Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Scholars Blast U.S. History Rewrite

Fifty-five top historians have signed an open letter criticizing the College Board’s revamp of its Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum, in which half a million of the nation’s brightest students enroll each year. It is the final U.S. history class many ever take.

The National Association of Scholars, which coordinated the letter, notes: “Lynne Cheney, Bruce Cole, Patrick J. Deneen, Robert George, Leon Kass, Victor Davis Hanson, and Harvey Mansfield signed the letter, among several dozen other prominent scholars.” Their letter says:

The College Board’s 2014 Advanced Placement Examination shortchanges students by imposing on them an arid, fragmentary, and misleading account of American history. We favor instead a robust, vivid, and content-rich account of our unfolding national drama, warts and all, a history that is alert to all the ways we have disagreed and fallen short of our ideals, while emphasizing the ways that we remain one nation with common ideals and a shared story.

The College Board has so far dismissed critics of its curricular rewrite as nitpicking, right-wing rubes. It turns out serious, credible scholars agree with the critics. This means people like Stanford University scholar Peter Berkowitz are right to forecast trouble for America if College Board retains its curricular monopoly over high-school classes that can lead to college credit. He writes:

By obscuring this nation’s founding principles and promise, the College Board’s U.S. history guidelines will erode the next generation’s disposition to preserve what is best in the American political tradition. It will also weaken students’ ability to improve our laws and political institutions in light of America’s constitutional commitment to limited government, individual liberty, and equality under law.

Academic integrity would require College Board to improve and un-bias its rewrite. A central reason it would not is that College Board is a monopoly provider locked into many American schools by exclusive contracts with states and schools. So it’s not susceptible to market pressure. It’s susceptible to and can itself wield political pressure.

The best way to ensure private entities like College Board cannot dictate to local schools the opportunities they can offer students is for at least one other competitor to arise and challenge College Board with better products.  Any takers?


PC censorship gone mainstream

This Kafkaesque debacle shows how officialdom has green-lit campus censorship

The case of Laura Kipnis is one that comes to us as if from another planet. The story of the US professor who was brought up on campus sexual-discrimination and harassment charges for writing an article criticising the college’s sexual-discrimination and harassment guidelines, is enough to make even the most jaded observer of campus censorship weep.

Kipnis, a tenured film professor at Northwestern University, wrote an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education in February criticising the ‘sexual paranoia’ of modern campus life. She took umbrage at her university’s ‘great prohibition’ on professors dating students; it was encouraging female students to see themselves, she said, as the nubile ‘putty in the hands of all-powerful professors’.

This ‘feminist melodrama’, as she put it, had, in turn, created an environment in which what constituted sexual assault was diluted to the level of meaninglessness. She recalled a widely reported allegation of sexual harassment made by a Northwestern student against a professor. Despite the fact their accounts of who instigated what differ, what is clear is that the two went out to see an exhibition, got drunk and wound up in the same bed – where some fondling ensued.

The student filed sexual-harassment charges against him and he was eventually sacked. She’s now also suing him for ‘gender violence’. When the professor attempted to file a defamation suit against the news outlets that reported the incident as a ‘rape’, it was thrown out by a judge who told the professor the news outlets had provided an accurate description of what had happened.

Looking back fondly on her days as an undergraduate, ‘in that too-brief interregnum after the sexual revolution and before AIDS’, Kipnis worried in the piece that students today were missing out on a bit of innocent, intergenerational nookie, while learning to recast all unpleasant or regretted sexual experiences as sexual assault. ‘[The current climate is] leaving students disabled when it comes to the ordinary interpersonal tangles and erotic confusions that pretty much everyone has to deal with’, she wrote.

Kipnis’s argument, though perceptive, thoughtful and witty, was pure, cab-driver common sense. Women can make their own decisions. Regretted fondling is not rape. The sky is blue. Water is wet. Thanks. But, as we all know, even common sense doesn’t cut it on campus these days.

After the article was published, a group of around 30 students marched on campus carrying mattresses, in a nod to Columbia University’s ‘mattress girl’, and launched a petition calling for the college to condemn Kipnis’s comments. And it didn’t stop there. Two students then filed Title IX charges against Kipnis, the self-same regulations that cut down Professor Fondle, alleging that her article, and a subsequent tweet she posted, would have a ‘chilling effect on students’ ability to report sexual misconduct’. After a 72-day investigation, costing the university, at Kipnis’s estimate, $75,000 in legal fees, she was cleared.

