Short Attention Span Politics

When conservative activist group “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth”, fueled by some 30 million (!) dollars from Bush supporters, attacked John Kerry in his Presidential bid for falsifying his decorated service in Vietnam, the voting public felt that Kerry had not adequately defended himself against the charges. Too bad for us.

The New York Times is reporting today that Kerry and his staff have quietly continued the fight and are soon prepared to release a report that they say will clearly and definitively exonerate him of every charge that was once leveled against him. “While it would be easy to see this as part of Mr. Kerry’s exploration of another presidential run,” reports the Times, “his friends say the Swift boat charges struck at an experience so central to his identity that he would want to correct the record even if he were retiring from public life.” Stay tuned, I promise to link to the report when it is published.


Academic Responsibility and Political Speech

With the recent publication of the University of Colorado-Boulder’s board on academic misconduct’s findings on May 6, 2000 regarding the Ward Churchill controversy, issues of academic freedom are once again brought to the forefront. Recently, the online magazine Inside Higher Ed published a series of perspectives on Churchill, centering largely around the ACTA report “How Many Word Churchills.” The principle author of that report Anne D. Neal defends her position explaning herself against recent attacks, alongside a counterpoint by Dennis Baron. I leafed through the report, which is billed as a “survey” of course catalogues at American Universities, but found no indication of the perameters or procedures employed for the survey, no statistical analysis of language used in college catalogues, only a recurring claim that the anecdotes offered therein are shockingly “ordinary.”

Some claim that the ACTA is simply another right-wing witchunt, but then-again others claim that Churchill and the majority of University professors are in fact advancing a left-wing conspiracy to undermine democratic education. I’m afraid that debate won’t get us very far. (In an interseting aside, if you Google ‘Ward Churchill academic freedom,’ you will find 375,000 entries, of which the leading are largely right-leaning, while if you Google ‘Ward Churchill academic responsibility’ you find 100,000 fewer entries, of which the leading are left-leaning.)

I did find a real debate between Churchill and David Horrowitz. Given what appears to be the rather one-sided nature of the forum in which the debate occurs, the discussion is actually fairly enlightening. It seems that the basic lines of the debate run something like this: Horrowitz and his supporters think that politics should be removed from the classroom in favor of “professional,” scientific objectivity. Classrooms, according to Horrowitz, are not the appropriate forum for educators to voice their political opinions. He includes in his list of deplorable trends on college campuses the usual women’s studies, ethnic studies, queer theory, peace studies, and somewhat surprisingly now “social work” based on a particular course at Kansas State University that really got under his skin. The former are a new crop of concentrations at major universities, they are rarely given the status of a university degree offering and even more rarely support tenured chairs. The latter, however, is a very interesting study, since Horrowitz suggests that this is part of a broad trend in the marxist-driven politics of social work. However, the above course will not be found available to social work degree seekers, but is available as a part of the Women’s Center at KSU. Horrowitz’s main point seems to be that professors are not politicians, they are not elected to their position and do not serve at the mercy of their constituents, and so they should not speak politically.

Churchill, for his part, argues, through many detailed historical accounts of academic oppression and historical prejudices being passed off as doctrine, that there is no such thing–especially in a discipline like Native American history–of abstracting political opinion from the classroom, the subject-matter itself demands a discussion of political opinions. His argument is that a “professor’s” implicit job is to “profess” his or her opinions (pay no attention to the dubious etymology behind the curtain). In the end, he claims that only those who challenge the “status quo” are submitted to the tribunal of scientific legitimacy, whereas all interpretations of history are simply the advancement of a certain perspective.

We could enter a long debate on those juicy morcels. But what is the role of the University in educating the public? The German academic paradigm, upon which the American University system is largely based, believed that by training and disciplining the imagination of the citizenry, that they would develop a robust and moral nation-state. The process was called Bildung, which carries a close resemblance to a word the German idealists use for imagination, Bildungskraft, also closely related to the German word for picture Bild. Thus, the idea was to develop a publicly shared imagination that would inform the moral actions of the people. (The idea had some rather unfortunate historical consequences.) In order to be able to do this, professors could not be beholden to a small subset of the population (a board of directors, for instance) but were conceived as stewards of the state itself, so that they could freely serve the common good.

