Reading the Atlanta Journal Constitiution this morning, I came across an article reporting that Senate Republicans held a hearing on “liberal” universities (props to the headline editor who put scare quotes around the word “liberal”). The hearing takes place one week after Georgia Republican Congressman Jack Kingston introduced a bill stating that colleges and universities are too liberal, and at issue was the fact that “universities intimidate students and faculty into liberal ways of thinking.”
At issue are the usual conservative hobgoblins including “diversity training” and “academic freedom,” which the hearing redefines against what Anne Neale, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, calls “bastions of political correctness hostile to free exchange of ideas.” Of course, by imposing a certain approach to teaching from above (i.e from Congress), this group is enforcing even more extreme limits on academic freedom.
Courses on multiculturalism also come under attack by conservatives. According to the article,
Anthony Dick, a student at the University of Virginia who helped found the Individual Rights Coalition, a student group that opposes what it charges are abuses of individual freedoms by college administrators, complained about the campus instituting diversity training for students. He said that, by its nature, the training asks people to assume discrimination against certain groups is a problem.
The word choice here is interesting (discrimination against groups, especially based on race, ethnicity, or religion is, of course, a problem that our government ostensibly recognizes), but because the article writer is paraphrasing, not quoting, I’m not sure what Dick’s actual stance might be. Still, courses in women’s studies or postcolonial studies are common targets for conservative writers who assume the mantle of objectivity in these debates.
In that context, I think academics and/or liberal thinkers (who are not identical at all, although both are attacked in this hearing) should reclaim the terms of discussion as George Lakoff recently suggested, to more carefully “frame” the issues at stake. The conservative use of the term “diversity training” to describe a broad set of courses (postcolonialism, women’s studies) focused on a more objective portrayal of contemporary culture is one such example. [Brief aside: I am suspicious of his framing things in terms of the “strict father” and “nurturing parent” models, in part because I think his model glosses somewhat the economic forces that reinforce the abilities of conservatives to frame these discussions.]
In an attempt at objectivity, the article does offer one professor’s (Judith Wegner) response to the charges of academic harassment, but she makes a “power move” that, I think, makes things worse, commenting that some of these cases boil down to unprepared teaching assistants who “have not yet developed adequate skills for presenting all sides of an issue.” Teaching assistants already have their credibility challenged enough without offering them as a sacrifice in this particular debate.
I find this discussion partciularly threatening under the current climate in which our civil liberties are being threatened by the Patriot Act. I realize that this is nothing more than a hearing, but it still has the quality of an attempt to police thought by these conservative politicians and lobbyists.