The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Politics is about winning.  If you don't win, you don't get to put your principles into practice.  Therefore, find a way to win, or sit the battle out.".... ....David Horowitz.

Commentary of the Day - March 19, 2007: Who Needs a Student Bill of Rights?  Guest Commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

Nearly twenty years ago, Andreas Serrano's photograph, "Piss Christ," was so offensive that it led to calls that the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which had supported Serrano's work, be scrapped entirely, or at the very least, have its funding  drastically cut.  Taxpayers  made it clear that they didn't want their dollars going to the likes of Serrano.

My hunch is that the clamor caused future NEA panelists to act more responsibly.  Some in the arts community defended Serrano while others wrote him off as a publicity-seeking jerk; but, everybody  agreed that it was far better if decisions about who received NEA grants were left to arts professionals rather than to legislators -- and this remained true even if a panel here or there came up with a winner who displeased members of the taxpaying public.

I revisit what was once a cultural battle royal because we have a new one currently brewing on many of our campuses.  It's the push for a Student Bill of Rights.  And for those who wonder how I would  answer the question my title poses, let me make it clear that nobody needs a Student Bill of Rights -- not students, not teachers, and most assuredly not deans who will have to listen to sob stories served up  by students who figure that they got a D or an F because their  instructors were far left ideologues.

In fact, the only people who will benefit are politicians and pundits on the far right of the political spectrum.  They imagine, quite wrongly, that liberal professors are engaged in a vast conspiracy to indoctrinate a whole generation of  undergraduates.  That's where the Student Bill of Rights comes in.  It will protect these students from undue coercion and unfair punishment.

Enter David Horowitz  whose recent book, Indoctrination U.: The Left’s War Against Academic Freedom, mounts up case after case in which the lectern has been used to turn unwary students into radical  leftists.  No doubt some professors are "true believers" of the sort that Horowitz calls to task, but most fall into much milder categories: the teacher who can't quite resist making an anti-Bush crack, even though the course in question is Chemistry 101, or the teacher who takes a provocative position in the hope that it will spark discussion.

When the Pennsylvania legislature held year-long hearings about the extent of indoctrination in the state's public colleges and universities, they concluded that the problem that was agitating so many conservatives simply didn't exist.  No less a personage than Horowitz himself addressed the hearings but each of his examples melted into air.  They were either misrepresentations, or myths.  In fact, what the lawmakers learned is that self-identified conservative students received higher grades than did their self-identified liberal counterparts.  So much for the tyranny of grade givers.

As a firm defender of our nation’s Bill of Rights, I give the new bills-of-rights on the block a fish eye.  This includes some reservations I have about the Patients Bill of Rights, the Passengers Bill of Rights, and most certainly the Student Bill of Rights as well as something I ran across on the internet called the "Math Challenged Students Bill of Rights."

Is this true that the majority of college professors identify themselves as liberals?  Yes.  But it is also true that the vast majority of them are consummate professionals when it comes to liberal learning's mission of pursuing the truth wherever it might lead.

Most of the push for student rights comes from those who encourage students to bring cell phones and mini-recorders to class in the hope that they can catch their professor "on tape."  That's why many of them sign up for a controversial course in the first place.  Efforts to turn students into agent provocateurs give me the willies, and have no place in institutions of higher learning.  But neither do professors who try to indoctrinate their students.

One fellow emeritus professor assured me that students cannot, in fact, be indoctrinated, nor, he went on, can most of them be liberally  educated.  The bald truth is not that they are highly skeptical (which is fine) but that they are disinterested and many are busy sending text-messages to their friends as teachers, the good, the bad, as well as the ugly, try hard to "teach."

I hasten to make it clear that I am not so cynical.  Whatever else our students may be, they don't deserve being written off as so much tuition-paying fodder.  But they also don't deserve abuse by the legitimate cases Horowitz has unearthed.  However, a Student Bill of Rights is not the best way to handle the few bad apples in the academic barrel.  Disciplinary committees already exist, and it is fairly easy, either by way of student evaluation  forms or the grapevine, to learn which professors have crossed the line.  They should be dealt with promptly, and in ways that send a clear message about what behaviors are inappropriate.

And as for the Student Bill of Rights, let's agree to call it the red herring it always was and still is.

2007 Sanford Pinsker.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin & Marshall College.  Sanford divides his time between the New Jersey shore and the Florida shore -- what a life!  He is a frequent contributor to The Irascible Professor.

The IP comments:  While David Horowitz's attempts to legislate "Student Bills of Rights" in the various states carry with them a superficial veneer of respectability and reasonableness they are essentially disingenuous.  He has no real interest in a "balanced" presentation of views.  Horowitz, himself, is as much an ultra-right-wing "true believer" as any of the "lefties" he assails.  The problem with folks on the outer edges of the political spectrum, whether left or right, is that they tend to view the world in absolutes.  When it comes to rational debate it's their way or the highway.  If the shoe were on the other foot, and the majority of faculty members were self-described conservatives rather than self-described liberals, it is highly unlikely that Horowitz would have his knickers in a knot over the lack of a "Student Bill of Rights".  But as Sanford so correctly points out, very few college professors are political extremists.  True, most are probably more liberally inclined than say the Wall Street Journal editorial board or the lineup of commentators on the Fox News Channel.  But just as there is no need for a "Newspaper Readers Bill of Rights" or a "Cable News Channel Viewers Bill of Rights", there is no need for a "Students Bill of Rights".  Few of our students are so naive as to either fall for or stand for political indoctrination in the classroom.  In more than 36 years in the academy, the IP has become acquainted with many hundreds of faculty members -- some liberal and some conservative in their political views; but only a handful of those were guilty of the kind of misbehavior that Horowitz imagines.  There are better ways to deal with them than the kind of large scale witch hunts that Horowitz would employ.

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