Thursday, February 10, 2005

Those Liberal College Professors

I haven't been following the whole Ward Churchill flap closely -- to me, it's a pretty routine thing that I've seen from conservatives for the last couple of decades: Radical college professor says some outrageous thing, and folks are all upset that this person is paid to indoctrinate our vulnerable young people in such anti-American ideas -- yada, yada, yada.

However, I did happen to catch Churchill's defense of himself on C-span last night. It is generally my opinion that any person has a constitutional right to make as much of an ass of himself as he likes, and that includes college professors, and so I was actually prepared for much worse than I saw. The guy's a good speaker; one could almost say charismatic, and the actual content of his defense was pretty much as I expected i.e. that by supporting our corrupt and capitalistic system which profits by the deaths of the poor, the terrorists were justified in blowing these people up. Now, that's a pretty extreme statement, and I think trying to justify the deaths of innocents anywhere is a pretty terrible thing to do. (In fact, I'm repelled by the bloodthirsty delight of people who relish the prospect of the deaths of those not-so-innocent.) However, I heard more radical professors say similar things when I was in college -- one of them justified the Iranian takeover of the U.S. Embassy in 1979 and the taking of the hostages there, because the whole thing was about the oil companies. But it is the outrageous and offensive political speech that most needs protection; that's what freedom of expression is all about.

What pissed me off most in the speech is that a questioner brought up Churchill's efforts to get the stop the local Columbus Day parade, which he justified by some weird interpretation of the ninth amendment. He, apparently, has the right to freedom of expression, but he has no problem at all with trying to get other people to shut up. I have also heard that there are ethical problems with some of Churchill's academic work, and if that's the case, then firing him is justified -- but not because of his radical op-ed pieces.

I mostly meet the cries of conservatives about liberal college professors with yawns. I mean, come on, conservatives dominate this country, and yet right-wingers feel the need to fuss and fume about the few liberal-dominated arenas we have left. They especially seem afraid that some kid, somewhere, might grow up to be liberal. I don't know about you folks, but my thinking is a whole lot different than it was when I was 21. In my own case, I am actually *less* conservative than I was then. It doesn't hurt young people a bit to be exposed to the other side for the brief period in their lives that they are in college -- and whether they are will very much depend on what classes they take. I deliberately avoided ethnic studies when I was a kid, and fulfiled the college's "ethnic studies" requirement by taking a class on immigration, figuring I'd rather take a look at a variety of ethnic groups than dwell on the grievances of any one of them in particular. Even the most naive of 18-year-olds know what they are going to get when they sign up for certain classes, and word goes around about which professors are ideologues. Most of my economics classes were taught by conservatives. Big deal.

But what really is a big deal is that academic freedom and freedom of expression is preserved, whether it's a radical ideologue college professor, or folks that want to have a Columbus Day parade.


Anonymous said...


While I'm frankly horrified by what Ward Churchill said (and by pretty much everything he believes in), I do think that he has freedom of speech and should be able to say whatever he wants. In fact, I'd like to see his comments spread far and wide, and he should speak as often as possible, so that people can see for themselves just how nuts the guy really is. One thing you didn't mention was that he has depicted himself fraudulently--he claims to be Native American, but the tribe he claims affiliation with says they've never heard of him.

As for college professors, I attended one of the big University of California campuses, and the problem as I see it is that colleges should be places where diversity of opinion is not only featured but valued. Unfortunately, that is not normally the case. I sat through one class where the professor was more interested in giving his opinion about how stupid Bush is and how everything we do in the Middle East is doomed to failure than he was in teaching us the actual course content, which was supposed to be about the people, cultures, and religions of the Middle East. Fascinating stuff, and it's too bad he didn't teach us about it. Anyone questioning his analysis was not-so-subtly reminded that he was The Great Expert, since he had been through years of school, spoke Arabic and had lived in the region. Well, excuse us...

And that, in a nutshell, is The Problem. Free speech is one thing, but that doesn't give anyone the right to cut off intellectual debate, whether they're liberal, conservative, Communist or Fascist. Given the cost of a college education, the least a student should be able to expect is--an education. Opinion is fine in a college classroom--we're all adults, after all, or supposed to be--but don't scrimp on the facts. Anyone teaching in a public university has a responsibility to his or her students to engage them academically, challenge them intellectually, and grade them fairly. If Churchill has fulfilled those responsibilities, then he should be left alone. If he hasn't, then he should be tossed out on his ear.

Karen said...

I appreciate your moderate response on an iasue where the debate seems to generate a whole lot more heat than light.

I've heard horror stories, too, about professors who aren't even teaching the subject at hand, but using the classroom as a soapbox for his/her favorite issues to the extent that students aren't even getting the content they are supposed to according to the course description. (I didn't experience it personally so much; I guess I was lucky.) This is, of course, wrong, although I don't really know how common this is. One horror story gets multiplied a thousand times, to the point that pretty soon a whole lot of people have the impression that the majority of college professors are doing this.

Any kind of teacher is human; I've seen elementary school teachers go off on political issues when I felt they shouldn't have -- although with young kids it mostly goes straight over their heads. It's tempting, when you have a captive audience -- and a lot of times people feel that their opinions are "the truth", and that they aren't indoctrinating, but educating.

Anyway, the key thing when judging any teacher, whether they are instructing Kindergartners or graduate students is: Are they doing their job in the classroom? Are they upholding standards of professional ethics? I don't think a professor's competence should be judged by op-ed pieces or what he might write in a blog, or elsewhere on the Internet, but on his academic writing, and on his performance in the classroom -- in other words, judge him on what he is paid to do, and not on what his opinions are. If Churchill is a crappy teacher, and an unethical scholar, then by all means, get rid of him. If he's not, leave him alone.

Anonymous said...

Um, dumb Aussie question: what is C-span? ;-P

Anonymous said...

I've actually met Ward Churchill several times. His knowledge of Native American history is spell binding as a speaker. In this, he can make some very accurate points. But I found him personally to be a bit too much of an angry man. Like the professional A.O. people of the Baha'i Faith, he needs to GET OUT ONCE IN A WHILE and meet some NEW AND DIFFERENT people on road of life. He too just like all of our own major lifetime employment personalities has tht 10,000 yard Kool-Aid stare.

Now they are saying he is not really Native American. But I must say he certainly looks Native American in person.

He is a very, very angry man. Being Native American and also a Vietnam veteran like he is just may have been too much for him to handle in this life in his psyche.

Karen said...

C-span is a t.v. network, which besides various news programs, also broadcasts congressional sessions.