Saturday, May 03, 2008

Class Oppression

Most of you know that I'm currently working on getting my doctorate in social work. I already have a B.A. and two Masters Degrees. I say that not because I'm showing off but to let you know that I've spent a very long time in academic settings. One of the things that I've observed is a lack of real intellectual or epistemological diversity. Essentially an environment is created where particular views are welcomed, nurtured and even protected while others are unwelcome, ignored or even invite formal and informal penalties. This all takes place under the pretense of "embracing diversity" and encouraging "critical thought". Two recent stories illustrate this point.

The first comes from the Wall Street Journal:

"Taste: Bernard Lewis Takes on Political Correctness in Middle East Studies
May 2, 2008

By Charlotte Allen

What to do if you are a college professor and the academic society that represents your field has been overrun by political correctness? One answer is: Form your own organization.

That is how, six months ago, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (Asmea) came into being. Now claiming 500 members and gearing up to publish its own scholarly journal, Asmea is meant to be a corrective to the 2,600-member Middle East Studies Association, the premier professional society for scholars of the Middle East. That organization is now regarded by many as stiflingly politicized. Institutionally, it engages in nonstop Israel-bashing and seems to blame America for every economic and geopolitical wrong on the planet.

Interestingly, both the Middle East Studies Association and the new Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa were founded by the same person: Bernard Lewis. Now 91, Mr. Lewis is the eminence grise of scholars of Islam. His 60-year scholarly career encompasses more than two-dozen books and decades of teaching, first at the University of London and then at Princeton, where he is now a professor emeritus. He gave up on MESA to found Asmea last fall because he wanted there to be "a truly open academic society."

Mr. Lewis spoke those words at Asmea's first annual conference at a Washington hotel last weekend. The two-day gathering—featuring only eight panels and roundtables, in contrast to the hundred or so at MESA's annual meeting in Montreal in November—showed the promise and also the problems that are part of any professional society's attempts to defy orthodoxy." (Read the whole thing)

Another interesting story in this vein is of a professor at Darmouth College who wants to name students in a law suit because her views about "post-modernism" were challenged by them:

Wednesday, April 30th 2008, 4:00 AM

A Dartmouth College writing teacher angered by students who didn't agree with her in class is threatening to sue them for discrimination.

Priya Venkatesan, who taught freshman writing at the Ivy League school from July 2005 until last month, ignited an uproar on campus Sunday after she sent a bizarre e-mail warning students she planned to sue them.

"I regret to inform you that I am pursuing a lawsuit in which I am accusing some of you (whom shall go unmentioned in this e-mail) of violating Title VII of anti-federal discrimination laws," she wrote in a message that contained several typos.

"I am also writing a book detailing my experiences as your instructor, which will 'name names,' so to speak. I have all of your evaluation and these will be reproduced in the book. Have a nice day."

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Venkatesan, a 1990 Dartmouth grad with advanced degrees in genetics and comparative literature, is of Indian ancestry.

Realizing that she cannot actually sue her students for employment discrimination, Venkatesan now says she will merely name them in her list of grievances in a suit she plans against Dartmouth.

"I have a whole list of instances that I felt I was subject to unprofessional behavior," she said. "Gosh darn it, it could have been motivated by race and gender."

Her biggest complaint is about the students in her 2008 writing class, who she said asked questions "in a very demeaning way." When another student stepped in to answer for her, she said he "would be received with respect and deference that I was not."

At one point, the class applauded a student who strongly disagreed with her postmodernism views.

Campus blogs were filled with invective about Venkatesan. Students called her a lousy teacher and ridiculed her typos and shaky grasp of the law.

Dartmouth had no comment beyond a statement from its lawyer, Robert Donin, saying Venkatesan has no basis for legal action.

Freshman Dean Gail Zimmerman told students not to open any more of Venkatesan's e-mails."

This could be coming to a classroom near you so read up on it here, here, and here.

Anyone, student or faculty who has observed the trends noted in either of these stories, I'd love to hear from you in the comments section!

My view is that much of what passes for education in our colleges and universities is really indoctrination (conscious and unconscious) by a different name, designed to produce intellectual resources for particular political agendas in society. Perhaps that's really what it's all about anyway, but it's certainly not what they tell you in those glossy brochures you get with photos of smiling college students. My concern here however is not with the politics involved, but the spiritual implications of indoctrination. My understanding from the Baha'i Writings is that education is deeply spiritual and that truth seeking requires openness and love. Consultation, a process of truth seeking, decision making and unified action encouraged in Baha'i teaching is based upon those two concepts:

"In this Cause consultation is of vital importance, but spiritual conference and not the mere voicing of personal views is intended...The purpose is to emphasize the statement that consultation must have for its object the investigation of truth. He who expresses an opinion should not voice it as correct and right but set it forth as a contribution to the consensus of opinion, for the light of reality becomes apparent when two opinions coincide. A spark is produced when flint and steel come together...Therefore, true consultation is spiritual conference in the attitude and atmosphere of love. Members must love each other in the spirit of fellowship in order that good results may be forthcoming. Love and fellowship are the foundation."
(Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 72)

"If...people meet together to seek for truth, they must begin by cutting themselves free from all their own special conditions and renouncing all preconceived ideas. In order to find truth we must give up our prejudices, our own small trivial notions; an open receptive mind is essential. If our chalice is full of self, there is no room in it for the water of life. The fact that we imagine ourselves to be right and everybody else wrong is the greatest of all obstacles in the path towards unity, and unity is necessary if we would reach truth, for truth is one. Therefore it is imperative that we should renounce our own particular prejudices and superstitions if we earnestly desire to seek the truth.
(Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 136)

I believe our colleges and universities are filled with well-meaning people who believe that what they do is as a good thing. However, students do not need to be protected from ideas those institutions disagree with but offered the chance to seek truth where ever it may be found, to engage in consultation representing a true diversity of opinions and knowledge, preferably in an "attitude and atmosphere of love". Creating such an atmosphere may be the greatest challenge facing our institutions of higher education. Consultation, if faithfully practiced, represents the antidote to indoctrination (conscious or unconscious) and much better preparation for participation in a diverse, global society.