Indiana’s Autocratic-And Delusional–Legislature

The most positive thing I can say about Indiana’s just-departed legislature is that at least it was a short session.

I have yet to address one of the most offensive bills passed by our legislative overlords: Senate Enrolled Act 202, which presumes to overrule accepted academic standards and procedures in the name of “intellectual diversity.” As numerous professors and other educators have pointed out, the bill is a thinly-veiled effort to combat what its proponents believe is “liberal bias” in higher education. (Unfortunately, as a popular meme proclaims, facts have a well-known liberal bias.)

The bill aims to emulate Ron DeSantis’ war against education and “wokeness”–turning Indiana into Florida, but without the water and sunshine.

Actually, as faculty and students overwhelmingly and unsuccessfully argued, in addition to having a chilling effect on free expression, the proposal is first and foremost an effort to micromanage Indiana’s higher education institutions. And that effort highlights the most prominent characteristic of our legislature’s Republican super-majority: its unbelievable hubris.

Hubris is defined as “excessive pride or self-confidence; arrogance.” It comes from the Greek, and denotes an excess of ambition and self-regard that ultimately causes the transgressor’s ruin.  It is the overwhelming trait of the Republicans who control Indiana’s Statehouse.

Do Indianapolis citizens want public transportation? Our legislative overlords will restrict the kinds of transit for which we can tax ourselves (no light rail, for reasons that escape most of us). If we are finally allowed to proceed, self-appointed mavens in the legislature will overrule transit experts on issues of implementation.

Did the City-County Council pass a tax to support special needs in the city’s mile square? The legislature will tell them who can and cannot be subjected to that tax. (Gotta protect those political donors…)

The same hubris that is evident when the legislature routinely overrules local government decisions about transit, taxes, puppy mills and plastic bags extends to the idiocy of Senate Enrolled Act 202.

As the Capital Chronicle recently described the Act: 

Included are changes to institutions’ diversity-oriented positions and their policies for tenure, contract renewals, performance reviews and more. It also establishes new reporting and survey requirements based on “free inquiry, free expression, and intellectual diversity.”

Garrison noted that, as part of Senate Enrolled Act 202, Indiana “is one of the few states” that now requires boards of trustees to establish diversity committees on our campuses.

Under the new law, those diversity committees must make recommendations promoting recruitment and retention of “underrepresented” students rather than the “minority students” specified in current law….

The law additionally requires institutions to establish complaint procedures in which school students and staff can accuse faculty members and contractors of not meeting free-expression criteria.

Institutions will have to refer those complaints to human resource professionals and supervisors “for consideration in employee reviews and tenure and promotion decisions,” according to the law.

From a legal standpoint, I would argue that language in the bill is unconstitutionally vague, but of course, that’s the point.

It is glaringly clear that the intent of the measure is to warn professors who might be advancing “liberal” ideas that they are jeopardizing their tenure. Of course, what constitutes a “liberal” classroom lecture and a lack of “intellectual diversity” is pretty subjective–and in our current political environment, subject to constant change. If a biology professor teaches evolution and fails to give equal time to creationism, has she failed to be “intellectually diverse”?  Is a professor teaching about the Supreme Court case on same-sex marriage prohibited from agreeing with its reasoning?

And about that encouraging of complaints….

When I taught, it was abundantly clear that most students who filed complaints against my colleagues were students who got poor grades. (I didn’t get any official complaints, but one student did sue me in Small Claims court for giving him a B-, a grade that was actually a gift. He lost.)

There is much more that is truly horrible about Senate Enrolled Act 202, but what is even more troubling than its content is that its passage represents the majority’s hubris and lack of self-awareness. Someone needs to tell these self-important examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect that election to the Indiana Statehouse (courtesy of gerrymandering) is not a grant of  authority to rule everything in Indiana.

At some level, Indiana lawmakers must recognize that they’re on thin ice–why else would they adamantly refuse to extend the hours our polls are open, or allow citizen referenda or nonpartisan redistricting?

