Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Saturday, November 18, 2006

"Academic fences bigger than one on Terrell Mall"

I was hoping that my favorite columnist, Michael Costello, would take on the border fence controversy. He didn't disappoint in today's Lewiston Tribune.
Without a doubt, the ideological segregation that universities create with departments like comparative ethnic studies at Washington State University contributes to incidents such as occurred on WSU's Glenn Terrell Mall last week. WSU's College Republicans erected a length of chain-link fence promoting the concept of national sovereignty and secure borders, and specifically the southern border fence bill signed into law in late October by President Bush.

Only reconquistas believe that we can indefinitely permit as porous a border as we now have with Mexico. We already have an estimated 12 million illegal aliens living in the country, and the status quo is neither fair to the aliens who exist in a legal and economic shadow land which guarantees their protracted poverty, nor to the taxpayers who are forced by judges to underwrite the social services the aliens exploit. The fence may not be the best first step toward managing this issue, but it is at least a step.

WSU's College Republicans peacefully expressed their view of the matter, which was that they approved of the fence. But faculty members who incubate their righteous indignation in the comparative ethnic studies department did not share the academy ideal that enlightenment is gained through a free exchange of ideas and attempted to bully the Republicans into submission. One faculty member from comparative ethnic studies who nearly and maybe should have lost his job because of poor teaching reviews and a second member of that department confronted the Republicans. Among other things, the first called the Republicans a pallid sack of feces, although he did not use precisely those words, while the other demanded that the demonstrators produce credentials for his inspection.

Liberal activists use the mall to promote any number of political causes. I traverse the mall regularly as it is the fastest path for me to get from one side of campus to the other, and until the weather gets truly cold, I'm likely to encounter just about any liberal cause being peacefully advanced. I have never seen nor heard of anyone harassing one of these demonstrators.

I can't help wondering if a department that is composed almost exclusively of like-minded souls foments the sort of attitude that encourages such deplorable conduct from its faculty members. When all you have around you at work all day are people who share your low opinion of those who adhere to an alternative point of view, it's quite probable that each feeds off the other's venom to the point of dehumanizing the dissenter.

Such ideological segregation certainly occurs elsewhere and rarely with good results. The Aryan Nations compound north of Coeur d'Alene was an example of ideological self-segregation and extremist cross-fertilization. North Korea might qualify as giant-sized Aryan Nations compound mentality.

But it can also lead to a humorous naivete as well. The late film critic Pauline Kael probably best exemplified the phenomenon of ideological cocooning when she expressed her shock at Richard Nixon's landslide victory over George McGovern in 1972: "I don't know how Richard Nixon could have won. I don't know anybody who voted for him." [Compare this to a WSU professor's statement that he only knew five people that supported Wal-Mart]

Clearly Ms. Kael's habit of only interacting with like-minded friends left her unprepared for the possibility that there were any opinions other than those of her little clique.

While one outcome is humorous and the other dangerous, neither is conducive to promoting the free and inquiring minds that a healthy society needs. We would have a difficult time as a nation were we to be ruled by narrow-minded bullies or left to float on the follies of simple-minded film critics.

All universities should take heed of this incident and others like it and consider whether or not concentrating ideologies is the best strategy for incorporating nontraditional ideas into a college curriculum. Certainly the faculty currently housed in what are little more than academic ghettos could be incorporated into other departments, such as history, political science, philosophy and sociology.

If being exposed to new ideas is a healthy thing for the students who are marched into these classes, then it certainly follows that the faculty could similarly gain the benefit of contrarian perspectives as well. After all, the academy is a place where the students and the faculty learn. We certainly know now what happens when indignation is concentrated, distilled and allowed to feed upon itself.


Ray Lindquist said...

Wow, what good one this sure makes the case that we here at WSU need a Academic Bill of Rights. See http://theprofessors.org/ David Horwitz's The Professors would be nice if he would pick this up also.

Paul E. Zimmerman said...

Now that was a great editorial!

This brings to mind something I've been keeping under my hat for a while. I am an evaluator for the Junior Writing Portfolio program, specifically tasked with reading the timed writing essays that students are required to submit as part of the portfolio.

One of the prompts used for the timed writing asks students to write about their writing experiences in the classes that they have taken. Frequently, I have come across students writing about their experience in CES classes. Many of those writings state, in various ways, that the students hated writing in those classes because they were made to feel that if they did not support the opinion of the professor that they would receive a bad grade.

So, for what they're worth, there's a report from the field: CES professors demand and enforce agreement with their personal beliefs.

I've said it before and I'll say it again - the CES department needs to be dismantled.