Friday, February 17, 2006

And speaking of intolerance....

The Arizona state legislature wants to protect college students from any course materials that might hurt their poor little feelings.

According to Inside Higher Ed:

The legislation ... would require public colleges to provide students with “alternative coursework” if a student finds the assigned material “personally offensive,” which is defined as something that “conflicts with the student’s beliefs or practices in sex, morality or religion.” On Wednesday, the bill starting moving, with the Senate Committee on Higher Education approving the measure — much to the dismay of professors in the state.

The Arizona bill ... goes so far that David Horowitz, the ’60s radical turned conservative activist who has pushed the Academic Bill of Rights, opposes the measure. “It doesn’t respect the authority of the professor in the classroom,” he said. “This authority does not include the right to indoctrinate students or deny them access to texts with points of view that differ from the professor’s. But it does include the right to assign texts that make students feel uncomfortable.”

... Although the legislation has a long way to go before it could become law, the idea that the Senate committee charged with overseeing colleges would approve the measure is upsetting to academics. They are also angry because the evidence cited by lawmakers to support the bill appears to be based on a misreading of an acclaimed novel.

The sponsors of the bill did not respond to messages seeking comment. But local news coverage of the session at which the bill won committee approval quoted Sen. Thayer Verschoor as citing complaints he had received about The Ice Storm, a novel by Rick Moody that was turned into a film directed by Ang Lee. “There’s no defense of this book. I can’t believe that anyone would come up here and try to defend that kind of material,” Verschoor said at the hearing, according to The Arizona Star. Other senators spoke at the hearing, the newspaper reported, against colleges teaching “pornography and smut.”

Actually, there are plenty who would defend teaching The Ice Storm, including the professor whose course appears to have set off Verschoor. The course — at Chandler-Gilbert Community College — was “Currents of American Life,” a team-taught course in the history and literature of the modern United States. The literature that students read is selected to reflect broad themes of different eras, according to Bill Mullaney, a literature professor. For example, students read John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

The Ice Storm was a logical choice for teaching about the 1970s, Mullaney said, because the novel looks at suburban life at a crucial point in that decade: the collapse of the Nixon administration. While two families’ lives are dissected, Watergate is always in the background and the relationship between private morality and public scandal is an important theme.

Adultery is central to the novel and one of its most famous scenes involves a “key party,” in which couples throw their car keys in bowl, and then pull out keys to decide which wife will sleep with which husband (not her own) after the party. From comments at the Senate markup of the bill, it seems clear that lawmakers had heard about the wife swapping, but Mullaney and others doubt that they actually read the book. If they had, they might have realized that Moody’s portrayal of ’70s culture is far from admiring.


Chandler-Gilbert officials said that Mullaney and all of their professors take a number of steps that indicate that they do respect students’ rights to avoid certain material. Mullaney, for example, had a reference on his syllabus to the controversial nature and “adult themes” of some works, and he draws students’ attention to that reference on the first day, when they have time to switch courses or sections. In the case of the student whose complaint apparently set off the bill, however, he ignored the warning and demanded an alternate book several weeks into the course, saying he hadn’t paid attention when Mullaney noted the material earlier. The student’s mother also called the college president (although the student is over 18).

Mullaney said that he respects the right of students to decide which courses to take, but that students can’t dictate books to be taught. “This is totally unworkable in the classroom,” he said. “If you have students demanding alternative books, and one student is reading one book, and one another, and one another — it doesn’t make any sense in terms of how you teach.”

If the bill became law, he added, professors would have to avoid controversial books so they wouldn’t risk losing control of their reading lists. “I joke that what I’ll do is just teach To Kill a Mockingbird — all the time,” he said.

Faculty and administrative groups are opposing the bill. ...

The Arizona Daily Star
quoted Senator Verschoor as acknowledging that additional negotiations might be needed. He said that he doubted colleges would follow the bill’s provisions now “because of the whole academic freedom thing.”

