Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Academic Freedom?

There are UCLA alumni offering money to current students to rat out professors who are too "radical." What the hell is this about? This is going down a really dangerous road. I can understand the desire not to have ideologies shoved down your throat, but it starts down the slippery slope of censorship and loss of academic freedom.

To illustrate the dangers, let me tell you a story. My hubby teaches philosophy, as I've mentioned, and last summer he taught a class on Ethics of Love, Sex & Marriage. They got into all kinds of interesting issues like gay marriage, prostitution, pornography, etc. The final paper was to be a report and critique on one of a number of books. One of the more conservative students in the class chose (from the suggested list) L. William Countryman's Dirt, Greed & Sex. [a great book, by the way, which I used extensively for my ethics paper on homosexuality]

Countryman takes a very historical-critical approach to his subject. He talks the reader through the Old Testament practices concerning purity, patronage and kinship (to borrow terms from the DiSilva book I'm currently enjoying), then talks about how Jesus changed them or not, and how the early church understood them or not, and how all of that impacted how the Bible turned out. He specifically addresses the "clobber passages" used against homosexuals in one section of the book, although he is working towards illumination on many other issues as well. In the end, he builds a pretty good biblical argument for the reinterpretation (from the traditional, not original intent) of these verses.

So back to the student. Her paper was very well written, which is a boon to a beleagured state university prof (especially one whose students were largely (un)educated by the LAUSD!). She brought up most of the classic liberal arguments in favor of homosexuality and refuted them. The trouble was that not one of those arguments were used by Countryman. She was arguing against the perceived liberal position, but not against the biblically-based one taken in the book. She went so far as to cite pages, completely falsifying what was supposedly on those pages. Clearly she did not read the text, or if she did, did not remotely understand it. She quite simply did not do the assignment.

However, J was faced with a quandry. He wanted to give the paper an F. He felt strongly that it deserved a failing grade because she didn't do the assignment at all (and she did a little plagiarism). But he was worried. Because the class knew where he stands on the homosexual debate, what if this student thought she failed simply because she disagreed with the professor's viewpoint??

He went through a lot of agony in deciding what to grade her. He had the TA go through and mark every place where she presented a false argument or incorrectly cited a passage of the book, so that they would have ample evidence in case she went to the dean (which she did threaten to do). He also felt really bad for having to give her the F, because she had done pretty well otherwise in the class and he so rarely finds a student who can actually write.

But the fact remained that the paper was completely off, so she got the F. She threw a fit (because she'd be down to a B- in the class--oh the horror!), made threats, etc. In the end, he let her rewrite the paper (something I was against because it's not fair to the other students who also failed for writing bad papers), but told her she would not receive higher than a B, period. She never bothered to rewrite and took the grade as originally given.

So this is a really long story, but I hope it's becoming clear how this alumnus' efforts to promote his agenda on alma mater could cause utter chaos. What would happen if professors were intimidated into not being able to properly grade students simply because they hold an equally radical viewpoint that disagrees with the prof's (or with a wealthy alum's)? And in a public institution, no less!

I know that professors proselytize - I've not only seen it at Fuller, but I previously worked at the journalism school where Bob Scheer teaches! But quite honestly, it never bothered me that much. Why not? Because I'm smart and I'm strong and I don't have to believe what they are saying. I would always rather have a professor who is passionate about his or her subject and ideas than one who blandly drones about options. At least the former is entertaining, and usually raring for a debate, which is where one learns the most anyway.

Most of the greatest teachers throughout history, particularly in theology and philosophy, have held very strong, radical opinions. That didn't make them bad teachers. It made them interesting people to learn from. And I think we should continue to encourage the same today.

No comments: