9/11, opinions, and academic freedom

An opinion piece in Sunday’s papers goes to the root of a problem that plagues the teaching of history.

Stanley Fish professes law at Florida International University. In Sunday’s New York Times he offers his views on college professors who indoctrinate their students, as opposed to doctrinaire college professors who teach. Fish draws a careful and reasoned distinction between academic freedom, which he notes is the freedom to study virtually anything and try to bring value to academics with one’s analysis of the subject, and freedom of speech, which in this case includes a freedom for advocacy to indoctrinate students, and a freedom which Mr. Fish claims to be out of line in the classroom.

The article will be available free for a few days at the New York Times’ website.

The case in question involves a teacher with a one-semester contract at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Kevin Barrett teaches “Islam: Religion and Culture.” What makes this course controversial is Mr. Barrett’s saying, on a radio talk show, that he shared with his students his view that the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, was perpetrated by the American government, rather than terrorists.

Fish wrote:

Mr. Barrett’s critics argue that academic freedom has limits and should not be invoked to justify the dissemination of lies and fantasies. Mr. Barrett’s supporters (most of whom are not partisans of his conspiracy theory) insist that it is the very point of an academic institution to entertain all points of view, however unpopular. (This was the position taken by the university’s provost, Patrick Farrell, when he ruled on July 10 that Mr. Barrett would be retained: “We cannot allow political pressure from critics of unpopular ideas to inhibit the free exchange of ideas.”)

Both sides get it wrong. The problem is that each assumes that academic freedom is about protecting the content of a professor’s speech; one side thinks that no content should be ruled out in advance; while the other would draw the line at propositions (like the denial of the Holocaust or the flatness of the world) considered by almost everyone to be crazy or dangerous.

High school teachers do not have the right to profess such viewpoints, it is generally agreed among lawyers. Especially in an era of state-wide testing, teachers are restricted to a curriculum prescribed by the local school board, to match a body of knowledge prescribed by a state agency or the state legislature, elementary and secondary teachers have something just short of a script to follow (there is a lot of room for good ad lib, though one sometimes fears there is little talent for that sort of thing out among teachers). At least, that’s the way many “deciders” think it should work.

In reality, propaganda groups discovered they can prepare lesson plans and provide other materials — like movies in the old days, or VHS, and now, DVDs – or just a good website, and some stressed teacher with not enough time to search out better stuff will use it in the classroom. Or worse, the teacher will agree with the viewpoint, and just put it in.

That is where trouble begins.

Bad information is freely available. The good stuff is tougher to find.

Example 1: Texas requires instruction on patriotic material– in fourth grade, kids have to be able to explain the symbolism of the U.S. flag. That should be easy – the new nation picked red, white and blue from the English flags, and eventually ended up with 13 stripes alternating red and white representing the original 13 colonies, with a blue field featuring a white star for each state. There is more to the story, of course, depending on just how much history one wishes to go into. But this is rarely listed in textbooks. By high school, to meet the requirements of offering patriotic material about the flag, many teachers go to the first website they can find and get stuff like the flag-folding ceremony I fisked a couple of days ago – that ceremony is listed, in fact, at the website of the American Legion (with a link to the U.S. Air Force Academy site saying it came from there, but it’s not listed there now). Why would a normal, red-blooded American junior high school teacher not trust the website of the American Legion, and tell students that there is a meaning to each fold of the flag, “and here it is?”

It took me about an hour to get a good idea of what was going on with the reference to the Air Force Academy and the flag ceremony, and I pretty well know where to look.
Gresham’s Law applies to material taught in classrooms, too – the bad drives out the good. Darrell’s Corollary to Gresham’s law: The bad drives out the good faster when it can be Googled up and printed off in a few minutes.

This is not a problem of academic freedom. It is instead a problem of inadequate training for the teacher in the subject matter being taught. But just catch some conservative yahoo teaching false flag history to a class of kids, and watch the Rutherford Institute or the Liberty Legal Institute come flying in to defend the error in court.

Charlatans abuse the privileges.

Example 2: Axe-grinding teachers will push as far as they can under the guise of freedom. I suspect this applies to all parts of the political spectrum, wherever one finds an issue upon which opinions might be firm. Teachers who disagree with policies, or who are concerned about cultural events, will inveigh against their selected demons and preach in favor of their preferred policies, regardless how such indoctrination may fit a course. In history, I constantly hear reports of teachers borrowing material from discredited sources and using misinformation as if it were fact. While I have plenty of complaints about Texas’ turn to mandated, state-wide testing, the forced curriculum required is much more free of crap than some classrooms would be without the test looming. A teacher isn’t going to bother to use David Barton’s faux quotes from patriots if those quotes do not show up on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), generally.

Alas, in many states, biology is not required, and evolution is not tested. As a consequence, many teachers feel free to insert into classrooms their own misunderstandings of science, especially misunderstandings of Darwin’s work and evolution theory. A lot of bad material is available from various “ministries” and the Discovery Institute, making it easier for a teacher biased against Darwin to get a few DVDs, and skip over one of the great ideas in western culture. We know this happens not only from news reports, but also from litigation, where these teachers have been caught in the acts. Brief descriptions of the Webster, Peloza, and LeVake cases are available at the website of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE).

In one of the more famous examples, among teachers at least, an anti-Martin Luther King, Jr., group has purchased the internet domain for martinlutherking-dot-org (I do not wish this site to be affiliated with driving traffic there, but I think it is important to name names when we have them). Without fail that site pops up in searches for material on the great man; what the student gets instead is bad history and a polemic worthy of people who must hide behind robes and masks to say such things in public. Charlatans are skilled at making their misinformation readily available to the unwary, unwise, or uneducated.

Teachers should study Fish’s ideas. He offers a good way for teachers to analyze what to teach, especially if the teacher thinks the curriculum already laid out is wrong.

Fish wrote:

Thus the question Provost Farrell should put to Mr. Barrett is not “Do you hold these views?” (he can hold any views he likes) or “Do you proclaim them in public?” (he has that right no less that the rest of us) or even “Do you surround them with the views of others?” Rather, the question should be: “Do you separate yourself from your partisan identity when you are in the employ of the citizens of Wisconsin and teach subject matter — whatever it is — rather than urge political action?” If the answer is yes, allowing Mr. Barrett to remain in the classroom is warranted. If the answer is no, (or if a yes answer is followed by classroom behavior that contradicts it) he should be shown the door. Not because he would be teaching the “wrong” things, but because he would have abandoned teaching for indoctrination.

And Fish ended with good advice:

All you have to do is remember that academic freedom is just that: the freedom to do an academic job without external interference. It is not the freedom to do other jobs, jobs you are neither trained for nor paid to perform. While there should be no restrictions on what can be taught — no list of interdicted ideas or topics — there should be an absolute restriction on appropriating the scene of teaching for partisan political ideals. Teachers who use the classroom to indoctrinate make the enterprise of higher education vulnerable to its critics and shortchange students in the guise of showing them the true way.

One Response to 9/11, opinions, and academic freedom

  1. nicole says:

    Bad information is freely available. The good stuff is tougher to find.

    Another instance of this occurs in abstinence-only sex-ed programs. The only people who create the curricula for such programs are, shall we say, ideologically driven, and misinformation is extremely common. Most of the time, reports of this focus on fake percentages of condom failure or similar, but in fact there are much more subtle areas where I find their work even more harmful — e.g., women need more emotional preparation for sex, women are naturally nurturing mother-types, women must be protected and shielded by men, etc etc.


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