Oh yeah, that. The whole academic freedom thing.

Well, all right, it's not on a par with issuing fatwahs and lopping off heads. But hypersensitive students can dictate what books a professor can assign? A parent complaining about her grown son being exposed to a book with (gasp!) sexual content? One doesn't know whether to laugh or to cry. Given that this bill is actually moving through the legislature, I think alarm is a more appropriate response.

By the way, Prof. Mullaney shouldn't be so confident about teaching To Kill a Mockingbird. In recent years the book has been criticized on feminist grounds, for its unsympathetic treatment of a (white) woman accusing a (black) man of rape. And can anyone doubt that if the Arizona legislature gets the bill through thanks to special pleading from affronted traditionalists, it will also end up being used by affronted feminists, minorities, and others?


Anonymous said...

If you can't handle reading books with adult themes, you have no business wasting your time and taxpayer dollars attending a public university. Plumbing is an honorable occupation, and there are plenty of job openings right now - I suggest that the "student" in question check it out.

Joan said...

mabman, to be a plumber, you have to go through a several year apprenticeship first, and to get into an apprenticeship, you have to know the right people. It isn't as easy as you seem to think it is.

Cathy: as a resident of Chandler, I am appalled that the legislature is even considering this move. I can only hope they come to their collective senses. We've had enough problems in AZ with our governors embarrassing us, does the legislature need to step up for that role now?

I'd like to believe that, should the unthinkable happen and this actually make it out of the legislature, the governor would veto it. But I honestly have no idea what she'd do! How bad is that? My honest feeling is that it would depend on how the issue is polling, because I can see how this law would be appealing to feminists and others who seek to control the dialog, on both sides of the aisle.

Time to make a few phone calls, perhaps even write a real letter to denounce this idiocy. Sheesh!

Anonymous said...

As a libertarian, I hope this passes so that I can get a PhD without doing any coursework, as the existence of state-run educational facilities offends me.

Synova said...

"And can anyone doubt that if the Arizona legislature gets the bill through thanks to special pleading from affronted traditionalists, it will also end up being used by affronted feminists, minorities, and others?"

Well, yes. Isn't that how it works? The same dynamic can probably be used to explain the bill itself. How long has it been since we've been "allowed" to question someone elses offended feelings? Why shouldn't social conservatives use the same reasoning to push back at institutions that they believe deliberately undermine their children's morals?

I don't think the bill is a good idea but I'm not surprised either.

People believe that college professors do have the goal of removing from students their family and religious values, often enough. I doubt it's as willful as all that, but as a homeschooler I've encountered enough people who believe that the purpose of education *is* to destroy those things that I'm not going to say that people worried about it aren't operating with reason.

(Those people in my experience would not *say* that's what they think, but their whole objection to homeschool is the fear that children may possibly grow up believing the faith of their parents.)

mythago said...

Huh. I thought the white woman in To Kill a Mockingbird was portrayed with sympathy--as somebody who was also trapped by the rigid bigotry and class warfare she lived in.

This wouldn't be the first time social conservatives tried to pass a bill destined to bite them in the ass, of course. (cf: Orrin Hatch's reaction when Gay-Straight Alliances relied on his Equal Access Act.)

Anonymous said...

When I was in college, I simply refused to read material I found offensive ... I also learned how to bluster through an essay question effectively enough that it didn't affect my grade ... This is an area of individual choice rather than legislative obligation, the world , in general, is an offensive place.

Anonymous said...

It would to be interesting to contrast individuals' reactions to this story, with their reactions to the Dover ruling, and the new proposed statute in WI:

Wisconsin legislator, university profs want ban of Intelligent Design in public schools

I'd be willing to guess the correlation would tend to be negative.

IOW's probably whose Ox is getting gored?

mythago said...

anonymous, are you really unable to distinguish between material that is false and material that is merely offensive?

When scientists insist their universities dismantle the Religious Studies department, get back to me.

Anonymous said...

