Where’s the Beef?

I didn’t think it was all that complicated, but at least two smart people have misunderstood my complaint, so I’ll try to clarify. If SAGLRROILYBYGTH think I’m splitting hairs or being overly persnickety, I’ll shut my yap. But I don’t think I am and I don’t think the point is all that abstruse.duty_calls

Here’s what we’re talking about this morning: Last week, I wondered if evolution maven Jerry Coyne had a glitch in his code. He didn’t think protesters against Steve Bannon had a legitimate right to block Bannon’s appearance at UChicago. Coyne pooh-poohed protesters’ claims that the issue wasn’t really about free speech.

But I assumed—correctly it appears—that Prof. Coyne does reject some claims to free-speech protections. Prof. Coyne and I agree: Just because someone claims free-speech protection doesn’t mean they should get it. Some claims are bogus. Some are even harmful, at least potentially. The most obvious case is the perennial free-speech claim of America’s creationists. In state legislatures, bill after bill purports to protect the free-speech rights of creationist students and teachers.

Especially since we agree on everything, Prof. Coyne wondered what my beef was. As he put it,

Laats’s beef seems to be this: if I, Professor Ceiling Cat Emeritus, favor free speech on college campuses, why don’t I favor free speech in the classroom?

Coyne goes on to explain—and I agree with him as far as he goes—that creationist teaching in classrooms is not the same as controversial invited speakers on university campuses. However, he didn’t identify my beef correctly. Here it is: If Prof. Coyne doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of creationists’ claims to free-speech protections, why doesn’t he grant other people similar rights to un-recognize free-speech claims?

After all, Professor Coyne makes it clear. He says,

I do not recognize creationists’ desire to teach goddy stuff in the classroom as a “free speech” claim. [His emphasis.]

Coyne means, I think, that creationists can’t claim protection for their speech if it establishes a government religion unfairly, contra the First Amendment. By doing so, creationists give up any right to free-speech protection for their creationist teaching. The important point, IMHO, is that Prof. Coyne recognizes that some free-speech claims are faulty. Those claims are not legitimate and they do not deserve the protection they demand. Creationists insist on their right to free speech; they insist that their rights to be heard are often dismissed unfairly. In general, I think Prof. Coyne and I agree—we don’t lose any sleep over such creationist complaints, because we do not recognize them as legitimate claims to the protection of free-speech rights.

Which leads us to the main question again: If Prof. Coyne is willing to dismiss some claims to free-speech protection as illegitimate, why doesn’t he at least respect the anti-Bannon argument, even if he disagrees with it?

In other words, though I agree with Professor Coyne both that Bannon should be allowed to speak and that creationists should not be allowed to teach creationism in public-school science classes, I disagree with his glib dismissal of the arguments of the anti-Bannon protesters.

I think we need to acknowledge that there are real and important reasons why some intelligent, informed, well-meaning people refuse to recognize Bannon’s claims to free-speech protections. Further, there are good arguments to be made that a private (or public) institution has a responsibility to consider the implications of its speaking invitations. By inviting Bannon to speak, an elite university like Chicago is conferring on Bannon and Bannon’s ideas more than a touch of mainstream legitimacy. Blocking someone from speaking at the University of Chicago is not the same as blocking his or her right to holler on a street corner. I don’t think the Chicago protesters are hoping to shut down Breitbart; they are merely hoping to deny Bannon the enormous prestige of a Chicago speaking appearance.

Now, in this particular case I think the decision should swing in Bannon’s favor. But that does not mean that the anti-Bannon protesters don’t have a decent case to make. It does not mean that the UChicago protesters are “discarding one of the fundamental principles of American democracy because they don’t like its results,” as Prof. Coyne accused.

Some free-speech claims are bogus and don’t deserve to be recognized. The Chicago protesters and I merely disagree about the proper decision in this one particular case. They are not necessarily against free speech; they are disputing Bannon’s claim to free-speech protections; they are against their university recognizing Bannon’s legitimate status.

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Does Jerry Coyne Support Creationism?

Okay, maybe I’m just mad because he poked fun at “humanities” types like me. But I can’t help wondering if Jerry Coyne’s love for free speech is really as consistent as he implies. Does Professor Coyne support creationist “free speech” laws for K-12 schools? Colleges?

