Wednesday, May 11, 2016

A Confession of Liberal Intolerance

By Nicholas Kristof of the NYT

WE progressives believe in diversity, and we want women, blacks, Latinos, gays and Muslims at the table — er, so long as they aren’t conservatives.

Universities are the bedrock of progressive values, but the one kind of diversity that universities disregard is ideological and religious. We’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.

O.K., that’s a little harsh. But consider George Yancey, a sociologist who is black and evangelical.

“Outside of academia I faced more problems as a black,” he told me. “But inside academia I face more problems as a Christian, and it is not even close.”

I’ve been thinking about this because on Facebook recently I wondered aloud whether universities stigmatize conservatives and undermine intellectual diversity. The scornful reaction from my fellow liberals proved the point.

“Much of the ‘conservative’ worldview consists of ideas that are known empirically to be false,” said Carmi.

“The truth has a liberal slant,” wrote Michelle.

“Why stop there?” asked Steven. “How about we make faculties more diverse by hiring idiots?”

To me, the conversation illuminated primarily liberal arrogance — the implication that conservatives don’t have anything significant to add to the discussion. My Facebook followers have incredible compassion for war victims in South Sudan, for kids who have been trafficked, even for abused chickens, but no obvious empathy for conservative scholars facing discrimination.

The stakes involve not just fairness to conservatives or evangelical Christians, not just whether progressives will be true to their own values, not just the benefits that come from diversity (and diversity of thought is arguably among the most important kinds), but also the quality of education itself. When perspectives are unrepresented in discussions, when some kinds of thinkers aren’t at the table, classrooms become echo chambers rather than sounding boards — and we all lose.

Four studies found that the proportion of professors in the humanities who are Republicans ranges between 6 and 11 percent, and in the social sciences between 7 and 9 percent.

Conservatives can be spotted in the sciences and in economics, but they are virtually an endangered species in fields like anthropology, sociology, history and literature. One study found that only 2 percent of English professors are Republicans (although a large share are independents).

In contrast, some 18 percent of social scientists say they are Marxist. So it’s easier to find a Marxist in some disciplines than a Republican.

The scarcity of conservatives seems driven in part by discrimination. One peer-reviewed study found that one-third of social psychologists admitted that if choosing between two equally qualified job candidates, they would be inclined to discriminate against the more conservative candidate.

Yancey, the black sociologist, who now teaches at the University of North Texas, conducted a survey in which up to 30 percent of academics said that they would be less likely to support a job seeker if they knew that the person was a Republican.

The discrimination becomes worse if the applicant is an evangelical Christian. According to Yancey’s study, 59 percent of anthropologists and 53 percent of English professors would be less likely to hire someone they found out was an evangelical.

“Of course there are biases against evangelicals on campuses,” notes Jonathan L. Walton, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard. Walton, a black evangelical, adds that the condescension toward evangelicals echoes the patronizing attitude toward racial minorities: “The same arguments I hear people make about evangelicals sound so familiar to the ways people often describe folk of color, i.e. politically unsophisticated, lacking education, angry, bitter, emotional, poor.”

A study published in The American Journal of Political Science underscored how powerful political bias can be. In an experiment, Democrats and Republicans were asked to choose a scholarship winner from among (fictitious) finalists, with the experiment tweaked so that applicants sometimes included the president of the Democratic or Republican club, while varying the credentials and race of each. Four-fifths of Democrats and Republicans alike chose a student of their own party to win a scholarship, and discrimination against people of the other party was much greater than discrimination based on race.

“I am the equivalent of someone who was gay in Mississippi in 1950,” a conservative professor is quoted as saying in “Passing on the Right,” a new book about right-wing faculty members by Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr. That’s a metaphor that conservative scholars often use, with talk of remaining in the closet early in one’s career and then “coming out” after receiving tenure.

This bias on campuses creates liberal privilege. A friend is studying for the Law School Admission Test, and the test preparation company she is using offers test-takers a tip: Reading comprehension questions will typically have a liberal slant and a liberal answer.

Some liberals think that right-wingers self-select away from academic paths in part because they are money-grubbers who prefer more lucrative professions. But that doesn’t explain why there are conservative math professors but not many right-wing anthropologists.

It’s also liberal poppycock that there aren’t smart conservatives or evangelicals. Richard Posner is a more-or-less conservative who is the most cited legal scholar of all time. With her experience and intellect, Condoleezza Rice would enhance any political science department. Francis Collins is an evangelical Christian and famed geneticist who has led the Human Genome Project and the National Institutes of Health. And if you’re saying that conservatives may be tolerable, but evangelical Christians aren’t — well, are you really saying you would have discriminated against the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.?

