All posts by Adam Kissel

Adam Kissel is an independent scholar living in Arlington, Virginia.

Freshmen: Here Are the Friends and Values We Want You to Have

For years, some colleges assigned new students roommates from different regions, races or classes. The idea, not very controversial, was to broaden the horizons of freshmen.

Now a more intrusive version of that plan has turned up via the University of Denver, where the chancellor believes a bit of social engineering will push students toward a diverse range of friendships. The chancellor, Rebecca Chopp, argued, “I don’t think it is enough to leave new relationships to chance. … Let’s cultivate practices in which students make friends not by chance but because we are cultivating friendships around community values.”

This idea does not always go well. In 2006, the University of Delaware infamously issued before-and-after surveys to find out whether students had become more willing to date people of any gender, race, ethnicity, or religion following the Office of Residence Life’s intervention, which it called a “treatment.”

Continue reading Freshmen: Here Are the Friends and Values We Want You to Have

The Salaita Case—Academic Blacklisting?

You should formulate your response to the case of Steven Salaita cautiously. Salaita, a professor at the University of Illinois, was unhired following public outcry over his declamations against Israel, Jews, and defenders of Israel on Twitter. If you don’t defend him, you can’t defend right-wingers who express themselves in similarly strong language.

“No individual loses his ability to speak as a private citizen by virtue of public employment,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reminded us in the case of Professor Mike Adams. Public colleges and universities may not fire, refuse to rehire, or refuse to promote professors who have expressed controversial opinions, even if the opinions are expressed in strong language.

If you defend the University of Illinois’ action, what defense can you possibly offer Professor Maurice Eisenstein, who took sides against radical Islam on Facebook? After Boko Haram killed scores of Christians, he wrote, to his professional peril:

Where are the “moderate” Muslims[’] reaction to this? Oh, I forgot they are still looking at the earth as flat according to the idiot Mohammad, may his name be cursed, so this could not have happened.

And how could you defend Bishop James Tengatenga of Malawi, who was personally unhired by Dartmouth College’s president after a public outcry due to his statements about homosexuality while in Africa? As the outcry mounted, Dartmouth’s president personally interrogated Tengatenga about his personal and religious beliefs. Although the president was satisfied that Tengatenga believed in Dartmouth’s official orthodoxy, the school unhired Tengatenga because the mob had complained too much.

But Salaita’s commentary was too extreme, you say? You know the line when you see it, and Salaita crossed it? That’s exactly what censors think they know, and it is just what they’ve thought when going after Tengatenga and a long list of right-of-center professors and, not so long ago, a long list of left-of-center professors.

As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. well expressed in his dissent in the Abrams free speech case in 1919:

Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power, and want a certain result with all your heart, you naturally express your wishes in law, and sweep away all opposition. … But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas … That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. … I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.

It’s in times of war that people pass laws like the Espionage Act preventing full and vigorous debate. But that is exactly the time that such debate should be most robust.

If you believe abortionists kill babies, as Mike Adams does, you might use strong language. You’d do the same if you thought that Boko Haram kills the innocent or that the NRA makes it easier for people to kill the innocent, or if, like Professor Salaita, you’ve taken sides against Israel.

These cases are all different, and they are not morally equivalent except in this respect: “No individual loses his ability to speak as a private citizen by virtue of public employment.” And even when the standard for punishment is something less than imminent danger, the Constitution and common sense offer a significant breathing room to permit the widest possible debate on matters of public concern.

Like it or not, Steven Salaita deserves that space.

More Decline in the U. of Chicago Core

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Five years ago, I told the sad tale of curricular decline at the University of Chicago, whose core curriculum changes had met widespread national criticism ten years earlier. I am disappointed to report that the university’s offerings have declined further since 2009.

The University of Chicago’s Core was once the gold standard in higher education. Though it went through many changes, when it was at its best, world-class scholars provided undergraduates with general and liberal learning that not only prepared them for the cultural challenges of their time and developed their own intellectual and other human powers, but also engaged them in the great transgenerational conversations about self, society, world, nature, and the ultimate things and goods. As former dean of the College Donald N. Levine has outlined in Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America (University of Chicago Press, 2006), intense scholarly and practical conversation informed the changes, and generally the College could explain to students what they were in for and why.

Continue reading More Decline in the U. of Chicago Core

‘Disinvitation Season’ Begins on College Campuses

A college commencement is a splendid time to celebrate student achievement. But it’s “disinvitation season” again, as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education observes: the time when intolerant students and faculty advocate against their school’s choice of commencement speaker, sometimes causing the speaker to be disinvited.