Until Indiana’s weak, ineffective Democratic Party is able to run credible candidates in every one of Indiana’s gerrymandered districts, Hoosiers will continue to inhabit an autocracy governed by culture-war know-nothings with wildly inflated self-images.


Why Republicans Hate Higher Education

Most recent coverage of “elite” colleges and universities has revolved around the much-derided performances of three college presidents at a congressional hearing on campus anti-semitism. I addressed that testimony–and the basis for finding it unsatisfactory–yesterday.

But as an article from the Washington Post reminds us, 

This was not the week’s only development in the intersection of higher education and politics, however. An assessment from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and reporting from the Chronicle of Higher Education both delineated the extent to which the efforts of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to reshape education in his state have constricted educational opportunities, spooked instructors and threatened academic freedom. Those reports, despite affecting far more students, attracted much less attention.

The university system in Florida educates more than seven times the number of students in the three schools represented by those university presidents, and a report by AAUP summarizes the extent of the damage done by Governor DeSantis in his relentless attack on higher education in his state.

Academic freedom, tenure, and shared governance in Florida’s public colleges and universities currently face a politically and ideologically driven assault unparalleled in US history, which, if sustained, threatens the very survival of meaningful higher education in the state, with dire implications for the entire country.

The report detailed the legislative and executive efforts that resulted in changes not just to the leadership but also to the governing structures of the state’s universities–changes aimed at reversing efforts to expand diversity, and actually blocking the study of certain subjects, especially those implicating race.

As a number of media outlets have reported, professors are leaving the state in increasing numbers, and thanks to widespread recognition of what is happening to Florida’s universities, it has become difficult to recruit competent replacements.

The obvious question that arises is: why? What is the reason for the GOP’s animus toward higher education? Because–although DeSantis is “out front” in the assault– that animus is not confined to Florida. (For that matter, it isn’t confined to higher education–Republicans in numerous states have been waging an on-going war on the nation’s public schools.)

The linked article, written by Philip Bump, addresses the reasons for that animus.

It’s worth pointing out why this is a focus for DeSantis. Why is he trying to reshape higher education in Florida? What’s the problem he’s ostensibly trying to fix?
There are at least two clear, overlapping answers.

The first is that DeSantis, like many on the right, believe that colleges and universities deserve specific blame for the generally liberal political views of younger Americans. Young people are more liberal than older people, and young people are also more likely to have attended college. So it has become an article of faith on the right — despite a dearth of supporting evidence — that colleges are turning young people into liberals. And that, therefore, colleges need to be overhauled and their instructors scrutinized and purged.

This idea is not limited to colleges, it’s worth pointing out. The right regularly assumes that those who don’t share its politics must have been brainwashed somehow by someone. It seems likely that this is, in part, a function of the increasingly closed information universe in which the political right sits, the “epistemic closure” of right-wing media and rhetoric in which assumptions are often unquestioned and unchallenged. If every observer you track agrees with you about an issue and every source of information you consume is in consensus, anyone who disagrees must somehow have fallen victim to some liberal Svengali. Like a professor, say.

The other reason DeSantis is targeting higher education is that college education often serves as a proxy for being in the “elite,” a member of the nebulously bounded class of Americans that is viewed with disdain (or worse) by the political right. That’s particularly true of those who attended schools such as Harvard, a school whose name is functionally synonymous with elitism. House Republicans brought Ivy League presidents to answer questions about antisemitism in part because of reported incidents on their campuses and in part because they are ready-made punching bags for the Republican base.

There is something sad–tragic, actually–about people who are threatened by science, by empiricism, by the very process of intellectual inquiry. Worse still, those threatened people actively resent anyone who is engaged in that inquiry–but they especially resent those who excel in it.

Their motto might as well be “We real Americans don’t need no smarty-pants!”

The cult that was once a political party doesn’t just want to replace democracy with a theocratic autocracy. It wants to take humanity back to the Dark Ages, where the GOP base will feel comfortable.


