Friday, May 26, 2006

Academic Freedom?

One of my best friends from my college days was a Computer Science major with an interest in politics. Like many college students of the 1980s, he was convinced that CompSci was the only thing worth majoring in. He was a couple of years older than me and had taken the introductory courses required for CompSci majors. Yet his main interests were current events and politics. He was a die-hard conservative Ronald Reagan supporter, and not ashamed to let it be known in discussions with his peers, many of whom he knew to be on the other side of the fence, politically speaking. At some point, he decided that his interest in politics outweighed his desire to earn a CompSci degree, so he took a shot at majoring in Political Science. That didn't last more than a couple of years, before he turned back to Computer Science and eventually left the university without getting a degree. Between his classes and his part-time jobs, he had acquired enough knowledge and experience to enter the workforce without sheepskin. But he could have done just as well had he completed his Political Science major. What went wrong?

As he explained it to me, his overall QPA suffered because of strong disagreements with all but one of his PoliSci professors. It's no secret that the vast majority of college professors, particularly those in the humanities, are leftists. The PoliSci department was certainly no exception. My friend was frustrated because he tried to engage in debate with his leftist teachers and learned that left is right and right is wrong in their eyes. Essentially, he was being graded due to the nature of his views rather than the quality of his work. Some of my peers had told me that they had entered college with the intention of challenging their professors. If done intelligently and with confidence, this should ideally impress a professor enough to give the student a good grade. No so with my friend. You couldn't get a decent grade in those PoliSci classes without being on the same page as the instructor. He gave up to return to the CompSci program and was still in school after I graduated.

An intelligent, thinking individual was cheated out of his chance to earn a college degree because of a petulant, closed-minded group of academics with an apparent agenda to repress those who are not in lockstep with their worldview.

My friend took the high road, choosing to get on with his studies in another field rather than making a big issue of his experiences with the PoliSci department. My alma mater, while it is known to have a very left-leaning faculty, has never been one of those schools that makes the news due to political turmoil. Nevertheless, more students there are running into political roadblocks of their own, and many of them are speaking out about it. From the campus newspaper:

When [a student] had to miss her English class to participate in a fundraising event for victims of Hurricane Katrina, she thought informing her English literature professor of her absence through e-mail would be convenient and painless. But what she received was an e-mail instructing her to "rabble rouse" in protest of President Bush.

"I COULD give YOU permission to MISS class if you agreed to do some of the rabble
rousing (I would do at the yard sale) yourself," her professor said in an e-mail.

After receiving two more anti-Bush e-mails, [the student] dropped the class. According to her adviser, her professor had violated her "academic freedom" by sending her material that had no relation to the class subject.

"I was mad," [the student] said. "I think I actually even almost cried. I didn't even know it was called academic freedom."

There are a couple of things to note here. First, the student was announcing her intention to miss class. It's never a good idea to skip a class unless you have a very good excuse. I can understand why the professor would be unhappy about the student staying out of class that day. Still, if you are paying for the credit hours, you can do whatever you like with the time. If you miss something important, it's your loss, but it's your right to do what you want with the time,

The other thing is the concept of "academic freedom". Isn't it wonderful that the advisor apparently stood up for the student by informing her of the impropriety of her instructor's actions? Academic freedom goes both ways; I don't begrudge college professors' right to hold their own opinions. But in a situation like this, the professor is clearly trying to turn a difference of opinion into an issue. The real issue should be whether the student should be missing class at all, not whether protesting President Bush is a better excuse for missing class than raising money for hurricane relief.

Ultimately, the student said:

I tried to handle it then I gave up

due to the cumbersome nature of the complaint process. The article, which is rather more well-written than most submissions to that particular newspaper these days, goes on to recount the reactions of both students and faculty to allegations of academic freedom violations, as well as the involvement of groups like Students for Academic Freedom and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. It would seem that the mentality that stifled my friend's progress nearly twenty years ago still permeates today, and can be found in the same department:

While many Pitt SAF advocates argue that liberal professors across college campuses often give unfair grades to conservative students, a Pitt political science major, disagrees.

"It should be called 'Students for Academic Suicide'," he said jokingly. "I think the vast majority is just people angry that they got a C."

