Friday, February 25, 2005

Doublespeak legislation

I'm linking to the text of HB 1991, proposed legislation introduced in Washington State that is similar to a number of others introduced in other states. Like the others, it's basically written by David Horowitz, a conservative activist, and "Students for Academic Freedom". There are a large number of blogs that comment on the politics of such things, so I'll just go over the content of the bill.

The bill has two sections; the first is for the most part a bunch of generalizations and "feel good" statements that I suppose is meant to predispose the reader to thinking that the whole is innocuous or high-minded. Lots of language like, "The central purposes of a university are the pursuit of truth, the discovery of new knowledge through scholarship and research, the study and reasoned criticism of intellectual and cultural traditions, the teaching and general development of students to help them become creative individuals and productive citizens of a pluralistic democracy, and the transmission of knowledge and learning to a society at large." However, even here, I believe there is an attempt to "bless" certain words and turns of phrase by close association with others. For example, the inclusion of "reasoned criticism" in the above quote is probably meant to associate with it concepts such as research, scholarship, and the search for truth. Like some other words and phrases, it will be used in section two in a manner that, taken in isolation, would mean something considerably different. A pretty neat technique, I must say. Other doublespeak phrases from section one include: "freedom to teach and to learn", "appropriate conditions and opportunities", "critical intelligence", "openness", "never-ending pursuit of the truth", "complete and unlimited freedom", and "orthodoxy". My doublespeak award goes to paragraph 4: "Academic freedom consists in protecting the intellectual independence of professors, researchers, and students in the pursuit of knowledge and the expression of ideas from interference by legislators or authorities within the institution itself. This means that no political, ideological, or religious orthodoxy will be imposed on professors and researchers through the hiring, tenure, or termination process, or through any other administrative means by the academic institution. Nor shall legislatures impose any such orthodoxy through their control of the university budget." Imagine, a piece of state legislation that dictates how hiring, etc. will be modified to accommodate people who agree with the legislature's political agenda (if it passed, that is) that appears to state, as a basic principle, that the legislature shouldn't interfere with academia. The beauty is that it appears to do this, but actually states that "orthodoxy" won't be imposed (as if anyone would ever need to impose an orthodox opinion on any organization).

Here's my annotated second section (my comments in italics):
Sec. 2   A new section is added to chapter 28B.10 RCW to read as follows:
     To secure the intellectual independence of faculty and students and to protect the principle of intellectual diversity, the following principles and procedures shall be observed. These principles apply only to public universities and to private universities that present themselves as bound by the canons of academic freedom. Private institutions choosing to restrict academic freedom on the basis of creed must explicitly disclose the scope and nature of these restrictions.

OK, so this is a definition of academic freedom for all universities in the state that observe such things.
     (1) All faculty shall be hired, fired, promoted, and granted tenure on the basis of their competence and appropriate knowledge in the field of their expertise
I know what competence is, but what is "appropriate knowledge"? Apparently, competence isn't enough, since this other qualification is also mentioned.
and, in the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts, with a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives.
Well, well, it seems that some conservatives support affirmative action. Just not for folks who've been discriminated against in the past -- they want it for themselves. I'm not in one of the fields mentioned (apparently, there's no need for "plurality" in the sciences, business, or engineering), but in most science and engineering departments, hiring tends to be concentrated in certain areas of inquiry so that faculty have colleagues to work with -- to provide "ciritical mass". No department can be strong in every area.
No faculty may be hired, fired, or denied promotion or tenure on the basis of his or her political or religious beliefs.
     (2) No faculty member may be excluded from tenure, search, and hiring committees on the basis of the member's political or religious beliefs.
     (3) Students will be graded solely on the basis of their reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge of the subjects and disciplines they study, not on the basis of their political or religious beliefs.
So now they want to legislate how I grade? It seems they're in favor of grading based on effort rather than results, at least, that's how I interpret "reasoned answers". As stated before, I have no idea what "appropriate knowledge" is, but I presume that the legislature will determine what knowledge is appropriate and what is not, and students could appeal grades based on me requiring them to exhibit knowledge that is not "appropriate".
     (4) Curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences should reflect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge in these areas by providing students with dissenting sources and viewpoints where appropriate.
Apparently, the humanities and social sciences are just a mess: there's no such thing as truth or even certainty. Any opinion could be valid, and so every opinion is equally valid. If you're in such a field, make sure your courses reflect the fact that it's all just a pile of crap baloney. Ignorance really is strength.
While teachers are and should be free to pursue their own findings and perspectives in presenting their views, they should consider and make their students aware of other viewpoints. Academic disciplines should welcome a diversity of approaches to unsettled questions.
Affirmative action: it's not just for people anymore. Who will decide what "other viewpoints" are "appropriate"? Will a history course need to incorporate Holocaust deniers' "viewpoints"? From a practical point of view, this is meant to give students the ability to appeal grades (or to allow punishment of professors) as long as someone in power believes that his or her pet "viewpoint" was omitted from a course.
     (5) Exposing students to the spectrum of significant scholarly viewpoints on the subjects examined in their courses is a major responsibility of faculty. Faculty will not use their courses for the purpose of political, ideological, religious, or antireligious indoctrination.
Who will decide which scholarly viewpoints are "significant"? Not that faculty, that at least is clear. On the one hand, students should be "exposed" to a spectrum of ideas, but not to the extent that anyone has their own world view challenged.
     (6) Selection of speakers, allocation of funds for speakers' programs, and other student activities will observe the principles of academic freedom and promote intellectual pluralism.
Affirmative action for speakers, too.
     (7) An environment conducive to the civil exchange of ideas is an essential component of a free university; the obstruction of invited campus speakers, destruction of campus literature, or other effort to obstruct this exchange is prohibited.
     (8) Knowledge advances when individual scholars are left free to reach their own conclusions about which methods, facts, and theories have been validated by research. Academic institutions and
I'm sorry, but individuals don't get to decide "which methods, facts, and theories have been validated by research". This is only done by communities of scholars. I can believe anything I want, but validity must be earned by convincing other people in my field.
professional societies formed to advance knowledge within an area of research, maintain the integrity of the research process, and organize the professional lives of related researchers serve as indispensable venues within which scholars circulate research findings and debate their interpretation. To perform these functions adequately, academic institutions and professional societies should maintain a posture of organizational neutrality with respect to the substantive disagreements that divide researchers on questions within, or outside, their fields of inquiry.
So now they want to legislate how professional societies work? I guess there'll no longer be any IEEE standards issued, as that would violate neutrality. Professional societies, by their nature composed of scholars in their field, tend not to decide matters that are subject to true "substantive disagreements". On the other hand, they don't serve as venues for crackpot ideas -- if you want colleagues to read about your work, then you need to convince them: 1. that you are aware of what others have done and are doing in the field, 2. that your work is also in the same field, 3. that your work explains the world at least as well as existing work, 4. that your methods can actually address questions in the field, and 5. that your methods are capable of falsifying your hypothesis (that it was possible for you to be wrong).
Wow! Quite a long read, wasn't it? Reward yourself with a visit to Students for an Orwellian Society.

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