Monday, January 30, 2006

Academic freedom

If you get a chance, you should check out Michael Berube's post on academic freedom. I don't have time to go too in-depth about it right now, but he talks about the idea of "bias" in the classroom. He says, for example, that the whole language of "bias," brought in by movement conservatives who criticize the media for being "liberal" is really a misnomer.

But the language of “bias” is not very well suited to the work of, say, a researcher who has spent decades investigating American drug policy or conflicts in the Middle East and who has come to conclusions that amount to more or less “liberal” critiques of current policies. Such conclusions are not “bias”; rather, they are legitimate, well-founded beliefs, and of course they should be presented—ideally, along with legitimate competing beliefs—in college classrooms.

He argues that the whole idea that there are "two sides" to every issue (I have a problem with this... sometimes "sides" are really non-scientific ideological positions, and quite often there are more than two sides) has really infiltrated our culture.

The course, which dealt with bioethics, had recently dealt with the vile history of experiments on unwitting and/or unwilling human subjects, from the Holocaust to Tuskegee, and the student wanted to know whether the “other side” would be presented as well. I hope you’re asking yourselves, what other side?—because, of course, to all reasonable and responsible researchers in the field, there is no “other side”; there is no pro-human experimentation position that needs to be introduced into classroom discussion to counteract possible liberal “bias.” We are not in the business of inviting pro-Nazi spokesmen for Joseph Mengele to our classrooms. But this is the language with which some of our students enter the classroom; it is the language of cable news and mass-media simulacra of “debate.” There is one side, and then there is the other side. That constitutes balance, and anything else is bias.

He then talks about studies showing many more liberals in academia than conservatives. He allows that this is totally true:

Many people, it seems, aren’t surprised or outraged by this at all; they expect college faculties to be full of liberals the way they expect country clubs or corporate boardrooms to be full of conservatives; it’s just the way the world is divvied up. They get the money and the power and the finely manicured golf courses, and we get the survey classes on the American novel. Personally, I don’t see why conservatives would be complaining about this arrangement. To put this another way, the day American liberalism is identified primarily with Hollywood stars and college professors is not a good day for the cause of social justice. Surely, movement conservatives know this every bit as well as I do.

The problem is that the stats that are used to support this (by people like Horowitz) tend to exaggerate and cherry pick their statistics. After all, "the data are tastier when the data are cooked." To take a "sample" of college professors, but take none from the engineering, medical, business, or law schools, or from any of the hard sciences, and find that there are substantially more liberals than conservatives is hardly surprising. Of course people in women's studies, anthropology, political science, and sociology are more liberal. But those are hardly reflections of an entire faculty.

Anyway, sorry for the quote-fest, but I thought it was a good post and I'm too lazy/busy to do anything substantive on my own about the topic.

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