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.


  1. "Class oppression" :-) such a clever title. and wow...once again i am SOOOO inspired by your posts. i agree so wholeheartedly with all your points in this point and it is my dearest wish to strive to establish an environment in my classes where we can truly be free to search for truth. your post has inspired me to keep striving in this direction. How I LOVE the way you tackle head on important and sensitive topics and then present the Writings for our reflection. honestly i read every excerpt from the Writings in a completely new, fresh and potent light after seeing it embedded in the real world contexts that you select. so...thanks again!

  2. Anonymous1:12 PM

    Phillipe, you are touching on an interesting point. Please find the source and direct quotation of the following if you haven't already; I am too scattered at the moment:
    1. Abdu'l-Baha cautioned young Baha'is not to lose their Faith in God by attending University, as the university environment/teaching was in general one of disbelief. He said if you are not going to believe in God, why take all your time going to the university? Go to the cow: the cow does not believe in God either, and it will be quicker.

    2. Shoghi Effendi cautioned young Baha'is that when they enter university they will find themselves in the postiion of knowing more than most of their professors, and to be very, very careful that this does not engender a superior attitude.

    On (yet again!) a personal level--
    I went off to college in 1959, having just turned 17. I had many questions, and was convinced that there in the world of the intellect, I would find the answers I had not found within the the narrow, if loving, confines in which I'd been raised.
    I was quite disillusioned when I did not see pursuit of truth and love of true leaning. I found not answers, rather disagreement and rivalry, not only between disciplines, but within each disciple, where there were "schools of thought". I found little interest in an honest search for truth. Each proponent of a particular school of thought seemed to have a vested interest,
    either based on their ego, or for money and position within the world of academe. -- Add to this, in the world of academe there seemed to be a high concentraition of intelligent people who, growing up, were not accepted, even bullied. They find their way to the university and intellectual world, where, like an abused/neglected child, many repeat this cycle to generations of students.
    I'm thankful to say that this disillusion was one thing that led me to the Baha'i Faith.
    When I much later attended graduate school at Hunter College (at the age of 52), pursuing a MSW degree, I did not find much of this rivalry, at least on the level of being a student. We were presented with a number of approaches, and asked to "mix and match." I've heard this generally is not the case if you are pursing a degree in psychology, or psychiatry. Could it have to do with the power (read: money and prestige) disparity between social workers and these other professionals??
    The one thing lacking was any of the teachers willing to engage in a serious ciritque of the systems--mental health, foster care, etc. we all were struggling in, in our jobs, because these were the very systems funneling students to Hunter, and providing residency experience. I guess it was verboten to "bite the hand that feeds you."

    Is this a case of "the more things change, the more they stay the same?" Well, I do think that, because of Baha'u'llah and His influence at least now some divergent views and some diversity of students and ideas are present to some degree in these hallowed halls. You are certainly priveleged to understand and apply the words in your "banner" about the meaning of intellectual pursuits. I feel you should rest assured of confirmations from on high if you keep that focus--a focus I longed for but did not have when I was a young student.
    Judith W.

  3. Anonymous1:48 PM

    correction to previous:-
    I did not make this clear:
    the Master, of course, did not tell people not to attend University, he warned them not to lose their Faith when they did.
    Judith W

  4. phillipe, not only do i second and agree with all of your points in this post, but i also wholeheartedly endorse what child of africa says, because i feel the same way that she does!

    i am finding it a struggle to be back at university after so many years away, years spent immersed in the wise guidance and loving-kindness of the Universal House of Justice and classes at the Baha'i WOrld Centre that practiced a collegial, consultative, collaborative approach to the investigation of truth.

    MY GOD it was the opposite of what i'm experiencing at university.

    the well-intentioned people, as you mention, are blindedly pursuing their own agendas, disillusioning students, and NOT STEPPING DOWN when it is time to let students think through concepts with their own voices and ideas.

    i have never been so consistently angry since i was a teenager. it is heartbreaking to see and hear these young minds speak of hopelessness and unimportance when it comes to improvement in the world and their agency in bringing it about. THIS IS WHAT THEY ARE LEARNING IN CLASS.

    anyway, as i prepare for school today, i am going to keep the words of 'Abdu'l-Baha close to my heart and remind myself of your words of higher standards and calm disagreement with the way things are.

    thank you, phillipe! much love,

  5. Child of Africa, so nice to have you in the mix and to see that you are making an effort to create a true learning environment in your work.

    Judith W., thanks for sharing so much of your own experiences, that bit about the cow is one of the funniest things 'Abdu'l-Baha ever said as far as I'm concerned.

