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  • Freedom in the Classroom: An Outdated Concept? May 23, 2017

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite , trackback

    It is absolutely unsurprising that there is a strong liberal bias in university classrooms, particularly in the social sciences and to a slightly lesser extent in the humanities: and that this is true throughout the Anglo-Saxon and, indeed, the western world. It has been estimated, for example, that only one in forty sociologists in the US vote Republican (an extraordinarily high estimate?!). It is worth remembering, too, that students in a given faculty are self selecting and themselves add to this bias: conservatives are far more likely to choose business than gender studies. It is a little depressing that academic faculties are so poor at matching their make-up to that of society at large. But when you begin to actually attack the notion of freedom in the classroom and on faculty, then this bias becomes, instead, deleterious.

    The present blogger, recently, heard a score of lecturers (many from America but not only) discuss their experience of university teaching. All were clearly brilliant at what they do: but their attitude, in many cases, to difference of opinion was terrifyingly insouciant.

    First, two American lecturers, in different ways, presented a series of inviolable positions that were not up for debate. We in the west are happy that race has been out of bounds for the last generation; in the last fifteen years sexual preferences has started to join race. But several new positions were included, such as action on the environment. There is a sense that the core undebatable subjects (that every society since the Neolithic has depended upon) is moving beyond those necessary for pluralism and is taking in a whole number of other positions where debate is, instead, healthy.

    Second, these same two lecturers, though one with much trepidation, talked about freedom of speech being used by extreme right-wingers and the correctness of banning speakers on campus. Yet anyone who follows the news will know that the speakers being banned from universities or attacked while speaking there in the UK and the US are not just extreme rightwingers. They include Germaine Greer, the veteran Australian feminist, and political scientist, Charles A. Murray.  This is a loathsome trend in modern student and university life.

    Third, one lecturer (who was though supported by others in the group) backed the idea that there are good and bad opinions. There are, in fact, ‘less rational’ opinions and teachers should lead students to see this truth. The old idea that facts are for the teacher, but opinions are for everyone was ripped apart. Mediocre students, in my experience, debate positions, good students debate facts: in other words good students show the limit of the facts we are presented with. The idea that teachers might guide students to an acceptable conclusion is repulsive, particularly given that so many views on individual issues depend on more general political philosophies, not on ‘facts’.

    Fourth, another professor gave examples of his students using material from class to protest in public. In one of these cases the professor in question seems to have happily gone on the protest (and organised it?): on the other, the professor talked of the students spontaneously protesting (though he was happy to go along and take photographs). Is the academic experience really supposed to include students designing placards in class time and, then, heading out for the streets to educate society?

    Fifth, the contempt for non-liberal positions was strong. The Americans who voted for Trump, people with guns, social conservatives, those who voted for Marine Le Pen in France, those who are fearful of migration, and libertarians all had their intelligence insulted and were described as having made less rational choices. The term ‘moral choice’ was used, meanwhile, for climate policies.* We talked a lot about making sexual and ethnic minorities feel welcome in the classroom, and rightly so. But what about political minorities? For this blogger one crucial question to take away from this experience was, given the five points outlined here, how will a centre-right student who is not afraid to defend his or her views do in exams with their immoral and irrational views?

    This meeting was a real attitude-changer: I’d read about this phenomenon in the abstract, but I’d never really taken the problem seriously. Other experiences of freedom being eroded in our universities? Drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com Perhaps in the end the most terrifying point of all this was how universities are making it more not less difficult for different parts of societies to enter into dialogue: this is bad for society and really bad for universities.

    *As with many points here I don’t agree with the position under attack. But even within, let’s remember, climate science there is a minority opinion that global warming is only partly related to human activity; while even if climate warning is entirely related to human activities the choice about whether to try and reverse the changes or to adapt to them is not a question of morality but of reasoned debate. Those with right on their side should be confident about winning.

    Leif writes, 27 Jun 2017: In the United States, faculty in liberal arts and sciences (LAS) have strong incentives to politicize their teaching. The number of students studying LAS has declined steadily for decades, and universities in general are facing a tough time as state support and the number of students graduating from high school are both at an ebb. If you were a university president who had to make budget cuts, would you cut a program with activist students who would demand you walk the plank and quite likely have your job, or would you cut a program of quiet scholars? For LAS faculty, activist students are a form of job security, sailing in a perfect storm where their political inclinations and professional interests match. Why do students avoid LAS? The answer is in part economic. For working class students, a university education used to be a passage to the professional job. Today not so much. Tuition has grown faster than inflation over the last 35 or 40 years. According to some economists, on the average a university graduate cannot expect to earn more than a high school graduate over the course of his working life– when one adjusts for working years lost due to study, as well the cost of tuition and student loans. Because this is an average, university students from some programs, such as business or applied sciences, will earn more, and students from other programs, particularly LAS, will earn less than high school graduates. Therefore, LAS faculty have good reason to fear becoming decommissioned. And because they earn far less than their colleagues teaching professional or science degrees they don’t have the same professional interests. (An entry level English professor at my former institution earned just over a quarter what his counterpart in the business department made.) But this begs the question: in the long term, what will happen in the long term to academic disciplines where students essentially learn by rote instead of by reason? Boghossian and Lindsay suggest one possibility: The conceptual penis as a social construct: a Sokal-style hoax on gender studies.

    Norm writes, 27 Jun 2017: The reason so many teachers have decided to push their politics down their student’s throats is  just the magnitude  of the right’s resources. It is not a fair fight. I’ll give you an example: When I was taking my boards for my teaching license, I took a sample test of the questions I could expect. I had taken a course of study that would end in my being permitted to teach History, Political Science, Economics, Geography and Psychology at the High School level. The pretest was pretty easy, way too easy to really weed out the incompetent applicants but it did have a weeding feature: about a third of the questions were opinion . The correct answer was always a conservative answer. The test was set up to reward the conservative students with a 33% bump. It was a simple work around, I just put on my John Birch shoes, went all conservative in my answers and did very well on my boards. I was able to see the bias of those tests but how many kids coming out of college have that ability?   I was 38 years old with two decades of industrial labor experience, both on the  floor and in union work . My university teachers were a mix of liberal and conservative thinkers. I always tailored my essays to fit their bias. It was not a matter of playing them, it was a matter of giving them the right answer for their way of looking at the world.   The professors you ran onto at your conference consider themselves to be at war with the right, nice, ethical, reasonable are all tossed out the window when one is at war. And, it is nothing new, these people who decide to teach are human, they have always brought their politics into the classroom. It is just that today, they do not even try to hide their politics. I for one think that is healthy for us all.  I only went into the classroom to do my student teaching requirements. I stayed in industry for my work life. I told those kids within the first few days of my politics when I was student teaching just so they knew where I was coming from. Being in the ivory tower does not mean we can ignore the blood filling the moat.