Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Lange on "Biased" Teaching

Peter Lange, Duke Provost, was recently asked this question at an Academic Council meeting (March 24):

"In the Jan. 25 issue of the Chronicle, a Duke student complained about what he perceived as propagandizing in one of his classes: 'One of the most insulting moments of my Duke education occurred in an ancient Chinese history class in spring 2003, when the U.S. was preparing to invade Iraq. Our teacher took a break from Confucius and the Han Dynasty to stage a puzzling "teach-in" about Iraq in conjunction with some national organization. During this supposedly neutral discussion, she regaled us with facts and assertions suggesting that the Iraq war was scandalous, foolish and doomed to fail.' If the student's account provides to be accurate, do you think that the instructor's conduct was a legitimate use of class time? Or did it go beyond the limits of academic freedom, in which case, what action do you think might be appropriate on the part of the academic administration?"

His response, in part:

Creating, fostering and enhancing our culture of learning must be our goal. This goal must guide our decisions about how we judge and possibly intervene in any specific event or incident that may appear to threaten the quality of that culture. In determining whether such a threat exists and whether and how to respond to it, it is worth remembering that our culture of learning is best fostered by shared norms of conduct, ones that encourage and accept the free expression of ideas and that reflect mutual respect for the expression of ideas by others.

Such shared norms, and the behavioral habits that reflect them, stand in some contrast to formal rules that seek sharply to define "appropriate" or "legitimate" behavior. Such "rules" in the academic context are likely almost always to falter in the face of the complex processes through which students learn and our faculty teach or, at times, through which our faculty learn from what their students say and do. The application of formal rules, while occasionally necessary, is unlikely to advance the deeper commitments that must support a true culture of learning.

I have to say, I largely agree. If faculty are not committed, genuinely committed, to real teaching, I don't see that some Jesuitical set of rules and appeals procedures is going to help.


UPDATE: Then, there's this. Question: When exactly did Paul Krugman sell his soul? He makes Jerry Springer look honest and tasteful.

An Academic Question
(NYT, April 5)

It's a fact, documented by two recent studies, that registered Republicans and self-proclaimed conservatives make up only a small minority of professors at elite universities. But what should we conclude from that?

Conservatives see it as compelling evidence of liberal bias in university hiring and promotion. And they say that new "academic freedom" laws will simply mitigate the effects of that bias, promoting a diversity of views. But a closer look both at the universities and at the motives of those who would police them suggests a quite different story.

Claims that liberal bias keeps conservatives off college faculties almost always focus on the humanities and social sciences, where judgments about what constitutes good scholarship can seem subjective to an outsider. But studies that find registered Republicans in the minority at elite universities show that Republicans are almost as rare in hard sciences like physics and in engineering departments as in softer fields. Why?

One answer is self-selection - the same sort of self-selection that leads Republicans to outnumber Democrats four to one in the military. The sort of person who prefers an academic career to the private sector is likely to be somewhat more liberal than average, even in engineering.

But there's also, crucially, a values issue. In the 1970's, even Democrats like Daniel Patrick Moynihan conceded that the Republican Party was the "party of ideas." Today, even Republicans like Representative Chris Shays concede that it has become the "party of theocracy."

Consider the statements of Dennis Baxley, a Florida legislator who has sponsored a bill that - like similar bills introduced in almost a dozen states - would give students who think that their conservative views aren't respected the right to sue their professors. Mr. Baxley says that he is taking on "leftists" struggling against "mainstream society," professors who act as "dictators" and turn the classroom into a "totalitarian niche." His prime example of academic totalitarianism? When professors say that evolution is a fact.
Think of the message this sends: today's Republican Party - increasingly dominated by people who believe truth should be determined by revelation, not research - doesn't respect science, or scholarship in general. It shouldn't be surprising that scholars have returned the favor by losing respect for the Republican Party.

Conservatives should be worried by the alienation of the universities; they should at least wonder if some of the fault lies not in the professors, but in themselves. Instead, they're seeking a Lysenkoist solution that would have politics determine courses' content.

And it wouldn't just be a matter of demanding that historians play down the role of slavery in early America, or that economists give the macroeconomic theories of Friedrich Hayek as much respect as those of John Maynard Keynes. Soon, biology professors who don't give creationism equal time with evolution and geology professors who dismiss the view that the Earth is only 6,000 years old might face lawsuits.

If it got that far, universities would probably find ways to cope - by, say, requiring that all entering students sign waivers. But political pressure will nonetheless have a chilling effect on scholarship. And that, of course, is its purpose.


Anonymous said...


Fire's resident liberal's reply that TtwbC agrees with.

Mike, don't send me to the gallows because I'm a registered Democrat, please!? I won't corrupt your children if I get to teach them, honest!

Anonymous said...

Krugman goes too far, but there's some meat in his column. Lots of players in government do things to fulfill his caricature of Republicans. This bill of Baxley's, DeLay threatening the judges in the Schiavo case with something (damnation? vigilante justice?), the various intelligent design advocacy groups all come to mind. I don't understand why thoughtful conservatives aren't criticising these guys.