    Leila, hang in there girl. It does make one angry to see the damage that is done by the well-intentioned, especially to young minds that are so important to the future of civilization. We are so far from a balanced and sane society and our institutions of higher learning reflect that way too often. We got work to do Leila!

  6. Anonymous9:57 PM

    Forgive me if this 2 1/2 page comment is beyond the norm, but my spirit is moved....

    Phillipe, you have touched on one of the most important challenges facing our generation (as is your nature :-) and it resonates with my own heart. Towards the second half of my recently submitted PhD, after acute personal experiences as both a student and then lecturer I decided to attempt a deconstruction of my own university. This was after being asked to teach in ways in tension with my understanding of the independent investigation of truth, service to humanity and other spiritual principles I considered 'essential' to scholarship. For example, I was asked to teach law as technical discipline meant to enable students to serve corporate interests rather than as a learning forum for enabling their/our ‘faculty’ of justice. (I decided to be courageous and encourage the students to do some serious questioning and exploration about the cultural relativity of “THE LAW” and it turned out to be a joyful and refreshing experience for most).

    I decided to begin a deconstruction of my own university in my thesis reflective of attempting to wrestle with the issues you mention (although more specifically on how they affect Indigenous peoples and their knowledge). It’s a complex narrative, but I felt this was a case in our human history where the need for rationally arguing for the unity of spiritual/material reality was an essential feature of the matter and went back to the historical formation of universities through to what has changed in the modern age. I apologise for this long posting, but I paste a page and a bit from the chapter dealing with these issues to offer as a resource. To summarise the modern context as a preface, since 1984 and the Bayh/Dole Act, universities were allowed to profit from patents they developed instead of it being owned by the government and for the public benefit. This increasingly shifted research and teaching towards commercially motivated purpose to attract industry parternships and became a necessity as funding of universities by Gov in the US and Australia declined from 90% to less than 40%. So now at my university, as is a common pattern with most universities, there are many businesses with their corporate headquarters next to the university who have formed corporate partnerships with the university and in return for money use the university, and its students, to become their research and development division. This actually affects the way textbooks are being written for students! The pressure is on all departments to conform to his model everywhere and some universities are beginning to cut their humanities departments…

    ---beginning of extract ch 7 PhD---
    A shared crisis
    I would argue that there is an opportunity to appreciate this as a major crisis that may serve to unite Western academia and Indigenous peoples in the overlap of negative consequences of academic capitalism for both communities. Academic capitalism not only intensifies the appropriation consequences negatively affecting Indigenous communities, but is impairing the ability of students and academics to connect to the freedom of their own creativity and the integrity of their own conscience, capacities which are arguably essential in enabling the purpose of the human soul. Paul Tyson in an eloquently spoken paper voices his concerns for the implications of this academic capitalism when he found out that as of 2007 the Queensland University of Technology executive was considering eliminating the humanities altogether, a disturbing pattern increasingly being considered by other universities.

    “It seems that I and the university’s executive have very different beliefs about what the “core business” of a real university should be. The “old” view is that a university’s “core business” is to facilitating the pursuit of true knowledge, and in so doing, to cultivate the human soul. Formation in sapientia (wisdom) is necessary for those who wish to gain the responsibility and power of scientia (knowledge) or else the powerful will have no understanding of truly good and inherently humane ends, and will perpetrate stupidity and evil with their power. Indeed, the smarter the unwise are, the more evil and stupidity the powerful will inflict upon us. Does our QUT executive know that Western universities historically arise from the church and find their substantive values from theology? If they haven’t read Weber and Honnefelder, they probably have no idea that their “modern” disinterest in traditional university values also arises from the theological degradation that produced formal rationality.”

    This sentiment is similarly reflected by a diverse range of Indigenous voices both in academia and in the community . I also suggest it is particularly urgent that there is a concerted effort to respond by exploring paradigm shifts necessitated by this crisis and implementing practical strategies of transformation.

    There is a unique opportunity to address this in this generation. Why? As will be shown this crisis has primarily intensified since 1984. The majority of academics in tenured positions are experiencing varying degrees of cognitive dissonance over the change of circumstances they increasingly find themselves in as a result. Many prominent academics are writing about this crisis, and some are resigning early in protest . Butterworth and Tarling conclude their analysis of this crisis by highlighting that universities are being privatized on the assumption that the citizen is just a consumer and that this capitalistic process undermines the very idea of society . This dissatisfaction presents an opportunity of openness to exploring alternate models that alleviate this cognitive dissonance. However this opportunity will, and is perhaps already, beginning to diminish as those most affected by the disparity of experience between their early career contexts and the current one begin to retire in increasing numbers. Already universities are replacing their senior executives, vice-chancellors and deans, with professional technocrats and business managers. Some of these young managers are quite comfortable with the move towards entrepreneurialism, a focus on productivity as defined by economic output and other features of academic capitalism that will be explored further in this chapter. This crisis will only become more entrenched as a newer generation of academics eventually replaces the majority of staff. Then we will have a context of staff that may still feel uneasy with the demands of academic capitalism, but who will not have the empowering vision of remembering that it has not always been this way and therefore transformation is possible. It will just be ‘the unfortunate way it is’.
    ----end of extract from ch 7 of PhD---