These power-hungry protesters demonstrate how little they have learned about tolerance in a diverse society where people say and do things that others dislike. And all too often, as at Harvard and at Rutgers, they have learned this intolerance from their own professors.

Is former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg so evil that there is no room for him on Harvard’s Tercentenary Theatre stage? Some students think so, arguing that because they disagree with him on important issues such as “stop-and-frisk,” they feel excluded: “the negative reaction to his selection has, understandably, been intensely personal. … [O]ur lived experiences inform our emotions.”

It would be a shame if Harvard University’s commencement were to pretend that the rest of the real world were all rainbows and unicorns–as though it were students’ last chance to stay within the bubble. It is an even bigger shame that Harvard students have learned intolerance from Harvard professors.

In an almost self-parodying opinion piece in The Harvard Crimson, a student advocated for the end of free inquiry in the name of “academic justice.” Why “put up with research that counters our goals”? She recalled a dark day for free speech–to her, a bright day–when Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences effectively fired one of its own, Subramanian Swamy, in 2011 because of an op-ed he published in India that had zero to do with his Harvard teaching.

It was far from the only example she could have used. Feelings have long trumped rationality in certain areas of Harvard Law School, including the dean’s office. FIRE’s Harvey Silverglate tells story after story of deans and faculty members teaching students that certain ideas–even certain areas of academic study–are simply off the table if they seem too hurtful.

These stories include the 2005 hysteria over Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers, who was severely criticized for exploring ideas about gender in a way that made others uncomfortable. Summers himself thus became the victim of a disinvitation by the University of California in 2007. No matter what good Mr. Summers may have done in and for the world and for Harvard, narrow-minded and anti-intellectual protesters choose to harp on their one or two favorite notes of protest.

Making matters worse, Harvard’s leadership on the world stage emboldens intolerant faculty elsewhere, whether the influence is direct or indirect. At Rutgers University, hundreds of faculty members have been protesting against the university’s decision that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice be commencement speaker.

Intolerant teachers like many at Harvard and Rutgers are leading students down a dark path of anti-intellectual injustice. They are producing a generation of intolerant students who welcome the use of a university’s power to shut down and shut out the people and ideas they hate.

Champlain Is a Good Innovative College, But…

Champlain.jpgChamplain College in Vermont has been receiving national accolades for its thoughtful curriculum. For many of those unhappy with the vagaries of more famous colleges and universities, Champlain is starting to pop up in parental discussions, right after the question, “Then where would you be willing to send your son or daughter?”

The college combines a decent core curriculum with career-oriented majors and life-skills courses, all of which constantly reminds students that their college is, after all, part of the real world. But there is a problem. Tensions between the school’s official “sustainability” values and its commitment to critical thinking threaten to undermine the quality of Champlain’s undergraduate program.

Champlain’s core is well-considered because of its impressive approach to self, society, the variety of paradigms in the Western tradition, and the development of intellectual, ethical, and rhetorical skills through writing-intensive and discussion-based courses.

In the faculty handbook, Champlain reminds faculty that “Core professors must inspire students’ appreciation of subjects outside their majors and cultivate in students the habits of mind that characterize the successful, well-rounded citizen and professional in today’s global community.” The core requires 11 courses plus a senior-year, “integrated,” “capstone” course, and faculty are advised to work with one another to provide “an integrated learning experience that takes the fullest advantage of the interdisciplinary curricular model.”

That’s  all to the good. Unlike many colleges that split the core into dozens of courses that barely count for each subject area, Champlain gives each first-year core course a specific mission. “Concepts of the Self” engages “what it means to be human” through various disciplinary perspectives, and “Concepts of Community” examines “the structures of communities and how do these limit and define us as individuals” through the disciplines of history, philosophy and economics. There’s no escaping these courses.

All students also must take Rhetoric I and II, in which they first learn

to engage with ideas and work through difficult texts by posing meaningful questions and analyzing both what a text says and how it says it. Students learn to use writing for learning, thinking and effectively communicating their opinions and understanding

and then learn

to develop opinions based on critical reading and discussion of interesting and diverse texts into effectively written and researched arguments. Students continue to learn strategies for writing texts that are clear, coherent, comprehensive, creative, concise and correct for a specific audience and purpose.

At the same time, first-year students are taking multiple courses in their intended major. This seems like an intellectual mistake (Champlain calls it “upside-down“). The implication is that the core courses will not really change the path you have set for your life; rethinking self and society is incidental to your career path. The first-year core faculty shoulder the additional burden of reminding students that their values and life-choices can and probably should get shaken up by thinking carefully about what it means to be a person in society, so that students should expect to completely change their minds about their major, their career, and even more important things than these.

