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April 01, 2003


Yesterday ai received a record 56 visits. That's a pretty small number as web pages go, but I belong to the "one reader is better than none" school, and 56 is even better than one, so no complaints here. Thanks to everyone who has followed ai for some time, and to those of you who are just visiting for the first time. Your visits and comments make ai fun to write, and -- I hope -- enjoyable for you to read, as well.

Another milestone: The little iBook on which ai is produced has been running constantly, without hiccup, shut down, or reboot, for 41 days! Does your Windoze laptop do that? ;-)

Speaking of laptops, GW sent a scary little packet of materials warning of the dangers of coming to school with anything other than the "GW Law School notebook" computer (kindly customized by Dell). No other school I've applied to has come on this strong with the "Windoze only" pitch. Not a good sign.

Posted 10:22 AM | Comments (3) | law school meta-blogging

Kids these days...

It probably comes as no surprise to most teachers that Generation Y trusts the government and supports the war. According to Neil Howe, the coauthor of "Millennials Rising" and a social policy advisor in Washington:

"These are kids who are taught to think of themselves as being the sole purpose of community life in America," Howe explains. "They've been surrounded by kinderpolitics, the idea that politicians are constantly saying, 'Do it for the children.'" The recent list of governmental reforms for kids is endless: The Consumer Product Safety Commission, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Labor, Treasury, and Justice Departments, and even the EPA have passed laws benefiting young Americans. "These kids have been taught, throughout the late '80s and '90s, that government is constantly trying to do great things for kids," says Howe. "Why shouldn't they like government?"

So despite all the cries about problems with our schools, the U.S. educational system must be working just fine, after all—it's creating lots of good subjects (not to be confused with bad subjects, of course). I'm sure King George is pleased. I wonder what these kids think of the Iraq body count.

This is actually one of the reasons I'm leaving teaching (at least here and at least for now). To make a gross generalization, a majority of students (at least at this university) simply seem to lack the ability or desire to think critically about anything. And yes, I see the irony in this: If students are so lacking in critical ability, that only means my role as a teacher becomes that much more important. However, I've become cynical about the ability of college instructors (or professors) to really teach critical thinking within an institutional and cultural atmosphere that actively discourages students from thinking critically. I've said this before and I'll say it again: I'll forever be glad and thankful for the thousands of great people who continue to teach at our public universities, but I no longer feel that I should be one of them. I hope I'll be able to do more good at a policy level than I've been able to do in the classroom.

In a demonstration of my students' active aversion to critical thought, one of my students sent an email the other day expressing his "disappointment in [my] subtle inputs on [my] antiwar feelings." The email continued:

I understand everyone has their beliefs, and I respect that, but you are going against the most important idea taught to teachers like yourself. Your classroom behavior as a teacher is always supposed to be neutral regardless of you beliefs [sic]. You assumed this responsibility when you chose to become a teacher and you are breaking that critical rule. If you feel the need to offer such an opinion in the classroom setting, it is imperative you also explore the otherside. [sic]

My first reaction to this message was that my student must have confused the job of "teacher" with that of "journalist." My second reaction was to rush to my "Big Book of Critical Rules for Teachers," but I couldn't find it anywhere. I wonder where my student got his copy.

But all kidding aside, what bothers me is that this message came from an intelligent senior at a major American public university. [1] Worse, this student is expressing a commonly-held view: Teachers ought to be neutral; they ought not advocate for one position or another on a given issue, but especially on important social or political issues. This perspective is closely imbricated with the overall rightward-shift in U.S. educational policy over the past 20-30 years, culminating most recently in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) which dramatically reduces the authority and autonomy of teachers in the classroom. [2] Although the NCLBA does not govern college-level education, such policies are explicit expressions of our society's disrespect for and distrust of teachers at all levels, tightly proscribing what is and is not allowed within the classroom.

I understand the anxiety Americans feel about what happens within classrooms. Education is a powerful tool, and that tool can be used for good or ill. However, I am not Voltaire's Pangloss and this is not the best of all possible worlds. It would be irresponsible for teachers to pretend otherwise.