    Just to let you all know, AFTER I wrote about increasing resignation of academics, I found out last week that THIRTEEN law lecturers have resigned in the past 15 month in my university alone. It is not just the students who are distressed...

    I better leave that there…a greatly reduced and revised version of that is being published in the next issue of The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education Volume 37(s) 2008. I’m also happy to email my thesis if people would like.

    Ah, one last thing. As a response to fixing this problem I decided only last week that since there were invitations to our department to offer suggestions to improve the research model in our division that I would suggest the following (after prayers and relevant dreams of course): (again particularly within Indigenous communities’ contexts, but applicable to all communities):

    The current research model in the social sciences tends to have the effect of defining the problems of society in ways reflective of the paradigms in Academia itself, including political and industrial allegiances, rather than reflecting the voiced needs and concerns of the communities themselves. This has the effect of imposing research and arising solutions on communities that has little connection to their own reality. In response to this I suggest the following. A database be established of community identified and articulated requests for research on issues they feel of importance. University researchers can then elect to choose from that list and will be rewarded by a slightly higher funding model and a slightly higher chance of approval. This will not diminish the creative freedom of the research to suggest his own agenda and solutions, but will hopefully encourage a research culture where communities become the industry partners and just as commercial actors, determine the ongoing relevancy of the research that must meet their needs to continue as the research escalates from simple seed funding through to more complex models of research eventuating in centres of research excellence that meet those needs.

    One could hopefully imagine that this new model would improve the spiritual satisfaction of students, lecturers and the communities involved.

    love to all,


  7. Chris no worries about the length of your comments, I enjoyed reading what you shared. "Academic capitalism". What an interesting phrase. Yes, there is something very wrong with what is happening at our colleges and universities, thanks for broadening the discussion.

  8. Hey Phillipe,

    I’m going to have to disagree with you a bit here. I think there are serious challenges in the higher education system, for sure, but I’m not sure how representative the two stories you post are of the actual endemic issues. The creation of ASMEA is on a fault line that has existed in Middle Eastern studies for generations and this is just one more skirmish in that battle. The majority of serious controversy around issues of university indoctrination center on this particular issue (it’s what all the watch dog groups watch, its what much of the student complaints are about). There is a qualitative similarity to other politicized areas of the academy (issues of gender, sexuality and race), but quantitatively this one is magnitudes higher. In other words, anything having to do with the academy’s relationship to the Middle East conflict and the war on terror (and that is certainly what ASMEA is about) is an outlier – there is no other place in the academy with this level of infighting, this much public scrutiny, and this clear a connection to political groups and movements.

    The story of the Dartmouth professor has been all over the higher education papers and it seems to be a case of someone perhaps a bit unstable. The reason people are following this is not because its representative of some trend, but precisely because its not – it’s just down right bizarre behavior that's way beyond the pale.

    Let me say, though, that I have a real and longstanding concern about the way we as Baha’is discuss the university and scholarship and some of it is showing up here. In my mind the model for Baha’is in the university is bilingualism or biculturalism. That is, we need to be well-versed both in Baha’u’llah’s Words and in our own discipline. Then can we properly translate between them, coming to better understandings of each. The problem is that we often fail to really appreciate what this other culture can offer us and how it can enrich our own Baha’i culture. We are like tourists who only notice the bad parts of the place we’re visiting and rarely turn the mirror on ourselves to try and understand how we look to the locals. So for instance, I think one of the great virtues of the academy is the demand for precision in language use. As Baha’is we often say things like ‘we need a spiritual solution’ for some problem or that materialism is the root of some issue but then can’t really articulate what we mean by those things. I think often we as Baha’is perceive there to be a lack of interest in Baha’i ideas in the university when what is actually happening is that our understanding and ideas are still so unformed and inchoate and we ought to recognize that its for that reasons they do not have the traction we’d like them to. What *do* we mean by spiritual solutions? What *exactly* does unity entail and how will it help alleviate social ills? Eventually there will come a point when Baha’i inspired thought will make a real contribution to general knowledge, but not until we ourselves better understand the Writings *and* can place them in the larger discourse. I think the skills, tools and habits of mind of the university are one of the best resources for doing so. So I do think the Baha’i model of consultation would serve the academy well, but I think a greater incorporation of the academic model with its precision and testing would serve the Baha’i community pretty well too.


