Congress wades into "grading and ideology". Sorta.

Yesterday afternoon, I stumbled across this article that appeared in The Boston Globe, “Provision tells schools to grade students on subjects, not ideology: Measure aims to shield campus conservatives.” It’s one of those kind of slippery stories that I don’t quite understand, but I’ll give it a try.

Congress is debating reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, and one of the attached resolutions (undoubtedly, there are many such resolutions) “…tells colleges to grade students on the basis of their mastery of subject matter rather than on their political views.”

Ah, okay. I’ve always done that, and pretty much everyone I know, regardless of their political philosophies, does the same thing. Republicans can get an A in my classes and Democrats can get an F. It all depends on how well they do with the subject matter, not their political views.

Now, this doesn’t mean I’m a complete “blank slate.” I’ve had students write things that were, for example, blatently racist that I simply was not willing to tolerate. I’m thinking in particular of an essay a student handed in many years ago in which the student argued that Native Americans were lazy and self-destructive and deserved what they got, and he (this student) knew because he used to live next to a reservation. My response was pretty direct. “This is incredibly racist. You’ve got to rewrite this, and this time, do some research.” He did (and, to this student’s credit, I really believe that he didn’t even realize that what he was writing was as ignorant as it was), he did some modest research, and– surprise! surprise!– he learned through his research that in reality, Native Americans have been getting the shaft from the U.S. government for quite some time.

Anyway, I digress.

The Globe article goes on:

The provision makes no mention of specific political leanings, but represents a victory for conservative student groups who have been arguing for years that American universities are bastions of liberalism seeking to impose their liberal orthodoxy on dissenters.

The measure is not binding, but some higher education analysts caution that it is not to be taken lightly. Colleges and universities, they say, should consider this a warning shot from a Republican-controlled Congress fed up with the liberal academy.

”If the universities don’t move, all that’s going to happen is this will build,” said David Horowitz, a conservative author and a driving force in the free speech movement that inspired the resolution. ”They’re sitting on a tinderbox. Now we have resolutions. I guarantee you, if they thumb their noses at this, there will be statutory legislation.”

A little bit later on, the article says this:

Representative Jack Kingston, Republican of Georgia, who introduced the original resolution that inspired the language in the higher education bill, said his aim is to protect conservative students from having their views squelched by the more radical members of the academy.

”The common knowledge is academicians are usually liberal, and it’s cute because they’re harmless ivory-tower types, but as the years have gone by, I think they have almost imploded among themselves,” said Kingston, whose father and sister are college professors.

Wow, I bet family dinners at the Kingston house are kinda tense…

Hmm. Okay. Well, I guess I’m left with a few questions and thoughts:

  • Other than the fact that this resolution has been introduced by conservative legislators concerned with the “liberal” academy and it is being supported by David (who gets WAY too much attention, IMO) Horowitz, why is this resolution a “victory” for conservatives? I mean, I understand that the goal of these folks is to “rein in” the (so called) liberal academy, but I don’t see how this vague and non-binding resolution does it.
  • As any number of people have written in blogs and elsewhere, the fact of the matter is there are a lot of “not so liberal” academics out there. I’ll grant you that most of the folks in humanities departments tend to be liberal, but I’m just not sure that’s true about my colleagues in the sciences, the college of technology (at EMU, at least), medicine. law, business, and a whole bunch of other areas. Look folks– don’t forget that Condi Rice was in the provost’s office at Stanford before she came into the Bush White House. You don’t get a whole lot more a part of the so-called “liberal ivory tower” than that.
  • And while we’re at it, what exactly counts as “liberal” or “conservative” here, what counts as including multiple viewpoints? If my university hosts a speech by a Holocaust survivor, does that mean, in the interest of providing “equal time,” my university should also host a speech by a Holocaust denier? I hope not. So, as far as I can tell what folks like Horowitz and the supporters of this resolution mean by “liberal” or “biased” views in college classrooms is “ideas we don’t like.” But of course, part of a college (dare I say “liberal”?) education is to confront and consider ideas we don’t like.
  • Oddly, it doesn’t seem like this resolution (which of course has no teeth to it anyway) would prevent me from teaching radical and polemic texts. So if I teach a whole semester’s worth of Marxist criticism, as long as I don’t grade a student on their specific politics, I’m okay. Hmmm….
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