Thursday, March 24, 2005

Freedom and Wingnuts

Freedom is one of the most common words coming out of George Bush's mouth, but what he means by it is not at all clear to me. Who, in particular, is supposed to enjoy freedom?

Take the Terri Schiavo case. Maureen Dowd commented on the rising theocracy in the United States in her most recent column:

The president and his ideological partners don't believe in separation of powers. They just believe in their own power. First they tried to circumvent the Florida courts; now they're trying to pack the federal bench with conservatives and even blow up the filibuster rule. But they may yet learn a lesson on checks and balances, as the federal courts rebuffed them in the Schiavo case.

Mr. DeLay moved yesterday to file a friend of the court brief with the Supreme Court asking that Ms. Schiavo's feeding tube be restored while the federal court is deciding what to do. But as he exploits this one sad case, Mr. DeLay has voted to slash Medicaid by $15 billion, denying money to care for poor people in nursing homes, some on feeding tubes.

Mr. DeLay made his personal stake clear at a conference last Friday organized by the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group. He said that God had brought Terri Schiavo's struggle to the forefront "to help elevate the visibility of what's going on in America." He defined that as "attacks against the conservative movement, against me and against many others."

I think that "freedom" is something Mr. DeLay is supposed to enjoy, not something that poor people on Medicaid might aspire to. Us lefties don't really seem to have the freedom to criticize this wingnut government, either. At least Mr. DeLay is pulling the victim card in talking about such criticism.

Then consider the concept of academic freedom. This was based on the idea that professors would not feel free to engage in scientific inquiry if what they study or publish could be grounds for their dismissal. Academic freedom never meant that professors could spout off anything they felt like. There has always been several safeguards in place against this possibility. On the most elemental level, students are free to change courses and to make complaints against specific professors. They are also free to write bad teaching evaluations for courses which they don't like, and a professor who gets consistently bad reviews will be in trouble. And students can also move to another college or university altogether, if all else fails.

Maybe all this is not sufficient. The wingnuts think so. They want academic freedom to work the other way round: not to enable professors to do research and teaching freely, but to enable the students to be protected from such endeavors. A new crop of state laws is trying to achieve exactly this outcome by making it obligatory for professors to teach all sides of an issue and by requiring that grading is not affected by any differences of opinion between the students and their teachers. Now, all this seems commonsense to me, and the vast majority of college professors are already doing exactly this. But the wingnuts don't see it the same way. They believe that the academia is the last powerbase of the left and they want these rats out.

Instead, they want all teaching to respect wingnut beliefs, even if there is no scientific basis for these beliefs. As an example, consider this Florida state proposal on one such academic bill of rights:

Republicans on the House Choice and Innovation Committee voted along party lines Tuesday to pass a bill that aims to stamp out "leftist totalitarianism" by "dictator professors" in the classrooms of Florida's universities.

The Academic Freedom Bill of Rights, sponsored by Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, passed 8-to-2 despite strenuous objections from the only two Democrats on the committee.

The bill has two more committees to pass before it can be considered by the full House.

While promoting the bill Tuesday, Baxley said a university education should be more than "one biased view by the professor, who as a dictator controls the classroom," as part of "a misuse of their platform to indoctrinate the next generation with their own views."

The bill sets a statewide standard that students cannot be punished for professing beliefs with which their professors disagree. Professors would also be advised to teach alternative "serious academic theories" that may disagree with their personal views.

Nothing wrong with wanting professors to teach alternative "serious academic theories". In fact, that's what teaching in universities is all about: showing students all the different ways of thinking about a topic, and then showing them how to criticize each of these.

But this is not really what the Florida proposal aims to achieve:

According to a legislative staff analysis of the bill, the law would give students who think their beliefs are not being respected legal standing to sue professors and universities.

Students who believe their professor is singling them out for "public ridicule" – for instance, when professors use the Socratic method to force students to explain their theories in class – would also be given the right to sue.

"Some professors say, 'Evolution is a fact. I don't want to hear about Intelligent Design (a creationist theory), and if you don't like it, there's the door,'" Baxley said, citing one example when he thought a student should sue.

Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, warned of lawsuits from students enrolled in Holocaust history courses who believe the Holocaust never happened.

Similar suits could be filed by students who don't believe astronauts landed on the moon, who believe teaching birth control is a sin or even by Shands medical students who refuse to perform blood transfusions and believe prayer is the only way to heal the body, Gelber added.

Clearly, what is viewed as alternative "serious academic theories" is the crucial question here, and the wingnuts' ideas are not going to match normal scientific criteria.

I suspect that the real freedoms at stake here are two: First, the right of the student to leave the college unchanged by any new ideas, and second, the right of the students' parents (or whoever pays the bill) not to have the students' values challenged. Both of these "freedoms" are the opposite of what academic inquiry should achieve. It will be a very sad day for the United States when this is what higher education will achieve: nothing.

There is something very paternalistic in all this freedom-talk. It's the government who decides for us what our freedoms might be, it's the government who decides what we should be taught, and it's the government who decides when feeding-tubes will be disconnected or not. Maureen Dowd is correct in the above quote: it's not about freedom or about the separation of powers or about students' rights; it's all about wingnut power, the right of the wingnuts to have the world remade in their own image.