Monday, February 16, 2015

UK: How the academy green-lit student censorship

Those little authoritarians didn’t come from nowhere

Spiked’s Free Speech University Rankings, which launched this week, shows that many of the day-to-day restrictions on campus free speech emanate not from universities but rather from students themselves. This free-speech league table came out in the same week as a debate about the impact of the government’s proposed anti-terror legislation on higher education really took off. Vice chancellors have taken to the airwaves, started petitions, and penned letters to national newspapers in defence of academic freedom. It would be easy to get the impression that students have created an environment in which banning things on a whim is the new normal, while academics look on in horror and champion the cause of free speech.

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Restricting what can be said on campus began with academics and university administrators. While, in recent years, a proportion of the student body may have taken censorship to heart with all the fervour of a moral crusade, it is academics who legitimised the notion that words and images offend, that people should be protected from offence, and that restricting free speech is the best way to achieve this aim.

Universities have never permitted unfettered free speech. The religious foundations of the first institutions led the ecclesiastical hierarchy to demand universities had freedom from the state while, at the very same time, aggressively restricting the liberty of those individuals within universities.

There is a long history of students campaigning against such curbs on free speech. In 1833, students at a college in Cincinnati, in the US, formed an anti-slavery society which was promptly banned by the institution’s board of trustees. The students responded with a written statement declaring: ‘Free discussion, being a duty, is consequently a right, and as such is inherent and inalienable. It is our right.’ Their arguments fell on deaf ears and faculty continued to consider students as intellectually innocent, easily corruptible and, therefore, in need of firm discipline.

It was well over a century later before students’ demands for free speech began to be taken seriously. The 1960s saw students throughout Europe and America successfully challenge institutional restrictions on their liberty. In the UK, universities lifted in loco parentis legislation in 1970, when the legal age of majority was lowered from 21 to 18.

Yet, even at that very moment, new arguments against free speech were being marshalled. Now, however, it wasn’t stuffy professors or interfering managers who wanted to curb free expression but lecturers influenced by academic trends such as critical theory and post-structuralism, as well as political developments within feminism and left-wing politics more broadly.

These anti-Enlightenment radicals took their lead from key thinkers such as Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and later, Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault, who argued that there is ‘no truly universal truth’ and all knowledge is ideology, or in other words, simply a product of the dominant economic and political conditions that give rise to it. Post-structuralists such as Roland Barthes made the case for the death of the author and declared texts had no fixed meaning and were open to different interpretations with every new reader. Later, feminist literary theorists such as Julia Kristeva argued that language itself was a cause of oppression.

The general interpretation of such views within the academy led to a new interest in the power of words to shape people’s existence. Vocabulary and images, and their allegedly oppressive or corrupting power, became pre-eminent in campus politics. An older interpretation of Marxism was turned on its head: changing the material conditions of people’s lives, it was argued, needed to start by altering the language they used and the pictures they saw.

Feminist scholars took this baton and campaigned against sexist language, pornography and the depiction of women in the media. The American legal academic Catharine Mackinnon argued: ‘What you need is people who see through literature like [fellow feminist] Andrea Dworkin, who see through law like me, to see through art and create the uncompromised women’s visual vocabulary.’ The creation of such a ‘visual vocabulary’ led Mackinnon and Dworkin to campaign for a ban on pornography.

More broadly, it led to the view that academics and students had a moral responsibility to use their feminist insight to ban images and words they perceived as oppressive. From the students’ perspective, censorship went from being something to rail against, to a morally righteous and politically radical act.

Meanwhile, across campus, the old view of students as simultaneously morally depraved and intellectually innocent was also being quietly rehabilitated. An institutional duty of care to student-customers replaced the old in loco parentis legislation. Student support services flourished and academic expectations were lowered. The perception of students as autonomous adults in control of their own lives was gradually replaced by a view that students were emotionally vulnerable not-quite-adults.

Given the assumed power of words and images to demean and objectify, it was not a huge leap to imagine that these overgrown adolescents would wilt at a racist joke, crumble at a sexist song lyric or, alternatively, take on board such offensive views themselves without question. Such dangerous speech, it was now argued, needed to be restricted to protect the innocent and curb the depraved. In America, the rise of trigger warnings on academic texts has further encouraged academics to remove potentially upsetting topics from the curriculum and has legitimised students opting out of debates they find uncomfortable.

From the first day they arrive on campus, students are taught that words and images are powerful and can hurt or corrupt; that as students they are too vulnerable, and their peers too easily led, to be exposed to potentially harmful ideas; and that the way to deal with anything that makes them feel uncomfortable is either to avoid it or, even better, to ban it. More observant students may even see their lecturers acting in this way themselves by removing contentious material from the syllabus, organising boycotts of Israeli academics and universities, and campaigning against lads’ mags.

Spiked’s Free Speech University Rankings reveals the shocking extent to which today’s student leaders rush to censor everything from songs to sombreros. Students should be challenged and held to account for their role in creating a climate of prudishness and conformity which is anathema to debate. However, university lecturers, with their resurgent interest in academic freedom, need to be far more honest about their role in instigating, legitimising and encouraging such restrictions.


Some California Schools Now Grading Students for 'Grit' & 'Sensitivity’

In addition to evaluating students on their academic proficiency, at least two California school districts will also be grading them on their "grit" and "sensitivity."

In the San Juan Unified School District, which is located in Sacramento County, teachers in 11 elementary schools will begin grading students from kindergarten through the sixth grade on attributes such as "grit, gratitude, and sensitivity," the Sacramento Bee reports.

All schools in the Sacramento City Unified School District will also begin grading "behaviors that support learning," which include whether a student "makes respectful choices and considers the well-being of others."

Students will receive grades for how often they exhibit these behavior traits, with an A for "almost always"; an O for "often"; an S for "sometimes"; or an R for "rarely."

What constitutes "sensitive" or "respectful" choices? There is no state standard and the state is not directly mandating the new grading system, so that will be up to officials in local school districts to determine, said Pam Slater, a public information officer with the California Department of Education.

"Basically, the state, along with many other states, have new educational standards that define what children should be learning and when they should be learning it," Slater stated in an email to

"Along with the new standards, districts must create new student report cards that reflect this. So this is a local issue and a local decision [emphasis in the original]. We at the state level play no role in this process."

The new educational standards Slater refers to are Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which were adopted by the California State Board of Education (SBE) in 2010. According to the National Education Association’s CCSS guidebook, "The goal of the CCSS is to provide a clear, consistent understanding of what students are expected to learn."

Though Slater stressed that the state does not take responsibility for district practices, she said it would not be surprising if a local school district cited state-mandated Common Core standards as a reason for grading students on non-academic attributes such as "sensitivity."

"Whether this is germane to the standards would be something the district has studied and found relevant," Slate added. "Apparently this particular school district decided to grade students on such things as grit and gratitude."

Among other things, the Common Core standards suggest that schools should impart "21st century skills." In part, those skills are defined as "learning from and working collaboratively with individuals representing diverse cultures, religions and lifestyles in a spirit of mutual respect and open dialogue in personal, work and community contexts."

Trent Allen, the senior director of community relations at the San Juan Unified School District, told that the new grades fall within that purview.

"The inclusion of grit and gratitude reflect local decisions aligned with our identified character trait education and 21st century skill sets," Allen wrote in an email. But he did not respond when asked him to provide a written standard explaining how such grades were to be determined.

According to the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) exam conducted every two years, California’s fourth-graders  ranked 47th in the nation in both math and reading in 2013. Eighth-graders performed only slightly better, ranking 45th in math and 42nd in reading nationwide.


School Choice Could Erode Inequality. So Why Doesn’t Obama’s Budget Include D.C. School Choice Funding?

Barack Obama is a Washington, D.C., resident–and one with a high income. As he likes to openly admit, he’s one of the privileged one percent that he thinks can afford to pay more taxes.

