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Does politics belong in the classroom?

Prof. Stanley Fish has been discussing on his nytimes blog whether or how freely political opinions should be expressed by a teacher in the college or university classroom.

His initial blog entry is, Yet Once More: Political Correctness on Campus and the followup to which I have responded is, George W. Bush and Melville’s Ahab: Discuss!

Fish’s first post was a long response to Evan Coyne Maloney’s Indoctrinate U.

The basic thrust of Fish’s post seems to be that,

Academics often bridle at the picture of their activities presented by Maloney and other conservative critics, and accuse them of grossly caricaturing and exaggerating what goes on in the classroom. Maybe so, but so long as there are those who confuse advocacy with teaching, and so long as faculty colleagues and university administrators look the other way, the academy invites the criticism it receives in this documentary. In 1915, the American Association of University Professors warned that if we didn’t clean up our own shop, external constituencies, with motives more political than educational, would step in and do it for us. Now they’re doing it in the movies and it’s our own fault.

Yet Once More: Political Correctness on Campus

My response follows:

I would not entirely agree with the thesis that politics has no place in the Academy.

As teachers, can we not state that, for instance, “Torture is antithetical to every basic principle of the American democratic system”? Or contrariwise, “Corporal punishment has been a feature of the American system of justice since its inception, and even killing a prisoner who has been condemned to death after due process is held to be judicially and legally acceptable under federal and most state jurisdictions today”?

Can we not say, “The evidence for global warming is regarded as conclusive by an overwhelming international consensus of scientists” as well as, “Solar incident radiation is the principle contributing factor to global warming in accordance with Boltzmann’s Law and the primary factor mediating this is the albedo of the earth, and any radiative forcing from CO2 in the atmosphere is negligible by comparison”?

Is it not precisely so that such opinions can be voiced without fear of retribution that we have tenured positions in the academic structure? If one prevailing political, scientific, or social view is defined culturally as “objective” and no other views are permitted to be advanced or advocated by a teacher in a classroom setting, then where is the great “marketplace of ideas” of which the classroom is a preeminent exemplar? As the Supreme Court held in Keyishian v. Board of Regents, (385 U.S. 589, 605-606 [1967], ):

‘Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom. “The vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.” Shelton v. Tucker, supra, at 487. The classroom is peculiarly the “marketplace of ideas.” The Nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth “out of a multitude of tongues, [rather] than through any kind of authoritative selection.”‘

Thank you for your interesting post and enjoyable and weighty blog, Prof. Fish.

See also: The Universities Under Attack …

I would further note that after 1915 the political “cleaning up” of leftist radicals such as Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman took the unpleasant form of the Palmer Raids in 1919, indeed an interesting and fraught comparison to draw with our present political situation.

Copyright © 2007 Henry Edward Hardy

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23 October, 2007 - Posted by | 1915, 1919, 1967, Alexander Berkman, anarchism, anarchy, censorship, classroom, education, Emma Goldman, Evan Coyne Maloney, free market of ideas, freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of speech, Indoctrinate U, Keyishian v. Board of Regents, law, marketplace of ideas, movie, movies, New York Times, objectivity, Palmer Raids, political correctness, politics, radicals, repression, Shelton v. Tucker, Stanley Fish


  1. I agree with Henry here. Not only is the entire *point* of tenure the protection of an academic’s right to free speech, a country which does not protect the right of *students’* free speech is a nation whose students grow up with no *investment* in free speech. And that is dangerous to democracy.
    Furthermore, I find the nationwide decline in teaching civics to students a disturbing trend, and one which needs to be attended to and remedied for the same reason.

    Comment by Randym Jones | 18 November, 2007 | Reply

  2. “The evidence for global warming is regarded as conclusive by an overwhelming international consensus of scientists”

    This is a logical fallacy. Just because a majority agrees with something (for now) has no bearing on whether or not the stand is legitimate. “Global Warming” appeals to Liberal guilt and panic. It’s impossible to tell, at this point, whether there’s anything really going on because the Liberal screams of joyous self-righterousness drown out any in-depth research and discussion.

    Another example or emotions creating majority experts’ “data” is human fatness: the current majority view is that fatness is a recent abnormality, when the science demonstrates is fatness is a constant human genetic characteristic, distributed on a bell curve. Just because the majority thinks something doesn’t mean they’re using science to come to that conclusion. The myth that fatness is abnormal is fueled by hatred and greed, not by reason or data. The majority of people also believe there’s an “obesity epidemic,” even though the average weights of most people have increased by less than fifteen pounds in the past thirty years. (Most weight increase is seen in the fattest people — those who’ve done the most doctor-approved starving/dieting and therefore have gained the most weight as the result of yoyo rebounding. This is also what’s going on in impoverished populations, where the food supply is unstable, yet the “cause” of fatness is poor people is continually misrepresented — with no corroberating data — as having something to do with whatever food is being ritually and obsessively hated at the moment (corn, soda, etc.) The dieting-related increases get spread out in press releases and on grant proposals over the entire population as part of the creation of the “epidemic” lie, even though significant weight gain has occurred only in genetically fat people who have also been the victims of repeated weight loss attempts or poverty.)

    Also see at least 50% of all drug-related “research”. Most doctors think statins are valuable, but where’s the data?

    Where to start:

    Comment by Kell Brigan | 25 April, 2008 | Reply

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