Monday, July 24, 2006

Althouse & Academic Freedom

Over at Ann's site the comment thread is a mile long (I'll admit it, I'm jealous) about whether someone can teach lies (believes them, but remains neutral) as truth and be covered by academic freedom. The thread illustrates why average people laugh at supposed intellectuals. In the real world, a dude spouting conspiracy theories about the Twin Towers being an "inside job" would be making sure his shopping cart had all his belongings. Everyone would recognize his outbursts as delusional and move on.

Not in academia. Oh no. Every politically acceptable piece of garbage can be spewed within the broad loving embrace of academic freedom. And make no mistake, for lots of leftists, opining about 9/11 Conspiracy Theories passes for enlightenment. They might quibble over classes on "How Women Ruined Western Civilization" or "Nazism: How One Race Would Really Make A Better World" or "Islam: monadic Teachings Revealed to Him By Al Gore Visiting Him From A Time Machine." But if the subject matter is politically correct: "Womyn: Reproduction is Rape" or "Multiculturalism: American Imperialism Bad, Third World Good" or "Intro to Islam: How 9/11 Was Caused By Jews, the U.S. Government, Bush, and Free Masons ", almost no progressive would say a peep. In fact, if someone does criticize teaching blatant politically correct falsehoods, they are branded anti-intellectual rubes intent on squelching academic freedom. (The Framers didn't specifically mention academic freedom, but they meant to.)

Other professors defend intellectual vapidness because they don't want anyone nosing around their syllabus. Oh no! Don't fire an idiot. Don't expect someone to teach the "truth", I might be held to a standard. Wouldn't want that. The Academy isn't alone in self-protective, willful ignorance--look at Enron and look at medicine. How is it that over 100,000 people per year can be killed by wrong medications alone and doctors defend this? Same thing. Standards make everyone nervous--especially the intellectually elite. Now, we don't mind imposing standards on the common man: there are requirements for cooking a hamburger, afterall.

All this would matter not if the following wasn't true:

  1. Tax payers pay for patently false teaching. Shall we teach 2+2=10 under academic freedom? Or even better: You know what? I'm sick of the Law of Gravity, too, now that you mention it. From now on, Gravity is a conspiracy by Newtonian physicists to make people hurt themselves when they jump off of bridges.
  2. Students have to work around the Professor's biases to get a good grade. In hard sciences, you can argue and win a factual inaccuracy as a student. Forget subjective topics like Literature. It is bad enough when these Profs don't teach blatant falsehoods.

Here is some of the fun I had during my Liberal Arts education. I had a PhD Lit teacher in college who was rather dull. For fun, I used a thesaurus and filled an essay with big words out of context to see if I'd get a better grade. My only "A+" came on that paper. The professor was nice, but just not smart. Now, the Philosophy professor at the same school was a tyrant. I avoided his class like the plague and I love Philosophy. He was notorious for slamming anyone who didn't agree with him. Then there was the French Teacher who gave me a "C"--four credit course--because I knew French too well and he thought I should participate more (my grades on tests were "A"s). He called me in and asked why I wasn't taking French II. When I told him that his class killed my GPA and my grade in the class warranted at least a B plus, he said, "I cannot guarantee a grade." And I said, "I am not asking for a specific grade--just grading fairness. That is why I won't be taking your class next semester."

Science classes--Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Organic Chemistry, Biochemistry, Anatomy, Physiology, Pathophysiology, Microbiology--might have idiot teachers who might put together garbage exams, but if you can read a book and learn the basics, you have a chance of passing. Divining the fickle feelings of a Liberal Arts professor. Good luck!

Actually, my experience with Higher Education was this: The good professors were few and far between. Not for nothing comes the cliche "those who can't do, teach". Teachers are intimidated by genius students. Teachers enjoy the captive audience, the control, the authority that being in the academy gives them. In fact, the anti-authoritarianism that so many academics cling to is laughable--they are often petty tyrants in their kingdoms.

The best teachers are priceless. One class, one idea, can change your whole life. But they are not the reason most people go to college. College and even grad school, now, is a hoop. The accomplishment is getting through it. College is a microcosm of real world employment: politically charged, insular, petty, and often the tasks you're given are a waste of time (Dilbert anyone?). Just finishing the silliness often indicates perseverance and drive but not much else. The disturbing thing: same goes for PhDs, MDs, DCs, JDs, etc.

For a long time, I felt that higher education was a waste (after spending a good portion of my life and lucre on it). And I'm still not sure if that's not true. Intelligence will move you along in life with or without education. It's just that most intelligent people pursue formal higher education. Society requires education to make it in almost all professions--I was stunned to learn that a four-year degree is a requirement to be a General Contractor. Why? I don't get it. If the person has the chops and experience for the job, why a degree? And what does this mean for the future of the Steve Jobs of the world who just aren't the classroom types?

I worry that the academy places so much emphasis on uniformity of thought--politically correct thought--that the only "new" ideas being entertained are patently false. While tuition and fees outpace inflation (significantly), the ideas and value and world-view narrow.

Here's my prediction: Higher education, because it is so politicized, will breed new educational institutions. For a while, the big names will be able to float on their endowments and reputations, but that can only last so long.

My desire would be that apprenticeship would be another route to a career. The masons aren't so wacky afterall! Seek out a qualified, gifted teacher (Socrates) and learn from him or her. The best and brightest would make more money than they could ever dream of making in the academy. The dumb-butts like Barrett would be braying at the moon on a street corner where he belongs.

Let the free-market win out. Like it or not, Kevin Barrett represents that stellar Wisconsin institution. Just like the 69 Profs represent Duke. There will be economic consequences, eventually.

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