As one of the “privileged,” Barack Obama enjoys all sorts of choices unavailable to  many middle class Americans and to  nearly  all of the poorest Americans. Accordingly, President Obama opted out of the Washington, D.C., public schools and sends his daughters to Sidwell Friends School, a first rate school with very high achievement standards. The Obama girls will surely benefit from this enriching educational environment. What parent wouldn’t want that for his children?

Which brings me to arguably the most unconscionable policy choice hidden in Obama’s $4 trillion budget: Obama proposed no funding next year for these vouchers.

School Choice Works

The $20 million annual program, which began under George W. Bush, has proven extremely effective. Nearly 6,000 kids from lower-income families have benefited from these scholarships–which reach more than $8,300 a year for primary school and more than $12,500 a year for high school. That’s still about one-third lower overall than what it costs per pupil to educate students in Washington, D.C.’s public schools.

Research by Patrick Wolf at the University of Arkansas tracked how well these kids did over time. Graduation rates of voucher students were 21 percentage points higher compared with those who applied for the vouchers but didn’t win (91 percent to 70 percent); and the graduation rate was 35 percentage points higher than the graduation rate for all D.C. public schools.

97.4 percent of the D.C. students who get the scholarship money are blacks and Latinos

So in a $4 trillion budget Obama couldn’t find $20 million for a program that indisputably works.

“The parents love the wide range of educational choices,” says Center for Education Reform president Kara Kerwin. “But President Obama just doesn’t support private school choice.” She adds that Obama has tried to shut down this education program every year.

Obama likes to say that he puts science over ideology, but in shutting down the scholarship program, he has clearly put ideology and political favoritism above reason.

Minority Students Benefit From School Choice

Almost all – 97.4 percent  — of the D.C. students who get the scholarship money are blacks and Latinos. Even more would like to take advantage of the program: Every year four times as many D.C. minority children sign up for the voucher program as there are funded slots available.

The scholarships are popular with parents. Several years ago when Obama tried to shut down the program, black and Hispanic parents locked arm-to-arm with Republicans in Congress who support the program and marched in front of the Capitol. That was an amazing optic. In the 1960s and 1970s, civil rights leaders and “community activists” fought against laws that prevent blacks from getting in to the public schools.

Now liberals refuse to let them out.

Why Does Obama Oppose School Choice?

Obama likely wants to shutdown private school choice for two reasons. First, teachers unions hate private school choice because many private school teachers aren’t in the teachers union. Second, the success of choice based private-schools in educating minorities and poor children gives public educators a big black eye because the kids do so much better in choice.

How can these private and Catholic schools out-educate the kids who go to well-funded public schools? Maybe money for the classroom isn’t the cure-all it is advertised as.

The Left also argues that school choice programs hurt kids left in the public schools.

But private school choice doesn’t make public schools weaker as liberals fear. The money saved from kids attending private schools means more dollars per child for those who stay in public schools. This is a win-win. And competition always leads to higher, not lower, quality.

School Choice Can Erode Inequality

What is hopefully embarrassing to Obama is that some of the scholarship money goes to poor kids who want to go to Sidwell Friends. His girls sit in the same class rooms with these kids. If Obama succeeds, schools like this will be attended almost exclusively by kids of rich parents like Barack Obama.

Remember this the next time the president gives a lecture on income inequality and fairness.

The decision by this White House to defund the D.C. voucher program is a disgrace.

Republicans must go on the offensive on school choice. A quality education is the best anti-poverty program ever invented. This is the best path to reducing income inequality.

Rich liberals would never condemn their kids to rotten and dangerous inner city public schools. But they force these schools on the poor and minorities they pretend to care for. School choice, as Jack Kemp used to say, is the new civil rights issue in America.

Democrats are on the wrong side on this issue. They put unions ahead of kids. Let’s hope Republicans in Congress not only restore funding of this program but expand its budget so that every poor child in Washington, D.C., can get the same education that Barack Obama’s daughters do.


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