Is Education “Woke”?

The GOP’s hostility to higher education–okay, to education in general–has been getting more scrutiny since Ron DeSantis intensified his war on those “woke” institutions we call colleges and universities. DeSantis (smarter and much more dangerous than Trump) is latching on to the Republicans’ increasing hostility to education.

Before discussing the politics involved in this particular aspect of the culture war, let me readily concede that a significant majority of university instructors and educated Americans are what that base considers “liberal.” There are two reasons for that: first, the definition of “liberal” has changed rather dramatically over time; and second, (depending on that definition) reality has a pronounced liberal bias.

I can personally attest to the rather profound change in the definition of the word “liberal.” As I have previously noted, in 1980 I ran (unsuccessfully) for Congress. I was a Republican–and I was told I was “too conservative” by a fair number of voters.  Although I have changed my position on a couple of policy issues since then, as I learned more about them, my overall political philosophy has remained consistent. Only now, I’m routinely accused of being a pinko socialist/communist elitist.

While I was essentially standing still, philosophically, the GOP totally redefined conservatism. Conservatives are now True Believer authoritarians edging toward fascism. Using the current (re)definition, I’m no longer conservative, and neither are most of the GOP politicians with whom I once worked.

The Rights’ newly radical definition of “conservatism” rather obviously excludes the majority of college professors. But even before the transformation of the GOP,  and under the “old” definition of the term, a majority of university faculty identified as liberal. Not “leftist”as Europeans use the term, but liberal: people whose world-views are shaped by empirical evidence. These are people who recognize and are able to cope with the emergence of new understandings and/or evidence that conflicts with what they previously thought to be the case– people who lack  the all-encompassing, rigid certitude that marks today’s “conservatives.”

Liberal college professors recognize the limits of their knowledge. As I often told my own students, my goal was not to have them leave my classroom agreeing with my perspectives, political or otherwise; my goal was to teach them the importance of understanding and applying two important phrases: it depends, and it’s more complicated than that.

In today’s politics, conservatives are those who hold fixed, immutable beliefs (and want government to impose them on everyone else), and liberals are people who recognize contingency and complexity. DeSantis’ hated “wokeness” is willingness to examine new evidence, determine its credibility, and revise error when the facts support such revision.

In a recent column, Paul Krugman considered what he called “the extraordinary rise in right-wing hostility to higher education in general.”

Not that long ago, most Americans in both parties believed that colleges had a positive effect on the United States. Since the rise of Trumpism, however, Republicans have turned very negative. Recent polling shows an overwhelming majority of Republicans agreeing that both college professors and high schools are trying to “teach liberal propaganda.”

Did America’s colleges — which a large majority of Republicans considered to have a positive influence as recently as 2015 — suddenly become centers of left-wing indoctrination? Did the same thing happen to high schools, run by local boards, across the nation?

No, as Krugman notes, what happened was that right-wingers expanded their definition of what counts as “liberal propaganda.”

Thus, when one points out that schools don’t actually teach critical race theory, the response tends to be that while they may not use the term, they do teach students that racism was long a major force in America, and its effects linger to this day. I don’t know how you teach our nation’s history honestly without mentioning these facts — but in the eyes of a substantial number of voters, teaching uncomfortable facts is indeed a form of liberal propaganda.

And once that’s your mind-set, you see left-wing indoctrination happening everywhere, not just in history and the social sciences. If a biology class explains the theory of evolution, and why almost all scientists accept it — or, for that matter, the theory of how vaccines work — well, that’s liberal propaganda. If a physics class explains how greenhouse gas emissions can change the climate — well, that’s more liberal propaganda.

Krugman says that what we need to understand is that people like DeSantis are attacking education, not because it uses liberal propaganda to indoctrinate, but because it fails to sustain the ignorance they want to preserve.

I wonder how many MAGA folks ever encountered or seriously considered that famous quote from Thomas Jefferson: If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.


