A post from seven years ago floated up in my FB memories this morning. It was a rant from a former student about the loss of discourse and discussion in the classroom. At the time, this student was in a grad class and had raised a differing point of view only to be greeted with gasps of astonishment. I had copied the rant and posted it as Reason #47 for why I teach. In reality, rants like this, demonstrating the critical thinking skills of my students, remain Reason #1 for why I taught. Yes, I’ve left that world, and the inability to have constructive discussions and arguments in the classroom is my primary reason for leaving.
Here’s the rant: When did the classroom become an echo chamber? I was not taught to blindly consume everything a professor says, let alone a fellow classmate. I just had a class where I offered a different view point on a subject matter and people literally gasped audibly. It was not even a “provocative” view point or even a hot topic issue. When did conformity become the goal? What happened to intellectual discourse?!
As I said in my original FB post, I am a very proud professor here. I worked very hard to keep my political opinions out of classroom discussions. At the beginning of every semester, and periodically throughout, I told all my classes that they were free to speak any opinion or analysis of a problem they held… with one caveat. They had to be ready to defend the logic behind that opinion, point to reputable sources backing up that opinion, and be open to having everything questioned. They were also informed, that if they were going to question an opinion or analysis, they needed to be ready to back that up as well. It was perfectly fine if they didn’t have an answer right then and there, but I let them know that they were expected to return with a response for the next class meeting.
My college education taught me to always ask “why?” and I still pride myself on the fact that I strived to instill that questioning in my students and to teach them how to think and not what to think. How do I know I succeeded even a little bit? By running across rants like that above, and by the comments/complaints in my end-of-semester evaluations – from students in the same class, mind you – that I was both a flaming liberal and a hard-core conservative. I had evals where students commented that they had figured out the political opinions of most of my colleagues, including all my political science departmental colleagues, but they couldn’t figure out mine.
That’s how I know I had at least a small impact.
Unfortunately that is no longer the case at most colleges and universities. Most of them, in the name of diversity, inclusion, and equity, are teaching students what to think and refusing to even consider teaching them how to think.
It is not hyperbole to argue that the left has taken over institutions of higher education. This has been clear for several decades. The screams of rage directed against the formation of conservative groups on campus such as Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) or anti-abortion groups, or any other group viewed as “conservative” is just one sign of the tight control the left has on campus. I’m still surprised when I hear that students are trying to start such groups. It gives me a small measure of hope.
I am certain that if I were still teaching, and I’ve only been out for three years now, that I would be facing disciplinary actions for “harming” students by exposing them to alternative points of view. These charges are most often brought up by bullying, activist-minded students. They are among those students who have figured out how to work the system to their advantage. Don’t fall for the idea that they think they’ve actually been harmed. They’re working an angle or taking revenge.
There is a good percentage of students in college who don’t want to be there or, having gotten there discover that they don’t really like it. Many of these students are willing to do whatever it takes to get through or get out. That means charging professors with racism or fill-in-the-blank-phobic actions/statements in an effort to get a passing grade in a class they don’t like. Students will make similar accusations against other students in attempts to take control of an organization or to get an organization they don’t like shut down. Many times these actions are taken purely out of spite.
No, most nor all students are not like that; it is only a few bad apples. However, the majority of students and faculty (sadly), afraid of being tainted with the same accusations stand by and do nothing, thus allowing the bullies to succeed. The students stand by because they don’t want to jeopardize their chances of graduation (yes, they’ve been threatened). Faculty stand by because their tenure and/or promotion, and thus career, is on the line, or if that’s not it, their fear of losing whatever power they think they wield might be threatened.
By allowing and encouraging the left’s takeover of its classrooms and knowledge base, academia has failed students, faculty, society, and itself.
In the end, if you have kids approaching college-age, my strong recommendation is that you either find a school and a major (there’s a few left) where they will be confronted with critical thinking and learn how to think – places like Hillsdale or St. John’s, or someplace with a strong business school (because b-schools still value reality-based outcomes) come to mind – or get them to get a certificate in something like welding or business or something else that will get them a good job right out of the starting blocks, and let them educate themselves on other topics through reading and honest discussions. I recommend Prager U for good, open discussions on line.
For those who say “But the college experience…” I will ask – is “the experience” why one goes to college, or is the education the reason? Because if it’s “the experience” then just send your kid and fifteen to twenty friends to a Motel 6 for the weekend and let them party their brains out in a “bonding experience”. The cost of repairs to the motel will be less for you than the cost of four years at college. For the club/organization part of the college “experience” find and join a local running group, biking group, hiking group, quilting group, or whatever.
I know all of this seems rich coming from me, a woman with too many degrees, and a set of fancy-schmancy robes. If you’d asked me ten years ago if a college education was worth the cost, I would have come down strongly on the side of “send ‘em to college, of course!” I would have told you, yeah, there are a lot of leftist professors running around, but you can get around them, avoid their classes, and get out relatively unscathed.
But over the years, especially the last decade, as more and more students came to my office – many of them never having met me, but taking the advice of a friend – asking for advice on how to deal with a professor who was grading them on what they wrote, rather than how they presented their argument, or how to deal with a professor (and dean!) who refused to allow students to submit end-of-semester evaluations, I came to realize that the rot was spreading faster and going deeper than before.
