succumbing to peer pressure

Thursday, June 15, 2006

My brain hurts. In high school and college I used to feel like I was working so hard to grasp some new concept that I could literally feel the new wrinkles forming in my brain (I realize that this is not even the slightest bit true, for a myriad of reasons, only one of which is the lack of physical sense receptors in the brain; but is it true that our brain gets more wrinkled as we develop?). Anyway, today I'm trying to arrange the knowledge already contained up there to work together and figure out a solution to my coding problem. Meanwhile...

I remembered that I used to read this blog, written by a professor at Swarthmore, linked from Amelia's blog. Haven't been there in a while, but it turns out Prof. Burke is embroiled in a debate about a report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). Turns out ACTA has really run with this whole idea from Horowitz et al about liberal bias in higher education and have commissioned a report to bring attention to this problem, cite examples of 'politicization' in the classroom and generally shame teachers into policing each other. I've written about this before, and how I have a very different perspective on this (alleged) problem, since I believe it's much harder to get into these problems in math/science courses. But Burke makes the point (and I wish ACTA (and others) would listen) that this is a worthwhile endeavor, if instead of addressing politics we focus on 'good' vs. 'bad' teaching.

When I arrived at Swarthmore, one of my colleagues in the Education Program brought in a videotape that had been prepared at Harvard that was designed to sensitize us to diversity issues in the classroom. My problem with the videotape wasn’t so much its politics as the fact that every staged example of “insensitive teaching” was really just a case of bad teaching. The worst was a staged example of a professor in a course on American constitutionalism talking about the Lincoln-Douglas debates and getting annoyed by an African-American student who wanted to talk about the issue of slavery in the debates. The tape was stopped and we were asked what the professor had done wrong. I said, “The professor’s problem is that he’s an idiot: how could any historian regard slavery as irrelevant to a discussion of the Lincoln-Douglas debates?”.

Bad teaching is bad teaching, regardless of if it's under the guise of narrow methodology or narrow-mindedness regarding the socio-political beliefs of one's students. And like Burke, I think it's both dangerous and incredibly counter-productive to the goal of higher education to go around labeling courses as too politically charged or criticizing syllabi for containing potentially controversial topics. As Burke lays out far more eloquently than I, a) learning should make you uncomfortable and challenge your beliefs; laying out a strong rhetorical argument for your beliefs is an invaluable tool and b) just because a subject is included on a syllabus does not even remotely imply that that particular point of view is being endorsed. Many (all?) subjects contain scholarly works from a variety of perspectives, and in a well-taught class a diverse collection of those points of view will be provided. Examples that are flawed or problematic or contradictory are every bit as valuable to learning (if not moreso) than generally accepted truths. What sort of education are critics of such classes seeking? Burke's essays are a bit long (an initial reaction, an example, and further thoughts parts I and II) , but if you've got some time on your hands, they're well worth it.


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