Classroom diversity

by Henry Farrell on March 25, 2005

For some revealing insights as to where David Horowitz’s so-called Academic Bill of Rights is bringing us, check out Scott Jaschik’s article today in Inside Higher Ed. Dennis K. Baxley, who is one of Jeb Bush’s allies has gotten a bill based on the Bill of Rights approved by the relevant committee in the Florida House of Representatives. The reasoning behind his sponsorship?

Baxley said his own undergraduate education at Florida State University — in the 1970s — illustrated the failings of higher education: The problem was that an anthropology professor “did a tirade” in his course that evolution was correct and that creationism was not. Baxley said that students should not “get blasted” as he did for not believing in evolution.

When Florida legislators say that students need to be exposed to a ‘diverse’ set of viewpoints, they aren’t joking around. I could make the obvious sarcastic comments about requiring geographers to recognize flat earth theory as a valid point of view in the classroom and so on, but this isn’t funny – it’s rather horrifying.

Update: bad link fixed.

Update2: I should of course have linked to Ted’s earlier post on the same topic.

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The American Street » Blog Archive » Extreme leftist totalitarian evilutionist reporting for duty!
03.27.05 at 10:56 am



Steve LaBonne 03.25.05 at 1:11 pm

Those in the academic world who claim to have fashionable doubts about Enlightenment values might want to think long and hard right now about whether they really want to return to the 17th Century. Because in the United States as it exists today, the 17th Century- not some imagined postmodern Utopia- is the only alternative on offer. I don’t see how anybody who’s watched the religious right’s Big Lie Machine at work over the Schiavo fiasco can doubt that.


Winston Smith 03.25.05 at 1:14 pm

Yes, this guy is a nut. Yes, the “Academic Freedom Bill of Rights” is a very bad thing. But that doesn’t mean that academia doesn’t have a problem.

I think higher education is important, and I think that objectivity in the classroom is important. I know that many of my colleagues are rather far to the left and extremely outspoken. I know that some of them are fairly closed-minded. I have had students tell me that listening to (mostly lefty) tirades is just something that they learn to put up with. All these things add up, I believe, to a prima facie case that we should take this problem seriously and at least look into it.

It is, I’d say, the liberal thing to do. Liberalism as I understand it views all bias as wrong–liberal bias included.

No relativistic conclusions follow from this. The evidence favors evolution, so we present the evidence. Good evidence speaks to those who have ears to hear. The rest–well, there’s nothing to be done for them, anyway. Berating them isn’t the solution.


Raimo 03.25.05 at 1:14 pm

Would it help if someone pointed out that Darwin had a theology degree?


Cranky Observer 03.25.05 at 1:17 pm

The best class I ever took in my life was as an undergradute: a 300-level survey of political theory. The professor was one of the last avowed Marxists in the United States and really disliked the incumbent President.

But he knew his theory backwards and forwards, and gave clear and accurate lectures on all main strands of Western political thought. Although it was not hard to tell what his personal beliefs were, he did an equally good job with all the sources.

In fact one day one of the fresh-scrubbed College Republicans tried to challenge him on a point, and he crushed the guy not by telling him he was wrong or intimidating him with what would be called today “PC”, but by tracing the development of the Repubs own beliefs from orgin to modern times and demonstrating he was violating most of them. Talk about ouch.

I like to think that kind of professionalism is still out there. Is it oh academic timbers?



Daryl McCullough 03.25.05 at 1:25 pm

winston smith writes: Liberalism as I understand it views all bias as wrong–liberal bias included.

I appreciate the sentiment, but is it really possible to live without biases? What exactly would that mean? That you give equal consideration to all opinions? I just don’t think that’s possible. On any given topic, there will be thousands, if not millions of different opinions. There is just no way to sort them all out and give each one its day in court.

I don’t think that being unbiased is the correct goal—instead one should be open to changing one’s opinions, and one should constantly question one’s own beliefs. But it isn’t possible to live without bias, I don’t think.


