Orwell, thou shouldst be living at this hour

Via Crooked Timber, a report from Florida on a bill aimed to curb "leftist totalitarianism" in the classroom and prevent "a misuse of [professors’] platform to indoctrinate the next generation with their own views."

Now, I’m pretty left in my political views. When I taught, I had students who were proud members of the College Republicans. I had students who opposed gun control and students who thought that separation of church and state was an overrated idea and "I’m not a feminist, but…" female students. (Of all the types of student whose politics I disagreed with, those "I’m not a feminist, but…" women drove me the craziest.) But at no point did I feel entitled to turn them all into Democrats. I was, if anything, probably trying too hard to be impartial toward their opinions. I knew perfectly well that they could shred me in their end-of-term evaluations. But, beyond that, I was trying to model the kind of open-minded approach to inquiry that I wanted them to take away from the class. And I take umbrage at the implication that left-leaning college professors are "intellectual dictators." For both the professors’ sake, and the students’.

The idea that 18-to-22-year-olds are helpless mental weaklings who are incapable of forming an opinion of their own, or whose brains are so mushy that the mere hearing of a forcefully expressed idea is enough to "indoctrinate" them, is a) patently untrue and b) utterly insulting to the intelligence of your average 18-to-22-year-old. I mean, I’ve seen some inept attempts at reasoning from college students,* but nothing that would indicate the level of brainlessness that the framers of this bill seem to want to impute to the young. If I were eighteen right now, I’d be writing a really indignant letter to the Florida legislature asking them why the hell they’re implying that I couldn’t think for myself.

While I was in graduate school, a professor in my department drew the
ire of local conservative groups by teaching a course on gay male
studies with a provocative title (more provocative than the course
itself, by all accounts). There was much ranting from the course’s
opponents about how this was a sign that Gay People Want to Recruit
YOUR CHILDREN!!!** A friend of mine, who like me was teaching composition
that term, discussed the situation with her class. She said that her
students’ response to the controversy was "They think we’re going to
change our sexual orientations because we took a class? They must think
we have no brains." And that is exactly the point.

Have these people who go around trying to "protect" students from the dangerous lefty profs ever even set foot in a college classroom? I think not, because if they did, they would notice a few things. One, that students are under no particular obligation to pay attention or agree (have you ever tried changing the minds of a class full of students whose greatest concern is getting a good grade on the final? it’s surprisingly difficult); two, that those who don’t agree with the professor are often not shy about expressing their disagreement; and three, that students who don’t like the manner in which the class was taught, can and do lodge formal complaints — up to and including the descent of irate parents on the department, demanding better treatment for Junior. Students, in other words, are not pawns, powerless to resist the Svengali appeal of a charismatic professor. (Just as straight people are not going to suddenly turn gay the moment they’re exposed to the idea that gay people aren’t freaks. You know, I’m starting to think that this "they want to recruit your CHILDREN!!!" rhetoric derives a lot of its engine-power from homophobia even when it’s not overtly about homophobia. Hmm. Must mull over.)

If I were in a more charitable frame of mind, I’d say that maybe the Florida legislature is unusually attuned to the life-altering force that really good education can have, and that they think so highly of the exalted power of teaching that they fear its potential for misuse. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think they’re just afraid of any opinions that aren’t theirs. Consider the lawmaker quoted in the article who explains that "Freedom is a dangerous thing, and you might be exposed to things you don’t want to hear." Yes, indeed. Freedom is a dangerous thing. Also, war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.

Look, guys. The very idea of education offends you to your soul? Too bad for you, but you can’t force ignorance on the rest of us who aren’t threatened by thinking. You want to call me an arrogant, elitist academic because of that? Fine. Go right ahead. (But why are you insulting the intelligence of our CHILDREN???***)

This is not the way you act when you live in a participatory democracy. You don’t promote "freedom" by forbidding people from expressing a view. You don’t condemn "totalitarianism" in one breath and then involve the state in regulating what can and can’t be said in the classroom. Not unless you’re schizophrenic, or a raging hypocrite, or completely unclear on the meaning of terms like "freedom" and "totalitarianism." In any of which cases you really shouldn’t be an elected official.

What the hell happened to my country? People have gone insane.

Update: Echidne of the Snakes has also been thinking about the Florida bill, paternalism, and definitions of freedom.

* On rereading, this sounds snide. I don’t mean to imply that all college students reason ineptly; I mean that even the ones who have a hard time writing a coherent paper are still smart enough to form their own opinions.
** The excess punctuation is there to convey the level of hysteria in the public outcry around the course. Yes, I know it’s gauche to use multiple exclamation points.
*** That sentence is meant to be a parody.

5 Responses to “Orwell, thou shouldst be living at this hour”

  1. MisterBS says:

    I think you’ve hit it precisely. Reading over at Rana’s place, here and elsewhere makes it pretty clear that none of us is fooled anymore. This is how they operate:
    1) Impute their own authoritarian fantasies on their opponents.
    2) Infantilize some “innocent” group (the younger the better) as helpless, brainwashed thralls of their enemies, thereby positioning themselves as liberator-heroes.
    3) Say whatever they can think of (without regard to the truth) to highlight and reinscribe their goofball Manichean fantasy.
    4) Accuse their enemies of the things they themselves made up; respond to correction by frothing and shrieking.

  2. cindy says:

    What a great post, Amanda. I find that my students are nowhere near as pliable as the crazy rightwing suggests they are, and I’m dealing with community college students, who are generally believed to be less sophisticated than four-year liberal arts students. If anything, many of them are so firmly committed to conservative values that I couldn’t convert them if I tried. And the same ones seem to often enjoy the intellectual and academic debate their commitment to their political positions and my to mine allow us to engage in.

  3. Rana says:

    Great post. Clearly those folks have never heard that cynical old joke about why “the damage is not that great” (Of your class, only half show up; of that half, only half pay attention; of the half that pay attention, only half understand; of the half that understand, only half will remember. Thus the damage is not that great.)
    I think, too, that there’s a lot of projection going on: just because their ideas and beliefs are so fragile and weakly held doesn’t mean that’s true of other people.

  4. Harrison says:

    But I must know…what was the title of that course?

  5. Amanda says:

    I forget what the exact title was, but it contained the word “initiation,” which sent the pro-“family” crowd into a huge tizzy.
    Someone in the New York Times letters to the editor recently said the same thing: if professors could really use mind control on their students, there’d be a lot more students doing the assigned readings, showing up to class, and proofreading their papers!