Monday, July 24, 2006

A Straight Up Education

Depending upon the person's perspective, I've heard complaints over the years that college education in America is slanted to the left or to the right. And usually their claim is supported by sufficient evidence to show how the building is ready to topple over. The tower in Pisa is standing straight compared to the lean in the ivory towers according to these folks. I've wondered how it is that the whole place is leaning drastically in two different directions.
In reality, it is, and it isn't. Campuses have instructors, administrators, and students who are stridently left and right (and up and down, forward and backward, or any other directional designation we wish to assign). But education is still straight up. Indoctrination has a direction. Education points in every direction. And campuses are a center for both education and indoctrination. Just sometimes we forget to keep each in their proper places. Check out this quote on the conflict of academic freedom from an op-ed by Stanley Fish out of Sunday's NYTimes:

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.
But in fact, academic freedom has nothing to do with content. It is not a subset of the general freedom of Americans to say anything they like (so long as it is not an incitement to violence or is treasonous or libelous). Rather, academic freedom is the freedom of academics to study anything they like; the freedom, that is, to subject any body of material, however unpromising it might seem, to academic interrogation and analysis.

I've always hated that definition of a college education that describes it as not being the mastery of content but the mastery of the ability to garner content -- or learning how to think. To me, education is both. Yes, we need to learn how to think. I'm appalled at how easily we're misled because we're unable to discern the assumptions and presuppositions in an argument. It's something we're all susceptible to, myself included.

But the content is important as well. Mastering content allows us a knowledge base that we can critically apply to the area under consideration. I really don't want to wait in the doctor's office while he goes and studies human anatomy so she can make an informed diagnosis. I much prefer that she already has mastered human physiology.

So, I think Fish has it right. Higher education in America needs to be a place where no subject is off the board. And no academic has the right to use their freedom of inquiry as a pretext for advocacy. Does that mean instructors, students, administrators can't advocate passionately. Of course not. But the act of advocacy is not teaching. It's proselytizing. And that's not the goal of higher education.

So whether you're a lefty professor hellbent on making sure these poor deluded suburbanites learn the "truth" about the "fascist Bush regime", or some red state demogog politician on the stump motivating the heartland to protect America from the "politically correct crowd" who would "destroy our way of life", do me a favor. Shut up. At least until after you've actually done what we're paying you to do. Then you can go on your rant. On your dime. Just like I do.


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