Ted 03.25.05 at 1:29 pm


Does your university have any mechanisms in place to deal with student complaints about abusive professors? Abusiveness seems like a problem obviously worth dealing with (without involving the courts). I’d be surprised if students don’t have some sort of recourse, even if few took advantage of it. I could be wrong, though.


bruce 03.25.05 at 1:32 pm

‘The problem was that an anthropology professor “did a tirade” in his course that evolution was correct and that creationism was not.’

This is like a bad king fu movie. Dennis K. Baxley is humiliated as a young man by a master of Liberal Professor style kung fu — the same style of kung fu that killed Baxley’s Father (in heaven) — so young Baxley has dedicated himself to the attainment of great power via State Legislature Logroller Style kung fu — and now, at last, vengeance can be his!


Rob 03.25.05 at 1:48 pm

The only professors I know who tend to bleat on about their worldview tend to be Objectivists. I had Jesuits teach me about atheism and had less preaching going on.


Winston Smith 03.25.05 at 1:56 pm

I think it’s wrong to focus on limiting cases and highly-theoretical questions here. I’m not talking about the possibility of attaining pure objectivity, I’m talking about being ordinarily, achievably unbiased. Whether pure objectivity is humanly attainable is an interesting question, but not one I think we need to answer in this case.

I’m thinking of sub-optimal pedagogical conduct that falls far short of what any sensible person could call abuse. In fact, I guess you could say that my worry is that, by making a non-abusive but still-irresponsible degree of bias acceptable in the classroom, we may have more-or-less invited over-reaction by conservatives.

Incidentally, I sorta think that may be part of what happened back in the ’80’s with the PC stuff. There was a lot of illiberal stuff going on on campus, but liberals let it slide because it came from the illiberal left rather than the illiberal right. I think that gave lots of energy to conservatives, and that’s partially responsible for the contemporary ascendancy of the right. That’s mostly a hunch, but read the first chapter of David Brock’s _Blinded by the Right_, about his experience at Berkeley and how it drove him to the right, for some supporting evidence.


james 03.25.05 at 1:57 pm

I have personally seen the head of a department literally scream at a student over a difference of opinion concerning lead paint removal. The department head was a good teacher and well respected. He also later apologized.

It is ridiculous to assume that teachers will never become emotional or belligerent when discussing a touchy subject. A problem arises if they use their position of authority to “punish” a student with a different view point.

Along similar lines, another problem is when a university institutionalizes a “correct” view point. Especially concerning views that are largly opinion based.


Andrew Bartlett 03.25.05 at 2:01 pm

“No relativistic conclusions follow from this. The evidence favors evolution, so we present the evidence. Good evidence speaks to those who have ears to hear.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t really true, at least not in the practice of our lives. A persuasive speaker (or writer, or filmmaker) can make use of the evidence to draw his listeners to entirely the wrong conclusion. If this were not true, then we would all be able to ‘do’ science well – once presented with the evidence the truth will be revealed. As this is not the case, we must conclude that there is a significant creative aspect to science, in drawing conclusions from the evidence. And this is what is infuriating about the creationists – they attempt to remove necessary parts of science education from the teaching of evolution – in the hope that the presentation of the bare evidence, which they know in itself to be an inadequate persuasive tool (necessarily so, this is not some failing of the theory of evolution), will lead students to conclude that their parents and pastors (who are conducting persuasive work) are correct. After all God is great, isn’t he? You hear that every day in America.


Giles 03.25.05 at 2:08 pm

Aside from biological anthpolgy, is a belief in evolution necessary to study most of anthropopgy? I think the point being made is not that, as cranky facilely observes, politics should be taken out of political theory, but rather it (or fundamentalist secularism) should be taken out of places (not by law though) it doesn’t belong. If evolution was not necessary to the teaching of the subject, then why launch a tirade.

To give another analogy – suppose that you were teaching economics (or doing business) in Riyadh – would you launch a tirade about how dumb it is to consider interest as Usury or show some respect to your students and capitalize the interest when doing the derivations?

So while the bills dumb its worth addressing the sort of issues that gave rise to it – at least if you don’t want to see this sort of thing become widespread.