So, in his arrogance, this child expresses the view that those with right-of-center political views deserve lower grades. He'll make a heck of a PoliSci professor one day.

As for me, having gone to the same school, I did in fact encounter outspoken leftoids mouthing off in front of rooms full of students. Some of the instances that I can recall include:
  • The Classics prof who, in a class on Ancient Greece, made the comment that during one period in Greek history, the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer, "just like our society today". Nowadays that would be called a "talking point". Back in 1988, it was obnoxious and irrelevant, and on the evaluation form I politely requested that the guy keep his politics to himself.
  • A Teaching Assistant for an Art History recitation took the class to the local museum, where she showed us a medieval painting with lots of golden colors which were painted using a process that "didn't trickle down" onto the rest of the portrait. She used the "trickle down" remark to segue into a brief criticism of what the left called "Reaganomics". Which has to do with what, in the context of the class?
  • Following a group session in which about 40-50 students signed up for advising appointments, my advisor passionately pleaded for us to come down and sign his petition to protest the nomination of Judge Robert Bork as Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, because of what "this man will do to our country". Whoa! Was I there to sign up for an advising appointment, or was I there to be indoctrinated in domestic Communist claptrap?
  • A seemingly dimbulb History professor who, during a brief discussion of politics during World War II, looked around the room and asked if anyone knew whether Republicans have committees and local organizations like Democrats do. The man must have been close to fifty years old! I was tempted to tell him that our marching orders are delivered telepathically from the mother ship, but the boob might have believed me.
  • The Astronomy professor who claimed, during one lecture, that the country was severely harmed for a number of years because of all of the Republicans from Ohio getting elected to the Presidency. This would cover the period from roughly 1869-1923, during which time several presidents were in fact Republicans from Ohio. What did this have to do with Astronomy? Who knows?
  • Returning to college some years later, I had a Teaching Assistant from Germany who was a big time Mumia Abu-Jamal supporter. One kid scored major points with him by writing a very positive essay about the convicted cop-killer. I decided to push his buttons a little by referring to "unser linksradikale Präsident" Bill Clinton in an essay. He wrote a comment on the paper that in Europe, Clinton is seen as being "sehr konservativ". No wonder they hate us!

If SAF and FIRE had been around back in the late 1980s, I might have been willing to speak out. Today's students just need to be careful not to take it so far that they justify faculty complaints of "witch hunt".


jipzeecab said...

I don't believe I ever consciously attempted to indoctrinate students to be liberal or conservative, radical or reactionary but I did once engage in an activity with students which would be frowned upon today.
During 1972-73 year students in my Intro to Pol Sci class were given an alternative to writing a term paper by participating in a "community project" I was responsible for. About 30 % (mostly ones who didn't want to write a paper)chose to gather signatures on a petition demanding that the North Vietnamese account for our POW/MIA's. Students received a "B" for 500 signatures, an A for 1000.
We gathered over 15,000 signatures on the petition which was passed on to a National Organization which eventually presented them to the North Vietnamese representatives in Geneva.
Our local Jaycee chapter received a State award for the effort done mostly by students earning a grade.

Nicko McDave said...

Just when I think I've learned everything about you, a new fact comes to light. You've taught college, worked with public transportation in the northeast, you've led a mutiny on the high seas (so to speak), and a couple of other things I can't remember off the bat. One of these days you are going to tell me that you worked as a disc jockey for the US Army during the 1989 invasion of Panama.

jipzeecab said...

Try this one on. From 1979 - 1983 I was the Executive Secretary of the Key West Military Affairs Committee. Two members of that committee were the CO and the XO of the US Joint Caribbean Command, the multi service group that planned, coordinated and executed the Invasion of Grenada in December, 1983. (That's a closer relationship than what usually passes for evidence in a conspiracy
I actually didn't work in "public" transportation. From 1988- 1990 I was the General Manager of the largest sightseeing company in Boston which had a fleet of 27 buses but 90 % of the time they were going around in a 12 1/2 mile circle, the other 10 % doing group charter work.
In 1998 I was for 6 months the volunteer secretary of your Allegheny Transit Council (the citizen/rider advisory board to PAT)but I had to give it up when I got a work promotion that kept me from attending the meetings.