Jonathan Haidt, a centrist social psychologist at New York University, cites data suggesting that the share of conservatives in academia has plunged, and he has started a website, Heterodox Academy, to champion ideological diversity on campuses.

“Universities are unlike other institutions in that they absolutely require that people challenge each other so that the truth can emerge from limited, biased, flawed individuals,” he says. “If they lose intellectual diversity, or if they develop norms of ‘safety’ that trump challenge, they die. And this is what has been happening since the 1990s.”

Should universities offer affirmative action for conservatives and evangelicals? I don’t think so, partly because surveys find that conservative scholars themselves oppose the idea. But it’s important to have a frank discussion on campuses about ideological diversity. To me, this seems a liberal blind spot.

Universities should be a hubbub of the full range of political perspectives from A to Z, not just from V to Z. So maybe we progressives could take a brief break from attacking the other side and more broadly incorporate values that we supposedly cherish — like diversity — in our own dominions.


Some British students are standing up for free speech

Blair Spowart reports on the anti-Prevent protest at the University of Edinburgh

Last week, student protesters at the University of Edinburgh staged an overnight occupation of the university library on George Square, in protest at the UK-wide Prevent anti-radicalisation scheme in higher education. Sleeping rough on the ground floor – amid ‘Students not Suspects’ banners, calling on Edinburgh students to ‘Fight the Prevent Policy’ – the protesters were there to demand that the university, though legally required to implement Prevent, publicly denounce the scheme. Brought in last year as part of UK prime minister David Cameron’s controversial anti-radicalisation strategy, Prevent legislation requires universities to No Platform extremist speakers. Staff are also required to monitor the behaviour of students for signs of what the government calls ‘radicalisation’.

It was encouraging to witness direct student action against one of the biggest current threats to their academic freedom and autonomy. In government literature on Prevent, universities are spoken about in the same vein as prisons – dangerous breeding grounds for extremism whose inhabitants are one hate-fuelled rant away from purchasing a one-way ticket to Syria. The casual lumping together of prisons and places of learning speaks to a complete failure on the part of the government to realise the unique potential of universities to act as spaces where radical, even violent, ideas can be understood and strong counter-narratives produced. Though ostensibly aimed at tackling all forms of extremism, the disproportionate focus on Islamist hate preachers in Prevent betrays an assumption that Muslim students in particular are not up to the challenge of thinking autonomously.

These concerns were writ large in the comments of the protesters last week. Talking to spiked during the protest, one activist admitted that there is a problem with Islamic extremism, and also identified a general, politically correct hesitancy to challenge it: ‘We shouldn’t be so worried about coming across as racist that we fail to the criticise the extreme elements of Islam.’ This is right – if people are too scared of being labelled a racist to challenge a violent ideology, the government will only feel more justified in stepping in. Still, the Prevent policy is actively counterproductive. ‘The government implementing policies that target and monitor the Muslim community on campus is precisely what turns normal students into Islamists’, said one student. Another protester emphasised the unique potential of the university, and the government’s undermining of its function: ‘This is an educational establishment. The university could advertise controversial events and allow students to go along and heckle. But the government should butt out.’

If these arguments sound familiar, it’s because they’re the same arguments that have been on spiked since these protesters were in nappies. Spiked has long resisted attempts by the government and other institutions (including, of course, universities themselves) to restrict what students can hear, think and say, on the basis of two premises. First, that the nature of universities as institutions dedicated to truth requires that any opinion, no matter how extreme, radical or downright mad, can be aired and tested – universities are (or should be) Millian arenas. And second, spiked argues that students are morally autonomous adults. Restrictions on speech, which stop us from discussing or engaging with and criticising whomever and whatever we like on our own terms, are a gross violation of our autonomy. Making these points in the context of Prevent legislation, the protesters generally nodded along.

That was until we moved on to discuss other threats to freedom of speech in the academy. When we discussed No Platform, Safe Space and other student-led attempts to regulate speech, it soon became clear that such arguments against Prevent no longer held much water.

We asked Edinburgh University Students’ Association’s (EUSA) Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) convenor, Shuwanna Aaron, what she thought of the recent, now notorious, Safe Space complaint against a EUSA vice president, who was almost removed from a student council meeting for raising her hand as a sign of exasperation or disagreement. According to Aaron, this complaint was entirely justified: the hand-raising was ‘intimidating’ to other students in the room. What about Edinburgh student and spiked writer Charlie Peters’ petition, calling on EUSA to remove its No Platform and Safe Space policies? ‘I know about that. I hate it. I haven’t read it but I know it’s bad.’

