What should we teach?

I tend to be one of those ‘glass-half-full’ kind of people. Maybe it is because of my fundamental sense of identity as a teacher. I see most things, even things that I do not agree with, also as possible ‘teachable moments’ that can be used to obtain a deeper understanding of issues. This is why, even though I think that so-called intelligent design (ID) theory is not science, discussing why this is so can lead to a deeper understanding of the nature of science.

The same is true with the attempts to legislate a so-called “academic bill of rights� for students to supposedly protect them from alleged abuse by college professors and which in Ohio is taking the form of Senate Bill 24, currently pending in committee. While I think this is a really bad idea, articulating why this is so can lead to fruitful discussions on what education should be like.

Last Thursday I was on a panel that met to discuss the implications for universities if such a bill were to be enacted (Thanks to Veronica of the Case ACLU for organizing it.) A mix of faculty and students met over the inevitable pizza to discuss the issue.

As I said in my opening comments to the group, it is my belief that it is in such types of informal gatherings of faculty and students to discuss issues of mutual interest that real learning occurs. We should have a lot more of such gatherings and fewer structured courses in college. But since formal courses and grades are a seemingly unchangeable component on the current educational structure, what we should try to do is to replicate as much as possible this kind of informal atmosphere in our formal courses.

This means that we should, as far as possible, move away from highly detailed syllabi and course requirements, and allow for more flexibility so that the direction each course takes can be driven by the shared interests of students and faculty, while still maintaining the integrity of the overall curriculum. Of course, it is only in small enrollment courses (say with fifteen students or less) that achieving this kind of consensus becomes feasible and in my own small enrollment SAGES course I have been moving in this direction and will keep doing so.

With large enrollment courses, however, many of the course and curricular decisions have to be made even before the course begins, in order to manage the logistical issues. But even there we should try to build in room for as much flexibility as possible.

I have addressed in a previous posting that things like Senate bill 24 will move things in the opposite direction, in effect writing curricula and mandating what should be in syllabi and exams, and the mind boggles as to where this can lead. For example, section A of the bill says that “curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social studies shall respect all human knowledge in these areas and provide students with dissenting sources and viewpoints.� This immediately raises problems of interpretation and enforcement.

For example, when discussing history can the instructor assume that the concentration camps of World War II are an established fact or is he/she obliged to also provide readings of holocaust deniers and use class time to discuss their ideas? If the instructor does not do so, does this mean that a student who does not believe that the holocaust occurred has grounds for complaint?

Also Marxist economics and social theory are not taught much in US universities although they have had a major influence worldwide. Should instructors be forced to have more of it and to analyze each topic in the light of what this theory says? If an economics course ignores Marxist theory, does a student have grounds for complaint? And even the terms “Marxist economics� or “capitalist economics� are open to many interpretations, with diverging schools of thought. Which schools of thought are worthy of inclusion?

If a student does complain in either of the above situations, who should be the judge of whether the instructor acted appropriately or not? Who gets to decide what is worthy and not worthy of inclusion? It is not hard to see that this kind of thing can lead to a bureaucratic nightmare.

What this bill does is infantilize faculty and students. It assumes that faculty cannot be trusted to exercise their trained judgment on what should and should not be allowed in curricula, and that students are not capable of judging when their professors are doing their job well. This bill also underestimates students’ ability to hold on to their beliefs in the face of opposing views, a topic I will discuss further in future postings.

Other panelists addressed the political and legal implications. I learned from Professor Durschlag some very interesting information about how the US Supreme Court has in the past interpreted the first amendment’s application to university education and the precedents that have been set. I will write about that at a future date when I get hold of the actual ruling. It involves a trek to the Law school library.


There is an interesting post and discussion going on at Research in Progress about the Lawrence Summers controversy about the representation of women in academia and the professions, and the connection to Stephen Pinker’s work and talk at Case last week. You really should visit.

Update: There is also now a new post on the topic, also well worth reading.

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