-sensical the use of language is. There is a lot of sleight-o'-hand going on in this document, which gives the appearance of non-partisan and noble aims, but close examination reveals that, indeed, the emperor has no clothes.

I thought I would think out loud for here with my readers. I am particularly interested in two SAF moves that makes a case for "Abuses of Academic Freedom." First of all, SAF use two phrases to describe, what I can only surmise is the same thing (a scholarly viewpoint), but use different descriptions based on how well it jibes with their own unstated pro-conservative politics. Either SAF describes a scholarly viewpoint in terms such as "the spectrum of scholarly viewpoints" or "intellectually significant dissenting views" when they are making a case for including "conservative" views, or they refer to "narrow perspective" or "political and ideological persuasion" to refer to faculty positions that criticize some of the tenets of mainstream conservative thought (which, in my view is already a mess: you have pro-market, values voters). Now, one could justify using these different phrases if one had a standard by which to evaluate what "scholarly significant viewpoints" means, which brings me to my second point. What SAF states is the following (which they take from the 1915 AAUP guidelines):

" . . .human knowledge is a never-ending pursuit of truth; that no party or intellectual faction can be assumed to have a monopoly on wisdom. Therefore, learning is most likely to thrive in an environment of intellectual diversity that protects and fosters independence of thought and speech."

On first blush, this seems like a reasonable statement of purpose. Sure, we are finite beings, limited in our skills to unlock all the mysteries of the universe, and so unfettered, critical inquiry is the best way to get closer to understand the way the world works. But, SAF tends to emphasize a particular relativist reading of this statement. They focus on the "never-ending pursuit" and "no party or intellectual faction can be assumed to have a monopoly on wisdom" and interpret this to mean that no position is bettter than another, and that every position put forward in the classroom should be considered in relation to the contrary position. If you make a case for "affirmative action," then you should immediately make a case against affirmative action. Now, in the arena of ethical issues, I do think its important to consider a variety of arguments, and evaluate how well each is argued and reasoned. But, do we also need to necessarily teach creationism next to evolutionary biology? Should every Micro and Macro Economics course include equal time on Marx's Das Kapital?

SAF doesn't give its recruits any reliable standard by which to ferret out a good scholary viewpoint from a bad scholarly viewpoint. They assume the worst kind of relativism--that all knowledge is inherently politics--and the views of those in power necessarily prevail over those who are not in power. Given this postmodern relativism, SAF has to then establish (which they do from bogus studies) that college campuses are dominated by one political party who has a monopoly on wisdom. Once you convince people that liberals are in power on college campuses and "indoctrinating" students to their ideology, then you can make a case for bringing in government to stop this abuse of free speech. (I should add that the whole concept of "free speech seems problematic when ideas are the products of groups in power). SAF ultimately wants to get State legislatures to adopt its Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR) that would give state governments the right to regulate what gets taught in your classroom. The arbiters of what counts as a "scholarly significant viewpoint" would then be whomever was elected, regardless of whether or not they know anything about molecular biology or Chinese. The standards get hashed out in legislatures, and, in my nasty imagination, I forsee special interests all over this debate: trying to get a certain textbook adopted, or particular lab equipment, etc. What SAF would ultimately achieve if its movement is successful is a thorough politicization of knowledge. What you learn is a product of whomever is in power or capable of manipulating state governments. This, of course, is the opposite of what the AAUP statement means.

The reason you want free speech, and to protect the rights of faculty in the university, is precisely so politics cannot corrupt how we seek answers to questions. The "never-ending pursuit of truth" phrase does not imply that we cannot know when we have better or worse explanations, but rather that only in an environment where people regularly and freely criticize your work, can we test out which ideas have better explanatory power than others. Relativism has no method for deciding which ideas are better than others. All ideas become equally valid. And, if that is your view of the world, well, then you might as well adopt the position that my dear friend Uncle Ben has on all matters of importance "Don't Confuse Me With the Facts. My Mind is Made Up."

Tomorrow I will share with you the criteria that SAF use for determining if a particular professor is abusive of free speech or not. I have noticed, by the way, that I am guilty of doing several of the things on this list. Should be an interesting read.

UPDATE: The Chronicle of Higher Education has a report on a study done by two political scientists who found that students' political bias lead them to devalue their professors' expertise. Hat Tip: Bitch Ph.D.

UPDATE #2: Ok, something is in the air. I just discovered this study at Majikthise that argues that whiny, insecure kids grow up to be conservative.