The reaction to Trump’s election cemented my need to create what one friend called an off-ramp to my academic career. I thought about it long and hard. Was I abandoning those few remaining students who needed to know my office was open to them? Could I still make a difference in the life of the university? Did I make a small dent in the thinking of my colleagues? In the end, the answers I had were yes, no, and no. Yes, I was abandoning some students, but I couldn’t continue to help them at what was becoming a high cost to myself (got denied promotion and thus a good raise). No, I was not making a discernable difference in the culture or atmosphere on campus, and finally, no, I was not making even a small scratch in the thinking of any of my colleagues. Academia was a failing and failed enterprise and I needed to save myself.
I still hold out hope that academia will re-discover its true purpose –teaching students critical thinking skills and opening their eyes and minds to the possibilities in front of them, and reminding them that getting caught up in the idea that there is only one right way of looking at something is a truly false dichotomy. But we haven’t reached the bottom of that hill yet, and I’m afraid it will be a long, slow slog across the valley at the bottom before academia can begin the arduous task of rebuilding the public’s trust in it.
One final note: If you are looking for readings on history and politics (US and world) that are mostly free of woke nonsense, check out the “List of History Books” link at the top of this blog. There are a LOT of great suggestions in the comments there.
Read as much as you can, learn to think critically – ask “why?” a lot. Don’t count on academia to help.
10 Replies to “Academic Failure and the Loss of Discourse”
I’ve had students come back from college and thank me for grading them only on their arguments. Being graded on their politics came as a shock. Especially after I’d assured them multiple times that “I don’t care if you disagree, in fact I encourage it, but you need to support your argument.” I’ve gritted my teeth a few times to make very certain that I’m not grading the politics, but it pays off.
I can do that. I have that luxury. And alas, luxury it has become because of the terror instilled by activists. I hope something like the older type of college can return.
Yeah, I’ve gritted my teeth and double-checked references while grading papers, too. I am hopeful that academia can rescue itself, but they do have to quit bowing to the noisy minority.
I had a student in an intro to public health systems course thank me for creating an environment where, in a module on maternal and child health issues, the discussion of abortion issues, costs and benefits of contraceptive techniques (thrombolytic side effects occur with hormonal contraceptives at a rate 10+x that of similar effects from COVID vaccines), etc. She said it was the first class she felt it was “safe” to express non-leftists views in that she had taken. I make grad students in my health policy seminar do a course paper discussing a policy issue from the perspectives of multiple pro- and con-viewpoints and try to frame solutions in a way that would address all of them in terms of the actors values. Since most of these were MPH students looking to be public health program managers, the idea was to teach them to *listen* to political constituencies and learn to communicate problems, solutions, etc. to people who held different values. I had a few try to test me by trolling me with arguments they KNEW I disagreed with (my own writings established a lot of where I stood) and then complemented me for respecting the disagreement – I always maxed out the “treats me fairly” and “treats me with respect” items on my course evaluations.
Colleagues were a different story. I had agencies (and some academics implicated in ClimateGate) try to suppress papers that had conclusions with policy implications they disagreed with. I was jumped by a faculty member at another program in the state at a meeting over a presentation I made on problems with the Obamacare law not because I was wrong, but because by pointing them out I would “undermine confidence in the program.” I caught some flak for pointing out that including specific racial/sexual goals for hiring and admissions in an accrediting document would create prima facie evidence against us if we were sued for discrimination – and for pointing out that such quotas had been illegal since Bakke. I had a faculty member in grad school respond negatively to a medical sociology prelim answer on the relationship between SES and health where I discussed not only the Marxist view of direct causality, but alternate models and evidence that most of the purported link is an artifact of confounding by unmeasured social capital and socialization (which is related to both risk behaviors and behaviors that improve SES). I was denigrated by a department chair for taking a DOD contract to work on medical civic action doctrine in the context of COIN and Stability Operations.
I tried for 20 years to land a full-time gig in Academia, but the reasons you listed above are why I abandoned the attempt.
In truth, I should have abandoned the attempt 15 years ago, when I first started seeing every job application require a diversity statement.
Yeah, I got in before diversity statements became a thing. If I’d had to do that, I probably would have changed careers right then and there.
It would be great to know who you are and what school you are writing about. What can they do to you at this point?
There’s no benefit to identifying any particular school as pretty much every college or university acts in the same manner. If you’re interested, both College Fix (thecollegefix.com) and Campus Reform (campusreform.org) detail the failure of academic dialog on a regular basis.
The modern Western/English-speaking University has transformed into providing a secular kind of Madrassa education, where memorizing and enforcing the ever-shifting tenets of wokeness is the core task of the enrolled student. The effects on the students are the same the world-over for this kind of education, students become unfit for any kind of modern occupation, become socially isolated within their host society which they want to dominate politically, and think very highly of themselves.
Yep. The madrassa model (not that DOE would admit to that) is designed to eliminate critical thinking. To be fair, critical thinking is still taught in the few dark, dank, non-woke corners of the academic world that remain. But it needs to make a return to the light.
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