by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Opinions are made to be changed -- or how is truth to be got at?"... ...Lord Byron.
Commentary of the Day - September 30, 2002: Thought Control in Disguise?
During the past two weeks there has been a dandy discussion going on in the Colloquy section of The Chronicle of Higher Education regarding a set of "discussion guidelines" developed by Professor Lynn Weber, who now teaches in the Women's Studies program at the University of South Carolina at Columbia. Weber has been using her guidelines for 18 years in courses at South Carolina and at other campuses where she has taught in the past. However, a student in one of her recent classes though not disagreeing with the ideas expressed in the guidelines, felt that they were inappropriate because they could be viewed as requiring her to agree with the (instructor's) thinking expressed in the guidelines. The student complained to The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which in turn complained to campus administrators at South Carolina. This started a freewheeling debate both on and off the campus.
The guidelines in question follow:1. Acknowledge that racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and other institutionalized forms of oppression exist. *To many, these guidelines just epitomize the desire of the academic Left, or what passes for it these days, to impose its viewpoints on unsuspecting students. However, as reported in Thomas Bartlett's background article in the Chronicle, some academics feel that the guidelines do nothing more than guarantee a "safe" classroom environment for discussion. For example, Bartlett notes that Professor Rosalie Stone of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln feels that guidelines do not impose an ideology but only help to ensure "civil, respectful, and safe" discussion. However, the letter from Alan Charles Kors, president of FIRE, to John M. Palms, president of the University of South Carolina, argues that Weber's guidelines represent a genuine threat to freedom of speech and freedom of conscience because they require students to accept a particular political orthodoxy.
2. Acknowledge that one mechanism of institutionalized racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, etc., is that we are all systematically taught misinformation about our own group and about members of other groups. This is true for members of privileged and oppressed groups.
3. Agree not to blame ourselves or others for the misinformation we have learned, but to accept responsibility for not repeating misinformation after we have learned otherwise.
4. Assume that people -- both the groups we study and the members of the class -- always do the best they can.
5. Actively pursue information about our own groups and those of others.
6. Share information about our groups with other members of the class and we will never demean, devalue, or in any way "put down" people for their experiences.
7. Agree to combat actively the myths and stereotypes about our own groups and other groups so that we can break down the walls that prohibit group cooperation and group gain.
8. Create a safe atmosphere for open discussion. If members of the class may wish to make comments that they do not want repeated outside the classroom, they can preface their remarks with a request that the class agree not to repeat the remarks.
* Many other institutionalized forms of oppression could be listed here. A more complete list might include age, ethnicity, disability, color, national origin, and physical appearance. Although the major focus is on the four oppressions listed, analogies can fairly easily be made to other forms.
Note: These guidelines were developed by Lynn Weber and published in Women's Studies Quarterly 18 (Spring/Summer 1990).
The IP tends to agree with FIRE's position on this issue. Certainly, some -- if not all -- of the guidelines are debatable. For example, it is almost laughable to assume that everyone does the best that he or she can. Some people try harder than others in a variety of circumstances. Some develop their talents, while others do not.
Perhaps the feature of the "guidelines" that the IP finds most offensive are the assumptions that they make about "groups". They create the impression that individuals simply are the sum of the groups that they belong to or are associated with. If there is anything intelligent that can be said about groups of human beings, it is Stephen Jay Gould's observation that the variation among members of a group far exceeds any differences between groups.
For example, when the IP listens to Colin Powell and Al Sharpton speak he is not struck by how alike they are because of their "blackness", but rather at the extreme difference in their worldviews. Likewise, when he reads the speeches of Linda Chavez and Cesar Chavez he is not struck by their "Latinoness" but again by the extreme differences in their positions. The same can be said for Justice Scalia and Senator Ted Kennedy. It is not their "whiteness" or their "Catholicness" that is important.
Regarding people simply as members of groups seems to the IP to be inherently a "put down". The IP is not so naive as to assume that racist or sexist views are thing of the past; however, it seems to him that one of the roles of academia in America ought to be to transcend the artificial barriers of race, ethnicity, and gender.
If guidelines are needed to ensure that class discussions are fair, civil, and free from gratuitous personal attacks; those guidelines should address behavior and not ideas. Students should be safe from threatening and insulting behavior in the classroom; however, they should not be shielded from ideas that they may find unsettling. As someone once said, the role of education is not to make ideas safe for students, but to make students safe for ideas.