Attacks on bias in school suppress free speech

Recently, members of the American right have launched a holy war against perceived bias in higher education. It is an effort that would make Sen. Joseph McCarthy proud, for it has amounted to nothing less than a struggle to enforce political conformity and silence dissent.

The primary problem with the campaign is that it is based on a fundamentally-flawed premise. The educational enterprise, by its nature, can never be 100 percent bias-free. Out of a universe of knowledge, professors must select a limited amount of ideas and claims to present to students.

An illustrative example is biology. Just about all biology professors teach from an evolutionary perspective and choose not to include creationism or intelligent design in their courses. Why? Teaching creationism or intelligent design would imply teaching an impossibly large host of viewpoints, namely, those of every religion on Earth. Evolution is the most broadly accepted explanation for life, so it is necessary and logical to teach this at the exclusion of other theories.

Even if one were to concede this point, one might attack certain disciplines – women’s studies and ethnic studies are common targets – as being overtly ideological fields that do not even try to mitigate educational bias. When subject to scrutiny, this argument does not really hold. Disciplines like women’s studies and ethnic studies first began to appear in the 1960s as products of the feminist and civil rights movements.

People established them to include the voices of traditionally marginalized groups in academia, to broaden the scope of education. Diverse social and cultural experiences often provide for diverse viewpoints. Ideally, scholarship should not have to differentiate between gender or ethnicity. But when the playing field is uneven, giving special attention to certain groups is necessary to progress toward this ideal.

Sadly, gender and ethnic inequality still exist in the United States. This can be shown by a few simple statistics: women still earn 30 percent less than men and black families make 40 percent less money than white families. Hence, the need for ethnic and gender studies will not disappear any time soon.

The right’s crusade against bias in education is reactionary in the truest sense of the word. It not only opposes the current state of affairs, but also wants to turn back the clock to a previous era.

This crusade also ignores cases of conservative bias in colleges and universities. For example, the economics department at nearly every school teaches the subject from an obviously pro-capitalist perspective, usually the neoclassical.

Where is my right, as a socialist, to demand that Marxist economics be given the same amount of time as neoclassical economics in the classroom? If the right’s campaign is really a pure and honest struggle for fairness and not a fight to squelch dissent and promote political conformity, why aren’t its participants up in arms over the absence of Marxist economics in higher education? I smell hypocrisy.

Although the anti-bias witch hunt is absurd, it also displays characteristics that are truly frightening. One of these is the creation of blacklists – a tried and true tactic of totalitarian movements and regimes.

The most prominent and most representative blacklist producer in the 21st century is David Horowitz, a former ’60s radical turned conservative. Horowitz recently published a book titled “The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America.” The book is a hyperbolic screed against dozens of intellectuals, all of them categorized by their “radical” political views and their criticism of the U.S. government. Horowitz would have us believe that his diatribe is merely an expos? of unfairness and indoctrination in the education system, but this claim is hard to take seriously.

“The Professors” exists within the context of Horowitz’s organization, Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), and his push for an “academic bill of rights” as law. The SAF Web site has a feature where students can submit “complaints” against professors – in other words, rat on them. The “academic bill of rights” would force colleges to hire professors with conservative politics. How foolish I was to think that the right-wing was against affirmative action!

To me, all this seems like an excellent recipe for the persecution of scholars and the suppression of free speech.

Admittedly, if one took a political survey of professors in the United States, most would come out somewhere on the left. However, this should not be shocking or outrageous in any way. By its very nature, the academic enterprise encourages a questioning, critical attitude. When this attitude is applied to the status quo of society, it is fairly obvious which political views will tend to accompany it.

And perhaps, most importantly, the right’s anti-bias witch hunt is demeaning to students themselves. It is based on the presupposition that young adults are not intelligent enough to form their own opinions and investigate and analyze claims by themselves. It assumes that they are na’ve and weak-minded, that they need to be saved and protected by the likes of Horowitz.

Don’t college students deserve better treatment than this?

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