Here’s what we know: Right-wing eminence gross Steve Bannon is planning to speak at the University of Chicago. Students and some faculty are protesting. Professor Coyne criticizes the protesters, calling their “tiresome” ideas “reprehensible.”

UChicago sit in

Protesting against unfettered free speech at Chicago…

I tend to agree with Prof. Coyne that almost all speakers should be allowed to speak on university campuses. We need a high bar to prohibit speech, especially for guest lectures at universities. There are exceptions. If someone is likely to directly incite violence, they shouldn’t be allowed to speak. Universities, moreover, are under no obligation to financially support disruptive tactics—the kind of intentional provocation used by the likes of Richard Spencer. That is, when speakers plan to cause riots in order to draw attention to themselves, universities are not obligated to pay for the show. That’s not about free speech, but simple administrative common sense.

White supremacists and Trumpy trolls aren’t the only ones pleading for their right to free speech. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, creationists these days demand free speech in schools. Many current school bills insist that they will give teachers “academic freedom” to teach ideas critical of mainstream evolutionary theory. Missouri’s 2015 bill, for example, promises the following:

Neither the state board of education, nor any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, superintendent of schools, school system administrator, or public elementary or secondary school principal or administrator shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of biological or chemical evolution whenever these subjects are taught within the course curriculum schedule.

I’ll say it: I don’t think this kind of “freedom” is good policy. Sponsors of bills like these, IMHO, are mainly trying to cram a wedge into public-school science classes. I’m suspicious of the “scientific weaknesses” that such bills hope to teach about. If they really wanted to teach the various disagreements about the details of evolutionary science, fine. Great, even. But in fact, teaching those “scientific weaknesses” usually means teaching creationist critiques of mainstream evolutionary science as a whole. Teachers in public schools should not consider themselves free to tell students that worse creationist science is just as good as better mainstream academic science.

“Academic freedom” creationist gambits are not limited to K-12 schools. A few years back, for example, Professor Eric Hedin won tenure at Ball State despite accusations that he taught creationism-friendly ideas.

Does Professor Coyne support free speech in cases like these? In the case of Eric Hedin, we don’t have to wonder. Coyne outed Hedin early and often. Coyne protested that no professor at a publicly funded university had the freedom to teach creationism-friendly ideas as if they were science.

In creationist cases, then, Professor Coyne agrees to strict limits on free speech. How does he choose which free speech to prohibit?

A few possibilities:

  • Professor Coyne might say that he only objects to tax-funded religious preaching, as when a public university pays Hedin’s salary.

But tax money supports lots of religious talk on public college campuses. At many schools, religious groups use tax-funded facilities as meeting rooms. They use tax-funded student lists to recruit possible converts and members. Moreover, nearly every decent public university teaches lots of classes about all sorts of religious ideas. Why single out this particular instance?

  • Professor Coyne might object that Hedin taught religious ideas as science.

Surely Prof. Coyne knows better than me how difficult it is to articulate a simple definition of “science.” Shouldn’t scholars have the freedom to explore those boundaries?

  • Professor Coyne might say that he is against schools paying salaries for the promulgation of bad ideas; he doesn’t want intelligent design afforded the prestige of appearing in a college class.

If so, he would be repeating the ideas of the anti-Bannon UChicago protesters and their ilk. They do not want to legitimize hateful trolls such as Steve Bannon by paying him to speak at Chicago. They do not want to afford Bannon the prestige of such an affiliation.

  • Professor Coyne might say that teachers should stick with the curriculum.

But I don’t think he would. The heart and soul of academic free speech is the freedom to explore ideas not dictated from above.

Or, even if Professor Coyne could convince people that Professor Hedin was a special case, a case in which a teacher falsely claimed the freedom to preach religion on the public dime, what would he say about other free-speech schemes out there, like the one in Wisconsin?

Lawmakers in Madison have proposed a law to protect free speech on campus. If a creationist student were told that his “speech” about a 6000-year-old earth was incorrect on an exam, he could complain to an ominously named Council on Free Expression.

I just can’t imagine that Professor Coyne would protect creationists’ freedom to equal status for their ideas. In fact, I’m hopeful he would join me in strident opposition to this sort of thing.

The point, in the end, is not that students, faculty, and outside speakers are all engaging in the same sorts of speech. When a professor teaches a class or a student writes an exam, they are obviously engaged in different sorts of speech than when an outsider comes for a one-off lecture. They’re not all the same, but that’s not the point. Rather, the central point is that some assertions of free speech are strategic manipulations. In the case of most creationist “free speech” bills, the true goal is to make creationism seem legitimate.

When I (and maybe Prof. Coyne would join me) argue against such creationist free speech laws, our motives and goals are not “reprehensible.” We are trying to protect a vital idea—that mainstream science and creationist alternatives are not merely equally valuable scientific understandings. Academic freedom for instructors and free speech for students doesn’t include the right to teach and preach worse science as if it were equal science. People are certainly free to speak their minds about creationism, but schools do not have to pay people to engage in that kind of speech.

Given all that, I don’t understand why Coyne is so quick to bash his Chicago colleagues. Sure, he may disagree with them, but he should recognize his own objections to some purported “free speech” claims. If he did, he would likely have a different take on the “reprehensible” actions of his Bannon-busting colleagues.

Schools of Social(ist) Work

America’s colleges and universities have become left-wing indoctrination factories. At least, that has long been a favorite conservative complaint. Today in the pages of the Weekly Standard we see another example of the “closing of the campus mind.” Why do so many conservatives seem to take such intense pleasure in the supposed leftist domination of American higher education?

Bearded weirdos...

Bearded weirdos…

In today’s Weekly Standard, Devorah Goldman shares her horror story from Hunter College’s School of Social Work. As a conservative, Ms. Goldman was asked politely not to participate in class discussions. She had to hold her tongue as she read anti-conservative textbooks. She had to hold her tongue as professors imposed racist, ideologically slanted ideas on her classes.

Goldman’s story of abysmally closed-minded universities seems to resonate among conservative intellectuals. As we’ve seen recently, some conservative academics have interpreted recent events as the death knell for conservative thinkers at mainstream universities. Elsewhere, critics have wondered if higher education as a whole has been irredeemably lost to true open-mindedness.

As a non-conservative who writes a lot about conservatism and education, these complaints raise two difficult questions for me.

  1. First, why do so many conservative thinkers seem to emphasize the leftism of colleges? That is, why do conservatives seem to take such bitter joy from an exaggerated assumption that they are no longer welcome in higher ed?
  2. Second, why don’t these conservative intellectuals recognize the long tradition of conservative laments about higher ed? In every case, it seems as if conservatives think higher ed has just recently switched over to the dark side.

Let’s take the second of these questions first. As Ms. Goldman’s story shows, every conservative complaint implies that the closing of the college mind is a recent phenomenon. But conservatives (and liberals, for that matter) have been protesting against the goings-on at mainstream colleges for almost a century.

In 1987, for example, Chicago’s Allan Bloom scored a surprise best-seller with his Closing of the American Mind. Bloom worried back then that universities had become nothing but indoctrination factories.

Even earlier, conservative godfather William F. Buckley Jr. began his long career with an indictment of the culture at his alma mater. In God and Man at Yale (1951), Buckley blasted the sneering secularism and lax morality of his school.

Some people think Buckley invented modern conservatism, but the same themes go way back. In the 1930s, for instance, Congressman Hamilton Fish excoriated leading schools as subversive breeding grounds for communists. Fish named names. Columbia, New York University, City College of New York, the University of Chicago, Wisconsin, Penn, and North Carolina, Fish charged in 1935, had become “honeycombed with Socialists, near Communists and Communists.” As I note in my new book, Fish and other anti-communist conservatives in the 1930s assumed that leading colleges had recently been hopelessly lost to left-wing collegiate cabals.

Back in the 1920s, too, religious conservatives warned each other that recent events had caused the loss of mainstream colleges. As I’m digging into in my current research, fundamentalists such as Bob Jones Sr. convinced themselves and anyone who would listen that 1920s trends had moved college into the enemy camp. Too many schools, Jones charged, attacked the faith of conservative students. As Jones put it,

I had just about as lief send a child to school in hell as to put him in one of those institutions. We are spending millions of dollars on education in this country, but if that is the kind of education we are going to have we would be better off without our universities and colleges.

In every case, each generation of conservative activist has implied that these lamentable changes were recent occurrences. In every case, conservatives suggest that higher ed “these days” has been taken over by left-wingers. If this is such a long and strong tradition among conservatives, why do they keep insisting it is a recent phenomenon?