So Islamic extremists shouldn’t be prevented from speaking on campus – but God forbid anyone make an intimidating hand gesture. What happened to treating students like morally autonomous adults? What of the commitment to academic freedom that was so important in combatting Prevent? The truth, of course, is that for many of these protesters, talk of freedom of speech and intellectual autonomy is just opportunistic guff. In this particular case, they’ve found it convenient to feign support for free speech because it happens to suit their aims. But when their own desire to police and regulate the language of students comes into question, their backing for intellectual autonomy is nowhere to be seen. The reason for this is obvious. Their only real commitment is to their own narrow brand of identity politics – and if this means a short-term, disingenuous concern for freedom of speech, then so be it.

This failure on the part of student activists to defend freedom of speech in a principled way is precisely what gave the government the green light to implement the Prevent scheme in the first place. The NUS and its affiliated unions, having spent most of their time worrying about banishing whatever offends their Victorian sensibilities from campus, can hardly complain when the government takes advantage of that censorious climate. Moreover, as much as the NUS now loves to imagine itself as defender of put-upon Muslim students against a censorious government, it already had No Platform policies against Islamist groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir in place since 2006 – years before the Prevent scheme was implemented. Indeed, the government report on Prevent actually praises the NUS for its ‘positive actions towards tackling extremism’, describing its No Platform policies as ‘largely effective’. Some anti-establishment radicals, eh?

That all said, the Prevent protest did offer some grounds for positivity. Some of the protesters spiked spoke to were clearly grappling with these very questions and contradictions – torn between their commitment to university-style identity politics on one hand, and the value of a robust, daring, no-holds-barred academy on the other. When we asked one protester what she thought of the recent petition to ban Germaine Greer from Cardiff University for her comments on transgenderism, she said: ‘I disagree with the idea of people being banned. People need to hear what they have to say.’ But shortly afterwards, she added: ‘This whole debate – I find it difficult. It’s always the people who’ve had the opportunity and the privilege to speak who question censorship of speech which is really, really offensive to marginalised groups.’ ‘Isn’t this the same logic that the government uses to implement Prevent?’, we asked. ‘Yeah, I know. That’s why I find it really difficult.’

There is a tendency among those who support free speech in debates on campus censorship to characterise those who want to regulate speech as committed authoritarians. There is a corresponding tendency for the supporters of regulation to characterise those who believe in free speech as utterly unmoved by appeals to equality. In fact, as the exchange with this protester suggests, the picture is usually more mixed. Yes, those at the extremes – like the BME convenor – are probably lost causes, indulging in authoritarian excesses without a second thought. But most people, on both sides of the debate, see value in both autonomy and equality – they just think that one outweighs the other. The importance of unfettered debate on campus has really hit home – even if not enough students have yet been convinced that those arguments outweigh concerns about equality.

Our challenge, then, is not so much to convince the rest of the student body that our ability to engage with and criticise others on our own terms, without government or NUS/SU interference, is important for the academy and for our own intellectual autonomy. Most students now seem to accept that, at least some of the time. Rather, it’s to convince students that this is what’s most important – or too important to be sacrificed at the altar of identity politics. So, yes, some of the protesters displayed a frustrating hypocrisy. But spiked’s efforts have in many ways been vindicated – and that’s reason to be hopeful.

Australia's cultural heritage: parents who despise education

I have no doubt that the writer below -- Lex Borthwick -- describes a real phenomenon but I think he oversimplifies the causes of it. In some cases students will indeed not continue with their education because their families have a contempt for it but it could also simply be family tradition that causes families to discourage further education. 

My father got only as far as Grade 6 in his day and his father did not go to school at all but was taught to read and write at home.  So when I finished primary school my father thought that was enough and that I should get a job.  That was simply the world he knew.  He was however persuaded to allow me to do two years of high school -- after which I did leave and get a job.

After three years of doing various things I was however persuaded that I should complete High School --  which I did.  And from there I began evening classes at university.

So despite a lack of parental encouragement I went right through the education system to Ph.D.  I had the ability so it was not difficult, even though I received no parental financial support after those first two years of High School.

So I think we should distinguish between those parents who are actively hostile to education and those who simply don't think it necessary.  My parents were in the latter category.

And I am fairly sure that actual hostility to education largely emanates from those who don't do well at it.  And almost all of those simply don't have the ability for it.  All men are NOT equal. So hostility is a cover for failure.  I don't see much remedy for that.

I was talking to my son about this, however, and he said he despises education too.  He was privately schooled -- where he always did well, has a first-class honours degree in mathematics and is a well-paid IT professional -- so he is looking through what might be called the opposite end of the telescope.  What he dislikes about the educational system is how much it is dumbed down and how much it teaches things of little usefulness.  He does not yet have children but seems likely to home-school them when he does

Many studies show parents' positive influence on their children's education, but hardly anyone will discuss the opposite: when parents stymie that education and ambition.

It's not uniquely Australian, but sentiments unsupportive of education are part of our cultural DNA. We know about our sporting heroes, but who knows about our Nobel Prize winners? And worse, who cares?

