Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Wing-nutters demand their right to remain stupid

Saree Makdisi, a professor at UCLA

About the campus wars in today

In the months ahead, the state Senate Committee on Education will consider a bill that pretends to strike a blow for intellectual honesty, truth and freedom, but in reality poses a profound threat to academic freedom in the United States.

Peddled under the benign name "An Academic Bill of Rights," SB 5 is in fact part of a wide assault on universities, professors and teaching across the country. Similar bills are pending in more than a dozen state legislatures and at the federal level, all calling for government intrusion into pedagogical matters, such as text assignments and course syllabuses, that neither legislators nor bureaucrats are competent to address.

The language of the California bill -- which was blocked in committee last week but will be reconsidered later in the legislative session -- is extraordinarily disingenuous, even Orwellian. Declaring that "free inquiry and free speech are indispensable" in "the pursuit of truth," it argues that "intellectual independence means the protection of students from the imposition of any orthodoxy of a political, religious or ideological nature." Professors should "not take unfair advantage of their position of power over a student by indoctrinating him or her with the teacher's own opinions before a student has had an opportunity fairly to examine other opinions upon the matters in question."

The bill may sound reasonable. But, in fact, it has nothing to do with balance and everything to do with promoting a neoconservative agenda. For one thing, the proposed "safeguards" to "protect" students from faculty intimidation are already in place at all universities, which have procedures to encourage students' feedback and evaluate their grievances. Despite a lot of noise from the right about liberal bias on campus, there are simply no meaningful data to suggest that any of these procedures have failed. </P> <P class=text>The real purpose of the bill, then, is not to provide students with "rights" but to institute state monitoring of universities, to impose specific points of view on instructors -- in many cases, points of view that have been intellectually discredited -- and ultimately to silence dissenting voices by punishing universities that protect them. Backers of the Florida bill would like to empower students to sue professors with whom they disagree on the theory of evolution.

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