And why do conservatives seem so eager to emphasize their own victimhood? I don’t doubt Goldman’s story. I can imagine that some teachers and some schools really do insist on an ideological conformity. But there are plenty of other schools that do not. Why don’t conservatives spend more mental energy trumpeting their own dominance of some forms of higher education?

Recently, for example, conservative academic extraordinaire Robert George praised his school’s new academic-freedom rule. Why don’t more conservative intellectuals join Professor George in proclaiming the continuing academic clout of conservative or conservative-friendly ideas?

Some might think that conservatism only dominates less-prestigious schools. Ms. Goldman, for example, would likely have had a very different experience at a less prominent school of social work. But as the case of Professor George makes clear, leading schools such as Chicago and Princeton have long served as congenial homes for conservative intellectuals.

Instead of tearing their hair and gnashing their teeth due to the supposed loss of higher education, why don’t conservative intellectuals celebrate their continuing influence at many leading colleges?

Traditionalist Education: Introduction

TRADITIONALIST EDUCATION: INTRODUCTION

In 1953, Robert Hutchins, long-time president of the University of Chicago, argued that “an educational system without values is a contradiction in terms.”  Hutchins was a unique voice in Cold War education.  He was something of an intellectual child star, serving as the Dean of Yale’s Law School while still in his twenties and rising to the presidency of the University of Chicago at the age of thirty.  Like many child stars, Hutchins developed some unique ideas and pursued them with single-minded obstinacy throughout his career.  To Hutchins, the best education consisted of a thorough training in the Great Books, those classics that had withstood the test of time.  Hutchins loathed the notion that college should primarily train students for work; rather, Hutchins believed higher education should teach students in the arts of thinking and communicating.  The rest could come later.

Hutchins was an odd duck.
Unlike most traditionalist educators, he was not politically conservative.  But he still became
something of a hero to traditionalists with his insistence that students should spend their time with Aristotle instead of football.  Let me point out once again that in these arguments in favor of traditionalist education I will not necessarily be arguing for my own ideas.  I consider myself a fundamentally progressive educator, in that I think that the best education comes from inquiry and discovery rather than rote repetition and regurgitation.  I believe that schools ought to serve as society’s first line of defense against inequality and injustice.  But as with other topics, here I will be trying to imagine arguments that will make sense to people who don’t agree with them.  I will be trying to show that people can have good reasons for believing these things; they don’t have to be ignorant or wicked to do so.

Even though I don’t consider myself an educational traditionalist, I do agree that education must include moral values.  The real questions are: Which values?  And . . . Who decides?  For a lot of traditionalists, moral values are bundled into classroom practice.  School, in their opinion, should teach basic academic skills, the “three Rs.”  The process of teaching those basic academics should be tied up with proper moral upbringing.  For instance, students should be working hard, memorizing multiplication facts and diagramming sentences.  They should obey the teacher’s guidelines and accept her corrections humbly.  The morals are packed into that vision of classroom life: students ought to show respect for authority; they ought to work hard without asking why; they should learn that there is a right answer and a wrong answer—a transcendent good and a transcendent evil—and they should train themselves to choose the good, even when the evil seems more glamorous and enticing.

Traditionalists often package these recommendations in a vision of the past as a time when more people were brought up this way.  One of the stickiest problems for traditionalists is that such rosy visions of the past open them up to charges that they would also prefer other parts of the American past, such as race slavery and gender discrimination.  Do traditionalists notice, their challengers might say, that in their Mayberry vision of what America’s schools ought to be doing, it is only Opie getting an education?  That is, only the white boy is allowed full citizenship, while girls and black kids are only educated—trained—for a supporting role.  But babies should not be thrown out with the bathwater.  In
these posts, we can try to cull from tradition what we want and update it to remove what we do not.  We do not have to discard the entirety just to demonstrate our liberation from our pasts.

Once again, these might not be the arguments that traditionalist educators themselves prefer.  If you consider yourself traditionalist, weigh in.  What are more compelling reasons to promote traditionalist education?  How do you respond to charges that you want to return to a past of institutionalized white supremacy?  What values do you see in a “three Rs” approach that did not make it into these pages?

 

INTRODUCTION: FURTHER READING

Robert Hutchins, The Conflict in Education (New York: Harper, 1953).