Phenomena like this make me glad I work as an immigration paralegal. As American young adults become wimpier and wimpier - and are coddled more and more - we need immigration even more.

A few months back, I came across an article that detailed how teachers in the public school system at the middle school level were enncouraged to move away from using red pen to correct papers - as it was too "traumatic" for for the kids.

Relaying this story to my sister, who is teaching college level classes as part of her PhD program, she told me with a perfectly straight face that: "Oh, I never use red pen to correct papers - too many people have past trauma associated with it" (Portland State University, if anyone is curious).

My question is: how in the world can individuals assume the title of "adult" - if something like the color of ink is traumatizing to them?

Again, thank god for immigration.

Lori Heine said...

It seems to take a fair amount of being exposed to surprising, frightening, shocking or even offensive things for any young person to receive a decent eduction. If they're each going to go off on their own and simply read whatever they want to, they certainly don't have to pay tuition (or have their parents pay it) to do that.

I have lived in Phoenix all my life, and Arizona politics have always been loony. I'm going to have to keep an eye on this. Every time some new whacko comes forth with something like this, Arizona is again the subject of merriment around the country. We still haven't gotten over Mecham.

Perhaps every legislative and gubernatorial candidate should be made to undergo psychiatric testing before being placed on the ballot. Though I'm afraid that if we took such measures, our state capitol building would be empty.

Revenant said...

IOW's probably whose Ox is getting gored?

Like mythago I consider Intelligent Design to be false, not offensive. But that's not really the point.

The state legislature has the right to set whatever sort of curriculum it wants. But a de facto policy of letting the students pick and choose what ideas they will be exposed to within a field renders the education system useless.

For example, it is hypothetically possible, under the proposed system, for a student to say "I consider all post-Newtownian physics to be offensive to my belief in a rational, deterministic universe." Not only would the university have to go to immense trouble to "educate" this dolt, but at the end of it he'd have no actual knowledge of useful physics, but the exact same Bachelor of Science degree in physics as someone who does.

If the state wants to ban intelligent design, fine. If it wants to mandate intelligent design and ban the theory of evolution, fine -- at least then everybody would know that Biology degrees from Arizona universities are worthless. But letting students blow off anything they don't feel like learning ruins the whole degree system; it destroys the signalling value of a college diploma.

Anonymous said...

I like Patricia's answer.

In college one time as we were trudging through an especially gagsome saccahrine Communist story (This was a Chinese language course) we all just gagged at the same time, and the lecturer held up her finger and basically told us we had to take out medicine - she was a Chinese housewife and treated us like her kids, so we did as we were told. This was at Berkeley, too.)

There is a fundamental difference between what you offer grade school kids and what you offer university students to read. Young kids need to be in a homey "welcoming" envitronment whether home-schooled or not, because they learn more effectively when they feel safe, and that applies even to some of the content. You don't run Apocalypse Now with 4th graders on a rainy day when you have run out of lesson plan.

With unversity students it is differnet. That experience is all about getting a person ready for the wide world. This fainty-daintiness was exactly the reason cited in the bad old days for insisting that the univerisyt was not a suitable place for young ladies.

ada47 said...

I've been too busygrading exams from consumers, I mean students, to keep up with all the posts here. I really like this blog.

What a sad and embarassing few weeks to be an academic, especially a liberal centrist academic.

Cathy, seems I can always count on you to take the sensible route when it comes to civil liberties and academic freedom. Thanks.

Sort of rambling here, but it's late, I'm grading, and I opened a good bottle of Pinot...

I'm a biology professor, and lately I find myself nervous, uncomfortable and anxious when I say things like "selection" or "evolutionarily conserved" in class. Feels like I am talking about Religion, which I would otherwise never do, in class, and at risk of offending some of my students.

On the other hand, this Larry Summers hulabaloo makes me nervous about expressing my centrist views to my more liberal colleagues, at least before I get tenure.

Lippard said...

Arizona Senate Majority Leader Thayer Verschoor is at it again.