Diversity of views in university courses

Lets ensure the debate about freedom of speech on campus continues but don’t expect too much from the students because the turnover makes it really hard to maintain purpose and direction.

This is a reprint of a piece that first appeared on the ABC Unleashed site on 16 May 2008.

Political Bias on Campus. An Academic Bill of Rights?

The Australian Liberal Students’ Federation and the Young Liberals have unleashed an attack on leftwing political bias in university teaching. The problem is real but the proposed remedy may not be effective, beyond lifting awareness of the problem. An alternative is proposed.

Taking a cue from the US Students for Academic Freedom organisation, the Federation and the Young Liberals are pushing for an Academic Bill of Rights to promote changes to curricula, hiring of staff without regard to political affiliations, remedies for students who believe that they are being marked down for political incorrectness, etc.

Certainly there is cause for concern about the level of bias in course contents and the attitudes of many teachers towards conservative and non-left liberal ideas.

Symptoms of the problem include:

1. The dozen or score of economically illiterate books purporting to critique economic rationality, one of them edited by a man who is widely regarded as the leading public intellectual in the land.

2. A collection of papers, workshopped through the Academy of the Social Sciences, that emerged rather like a set of anti-Liberal Party political pamphlets.

3. Widespread incomprehension of the idea of Hayek and classical liberalism. So the leader of the opposition (now the Prime Minister) could launch a public attack on a crude caricature of Hayek without arousing widespread hoots of mirth or gasps of horror from opponents and supporters respectively.

What everyone should know.

The point is that nobody can consider themselves broadly educated at present without the same grasp of Hayek’s ideas (in outline, not in detail) that we expect people with tertiary education to have on things like Darwinian evolution; Mendelian genetics; the way that the Copernican revolution and Einstein advanced physics.

Similarly everyone in the relevant fields should be familiar with work of Jacques Barzun on education and cultural studies, Rene Wellek on literary studies, Karl Buhler and Ian D Suttie on language studies, psychology and psychoanalysis, Bill Hutt on industrial relations, Peter Bauer on third world development, Stanislav Andresky on the methods of the social sciences, Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian school of economics, Karl Popper’s contribution to the philosophy of science and classical liberalism, Oakeshott on conservatism.

A Bill of Rights?

The push for the Bill of Rights will generate a great deal of angst without any guarantee of achieving either the Bill or the desired improvements, even if the bureaucratic systems are put in place to support it. Top down intervention is most likely to generate resistance and resentment, to politicise and personalise the problems in a divisive manner.

A “bottom-up” alternative.

A non-bureaucratic, “bottom up” alternative is proposed. At the very least this could run in parallel to the proposed Liberal initiative and it should enlist the support of people of good will of all political persuasions. Investigation and discussion should proceed on two fronts; one is the question of course contents, the other is the broad issue of what tertiary education is supposed to achieve.

Taking the second issue first. “Back to school” (Unleashed 2 May 08) revealed, yet again, a great deal of disappointment and dismay over the university experience for many students. The simple fact of the matter is that Australia followed the US experience, learning nothing from it, despite the clear warning in Barzun’s 1968 book on the American universities. The sector expanded too rapidly for the process of education to keep up: that is, the discovery of the disciplines and rewards of serious, though not pedantic, teaching, learning and scholarship. But that is a topic for another day.

Course contents and reading lists

On course contents, there is a need for a data base on what is being taught, a survey of course outlines and reading lists to identify courses that are not providing students with an introduction to the best thinkers and ideas in the field. This should lead to suggestions for improvements. This may be done in a manner that is contentious and divisive, but it should be possible to proceed in way that is illuminating and educational in its own right. The aim is to recruit the spirit of cooperative scholarship, using a base of evidence to advance the cause of learning and scholarship. There is no need to deny university teachers their own interests, their points of view and their politics. The question is how the courses stack up when they are examined in a climate of civil and robust debate.

The Liberal initiative has been smeared as an attempt to restrict freedom of speech. On the evidence in hand, it is no such thing. It is better described as a long overdue reaction to the radicalisation of the campuses in the aftermath of the Vietnam debate in the 1960s and 1970s.

