Friday, September 19, 2003

I was supposed to be on MSNBC’s Scarborough Country show last night to criticize the Young America’s Foundation report on college course titles, “Comedy & Tragedy, 2003-04.” You can see the entire silly study at Due to a technical glitch, I couldn’t make it, but here’s some of what I was going to say:

The comedy here is the laughable idea that some right-wing foundation can print a list of a few courses it doesn’t like based on the titles and pretend to have a survey of the state of higher education. The tragedy is that this is an effort to have all courses mentioning race, gender, class, sexuality and popular culture banned from colleges, and perhaps there might be public pressure to actually do this and restrict academic freedom.

What the Young America’s Foundation did was examine 50,000 course catalog entries at elite universities and select 300 course titles it didn’t like. From this, YAF concludes: “Academic standards continue to deteriorate.” Of course, YAF can’t tell anything about how courses are taught (or the standards used) from the title and a one-paragraph description. Even if course titles were a reliable measure of content, YAF’s methodology would garbage: You can’t list less than 1% of the courses sampled and claim that they represent a horrible bias in academia. What about the 50,000 other courses? How can you prove a bias in teaching by solely looking at a one-paragraph course description? This is an ideologically-motivated hatchet job against higher education, but it is so lacking in evidence that I can’t believe anyone would take it seriously.

Even the 300 courses decried by YAF aren’t silly at all. They seem like innovative, interesting courses about completely legitimate topics. Maybe some classes are being taught in an unprofessional way. The question is, how can you tell that from reading a course catalog description? Perhaps YAF should teach a class on how to be psychic, and know things without any evidence.

According to YAF “if students have a desire to graduate in four years, they are more likely to have no choice, but to take these kind of courses.”(5) That’s just a lie: all of these classes are specialized, elective classes. No student is ever forced to take any of these classes. The idea that students are delayed in graduation because they don’t have enough electives to choose from is absurd; students are delayed because they switch majors, and because budget cuts make it difficult to get required classes in the right sequence, not because of these electives.

According to YAF, “Almost completely absent from the curriculum are courses that examine conservative intellectual ideas or the free market.” This is nonsense: the free market is the most widely indoctrinated idea on college campuses, often without any dissent permitted. The biggest field in higher education is business, with more than 20% of student majors. Business and economics majors take econ classes where the free market is presumed, not debated. (Admittedly, it is often a neo-Keynesian view of the free market rather than the Austrian or Chicago School variation preferred by the right, but it is still worship of the free market.) Ironically, YAF is opposed to these classes which show the free market in action: students choose the college they want, students choose the major they want, students choose the electives they want, and if these are the classes they think will add to their education, that’s the free market. What YAF wants is some Stalinist-style regime that will banish to Siberia any professor who tries to teach a class involving Prison, Sex, Diversity, Inequality, Marx (I assume both Karl and Groucho), Race, Class, Gender, Ethnicity, Sexual Orientation, Homelessness, Environment, Justice, Witchcraft, Elvis, Muslims, Hip-Hop, Television, Hate Crimes, and Spike Lee.

The classes denounced by YAF typically include:
“Environmental Stewardship” (Brown University) where they examine ways to improve campus policies and present these ideas to the administration, “Diversity in the Workplace” (Cornell), “Feminism and Philosophy” (Dartmouth), “Muslims in Multicultural America” (Harvard), “Race and Ethnicity” (Princeton), “Race, Racism and American Law” (Penn), “Homelessness and the Urban Crisis” (Penn), “Multiculturalism and Education” (Bucknell), “Gender Inequality” (Duke), “Spike Lee” (U of Chicago), “Women in the Bible” (DePaul) and “Christians in Crisis” (Duke), which promises “Christian thought and debate on, and theological analysis of, such contemporary issues as abortion, creationism, homosexuality, liberation, poverty, racism, and sexism.” What the hell is wrong with that?

Some classes are simply misinterpreted from the titles. “Taking Marx Seriously” (Amherst College) is actually critical of Marxism: “Should Marx be given yet another chance?...Has Marx’s credibility survived the global debacle of those regimes and movements which drew inspiration from his work” The course says it will require a “critical reading of Marx’s texts.”
“How to Be Gay” (Michigan) is not some training class for converting straights, but instead is about how gay culture is institutionalized and argues for “the plurality of ways in which people determine how to be gay” instead of the stereotypes that get used. Yet this class is number one on YAF’s “Dirty Dozen” and Michigan legislators and the American Family Association have sought to cut off funding for the course.

YAF presents no evidence that conservative views are excluded. It took me two minutes on the web to find various conservative classes, such as Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, which this fall is teaching “Understanding Conservatism” with readings from Russell Kirk, William Buckley, and Barry Goldwater. Johns Hopkins has “American Conservative Political Thought.” Georgetown has “Contemporary Conservative Political Thought.” And every college includes conservative ideas in other classes.

According to YAF, the University Colorado English Department has twice as many multicultural and gender studies courses this year as American literature courses. That’s not true. I looked at the University of Colorado English Department (, and by my count, Colorado has two or three times as many traditional literature classes (51 without including contemporary literature and literary analysis) as multicultural literature classes (26).

The overwhelming majority of students at these universities have never taken any of these courses, so to blame them for the ignorance of American students is just unfair. The problem is that the biggest major in college is business, and too many students are majoring in technical job-training fields because they’re afraid of getting a job after graduation, and they’re not getting a liberal education. If anything, courses on multiculturalism are expanding knowledge and getting more students interested in liberal arts and sciences.

Although YAF claims they don’t advocate censorship, their report speaks with pride about how previous reports they’ve done have led to courses being removed and never offered again. The headline of their press release for this report is, “How YOU Fund a Radical Agenda on America’s Campuses” And the clear implication is that funding for colleges should be cut until colleges get rid of all these classes on race, class, gender, sexuality, and inequality.

This is a dishonest, pathetic, laughable report that cannot be given the name “Survey” because that would suggest some kind of scientific validity to the findings.

No comments: