Monday, January 09, 2006

OK, Now I'm Scared

I'm scared by this piece by Mark Goldblatt, over at National Review Online.

In it, he discusses a convention of the Modern Language Association. As he described it:
The Modern Language Association holds its annual convention each year during the week between Christmas and New Year's Day. Washington, D.C. was the venue for 2005 as thousands of English and Humanities professors descended on the nation's capitol to hold forth not only on literature and pedagogy but also on politics, globalization, and the war on Islamic terrorism. Hijinks, therefore, ensue.
Since we all know proper diction goes hand-in-hand with deep thoughts on globalism.

The problem, though, it that these people are not the experts they believe themselves to be in the issues of the day. Granted, they can discuss the wonders of Kerouac or Hemingway far better than I could, but that hardly qualifies them to lecture me on the rights and wrongs of war, any more than my engineering degree does. For most of us, that means our opinions are usually kept to a close circle of friends and confidents. (NASA hasn't been asking for my advice on the space program, at any rate.)

But that does not keep these people from bringing their beliefs to the classroom, and imposing them on their students. Golblatt's relation of the panel discussion was especially disturbing:
The panel began with a talk by a youngish assistant professor from Kingsborough Community College. She announced that she'd "adopted an antiwar curriculum" for her freshman English class, then recounted how she'd designed her syllabus around readings meant to expose the lies and treachery of the Bush administration. Though she couldn't be sure how many minds she'd actually changed, she added, with a trace of pride, that she "might have helped to stop some of my students from joining the military."

Next up was another young-looking (or am I just getting old?) professor from the University of Cincinnati who bragged that she'd done graduate research on the expansion of American imperialism and therefore understood full well that the prisoner-abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib "exists within a continuum of racial violence" perpetrated by the U.S.. She had organized an entire English course around a close linguistic analysis of the U.S. Patriot Act. She conceded that her students had struggled with the legalistic text throughout the semester, but in the end she felt confident that several students who'd favored the legislation at the start had had their consciousness raised by the experience.

She was followed to the podium by a professor of women's studies, also rather young, from Penn State University who passed around a sheet of cherry-picked quotations by conservative commentators on the leftist bias in academia. As she read them out loud, without analysis, the response from the audience alternated between horrified gasps and loud snickering. Afterwards, she called the Academic Bill of Rights an "assault on critical thinking" and decried "the political tyranny and proto-fascism of the government."

Once the panelists had said their piece, the floor was opened for questions and comments from the audience. I was the first person the moderator called on, and I directed my question to the first speaker, the assistant professor from Kingsborough Community College. I asked her whether she'd have a problem if a colleague of hers suddenly decided to adopt a pro-war curriculum, and whether, more broadly, she'd have a problem hiring a new teacher who seemed likely to take such an approach.

She replied that she did not currently serve on hiring committees, so she had no control over who joined the faculty at KCC . . . but she would indeed have a major problem if a colleague of hers were to adopt a pro-war curriculum.

She left it at that.

Someone then asked a question about Derrida, whom one of the panelists had faulted for his lack of commitment to radical causes, and I thought, for a moment, my point would be lost. Apparently, however, the KCC prof's response did not sit well with several members of the audience — who felt compelled to answer me themselves. An older man was the next person called on; he turned in my direction and said that he'd served on many hiring committees and that he would never hire a teacher who seemed likely to adopt a pro-war curriculum . . . for the same reason he wouldn't hire a teacher who seemed likely to espouse creationism or intelligent design. The issue isn't political, he explained. It's that the theory is simply wrong. A pro-war curriculum would, by necessity, be rooted in falsehoods and false logic. The classroom, he insisted, is a place for truth.

The next comment was also addressed to me, by a young man sitting in the back. He said that, in theory, he would not be opposed to hiring a teacher who supported the war in Iraq . . . but that situation was unlikely to come up because people who teach in the humanities are trained in critical thinking, and no one who thinks critically could support the war in Iraq.

Several audience members nodded vigorously. Their reactions indicated that the matter was now settled.

I smiled and sank back in my chair; I'd gotten my laugh.

Except it's not really funny. In retrospect, the panelists and audience members for "Academic Work and the New McCarthyism" inadvertently made the strongest possible case for the Academic Bill of Rights. If you've come to equate support for the war in Iraq with creationism, then you're no longer capable of critical thinking on the subject; you've surrounded yourself with too many like-minded people. If the ideological bias of academia turns faculty minds into mush, imagine its effect on students.
Let's get this straight - these people are willing to admit only those who believe exactly as they - in pretty much everything. I thought that is what they opposed...

This is one reason why engineering types generally disregard humanities types. If these people represent the best of the humanities' critical thinkers, then academia is seriously screwed up. Of course, there is a fundamental difference in those disciplines. In humanities, if you're wrong, at worst you get embarrased. In engineering, if you're wrong, you could get someone killed. There is a greater acceptance of reality that comes with the latter.

Whatever happened to merit? A person interested in building the best faculty he can should be interested in finding the best professors he can - regardless of their other beliefs. As long as his beliefs remain outside the classroom, who cares? Isn't the point to teach young minds to think, to appreciate, and how (rather than what) to learn?

My own critical thinking leads me down a very different path. War is a sad, terrible thing. Too many good people die. And yet, there are things worth fighting for.

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