Tag Archives: Academic Freedom

This Is Ominous

A few days ago, I posted a blog about the Chinese mainland’s negative response to “liberal” education in Hong Kong. I pointed out that the Chinese approach to education is more accurately described as indoctrination.

It would be satisfying if, as Americans, we could say “tsk tsk” and take comfort in our longstanding commitment to academic freedom. But of course, this is the Age of Trump, and we can’t–because this administration agrees with the Chinese.

On September 19th, the New York Times reported that the Department of Education had issued an ultimatum to two distinguished universities: Duke and the University of North Carolina–teach what we tell you or lose financial support.

The Education Department has ordered Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to remake the Middle East studies program run jointly by the two schools after concluding that it was offering students a biased curriculum that, among other complaints, did not present enough “positive” imagery of Judaism and Christianity in the region.

In a rare instance of federal intervention in college course content, the department asserted that the universities’ Middle East program violated the standards of a federal program that awards funding to international studies and foreign language programs. The inquiry was part of a far-reaching investigation into the program by the department, which under Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, has become increasingly aggressive in going after perceived anti-Israel bias in higher education.

DeVos, like Pence, is a fundamentalist Christian; apparently, she is also one of the Christian Zionists whose support for Israel is far less nuanced than that of  America’s Jewish community. Christian Zionists believe that the Rapture they await won’t occur until all Jews are gathered back in Israel. They also believe that only the Jews who then accept Jesus will be Raptured Up with them; the rest of us will burn in hell.

This isn’t support for Jews or Judaism; it isn’t really even support for Israel as a country–they are just protecting what they believe is a necessary means to their heavenly end.

Be that as it may, the Department of Education disapproved of the universities’ effort to improve understanding of Islam.

The department also criticized the consortium’s teacher training programs for focusing on issues like “unconscious bias, serving L.G.B.T.I.Q. youth in schools, culture and the media, diverse books for the classroom and more.” They said that it had a “startling lack of focus on geography, geopolitical issues, history and language.”

The Times article was a dry recitation of the unprecedented action taken by DOE. The Guardian was more direct.

If you criticize Israeli policy, you will lose your federal funding. That is the message the Department of Education is sending with its threat to withdraw federal support for the Consortium for Middle East Studies, operated jointly by Duke University and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, if it does not alter the content of its programming.

Just three months after Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, ordered an investigation into a conference about the politics of the Gaza Strip that the consortium had sponsored – an authoritarian threat, in and of itself – the Department of Education issued a letter demanding that the Duke-UNC consortium remake its curriculum. Or else.

This is just the latest evidence of what the Guardian calls “the Orwellian grammar of the Trump era”–where the repression of liberal or progressive viewpoints is free speech, and federal intervention in university curricula is academic freedom.

The Department of Education threat against the Duke-UNC consortium is yet another example of the Trump administration’s spectacular hypocrisy and cynicism, not to mention its clash-of-civilizations-style Islamophobia – among other things, the Education Department’s letter accused the Duke-UNC program of devoting disproportionate emphasis “on understanding the positive aspects of Islam.”

This episode is part of the GOP’s antipathy to expertise, science and higher education, and the Trump Administration’s efforts to dictate what can properly be taught.

Indeed, when it comes to higher education, the Trump administration’s approach is uncharacteristically coherent, to fight its enemies – variously conceived of as liberals, Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians, LGBTQ people, people of color, and women – by enforcing ideological constraints, amplifying conservative viewpoints, dismantling or manipulating anti-discrimination statutes and, when possible, slashing federal funding.

When the government can dictate what scholars teach in the classroom, that’s indoctrination, not education. Academic freedom is essential to genuine education.

The First Amendment doesn’t protect free speech because the Founders thought ideas didn’t pose a threat. They knew ideas could be dangerous–but they also knew that allowing the government to determine which ideas could be exchanged would be far more dangerous.

If some schools did use lopsided curricula, that might pose a danger–but allowing government to control what universities can teach would be infinitely more dangerous.

We need to bid an unceremonious “hasta la vista” to this entire administration.

 

 

 

Zinn 1, Daniels 0

Yesterday, university  campuses around the state held Howard Zinn “Read Ins”  at which numerous faculty–including yours truly– participated. The events were prompted by then-Governor Daniels’ efforts to banish Zinn’s work from Indiana classrooms.

As I said yesterday, Daniels wanted to use the power of state government to protect unsuspecting students from “wrong” ideas—defined as ideas with which he disagreed. There is no principle more basic to both the academy and the American constitutional system than the one that forbids him from doing so.

The Founders did not minimize the danger of bad ideas; they believed, however, that empowering government to suppress “dangerous” or “offensive” ideas would be far more dangerous than the free expression of those ideas—that once we hand over to the state the authority to decide which ideas have value, no ideas are safe.

In these United States, We the People get to decide for ourselves what books we read, what websites we visit, what videos we watch, what ideas we entertain, free of government interference. Your mother can censor you, and in certain situations your employer can censor you–but your Mayor or Governor or President cannot.

Furthermore, free intellectual inquiry is an absolutely essential ingredient of a genuine education. Education requires the freedom to examine any and all ideas, to determine which are good and which not so good. It also requires that we protect scholars who come to unpopular conclusions or hold unpopular views.

Some citizens will make poor choices of reading materials or ideologies. Some Professors will embrace perspectives that disturb or offend students and Governors. Just as putting up with Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and their clones is the price liberals pay for free speech, putting up with Howard Zinn–or with Robert Reich, or with me—is the price conservatives pay for their own freedom.

The search for truth requires that we examine contending ideas. That is not the same thing as requiring some sort of artificial “balance” that ignores scholarly integrity in order to teach discredited positions like creationism rather than science, or holocaust denial rather than accurate history.  As a statement from the AAU put it some years back,

Self-appointed political critics of the academy have presented equal representation for conservative and progressive points of views as the key to quality. But the college classroom is not a talk show.  Rather, it is a dedicated context in which students and teachers seriously engage difficult and contested questions with the goal of reaching beyond differing viewpoints to a critical evaluation of the relative claims of different positions. Central to the educational aims and spirit of academic freedom, diversity of perspectives is a means to an end in higher education, not an end in itself.

Howard Zinn was a reputable, albeit controversial, historian. Much of what he wrote was a valuable corrective to the histories of his era; some was oversimplified or otherwise problematic. But opinions about the value of his–or any–books are beside the point.  The question is “who decides what books are used in the classroom,” and the answer is not ”the governor”.

The real irony of these sorts of efforts at censorship is that they almost always backfire by shining a brighter light on the object of the censorship. I wonder how many of the people attending the IUPUI read-in and the others around the state had ever heard of Howard Zinn prior to Daniels’ ill-advised effort to suppress his work.

Funny how often it works that way.

One of my sons was a student at the University of Cincinnati when the local prosecutor tried to close down an “obscene” exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs. Students and residents who ordinarily wouldn’t have gone across the street to attend an art exhibit couldn’t wait to see this one. The line stretched for blocks.

This happens so often, censorship has become a marketing tool. According to film histories I’ve read, at times when movie attendance has been dwindling, filmmakers have responded by producing more explicit films in hopes that the howls from the “usual sources” would increase attendance.

You’d think the busybodies would learn: If there’s material you don’t want people to see or hear or read, your best bet is just to ignore it. As Governor Daniels demonstrated, however, the moral scolds and PC enforcers have trouble learning that lesson.

Howard Zinn says “thanks, Mitch.”