This first tension is indicative of deeper tensions in Champlain’s curriculum. The second year of the core is shaky. Instead of receiving a common intellectual experience, students only must take four of the eight offered courses. Because a student can escape so much core content, Champlain receives an “F” from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in its database of core requirements.

Second-year students can learn about “Democracies,” but “questions about the value and future of capitalism and democracy” due to such “problems” as “globalism, environmental degradation, and terrorism” suggest something less than a neutral academic examination of these topics. Likewise, “Colonialism and the West” takes as given that “the legacies of colonialism continue to shape Western identity today.” The ethics option comes through the lens of “environmental ethics.”

Even so, a student can choose wisely and take the intriguing courses on “Heroines and Heroes,” Western aesthetics, and science in society.

The good news about the third year of Champlain’s core is that students return to a common intellectual experience through Global Studies I and II. The bad news is that the academic credibility of Global Studies I is unclear. The course takes for granted that

Upcoming generations will reap the rewards and pay the costs of our ability to manage technology with foresight and deliberation. This course will take a critical look at the promises and dangers of emerging technologies, and consider how we manage change and distribute its benefits and its burdens globally

But Global Studies II, “Human Rights and Responsibilities,” promises to expose students to an excellent diversity of traditions when it comes to these topics:

Are human rights universal? Should they be? … Students will investigate how a variety of religious, philosophical, and social traditions challenge contemporary efforts to find a global definition of human rights.

And all students must take a section of COR 330, which features a variety of courses about the Islamic World and the Middle East. The set of cultural studies courses changes each semester. This seems a real victory in innovation for the curriculum. Since all third-year students are studying similar material, they can have fascinating conversations with one another about what they are learning, and they can discover new connections.

But I return to the unfortunate curricular tension between the college’s focus on critical thinking and its official campus values, which undermine that focus. Champlain has officially bound itself to a “sustainability” agenda that is supposed to infuse itself into the entire curriculum:

Champlain views sustainability in an inclusive way, encompassing human and ecological health, social justice, secure livelihoods, and a better world for all generations. … … Because sustainability is a holistic and interdependent concept, our application of sustainability on campus and within our institution will demonstrate this and be INFUSED into all that we do.

Once such official values as “social justice” are taken for granted (and left undefined here), what room is there to go back to the beginning and investigate the roots of self and society?

Champlain does not even officially question the definition of “sustainability” that it borrows uncritically from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Further,

At Champlain College, sustainability is a central value and we strive to infuse it throughout our other core values … Further, we must create a campus where fully engaging in these concepts and practices is a part of life for our whole community.

If I were a Champlain student, I think I wouldn’t believe Champlain’s promises about forming “the habits of mind that characterize the successful, well-rounded citizen.” I would see that the upside-down curriculum and the official sustainability values tell me ahead of time what I am supposed to believe as a “well-rounded citizen” of the world. I would see that Champlain wants me to become well-rounded according to Champlain’s own values and the implicit and explicit assumptions in its courses, while the habits of mind that include critical thinking about those values and assumptions do not seem quite so important. Beware the infusion of mandatory values.

Harvard Won’t Stop Pushing ‘Community Values’

After pushing freshmen
to “pledge” to official Harvard values last
year, this year the college is training students that there is One Right
Ethical Way to Live Here at Harvard. 
“We did not have
[freshmen] sign pledges,” Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman told 
The
Harvard Crimson
 for a Sept. 7 article, “but we pushed
every bit as hard on how important it was to consider their growth on all
fronts.” Dingman described as having “potential for insensitivity”
situations, such as a wealthy roommate purchasing a large TV that other
roommates cannot afford to chip in for. 
So, Harvard College
thinks it must protect freshmen from the hurt feelings of having a wealthy
roommate. There’s a cruel world ahead, but at least Harvard can be their mom for four
more years.

Every academic
community lives by moral values. In the United States, these values often
include proscriptions against plagiarismfalsifying datacheating on exams, and revealing private information.
Harvard still has trouble with each of these values sometimes.

Although everything
should be up for debate at a university, academic morals are rarely (yet occasionally) up for debate
in the United States because few people argue that such practices are morally
acceptable. 
But many universities
go much farther and apply great pressure upon students to adopt specific
positions on much more controversial values. Even such oft-lauded ideals as
“tolerance” and “diversity” should be open to serious debate and not pushed as
official university values. 
Yet, the Crimson adds:
“Proctors [RAs] were provided with a list of goals for their
students, including honoring diversity, recognizing the value of honesty, and
being aware of unhealthy competition.”