This, of course, is the conceptual grandfather of “tenure” and the much-maligned encadrement of the “ivory tower.” As somewhat of an aside, it should not be overlooked that this debate about “academic fredom” is going to have important consequences in the related trend in Universities to eliminate tenured positions in favor of short-term contracts and adjunct positions. But in a strictly pedagogical context, University professors have the duty to connect with the opinions of their students, to stimulate them and broaden them to as maximally general a domain as possibile without loosing their particular foundations. Indeed, the particular foundation of those opinions is often emotional, that “gut reaction” that accompanies conviction. Professors are not politicians and should not try to be. But perhaps it would not be entirely inappropriate for professors to elicit the opinions of their students by articulating the sometimes controversial opinions of themselves or others.

I recommend to everyone to read some of Ward Churchill’s responses to the recent criticism (a task from which he has not backed down) because he is an articulate person, whatever the status of the charges now confirmed against him. We should also reconsider the essence of what it was that got Churchill into so much trouble. He claimed that 9-11 was a case of “chickens coming home to roost.” He did this in a rather insensitive way, referring as he did to the victims of 9-11 as “little Eichmanns,” but it is grosso modo in line with what other intellectuals and journalists had also said in the aftermath of 9-ll: for example, Jean Baudrillard, Noam Chomsky, and Robert Fisk.

For some, this may not be the highest of compliments: to be associated with these clearly neo-marxist liberal populists. But at least neither the academic credentials of Baudrillard and Chomsky, nor the journalistic credentials of Robert Frisk can be questioned. In fact, what makes all of these critiques similar is that they each ask us to question why did something like 9-11 happen to America, why the World Trade Center? Even if it is commonplace to say that the “world changed” after 9-11, wouldn’t we like to know the conditions that brought about such a change? Would it be historically and academically irresponsible to probe into that question? Perhaps you wish that Churchill–or Baudrillard for that matter–did it with a bit more tact. But that’s really a semantic issue, isn’t it?

I will leave you with what I think is a wonderful historical document in its own right and I think highlights the legitimacy of that question. It’s a video of Robert Fisk giving a talk at MIT in February of 2003 called “Ask All You Like About 9-11, But Just Don’t Ask Why.” I was at this talk, watching on a screen in one of several overflow rooms at MIT. Frisk had just come to Boston via New York City where he attended (what is now commonly agreed to be) the shameful presentation of then Secretary of State Collin Powell to the UN Security Council making the case for war in Iraq. Frisk opens with his account of this presentation and then proceeds, in his own way, to render the events that led up to 9-11, describe the current status of Iraq and demostrate the absolute incredulity of any possible connection between Sadaam Hussein and Al Qaeda. In a particularly chilling segment, he shows a series of pictures of a children’s hospital where hundreds of Iraqi children were dying (very quickly) of strange cancers. He suggests that perhaps the use of small-scale nuclear warheads (the first-Gulf’s version of the “bunker buster”) may have something to do with it. Who knows?

But maybe asking some tough questions would not have been such a bad idea after all.

Update* 02-22-2007: For historical purposes, I recently discovered this article written by someone I respect who was the  chair of the philosophy department at CU during the Churchill ordeal. His position is instructive, clear and free from politicking. And the ultimate conclusion about Churchill is not very positive.

High-tech “Cheaters”

An article by Ira Socol, “Stop Chasing High-Tech Cheaters,” itself a response to recent NYT article, “Colleges Chases as Cheats Shift to Higher Tech,” presents a very interesting issue concerning evaluation procedures in institutions of higher ed. Perhaps these different perspectives represent a changing of the guard in terms of teaching methods: the younger generation of grad students like Socol embrace methods of “research”/”cheating” enabled by newer technology, while the older generation cringes at the thought that students might use “spell check” on in-class exams (prompting one journalism professor to have his students write their computer-aided exams with screens facing him). In any case, I am sure that my colleagues and friends are forced to ponder, as grading season is in full force, how should we evaluate our students?

Socol’s argument isn’t perfect, but I do like the perspective it offers. I had a wonderful High School biology professor, Dr. King, who used to say that you shouldn’t have to learn anything you could find out by looking up. In our Google-ized world, it may seem that there is very little left to know that cannot be “looked up” instantaneously. I sympathize with the remark, cited by Socol, “Why aren’t colleges teaching students how to research, organize and evaluate the information that is out there?” instead of continuing to demand from them rote memorization of facts that could so easily be found on-line.

Well, I agree that what we need to teach is effective research methods. But what are those methods? And could they include perhaps some of the mechanical practices that students have been tested on for ages? For instance, I have my students write in-class exams because I feel that one important skill in conducting research is the capacity to organize thoughts quickly and spontaneously, and then write these out coherently. I also think that handwriting is important, even in our world of the emerging hand-held PC, because hand-written notes cannot be eliminated when organizing research. I also personally find that there is something added by physically altering what one is working on (but that may be itself passé). However, the proposition I submit to my students is this: if your thoughts are not legible, they are not intelligible, and so they are not useful for research. In short, there certainly are some “old fashioned” practices, such as memorization, good spelling, etc. that remain indispensable, even in a high-tech world.