Aeon J. Skoble 03.25.05 at 2:15 pm

“The legislation requires faculty members to expose their students to a wide variety of viewpoints”
Since when is legislation necessary for this? Any prof worth his or her salt already does this. What makes this complicated is that it fuses two issues: 1, the creationism issue and 2, the Bauerlein/PC-group-think issue. I think there’s a difference between expecting ideological diversity in a political theory class and expecting scientists to teach flat-earth theory. But even if Horowitz and this legislation overstate the case, Bauerline’s original point was a decent one.


catfish 03.25.05 at 2:16 pm

Thank God that this legislator used evolution as his example of totalitarian left-wing bias. This will have much less credibility than other examples that he might have chosen.

Unfortunately, anybody who cares about the reasonable functioning of the University is left with the defense that classroom authority is sometimes liable to abuse, but the abuse in this case is unlikely to cause serious or permanent harm. The proposed cure, in any case, is much worse than the disease, an amputation to cure a sprained ankle.

Now principled conservatives should be able to understand this argument because its one they make all the time with respect to economic and environmental regulations. It will be interesting to see if there are any in Florida’s Republican party.


jre 03.25.05 at 2:17 pm


One notes approvingly that Florida was

to the forward-looking

Cyrus Teed,
whose courage in defying solid-earth orthodoxy foreshadowed the flowering of scientific inquiry now represented by our intrepid Intelligent Design advocates.

Maybe, if this bill passes, we can get Florida to mandate that solid-earth and hollow-earth theories of geology be taught side-by-side.


Uncle Kvetch 03.25.05 at 2:28 pm

I guess professors of historical linguistics had better start boning up on the story of the Tower of Babel…


Barry Freed 03.25.05 at 2:32 pm

Giles: If its Physical Anthropology then evolutionary theory is very much essential to the subject. I can’t believe I even had to write that.

I do Religious Studies but mayhap I can teach my “Theory of the Brontosaurus”?

This line of Baxley’s takes the cake:

But Baxley brushed off Gelber’s concerns. “Freedom is a dangerous thing, and you might be exposed to things you don’t want to hear,” he said.



lemuel pitkin 03.25.05 at 2:39 pm

“Liberalism as I understand it views all bias as wrong—liberal bias included. No .”

Look, there are plenty of unsettled questions on which a teacher’s duty is to present the arguments on both sides. And there are also plenty of settled matters of fact on which a teacher’s duty is to present the correct information.

Winston Smith knows this, Dennis Baxley knows this, eevryone knows it.

The question here has NOTHING to do with universities or pedagogy in geenral. It is simply which of thsoe two categories evolution falls in.

I think evolution is settled fact. If Winston Smith thinks it’s not, fine, but to pretend this is an arguent about academic first principles is just dishonest.


Marc 03.25.05 at 2:47 pm

Evolution is the foundation of all modern biology. The alternative is asserting that miracles are responsible for speciation. If you reject the idea that you can actually apply the scientific method to human evolution…how can you justify applying it to any other area of anthropology? Saying that UFOs planted the giant statues on Easter Island has the same standing as “Intelligent Design”.

Evolution through natural selection is as scientifically controversial as the germ theory of disease or the Special Theory of Relativity. If it makes some Americans uncomfortable – too bad. Stalinists didn’t like it either. If I wanted an example of why this is a bad idea, in fact, I couldn’t pick a better one that evolution. It’s a scientific idea with tremendous support from many avenues, and it is badly misunderstood by a large fraction of Americans. The answer isn’t to water down a powerful idea because it offends some people – the answer is better education so that misunderstandings of science are reduced.


Aeon J. Skoble 03.25.05 at 3:01 pm

Pitkin says here what I was trying to say, but couldn’t quite articulate (my brain’s fried from grading midterms):
“Look, there are plenty of unsettled questions on which a teacher’s duty is to present the arguments on both sides. And there are also plenty of settled matters of fact on which a teacher’s duty is to present the correct information.”


Richard Bellamy 03.25.05 at 3:52 pm

So, in college I had this political science course taught be a self-avowed “Marxist.” He gave us broad ranging reading materials, but spent every class trying to convince us of the truth of value of Marxism (as this was in 1992, he didn’t get many converts).

Anyway, a whole semester of this, and then the final exam came. He hands out the final exam questions, and says, “I didn’t include any questions about Marxism, because I wasn’t sure whether I could grade them objectively.”