The task of investigation, reporting and suggestions for improvements in courses can start in a modest way, wherever people with time and energy are prepared to start the process. I made a small beginning in 1989 with a survey of courses and reading lists in politics at the 21 universities at the time. They produced handbooks each year that supplied that information in a readily accessible form. It was very hard to find any reference to Hayek and his work. What is the situation today, how much has changed in two decades?

The process needs to be sustained and it needs to generate debate on campus and beyond, wherever there are people with an interest in the life of the mind, in education, in ideas, in maintaining good order in “the house of intellect” (as Barzun called it).

This article appeared under the heading An Academic Bill of Rights? on the ABC Unleashed site on 16 May 2008 and generated almost 300 comments.

This entry was posted in Education, Freedom of speech, Rafe. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Diversity of views in university courses

  1. stackja

    A bill of rights framed by the left?

  2. Mother Lode

    The claim of restricting free speech is astounding in its hypocrisy, but it shouldn’t surprise: The political left has a long and dismal history of accusing other people of doing what they themselves are doing.

    At bottom however is the fact that the left has laboured for decades. They see academe as ‘theirs’ (every building, every course, every student and every dollar) and will not relinquish their hold willingly.

    This will not be achieved through a spirit of cooperativeness. Expect violence and intimidation. Expect lies deceit and calumny. Expect the simple-minded sophistry of people who think in slogans, tropes and cliches. Expect temper tantrums. Expect strange irrational group behaviours to ‘symbolising’ the evils of their opponents.

    Expect selfish little children.

  3. Iampeter

    Oh boy. I know you don’t like me, Rafe, but you’re going to like me even less after this.
    Sorry, but this is a very bad article, suffering from the usual issues of not getting the fundamentals and focusing on non-essentials. You’ve done so to such a degree that you’ve spun yourself around and are arguing AGAINST free speech and academic freedom, without even realizing it.
    On top of that, you then contradict your entire premise anyway.

    Lets peel away the layers:
    Firstly, it seems you are not clear on what “free speech” is. We’re seeing this nonsense all the time right now from the hopeless conservative attacks on the rights of tech companies.
    To make this as clear as possible: free speech, or lack thereof, pertains ONLY to the actions of government and NOTHING else.
    If a government passes a law saying that a university cannot hire conservatives, then free speech and “academic freedom” is being violated.
    If a university decides it doesn’t want to hire conservatives, then there is NO violation of any kind.

    Secondly, you call for diversity of thought, but do you really need to teach Marx in parallel with Von Mises as if they both have something equal to offer? Gotta be diverse right? In other words, you’ve put forward the same leftist argument of multiculturalists who want to destroy our culture, but without even realizing it. Whatever issues we have with education “diversity” is not one of them. It’s not an essential.

    Thirdly, it’s not clear if you support a Bill of Rights or not, because you’re not saying anything clearly, but a BoR will achieve the OPPOSITE result of academic freedom, as it will necessitate forcing viewpoints and hiring’s on people that don’t want them there. This is what ACTUAL violations of free speech and academic freedom would look like.

    Finally, you mention “what everyone should know” which directly contradicts your goal of achieving diversity, thus contradicting the entire premise of the article. It’s one or the other. You either teach people what they should know, or you aim for “diversity” and teach Marx alongside Mises. In other words, to have diversity of thought, you’ll have to force people to learn things they DO NOT need to know too.

    So in summary, if you want a Bill of Rights in academia, in order to have diversity of thought, you will need to violate free speech and academic freedom to achieve it, as well as teach bad ideas alongside good ideas, as if there’s no difference.
    Why on earth would you suggest something like this?

    In the meantime, those of us who are actually right wing, would just call for the privatization of all education, leaving schools and universities free to do as they please. That would ACTUALLY solve the ACTUAL issues in academia, of which “academic freedom,” “diversity” and “free speech” are not on the list.

  4. Elizabeth (Lizzie) Beare

    As long as universities are given public funding they should be held to account for what they deign to teach. Currently curricula and content have to be ‘accredited’ but only at present by a cabal of back-scratching ‘usual suspects’. Introducing a requirement for some differing perspectives to be inserted into each cabal might help to get rid of the worst excesses of agenda setting in curricula and content, at least bringing extreme cases to public awareness.

    Watch out for the blood on the floor though during academic sessions.

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