Friday, May 26, 2006

There Are More Like Him

Responding to: Churchill Fallout: There Are More Like Him.

Having read both the ACTA report and Timothy Burke's criticism, I would conclude that the criticisms are reasonable. The ACTA report is a sloppy and overstated condemnation of the American educational system that should convince no unprejudicial reader.

This column, in defense of the ACTA report, is not a lot better (and I remark in passing that this site (Inside Higher Ed) has been running an increasing number of these screeds recently).

Neal writes, "the course descriptions ACTA cites are hardly unique or isolated... They were chosen for their utter typicality, not their uniqueness." Yet she offers no evidence that this is the case. Neither does ACTA. Burke provides evidence that the descriptions are not typical. This is in no way countered.

Neal writes, "his (Burke's) claim that these documents (course descriptions) — the main resource students use to decide whether or not to register for a class — do not tell us anything about what happens in the classes in question is illogical at best, disingenuous at worst." She argues, "ACTA has never claimed to know exactly what is happening in classrooms, and does not assume authority to determine whether a class is pedagogically sound."

They say this, but not consistently, and the bulk of their criticism is directed exactly at what they purport is happening in classrooms. From the report: "Throughout American higher education, professors are using their classrooms to push political agendas in the name of teaching students to think critically. In course after course, department after department, and institution after institution, indoctrination is replacing education." How is this criticism justified by a study of course descriptions? It is not, not even remotely, and yet this is the heart of ACTA's argument.

Neal writes, "Burke implies, because ACTA has not made its argument as Burke thinks arguments should be made. But the truth is that ACTA’s report is expressly not an academic paper." But the standards to which Burke appeals are not merely Burke's opinion, as Neal disingenuously suggests. For example, he calls for "Careful collection of evidence" and urges that "Constraining claims or arguments to the evidence available." How are these merely conditions Burke thinks are convenient? They are standards for argument generally.

It is worth noting that Neal does not touch one of Burke's major arguments, that ACTA has a very one-sided and prejudicial definition of 'political'. Burke asks, for example, "Why isn’t an economics course that supports mainstream neoclassical argument “political”? It has political implications, it excludes legitimate voices who make economic arguments."

When I studied at university, I took numerous courses in religious studies. But never did I argue that the university was pushing a religious political agenda - even though, had I scanned the catalogues, I could have found course after course devoted to Bible studies, redactive criticism, and more. I could have found whole departments devoted to the field! Whole universities!

In fact, when I looked at the list of course descriptions offered by ACTA, I found myself puzzled at the sorts of things they found to be "political" and contentions. Here is their own description:

"Throughout the humanities and social sciences, the same issues surface over and over, regardless of discipline.... the focus is consistently on a set list of topics: race, class, gender, sexuality, and the social construction of identity; globalization, capitalism, and U.S. 'hegemony'; the ubiquity of oppression and the destruction of the environment."

One wonders what a university would be like were we to strike these topics from the curriculum. Are the reports authors seriously suggesting that these studies are in and of themselves 'political'? That despite the courses in classical economics, military history, religion and more (not to mention physics, biology, management and ebgineering) these courses represent a systematic bias in the university curriculum?

The argument, to any dispassionate observer, is ridiculous. It is a conclusion that could be drawn only by a mangling of the evidence and a complete disregard for the principles of inference. It is the sort of presentation that characterizes naive, bald-faced propaganda.

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