It was, seriously, all I studied for the class. I ended up getting a B-, I think. I still get angry thinking about his sudden conversion to objectivity.


Winston Smith 03.25.05 at 4:01 pm

Do I not think that the theory of evolution is true? Dang, I’m an idiot.


catfish 03.25.05 at 4:09 pm

Ok, I’ve read the text of the bill and the report. By themselves, most of the provisions seem unobjectionable. As a statement of principles in a college catalog, they would be fine. There are a couple of problems in the implementation, however. First, the point of the law is that it allows students to take their grievances to court. In some cases, this is redundant. For example, under current law, students could take their case to court if they were marked down due to their political or religious beliefs. Certainly, they could charge breach of contract, couldn’t they?

The thing that is really troubling however, is that it would allow students to bring legal action if the professor introduced controversial material that is not relevant to course content or pedagogie. The courts would thus, have to determine this. What a mess. So I guess the court would appoint “outside experts” like David Horowitz and Stanley Fish to judge whether “controversial material” (undefined by the legislation) is relevant to the course or teaching.

Please rightists, is this what you want? Do you really think that University education will be improved by involving the legal system, the same legal system whose interference you are trying to reduce in medical, environmental, and commercial cases?


T. Paine 03.25.05 at 4:21 pm

The issue here is not, and never has been, whether or not students are exposed to a wide variety of viewpoints in their classrooms. Ward Churchill’s lectures make many of his students uncomfortable, but that has more to do with the information he presents and less to do with some imagined liberal bias to his curriculum. The conservatives are simply trying to constrain the range of information presented to students and so stifle critical assessment of America’s historical and contemporary actions. David Horowitz had a standing invitation from Ward Churchill to join the CU Ethnic Studies department, but for some strange reason he never capitalized on it. Until we hear calls for the same sort of ideological affirmative action in the business sector and the civil service, there is no reason to concede that a professor’s ideological leanings automatically makes his or her pedagogy suspect.


Paul 03.25.05 at 4:28 pm

I’m thinking of sub-optimal pedagogical conduct that falls far short of what any sensible person could call abuse.

That sounds suspiciously like a “hostile enviroment” claim, something I thought tough-minded conservatives either didn’t believe existed or didn’t believe legislation could ameliorate.

at least if you don’t want to see this sort of thing become widespread

I’d fight this nonsense if I were a Fla legislator, but since I’m not, nor even a Fla resident, I say “Bring it on!” Not only would I delight in watching Jeb! burn his Universities to the ground, I will delight in watching it inevitably turned against conservative institutions, too.

No, the threat of it becoming widespread doesn’t scare me at all. Who am I to stop Americans from embracing idiots if they choose?


Jay C 03.25.05 at 4:30 pm

The first, and most mind-boggling, WTF!!!-producing thing about this whole “Academic Freedom Bill of Rights” mishegoss is the fact that anyone in possession of all their faculties would ever listen to, much less act on, a recommendation from David Horowitz for anything whatsoever.
The second awful thing about this proposed bill (for which legislative abortion before it gets out of the “recommendation” stage is the only remedy, IMO) is that it is specifically aimed at (otherwise undefined) “leftist totalitarian ideology” – and, as catfish notes above, basically allows (if not actively encourages) students with academic greivances to appeal to the court system for relief on, fundmentally, grounds of “political correctness”.

The mind boggles at the thought of the sort of “affadavits” that might be filed in support of such claims……

“To the Florida Supeerier Cort:
Dear You’re Honor:
Proffesser X desurves 2 be fired from his Job becuz he is a leftist totalitararian Who has opprest me all Semestar and Unjustificably give me a D on my Term papir……..”


Giles 03.25.05 at 4:31 pm

Barry: Physical Anthropology is just another name for Biological Anthropology – I beleive – I can’t believe I wrote that ;)

“Please rightists, is this what you want?”

Err no – its just another nail against free speach.