Inequality And Democracy

The continuing arguments about Biden’s loan forgiveness program are shining a bright light on several ongoing issues of American governance.

The first and most obvious is the hypocrisy I’ve already addressed.  Somehow, tax law changes and generous subsidies (funded by all taxpayers) that enrich the already rich are fine. Only when there is an effort to lift the fiscal boot off the necks of the less fortunate do we hear about “unfairness.”

In addition to these examples of selective outrage, there have been more reasonable observations about debt forgiveness being a “band-aid.” I certainly don’t disagree with the pundits who have pointed out the multiple problems with American higher education–very much including the enormous costs. That said, the argument seems to be that , in the face of failure to revamp the entire system, we shouldn’t be  trying to relieve even a portion of the burden.

There’s a name for this argument:making the perfect the enemy of the good. In other words, if we can’t immediately perfect a situation, we should do nothing. This approach is self-evidently wrong, if for no other reason that we have inconsistent views of what “perfection” would look like, and considerable evidence that most lasting improvements  are partial and incremental.

Actually, the partial nature of Biden’s debt relief order highlights an overarching issue: the gridlock that currently keeps the federal government from functioning properly. (I would argue that what Biden and the Democrats have achieved legislatively is little short of miraculous, given the lockstep Republican opposition to virtually any measures  they propose.) Thanks to structural elements of American governance that are obsolete-everything from the Electoral College to the filibuster to the pervasive gerrymandering that has facilitated the election of ideologues and outright mental cases–Congress has become increasingly mired in partisan and cultural warfare. That legislative inability to function properly has led to the increasing use of Presidential authority to get anything done–and that reality threatens to legitimate an authoritarianism that is contrary to the Constitution and the Separation of Powers.

Translation: not a good thing.

All of these issues–highlighted as they are in the current arguments over debt relief– threaten American democracy. The Republican bias toward rewarding the wealthy (socialism for the rich; brutal capitalism for the rest) contributes to the already-huge disparities between haves (or have-a-whole-lots) and have nots, and that disparity (along with the growth of White Nationalist and all-out fascist groups) is a huge threat to social stability and democratic self-government.

The enormity of the economic gap was recently highlighted by an article in Common Dreams.

In the nearly three decades since 1995, members of the global 1% have captured 38% of all new wealth while the poorest half of humanity has benefited from just 2%, a finding that spotlights the stark and worsening gulf between the very rich and everyone else.

That’s according to the latest iteration of the World Inequality Report, an exhaustive summary of worldwide income and wealth data that shows inequities in wealth and income are “about as great today as they were at the peak of Western imperialism in the early 20th century.”…

“In the U.S., the return of top wealth inequality has been particularly dramatic, with the top 1% share nearing 35% in 2020, approaching its Gilded Age level,” states the report, whose contributors include prominent economists Thomas Piketty and Gabriel Zucman. “In Europe, top wealth inequality has also been on the rise since 1980, though significantly less so than in the U.S.”

There is copious research on the connection between political instability and economic inequality. As one study found,  long-term inequality has “strong empirical support as exogenous determinants of political instability.”

It isn’t just that research confirms what we all learned in Econ 101–that a broad and healthy middle class is an essential element of democratic stability–it turns out that political instability holds back financial development as well. “The findings indicate that inequality-perpetuating conditions that result in political instability and weak democracy are fundamental roadblocks for international organizations like the World Bank that seek to promote financial development.”

Or to put that into somewhat less “academic” terms: pigs get fed, but hogs get slaughtered.

The hogs who are screaming about debt relief and the dire consequences of helping middle class households (according to CNN: about 75% of the benefit will go to households making $88,000 or less per year) would be wise to consider just how much they benefit from programs costing far more–programs that take from the poor and middle-class to pad the pockets of the rich and connected–and how much their own longterm prospects depend upon political and social stability.

Being a hog is actually bad for the bottom line.


I Guess Indoctrination Failed..