We've reached a very scary place as a culture if we're going to say that college teachers must pretend neutrality on all issues. For that's what "neutrality" or "objectivity" or whatever you choose to call it really is—a pretense. Asking teachers to be neutral is asking them to occupy a hypothetical ideal that does not exist. Even teaching "both sides" of an issue means taking a biased position that promotes the view that there are, in fact, two valid sides. The truth is more likely that there are dozens of valid sides, but what's important is that teachers who argue for "both sides" of an issue are taking a political stance on that issue.

This is probably the most pernicious aspect of this whole "pro-neutrality" attitude, because what this student seeks is not even some myth of neutrality, what he's demanding is to be protected from the discomfort of having to face or seriously consider arguments and ideas with which he disagrees. This is much like the phenomenon Sam Heldman has observed about people in the Deep South [link via Cooped Up]. Heldman writes:

There are many people down there -- a huge number, I would say, based on my experience -- who don't know when they're saying something that constitutes a position on a disputed issue of politics or morality. And when it is pointed out to them that they are in fact doing so, they get very uncomfortable and often get defensive. I think that it is attributable to the fact that they so rarely hear dissenting opinions. At otherwise perfectly lovely parties, even when everyone is on his or her best behavior, you will hear off-hand comments (for instance) about how the trial lawyers are ruining this or that aspect of society; and when I or someone like me will disagree, as affably as I know how, the response is as though I had (as the old saying goes) farted in church -- the dissenter has done the wholly inappropriate thing of bringing up politics in such a nice gathering, when those who merely voice the majority political view didn't even realize that they were bringing up politics at all. You see this sort of thing at Instapundit sometimes -- he acts shocked, from time to time, when people accuse him of making a political statement, when from his point of view he was just having a pleasant conversation about obvious truths. This is not a universal trait among Southerners, of course. Some people know full well that, by being in favor of the honoring of the Confederate cause, they are working to further an extreme political position. But others are simply unaware that, by joining in the "honoring", they are taking a position with which a reasonable person could disagree.

Heldman's observations perfectly describe the majority of the students I've taught—they're constantly taking political positions on things, but because they voice what they think is the majority opinion, they don't realize they're taking a political position at all. And when a teacher makes them aware of their politics by raising the "other side" of the issue, they act shocked, offended, even angry. Heldman is also correct that students react this way to new ideas because they so rarely hear dissenting opinions. This is especially true when the subject is war, since my students' knowledge of current events comes mostly from 5-minute encounters with CNN and/or the 1-minute news briefs that occasionally interrupt the music and advertising on their favorite radio station. In other words, all they hear about the war are endless loops of Bush bellicosity and great sentimental pieces about the courage and "staying power" of American troops.

Is this what a "free" society looks like? Is censorship better when it comes from the people rather than from their government? And if war doesn't wake Generation Y from its "trusting" stupor, what will? [3]

[1] It's probably neither here nor there, but this particular student also happens to be going to law school next fall.

[2] The NCLBA was the product of a republican administration, contradicting the republican party's traditional advocacy of smaller federal government and increased state and local autonomy. However, it's perfectly in keeping with the push by this administration's Justice Department and DEA to override California state law with regard to medical marijuana. I'm sure this case will provide some good discussion in future Constitutional Law classes covering the separation of powers. At any rate, republican education policies are just one are in which the parties traditional rhetoric contradicts its actions. For more on this, I highly recommend Educating the "Right" Way: Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality by Michael W. Apple. (As a footnote to a footnote, I recently completed a brief review of this book for an online journal. I'll post a link if and when the review goes public.)

[3] "Trust" is probably not the best word for Generation Y's attitude toward the government and the world. Better words might be "fear" or "laziness." Students may be afraid to challenge or criticize their government because to do so would be to acknowledge that they may not, in fact, live in the best of all possible worlds. Criticism implies problems, flaws, imperfections, and these are things my students actively deny. This might also be laziness because it's simply easier to trust that everything will work out for the best. Yet, the cost of this laziness can be great in the end. See Candide.

Posted 09:27 AM | Comments (4) | general politics

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