Dingman still doesn’t
quite get it. Last year when Harvard pushed students to pledge to particular non-academic
moral values, such as the idea that kindness was “on a par” with intellectual
attainment, 
it was the opposite of respecting freedom of conscience. This year, it’s still
backwards. It’s antithetical to the values of a great university to tell freshmen on the first day that they don’t need to study moral reasoning since Harvard College already knows what is right and
will show the way to goodness. I
t’s backwards to
teach freshmen an official line on morality rather than to help them inquire about what is just. It’s 
also mistaken to put proctors in the position of teaching justice, moral reasoning,
sociology, cultural analysis, and the other subjects that students can learn
with much greater sophistication and open-ended investigation from world-class
teachers and researchers.

“Student life”
professionals might feel good that they are important than
professors because professors fail to teach and preach virtue. But
this desire to preach merely proves how far from the professoriate these
professionals are. Too many residence life folks think their job is to
inculcate specific virtues, but professors — the good ones, at least — present evidence in ways that permit students to think for themselves and draw
their own conclusions. That’s a far cry from the new policy of imposing
Harvard’s own values of “diversity” and “tolerance” on
students.

_________________________________________

Adam Kissel is a 1994
graduate of Harvard College.

The University Of Chicago – What’s Been Lost

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The University of Chicago met widespread national opposition ten years ago after it instituted a new, less demanding core curriculum to make way for more electives. It was part of a plan to make the curriculum significantly less demanding (more “fun”) to attract more students and improve the school’s bottom line. Instead of 21 required courses (in the quarter system), there became 15: six in the sciences, three in the social sciences, and six divided among the humanities and civilization studies. The changes were bitterly opposed when they became public, but too late. Over the past ten years, the university’s curriculum has slouched farther toward mediocrity.

After 1999, a student could forgo the modern era in the humanities as well as one third of the education in a civilization that used to be required for a bachelor’s degree worthy of Chicago’s name. While students need not avoid such courses, they may, and many do. In the first year of the new curriculum, only about 20 percent of students chose not to complete the third quarter of their humanities sequences, and it was argued that most Chicago students could be trusted to take their education into their own hands. The situation today is not so rosy.

In 2007-2008, for instance, nearly 47 percent of students chose to abandon their humanities core sequence to study something else. Maybe they were leaving room for more electives or were making hard choices as they tried to fit the core into study abroad and early graduation. But the fact is that half of Chicago’s undergraduates now choose to forgo a year-long sequence, which at its best weaves multiple common themes through various changes across the centuries, in favor of a piecemeal education. Some of the humanities sequences have shrunk on the presumption that they can only maintain about 22 weeks’ worth of undergraduate attention. Why keep up an integrated three-quarter sequence if students treat the third quarter as an elective?

Continue reading The University Of Chicago – What’s Been Lost

Unsustainable? No, Wilson Is Wrong

[Read John K. Wilson’s defense of Delaware ResLife here]

The University of Delaware Office of Residence Life has tricked another outsider, John K. Wilson, into believing that its proposal to run a highly politicized indoctrination program for over 7,000 students in the school’s residence halls is actually just a free exploration of diverse views in a spirit of open debate. Anyone who knows the facts on the ground knows that this is not so.
For Wilson, “The only relevant question is whether the ResLife program violates the rights of students by compelling them to participate or censoring their views. There is not even a shred of evidence that this is the case.” Not only is this dead wrong (there is plenty of evidence that students were compelled to participate and even had reports filed against them when they did not “correctly” participate), Wilson fundamentally misrepresents the proposal, last year’s program, and the critics. The problem for his argument is that the evidence for indoctrination and mandatory participation is everywhere.

The ResLife directors are the same people who did everything they could to make students aware it was mandatory, while claiming to their superiors it was not. RAs were instructed to tell students that the programming was mandatory. RAs wrote, for instance, about floor meetings, “Not to scare anyone or anything, but these are MANDATORY!” Last year’s 500 pages of documentation contain many strong assertions that every student “must” be reached with ResLife’s agenda. ResLife advertised an “every-student” model as opposed to the traditional model of residence hall programming. Can ResLife now be trusted with highly politicized educational programming in the very place where students live, socialize, do work, and sleep?

Continue reading Unsustainable? No, Wilson Is Wrong