  9. david, i know what you're saying, but i don't think this is what's going on here. or, at least, my reading/response to this.

    i'm not sure what discipline you're in, but i'm in the social sciences, and I WISH that there was scientific rigor, precision, and coherence to not only the content but the methodology of the coursework.

    there IS an indoctrination of sorts---economic models of global development are not studied, only criticised WITH THE MOST SUPERFICIAL understanding of macro economics and financial institutions. it's mind-boggling to me, that this kind of abandonment of the seeking after truth is served to us as education, callously killing the enthusiasm and idealism of young people on the way.

    for me it is this kind of thing, not even necessarily the endless theorizing or abstracting (because, for instance, although i would love to study more voices from people who are not old, white, male, and American or European, i do find Foucault's insights into power enlightening) that is the real issue.

    it's devastating to NOT HAVE scientific rigor, a pursuit after truth, an emphasis on conceptual understanding and learning-through-articulation as key components of tertiary education in the social sciences at my university.

    but it's worse to know that i am not alone.


  10. I waited to comment because I wanted to see where the discussion led. I think that David makes a good point about education refining the ways people think. In engineering, which I am studying, we try to reduced things to systems which can be modeled. Different models may be more or less accurate in a wide variety of different respects. We need to learn how to choose, refine, test, and finally utilize these models. I think that this is true for most fields of study.
    Of course we will specialize in certain models based on our fields. This is a very good thing.
    " O daughter of the Kingdom! Thy letter hath come and its contents make clear the fact that thou hast directed all thy thoughts toward acquiring light from the realms of mystery. So long as the thoughts of an individual are 111 scattered he will achieve no results, but if his thinking be concentrated on a single point wonderful will be the fruits thereof.
    One cannot obtain the full force of the sunlight when it is cast on a flat mirror, but once the sun shineth upon a concave mirror, or on a lens that is convex, all its heat will be concentrated on a single point, and that one point will burn the hottest. Thus is it necessary to focus one’s thinking on a single point so that it will become an effective force. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

    However, what I experience sometimes in my courses and what I think Phil is trying to call attention to is that often the models are not pursued in a spirit of unbiased search for truth. Instead they are pushed on on people. This is to be expected. The professors, students, and professionals in our fields are not Baha'is. We cannot expect them to Obey the Laws of Someone they don't even know. What they are following is the academic system of argument, by which a model is proved superior by contention. It is the best they have and all they know.

    Regarding the Baha'i Writings they are all encompassing. A single line can contain multiple ways of thinking of its subject, and often the subject is everything--created, uncreated, potential--everything!
    This is no model for Reality!
    And its very important to realize that everyone has something to contribute to understanding this Reality, especially those who may not be trapped by models:

    That said, I'm going to school. Out of obedience to the Baha'i Writings and to the Institutions which are founded directly upon those Writings.

    In the third Tajallí (effulgence) of the Book of Tajallíyát (Book of Effulgences) We have mentioned: “Arts, crafts and sciences uplift the world of being, and are conducive to its exaltation. Knowledge is as wings to man’s life, and a ladder for his ascent. Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone. The knowledge of such sciences, however, should be acquired as can profit the peoples of the earth, and not those which begin with words and end with words. Great indeed is the claim of scientists and craftsmen on the peoples of the world. Unto this beareth witness the Mother Book in this conspicuous station.” --Bahá’u’lláh

  11. Anonymous10:19 AM

    I just wanted to offer a brief reflection on the quote from Abdu'l-Baha that Jalal kindly shared in relation to the specialization in academic fields. When I read that quote, in my mind the image that forms is that the single focal point may be a social injustice or other need that requires illumination. Each discipline, cultural perspective, methodology etc. represents different bands of the spectrum of light with which we shine on that one point. The most effective lense reflects as broad a spectrum of the full range of God's light (love) upon the one narrow point and will therefore illuminate the equally diverse elements of that one point. Humility in appreciating the relative position of our own disciplines, cultural perspectives, and subjective experiences as only partially representative of one range of spectrums of infinite light required helps us long for the wisdom of everyone in collaboration. In that light perhaps the quote does not necessarily refer to using only one element or application of knowledge to focus on one point.

    A university culture characterised by that humility, love and devotion to service is the most challenging, scientific and rewarding of all possibilities as the truth and beauty that arises in our consultation enabled by that spiritual approach to being 'multidisciplinary' and 'transcultural' shines in unique ways through our consultation focused like a laser on one point of illumination.

    Just some spontaneous thoughts :-)