The Kafkaesque proceedings have rightly sparked outrage, but they were only a headline-grabbing product of the hysterical and intolerant climate that has been raging on campus for years. The definition of harassment has been expanded to the point of meaninglessness, especially on US campuses, where, as Kipnis’s case demonstrated, closed-off tribunals rule on students’ and academics’ fate with a diluted standard of evidence, due process and criminal definition. As Kipnis notes in her piece, anything from ‘inappropriate humour’ to complimenting female students on their appearance can now fall foul of sexual-discrimination and harassment guidelines.

This blithe conflation between actions and words, between innocent comments and actual discrimination and harassment, has inevitably led to students claiming that opinions also pose them real harm. And this really is having a ‘chilling effect’ on academia. Kipnis’s career was put in jeopardy purely for expressing an opinion that went against the grain of her students’ political views. What hope is there for academic freedom when professors can’t even prick their students’ prejudices for fear of facing a set of trumped-up charges?

But what the chorus of disdain for the Kipnis kangaroo court has missed is how thoroughly mainstream the political trends it crashed together are. The hysteria on campus is not, as some might have it, the product of a uniquely intolerant cohort of young people, indoctrinated by tenured cultural Marxists. Kipnis, as with so many before her, was brought up on charges that were mandated by university bureaucrats and the highest echelons of officialdom.

Title IX, a provision of US federal law that deals with gender discrimination in state-funded educational institutions, is a longstanding fixture of the governing framework of US colleges. Originally brought in to end discrimination on the basis of sex, Title IX regulations have proved, in the words of one commentator, ‘remarkably elastic’. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration issued guidance that extended Title IX’s reach to enforce gender-quota regimes for sports participation. And, in 2011, an infamous ‘Dear Colleague’ letter from the US Department of Education offered guidelines on how Title IX should be used to tackle sexual harassment and assault, including vague definitions of wrongdoing, a much lower standard of proof and the dropping of the usual First Amendment protections.

It is against this backdrop that even an off-colour joke or a misplaced compliment has become suspect. The charges brought against Kipnis are the inevitable consequence of the conflation of action and speech, which has been enforced and codified at an official level.

While, undoubtedly, the ideas underpinning campus censorship have been shaped and influenced by batty anti-porn feminists, furthered by speech-policing multiculturalists and taken to their demented conclusion by the new generation of illiberal students, we shouldn’t give these nutjobs too much credit. The current malaise springs from the diminished view of the individual, and of women in particular, that has taken hold in mainstream political institutions in the absence of a robust defence of individual freedom and autonomy.

The battle lines for free speech on campus are not lined with mattresses. The problem runs much deeper.


Tim Hunt: how public shaming harms academia

Sir Tim Hunt, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist and Royal Society fellow, has today resigned his professorial post at University College London’s faculty of life sciences. His resignation follows comments he made earlier this week, at a conference in South Korea, about ‘girls’ in science labs: ‘Let me tell you about my trouble with girls… three things happen when they are in the lab… You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.’

Both UCL and the Royal Society immediately sought to distance themselves from Hunt’s remarks, which he has since suggested were intended to be lighthearted. Hunt has since issued an apology: ‘I’m really, really sorry I caused any offence, that’s awful. I certainly didn’t mean that. I just meant to be honest, actually.’ But this has not been enough to prevent a wave of media interest in, and public criticism of, Hunt. Female scientists have taken to Twitter to post pictures of themselves in their labs under the banner #DistractinglySexy. The Guardian is asking women to share their stories of sexism in science.

Hunt’s comments are as silly as they are outdated; his Nobel Prize clearly wasn’t awarded for political correctness. But this is precisely the point. Hunt is a scientist; his talents lie in biochemistry, particularly in cells and proteins, and not diplomacy. Due to the public humiliation of this 72-year-old man, British academia has now lost a talented scientist. The members of Hunt’s lab will no longer have access to his experience and knowledge. The work he had been pursuing will presumably now be abandoned.

Hunt’s remarks are being taken seriously because science is considered by many in higher education to have a gender problem. Despite campaigns stretching back over many decades, only 16 per cent of professors in science, engineering and technology subjects are female. David Colquhoun, emeritus professor of pharmacology at University College London, said Hunt’s comments were a ‘disaster for the advancement of women’. But are women scientists really so fragile that they’ll be discouraged by a flippant comment made on the other side of the world? The assumption that they will give up, or never get going in the first place, because of a throwaway sexist sentence just repeats the ‘crying over criticism’ point Hunt is being slammed for making – albeit in an apparently more caring form.

Hunt’s resignation reminds us that, in today’s universities, expressing the supposedly correct view on a matter is far more important than any contribution to knowledge an idiosyncratic individual might make. Academics and students alike are kept in line with speech codes, anti-harassment policies and safe-space initiatives. The pressure to conform to an approved way of behaving and speaking impacts on everyone, from students to world-renowned scientists. Everyone – male and female – is intellectually poorer as a result.


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