Monday, January 23, 2006

Policing Academic Freedom -and not in a good way

A UCLA alumnus has decided, I know you've all heard, that he is in charge of academic purity in the classroom. (I can't force myself to provide a link. You can do a google search and find the story.) He'll pay you $100 for classroom materials and tape recordings from professors. He's worried about professors who don't like the president's policies and who are challenging the so-called war on terror. He says that he's worried about indoctrination of any stripe, but he's certainly not soliciting material from professors who might be "indoctrinating" from any other perspective.

Leave aside the fairly obvious problem that students probably retain very little classroom material -in their brains or in their piles of paper- 6 months hence. If indoctrination were even an option, professors would probably be using this formidable power to get students to remember, say, the course material. Alas....

However, there are even bigger problems to consider here.

He pretends not to understand that there is supposed to be very little supervision (internal coordination, yes -but supervision, no) of course materials. Otherwise, unpopular theories would never be explored except in academic journals and bars. Students would never be exposed to hypotheses that turn out to be wrong, thus missing an important opportunity to learn how our intellectual limits are pushed back. And they would miss learning how one can disagree respectfully while still arguing forcefully. The role of the public scholar, the professional academic, is not much less grandiose than helping to ensure the health of the nation. Democracy itself depends on people who can think and reason. And being spoon-fed information in easily digestible amounts does nothing to further that project.

Rather, teachers ought to be provocative -in the sense that they have a duty to provoke thought and discussion. A courageous and intelligent student will seek out those teachers rather than the ones who, for whatever reason, are teaching the party line by rote. If the academy were working as it should, every single teacher at UCLA -and beyond- would be on this guy's hit list. Not because disagreeing with President Bush is the only possible position with integrity.... well, it IS as far as I can tell, but bear with me.... but because discourse is the important thing.

What UCLA students could do is report every professor in the UC system -and then move on to other colleges and universities- and just bankrupt this guy. That would be poetic justice!

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