I witnessed the consequences of these educationally-destructive factors when attending rural secondary schools in the '60s, and more recently when teaching in metropolitan schools.

In 2001, aged 46, I was first-year teaching at an outer-suburban government school. Expecting a new educational era accompanying the new millennium, I discovered little had changed since my schooldays.

Attending six government schools around Victoria before accessing university, my educational progress could have been derailed but fortunately my family was educationally supportive.

I received spoken and unspoken parental encouragement to stay at school and achieve my best. Soon, I was being paid more than my father.

Many of my friends back then were not so lucky. Hating school, contemptuous of teachers, they stopped learning early. Leaving school at 15, they saw no point trying as success was impossible. They drifted through the low-skill manual labour jobs possible then but nearly gone now.

These friends' parents mostly didn't support education, inducing or forcing their children to leave school early. Through overt or covert disdain for education, these parents condemned their kids to lifetimes of low incomes or unemployment, and the consequent problems, including social disaffection, crime, alcoholism, drug addictions, and family abuse.

But most of these parents were themselves victims of their own parents, caught in cycles of negative parental influence probably stretching back several generations.

In Britain, particularly England, the membership and future of the poor was largely predetermined by the wealthy. Further education wasn't an option.

In early white Australia, kids needed hunting, riding, deforesting, fence building, cooking, laundering, children rearing, and animal care skills, not literacy and numeracy.

With urbanisation, kids left school for low income jobs to keep their family solvent, requiring only basic literacy and numeracy.

No poor kid could afford further education. Trapped in this awful cycle, many developed increasingly negative attitudes towards education and teachers. Education only constrained poor kids from surviving in the "real" world, and was for rich scumbags incapable of "real" work.

Recent reports, such as Gonski (2011) and Bracks (2016), highlight education's significance to national success. Similarly, most parents recognise education's importance to individual success, offering a reliable escape from long-term struggle.

Training, education and skill development through apprenticeships, technical colleges, teachers' colleges and universities have propelled many families into financial security. And many newly-arrived migrant families clearly recognise the transformative power of education.

So why had things not changed by 2001 when I began teaching? In the 30 years since my schooldays, libraries of books about "perfect" educational systems appeared, gaggles of politicians prattled about making Australia "smarter", and endless "band-aid" reforms whizzed by.

But there they were still, the educationally destructive factors I witnessed in the '60s, evident in every class I taught: that same parental opposition to education, at worst comprising anti-education.

Partly because of this, schools are still failure factories for many students: only one-third of my year 10 students had year 10 or above literacy skills. The remaining two-thirds were mostly between years 1-6, with some at years 7-9.

Of the one-third, most were influenced by the two-thirds' oppositional culture, so only one-tenth of that one-third consistently submitted assessment work.

Unsurprisingly, the two-thirds' parents were those who rarely attended parent/teacher interviews.

Despite expectations, a teacher's chances of changing the trajectory of these students' lives are effectively non-existent, especially when in their teens, as they came to me.

Teenagers can be intensely oppositional to any adult's opinion, so why do these kids keep their parents' negative education cycle spinning?

From first hearing their parents' voices kids absorb parental beliefs, giving years for negative inculcation before teenagehood. If non-educational parents fail to teach the pre-school basics then their kids start school behind, struggle to catch up, label themselves as stupid, lose their self-confidence, mix with similar kids, and develop behavioural problems.

This is well prior to their teens, by which time their hatred of schools, teachers and education is cemented in. The cycle is running.

Add Australia's culture of valuing sport above intellect, the upheaval caused to many kids by family dysfunction, physical or mental illness, poverty, and social disadvantage, shake or stir, and the resulting cocktail can, if even sipped, greatly diminish kids' opportunities.

Unsurprisingly, many teenagers howl in fury and frustration at the world, with school and teachers the easiest target of their pain. Some howl loudly, others in dark silence.

Teachers want to help, but can rarely win kids' trust when they're only seen a couple of times a week with 24 other kids, most with their own problems. And the teachers? By day, they act the part. But at night, their frustrations often bring tears, mental health problems, and resignation from the work they once loved.

Our work was also hindered by the Education Department and many academics persistently feeding the media with incredibly simplistic tales blaming teachers for almost everything. The real causes, however, go much deeper, culturally and psychologically.

Is this worse than my schooldays? I can't truly say, but it's of such an extent, with such awful consequences, action is clearly needed.

A few articles when year 12 results come out, highlighting a few students' success, fail to begin to counter many parents' educational opposition, or Australia's anti-intellectual culture.

It's an insult to all the kids failed by our education system, and their teachers, when we won't examine the full causes of, and solutions to, the wasted lives and potential that is another enduring part of Australian culture. This must change.


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