Don’t legislate thought

David Horowitz and his national college conservative group,Students for Academic Freedom, are waging war against so-calledliberalism on college campuses.

They say their classes are biased and their voices aren’t heard.They want amends for what they see as a major problem in academia:a disproportionately large percentage of liberal academics, whichthey say is preventing true intellectual diversity.

So Horowitz and Students for Academic Freedom (SAF) are pushingnationwide legislation, called the Academic Bill of Rights, toprovide more-balanced perspectives in college curricula, and to endwhat they say is the “indoctrination” of students by instructorswho tout their political agendas in class.

One such bill died in the Washington state House in the lastlegislative session. That deserves a huge sigh of relief.

The Academic Bill of Rights – a template for which is posted onSAF’s Web site – is just another example of legislation toutinguniversal benefits that is actually rife with sensationalizedassumptions and negative repercussions.

There simply is no need – and many potential pitfalls – tomonitor instructors’ political ideologies.

Universities aren’t perfect, and of course, poor educatorsexist. But a person’s political affiliation isn’t a typical markerfor the way he or she teaches. It’s ridiculous to assume thatbecause a professor holds liberal political ideologies, that he orshe intends to indoctrinate students.

Many of my instructors, for example, flat-out avoid insertingtheir perspectives even on class material, often because they wantstudents to come to their own conclusions.

Some people justify monitoring professors’ political ideologiesby arguing that the political diversity of the state isn’treflected in college and university classrooms. More specifically,they say class reading lists aren’t balanced.

Yet, this is a narrow understanding of balance. According toDoug Wadden, senate chair of the UW Faculty Senate, diversity ofperspectives isn’t limited to political views, but includes, forexample, historical, cultural or gendered analyses.

Regardless, even if we’re talking about political viewpoints,most students I’ve talked with say their instructors providebalanced perspectives. For example, while a humanities course maycriticize globalization, a business course may praise it.

In my courses, instructors include both their own as well asopposing perspectives on reading lists to expose students to thevarious academic discourses within their fields.

Indeed, students should be aware of the academic debates arounda subject. But an instructor is not the news media. As a student,I’m not paying for objectivity. I’m paying for their expertise andability to teach me critical-thinking skills.

Students also have a responsibility to contribute perspectivesto academic discourse. Professors shouldn’t have to spoon-feedstudents.

An Academic Bill of Rights would impose too many guidelines oninstructors. We wouldn’t receive a quality education becauseprofessors would be too busy worrying about this new mandate tooffer all sides of every issue.

This could result in a return to what most of us had in our K-12education: watered-down courses and a lack of time to go in-depthor to study controversial topics. It is often this controversy thathelps students like me learn more actively by questioning their ownassumptions.

The autonomy of the professor is valued as a fundamental rightby universities. It is this freedom that allows diverse ideas toemerge. Of course, instructors should act responsibly and focustheir courses on the subject and not infuse unrelated politicalcontroversy simply for their own gain.

But the attempt to legislate the ways instructors teachjeopardizes their autonomy to do so, regardless of intent.

All this said, however, I realize that conservative studentsaren’t just making this stuff up. In my own classes, only one ortwo students express strong conservative viewpoints.

But does this mean that students aren’t receiving the educationthey’re paying for? I doubt it. Does this mean their viewpoints aresuppressed by a domineeringly liberal academic culture? I’ve neverseen a professor, liberal or conservative, discourage students fromraising challenges.

Personally, I like having conservative students in class todebate ideas – it’s invaluable.

It’s positive that SAF and other conservative students aroundthe nation’s campuses are voicing concerns about what they see asliberal bias. Every campus battling this issue should debate it andfind solutions to balance views.

But legislation regulating academic thought and teaching surelyisn’t the answer. The Academic Bill of Rights is unnecessary,unwarranted and poses dangerous implications.

Editor’s Note: The David Horowitz discussed in this article isnot the David Horowitz who teaches in PSU’s history department.

Anne Kim is a writer for NEXT, a Sunday opinion page in TheSeattle Times, and a senior at the University of Washingtonmajoring in English literature.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune InformationServices.