Peggy 03.25.05 at 4:32 pm

As a resident of Massachusetts, whose excellent universities supply almost all of our economic future, I support this bill. In a partisan fashion, if the Republican states (and even California) were to adopt similar bills, Boston would be a boomtown.


aretino 03.25.05 at 4:34 pm

I went to graduate school (in a humanities field) at a prestigious secular private reasearch university. Every time I read about the scourge of tyrannical leftist professors, I ask myself , “Where the hell were they in the 80s and 90s when I was in school?”

I vividly remember the intolerant conservative stranglehold on my graduate department, and even my university.

Fully half of the dozen professors in our department, and almost all of those who had a say in running things, were right-wing nut jobs. They relentlessly pushed their extreme views — in and out of the classroom.

I remember the department chair who spent a whole two hours of a graduate seminar ranting about the evils of Jesse Jackson.

I remember the professor who spent an entire seminar expounding upon the physical and intellectual inferiority of women.

And then there was the department neo-Con — meaning neo-Confederate, in his case. At least that professor usually confined his apologetics for Southern racism to private conversations rather than wasting our class time with his ranting.

I remember the brilliant young professor they purged when they found out he hung out with too liberal a crowd on his own time.

The atmosphere at the university as a whole was little better. I particularly remember the Republican hecklers who came to disrupt talks by insufficiently conservative visiting speakers. The university administration never saw fit even to criticize those assaults on free speech.

Despite being surrounded by real academic bias every day, it never occurred to me to whine and pout and cry. I sucked it up and got on with life. So these pathetic mewlings from conservatives who imagine they are being dissed simply disgust me. Grow up, already!


Colin Danby 03.25.05 at 5:53 pm

Re: “It is ridiculous to assume that teachers will never become emotional or belligerent when discussing a touchy subject.”

I disagree. Becoming belligerent is bad teaching, period, and if you deal with “touchy” subjects you spend a lot of time preparing the ground and figuring out how to do it that people can learn something and discussions will not get personalized or divisive. Despite these efforts you still sometimes get tough situations, usually because of political disputes that break out among students that they want you to resolve. But if that happens you’ve got a pedagogical failure, because once people get into food-fight mode learning stops.

Teaching ideas requires getting people to the point that they can see what is smart in ideas they don’t agree with, and you don’t do that without giving them a range of ideas and a sense of genuine productive debate. There are few things more destructive to this than the idea that teachers are mere advocates for one or another kind of politics.

Or even mere advocates of larger doctrines: in reply to Mr. Labonne, for example, I’d note that I do want students to understand what the Enlightenment is and where it comes from and what its enormous strengths are, and it’s actually *hard* to do that if they don’t also grasp the points made by critics like Blake or Burke.

It’s not useful to try to collapse these controversies into the Enlightenment versus the 17th century. It’s also insulting to religious thought to equate it with the past or with the likes of Mr. Baxley.


Tcatch 03.25.05 at 8:26 pm

I don’t think it is so easy to distinguish good teaching from advocacy or even from belligerence.

As to the latter, one of the best things that happened to me in graduate school was getting chewed out (and I mean literally yelled at)in a seminar on Kant by the late George Schrader, Jr., who was offended by my Strawson-influenced perspective on the text and who was, at the time, having us read Kant in conjunction with Wilhelm Reich’s “The Mass Psychology of Fascism.” What was helpful about his anger was that it shocked me into reconsidering not so much Kant as what it meant to seriously engage in the study of a philosophical text. It would have been possible to see his treatment of me as abusive, I suppose, and as reflecting either a left-wing or an anti-analytic ‘bias’. (His reading of Kant was certainly politicized, and the department was engaged in a sort of civil war over ‘analytic’ vs. ‘continental’ conceptions of philosophy.) I was grateful (and still am) that he cared enough about his subject and his students to get mad and yell.


Eric 03.25.05 at 9:39 pm

As a relatively recent graduate, I’d like to make one thing clear: I’m willing to listen to any amount of brain-rotted, deconstructivist Derrida crap if that’s what it takes to keep crybaby students from suing the professors.

Sheesh, it’s like they don’t know how to write a BS paper and then cruelly mock the professor in private.