There is, of course, the issue of citation, which is an important research skill that I find very few college students have mastered. But I don’t see why this couldn’t be integrated with the use of new technologies. Websites ought to be cited just as books or articles ought to be cited. And perhaps technologically related techniques (such as word-searching an electronic database) ought to be acknowledged in certain cases.

The thing that always struck me about the outrage against cheaters is that it seems to be fueled by a kind of moral taboo: that there are certain practices which ought to be absolutely forbidden. For my part, I prefer a more aesthetic judgment: poor work is poor work and students who cheat generally do poor work. Apart from the wholesale purchasing of pre-written papers, something that I have never personally encountered, any case of cheating ought to be fairly recognizable: there are invariably sudden shifts in subject-matter and diction, students use obscure material not covered in the course, or introduce an example or fact without the requisite development and understanding of it. But these stylistic indicators of a “cheater” are also simply indications of poorly written papers. In my view they should be graded accordingly.

What is more, if paper topics and exam questions are geared toward evaluating what students have learned from the course, then issue of cheating should effectively be moot. That is to say, Googled research or purchased external papers are obviously not going to pertain directly to what particular instructors have taught in their particular courses. So these students will fail to demonstrate that they have actually internalized the teaching from the course. But herein lies the rub: how do we really evaluate the learning process? How do we judge whether students have internalized the infomation and methods that we are trying to convey to them?

Maybe the moral outrage against “cheating” funnels a deeper frustration about how to approach the very difficult task that is education.

Catholic Institutions of Higher Education: Some Paradoxes

This year’s graduation speakers provide a very interesting commentary on the paradoxical status of moral teaching at our religious institutions of higher learning. I am an academic; hope to continue to be one for as long as possible. And I am a religious person. I have also had the, somewhat coincidental, experience of attending Catholic institutions of higher education for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees.

This year, one of those institutions Boston College gave Condoleezza Rice the honor of being the commencement speaker. Students protested. Faculty protested. There was a very intelligent student-generated petition against the invitation. Adjunct professor Steve Almond resigned. Some of the arguments guiding these actions focused on Boston College’s status as a Jesuit institution, stating that Rice’s actions as National Security advisor directly conflict with “Catholic values.” Almond went so far as to state quite clearly that “Rice is a liar.” But in every case, at least some effort was made to suggest that Condoleeza Rice’s decisions in the past undermined her moral authority to provide the kind of wisdom that is supposed to be imparted from the podium during graduations.

In a wonderfully ironic twist, Rice’s speech focused on “responsibility.”

Meanwhile, at a small catholic school in St. Paul Minnesota, the University of St. Thomas, a senior chosen to address the student body declared that faculty members who wanted to share a room together on school-sponsored trips, as well as–get this–women who use “the pill” are being “selfish” and ignoring the greater good for short term pleasure. While many students and parents walked out in disgust, while still others booed and shouted insults, the dean who followed the student’s speech called it “courageous.”

Religious institutions of higher education, it would seem, are some of the last vestiges of the kind of education that trains, not only the mind, but the soul. It used to be the case that all forms of education were envisaged in these terms, but now there are only a few institutions who are openly willing to acknowledge that they stand by a certain set of moral values and that these inform their educational practices.

But how far have we come, if what we take to be the best kind of moral education is to tell a handful of people how they should conduct themselves in the bedroom, while at the same time rewarding and encouraging figureheads of the state who–at the very least–are not above reproach for having directed our country’s citizens, resources, and attention to what is quite clearly an unnecessary and extraordinarily costly war.

Come down to the Pireaus

Welcome to

The Pireaus is an ancient port city near Athens that was a stronghold for the Athenian navy during the Peloponnesian Wars. It is also the setting for Plato’s Republic. In Greek history, it is the site of both real and imagined battle, discourse and exchange.

About a year ago, while engaged in a heated philosophical debate with some close friends, one of them leaned over to me and said, “we all have to go down to the Pireaus, Nathan.” I responded, “But the real question is: where is the Pireaus?”

This blog is an attempt to create an imaginary space of dialogue and diffusion of ideas: a port of exchange, a place to see the sights, a place to meet friends and enemies, and above all a place to engage our minds in the real world.