I was reading a recent column by Dana Milbank--and appreciating the snark–when it hit me. Milbank was engaging in (very appropriate) takedown of several Republican high-profile opponents of those snobby American “elites,” and pointing out that all of them turn out to be privileged White male members of that same elite.

But the column brought to mind an even more annoying hypocrisy than the one Milbank was highlighting–the persistent Republican attacks on higher education for “indoctrinating” students with liberal ideas–accusations leveled by individuals who clearly escaped that supposedly inescapable indoctrination.

The charge has always been bogus, of course, for a number of reasons. As someone who taught at a university for more than 20 years, I can attest to the fact that just imparting facts–let alone inculcating ideologies at odds with those the student came with–is a lot harder than it looks. For that matter, the opportunities for “indoctrination” are pretty limited. As a recent column from the Palm Beach Post put it, most courses have nothing to do with social policy or politics. There’s no potential for “indoctrination” in algebra, construction management or chemistry.

The United States has thousands of small colleges and universities, many of them quite religious, that are less frequently accused of planting “socialist” predilections in their students than the Ivy League, elitist, hard-to-get-into universities. What about those hotbeds of “woke” philosophies? That’s where the indoctrination is occurring–right?

Um…not so much. Milbank brings the evidence.

He quotes Senator Tom Cotton who, during the confirmation hearings, said he “doesn’t want a justice who follows the “views of the legal elite,” (would that mean rejecting a nominee who pledges to follow precedent?) and later complaining that “a bunch of elite lawyers” such as nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson “think that sentences for child pornography are too harsh. I don’t and I bet a lot of normal Americans don’t, either.”

And where was this representative of “normal Americans” educated? Harvard College and Harvard Law School.

Then there’s Louisiana’s John Neely Kennedy, who routinely attacks the evil “managerial elite” of media, academics, bureaucrats and corporations. (Typical accusation: “This cabal think they are smarter and more virtuous than the American people.”)  This “man of the people” has a “degree with first class honors from Oxford University (Magdalen College),” and was Phi Beta Kappa at Vanderbilt. That was before he got elected by denouncing the “goat’s-milk-latte-drinkin’, avocado-toast-eating insider’s elite.”

Of course, we already know about Ted (“Do you know who I am?”) Cruz–who Bret Stephens recently described as a” one-man reminder of why sentient people hate politicians.” He graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law, and regularly inveighs against the “coastal elites.”

We’ve also seen more than enough of Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, formerly of Stanford University and Yale Law School. Hawley, as Milbank reminds us, fancies himself standing with the proletariat in “the great divide” between the “leadership elite and the great and broad middle of our society.”

Cruz, Hawley and Cotton are all contemplating presidential runs — where they might meet in the Republican primary another man of the people, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. A graduate of Yale and Harvard Law, he wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled “Don’t Trust the Elites,” and he rails routinely about “elites” trying to shove this or that “down the throats of the American people.”

Milbank has a number of other examples, and students of stunning hypocrisy will find his column well worth reading in its entirety. Whether you focus on the humbug of men who are obviously part of the “elite” pretending to be “just folks” or whether–like me–you ponder the abject failure of schools like Harvard, Yale and Stanford to properly indoctrinate these strutting peacocks, a couple of conclusions are inescapable.

First, institutions of higher education are rather obviously failing to turn out graduates who’ve been successfully indoctrinated with a liberal philosophy. (For that matter, they don’t seem to be doing all that well instilling civility and simple honesty…Perhaps we should acknowledge that both sets of values come from a variety of sources outside the classroom.)

Second, despite how ridiculous they sound to many of us, these men aren’t stupid. They are promoting policies that they clearly know  to be dangerous and unfounded, and they are asserting “facts” that they just as clearly know to be out-and-out lies.

Stupidity is unfortunate, but inescapable and thus forgivable. A willingness to prostitute oneself for electoral advantage, a willingness to undermine democracy in order to appeal to an ignorant, frightened and angry GOP base– is not.