Sunday, March 06, 2005

Where Kim Ode Misses the Point

This year , State Senator Michelle Bachmann and Representative Ray Vandeever proposed the creation of an "Academic Bill of Rights" in Minnesota, with the goal of protecting students who have political views in disagreement with those of the professors teaching them. For the record, I think it would be a bad idea, mostly because it would be almost impossible to enforce. The debate started by bringing it up, however, may be of some use. Kim Ode wrote a column disagreeing with those who are pushing the proposed Academic Bill of Rights in this year's legislature. I think this passage describes the gist of her argument:
So the bill can't really be about shielding our kids -- at least, not if we've done our jobs. In all likelihood, the Academic Bill of Rights already has served its main purpose, simply by being filed. It preached to its choir about the evils of different views, while putting the rest of the congregation on notice that someone's watching.

This bill is about fear, as is so often the case these days. It's about fear of debate, fear of the examined life. It means to make teachers fearful about giving students a vigorous education, and it will make students fearful when -- and it's when, not if -- they are confronted with a differing view as adults.

I think she completely misses the concern behind the bill. The bill is not so much about fear as about fairness, and in a sense enhancing the flow of ideas. I think part of the motivation for this bill is to introduce some diversity into what the bill's backers see as the liberal choir in academia. What good is it after all, to extol the virtue of debate when one of the two major governing philosophies in this country is all but shut out on many university campuses? Not to mention the unfairness when professors use their relative position of power to impose/indoctrinate their politics on students.

From reading some of Ms. Ode's other work I think it would be safe to say she is on the liberal/DFL side of the political spectrum, so perhaps as a member of her choir she misses some obvious things. One, universities are not the sole place where political conservatives get their assumptions challenged. Conservative talk radio, conservative think tanks, etc. did not arise because there was an oversupply of conservative thought in the public discourse (mostly via the media). They came to be (and popular) because many conservatives did not believe they had a forum from which to conduct their side of the debate, and their views when mentioned were unfairly and inaccurately described while simultaneously being belittled.
Second, if having one's views challenged is good for conservatives, would it not also be a good thing for the liberals to have to defend theirs as well? Holding debates in echo chambers may be loud, but except for deafness little is accomplished.

For those who don't think bias in the academy is a problem, here is an example. More information can be found at FIRE.

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