Colin Danby 03.25.05 at 11:57 pm

Well, one might make a partial exception for graduate seminars, in which participants should be on more of an equal footing (and perhaps you’re being trained to hold your own in professional life) but even there I wonder how useful yelling is and what kind of macho tone is set. My models in grad school were people who could find and convey the insights in a position they *didn’t* hold. And the last post shows one of the problems of the *assumption* of politicization which is that students will cynically submit the most appalling PC crap because they think it will get them an A. Once you reach that stage it’s very hard to get people back to the point of taking a subject seriously.


John Landon 03.26.05 at 12:15 am

Right wing attacks on liberal eduction is pretty horrifying, but evolution is a special case: it is possible to find flaws in the Darwinian theory of natural selection, and many did long ago before the right hijacked these critiques and repackaged them as Intelligent Design. It would be more strategic to have beaten the opposition to it, and acknowledged the problems here at the point before they become stultified by the design scam.


Steve LaBonne 03.26.05 at 12:30 am

“Special case”, eh? I’m sure lots of evolutionary biologists would be thrilled to hear your ideas about the flaws in their science. Could be a Nobel Prize in there somewhere. C’mon, don’t hold back!


maureen 03.26.05 at 3:33 am

I remember arriving at university in 1960 – from a small school in the back of beyond – and discovering ideas I’d never met before and people wildly enthusiastic about subjects I didn’t know existed. I rather thought that was the point of my being there.


euan 03.26.05 at 7:29 am

There’s a post on this topic
at the Panda’s Thumb which points out that the Florida constitution will render the proposed legislation toothles, at best.


Andrew Reeves 03.26.05 at 12:33 pm

One thing that annoys me about Horowitz’s jihad is that the term “totalitarian leftists” keeps coming up. The problem is that Horowitz is doing some serious projection here–he basically assumes that since when he was a leftist he had totalitarian beliefs, then every leftist must also be a Stalinist. In a way, I think that’s what resulted the earlier, zanier version of his “discover the network” page so surreal. He is quite possibly unable to conceive of people to his left who might also believe in freedom and basic democratic norms.

I think the best comparison for Horowitz would be to someone who has converted to Christianity from militant atheism. The former militant atheist assumes that because *his* unbelief was due to a sense of being angry with the Christian God, then every person who doesn’t believe in the Christian faith has similar motivations.

It basically amounts to a failure to understand that there are different people in the world.


Erik D. Hilsinger 03.27.05 at 1:04 am

The problem is that Horowitz is not really an academic, he is a polemicist and carrier-on, an outside agitator if you will. He earns his money by singing his song, and lately his tune has but a few notes. In many ways the people he works for are afraid of their own inability to keep up with the world of science and academia. How can people who made or received their fortunes from old-time industries (manufacturing and so on) conceive of advances in physics, biology, chemistry, and archaeology/anthropology? The synergies between them are staggering in their importance and the market capitalist mindset has a difficult time conceiving of the productization of, say, string theory, pleistocene radiations into the New World, and so on. These advances are several market cycles from reality for the people who are running our politics and businesses, which increasingly are indistinguishable and unseparate to the detriment of the world.


Jay C 03.27.05 at 11:19 am

I think a better, and more strictly politically-oriented, analogy for David Horowitz would be to see him as an updated version of that 1950s archetype: the Former Red anti-Communist crusader.
The storyline is pretty much the same three-act play (with many of the same characters): 1. Committed Young Ideologue throws himself into a political movement; 2. C.Y.I. “sees the light” and realizes said movement is actually Pure Evil;
3. Former C.Y.I. spends the rest of his career making bucks denouncing his former movement, and inveighing all and sundry against its Evil that he finds lurking everywhere (with his background lending an “I know whereof I speak” authority to even his most intemperate screeds).
It’s bad enough that cranks like David Horowitz have an audience, that public officials would rely on him to suggest/craft actual legislation to enact his crank notions of PC into law is astonishing. What IS it with Florida, anyway? Does the heat and humidity get to peoples’ brains, or what?


james 03.28.05 at 10:30 am

To much focus on the trees. The specific subject in question is unimportant. This bill is about moving power from the university faculty to a state’s legislature. In the past, Florida universities decided what behavior is acceptable on their campuses. The Florida legislature is now making that determination.

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