On January 9 and 10, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives will hold a new round of hearings at Temple University on the question of political advocacy in the classrooms of the state’s public universities. The hearings are the result of HR177, a resolution passed by the House last July calling for the formation of a Select Committee to inform the legislature of the state of intellectual diversity and academic freedom in Pennsylvania higher education.
This past November, Stephen H. Balch, President of the National Association of Scholars, was the first witness to testify before the House committee at its opening hearings in Pittsburgh. Balch described an ideological battle occurring in universities between education and advocacy. Education, Balch said, opens minds and promotes inquiry, while advocacy on the part of professors promotes a single ideological position and thereby terminates inquiry and closes debate. Noting that John Dewey, founding president of the American Association of University Professors, remarked in 1915 that a teacher should not take “unfair advantage of the students’ immaturity by indoctrinating him with the teacher's own opinion,” Balch told the Pennsylvania legislators that advocacy of the sort occurring in their schools “transforms education into indoctrination.”
David Horowitz and others testifying in the second round of hearings will further Balch’s message and show how Temple itself has become afflicted by indoctrination. They will be able to use as examples of figures such as Temple professor Melissa Gilbert, an associate professor of Geography and Urban Studies who teaches the course “Urban Society: ‘Race,’ Class, and Gender in the City.” Gilbert is a self-described proponent of “service learning,” which she defines as providing students with “opportunities to participate in community activist organizations,” thus exposing them to “contexts for supporting community and grassroots efforts at social transformation.”
The syllabus for Gilbert’s “Urban Society” course, which fulfills a University requirement, states that the objective of the course is to “explore how contemporary urban issues such as poverty, employment, and immigration are based on assumptions about ‘race,’ gender, and class in order that students can better evaluate debates surrounding these issues.” But the only “exploration” in this class is only of Gilbert’s own views and of the agendas of radical organizations and political movements she favors.
In the introductory section of the course, “The Social Construction of ‘Race:’ Racism and White Privilege,” Gilbert uses a number of readings that indict the U.S. as a locus classicus of systemic, “institutional” racism. One required reading, Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” summarizes the view Gilbert embraces:
It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.
Other readings for this course include “Smells like Racism” by Rita Chaudhry Sethi; “Racial Disparities Seen as Pervasive in Juvenile Justice,” by Fox Butterfield; and other articles. Gilbert also requires texts that are equally one sided and extreme: The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics by George Lipsitz, and Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror.
Many intellectuals would regard such a narrow approach as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. The highly respected black sociologist Thomas Sowell, for instance, has noted throughout his career that internal conflicts and interests within the African-American community can be more damaging than the disparities between the races. Sowell has written, for instance: “So long as a whole generation of young blacks continues to be told, day in and day out, that their problems are caused by whites, they are never going to be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities in Silicon Valley or anywhere else.” But students of Gilbert’s course will have no idea who Thomas Sowell is or that the contentious issue of race has been commented on provocatively by a wide intellectual spectrum. It is no wonder that one of her former students notes that the definition of “racism” given to him in the course is that it “involves more than prejudice against people of color, it involves the subordination of people of color by white people.”
Gilbert’s one-sided treatment of important social issues extends to her treatment of gender. Another former student has observed that the definition of “sexism” given in Gilbert’s course comes from the same echo chamber as the definition of racism: it “involves more than prejudice against women, it involves the subordination of women by men.”
In the section of the course titled “Urban Labor Markets/Occupational Segregation by Sex and Race,” Gilbert requires students to read a paper prepared by the National Committee on Pay Equity, a “membership coalition working to eliminate sex- and race-based wage discrimination and to achieve pay equity.” The NPCE’s platform is based on the “fact” that women’s average yearly earnings are only 76% of men’s.
This statistic is based on the aggregation of women’s and men’s incomes without correcting for educational and job experience and maternity and continuous time in the work force. As Arrah Nielsen has written in a recent article titled “Working Girl”:
The wage gap is a misleading statistic that fails to account for several crucial factors impacting women’s wages such as: time worked – women take much more time out of the work force and assume a greater share of the domestic load; college majors and career choices – women disproportionately major in the social sciences and enter lower paying, but more personally fulfilling, careers such as elementary education and social work; and taking jobs which are safer – women are generally less willing than men to take dangerous or unpleasant jobs that offer higher wages to offset the extra risk.
Students in Gilbert’s class would have no exposure to ideas such as Neilsen’s, or to any others that confute the point of view she single mindedly promotes in her class.
Many of Gilbert’s assigned readings and required activities are devoted to the U.S. economy and the alleged declining living standards in this country. Articles on “America’s Impossible Dream: A House” (in a time of an unprecedented housing boom affecting all sectors of society) and “Economic Erosion and Growth of Inequality” (at a time when average household income continues to move upward) find no dispute in this class.
It is not as if other viewpoints that would broaden students’ consideration of these issues are unavailable. In Myths of Rich & Poor: Why We're Better Off Than We Think, for instance, W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm demonstrate that the U.S. economy is healthy and living standards are on the rise. The authors write: “The statistics on consumption – the most direct measure of Americans’ well being – point to a nation that’s better off now than at any time in history. Yet they rarely find a place in discussions of the nation’s living standards, a debate dominated by measures of income and earnings.”
But such views are unavailable to students, although Gilbert does show them Michael Moore’s anti-capitalist film Roger and Me.
The concluding portion of Gilbert’s course is described in the syllabus as “Urban Social Movements and Visions of Future Cities.” It requires that students read the article “A Clean Sweep: The SEIU’s Organizing Drive for Janitors Shows How Unionization Can Raise Wages.” In the article, Harold Meyerson, co-chair of Democratic Socialists of America, endorses the disruptive tactics of the Service Employees International Union, the largest labor union in the AFL-CIO. Gilbert also requires students to read the article “Interrupting the Cycle of Oppression: The Role of Allies as Agents of Change,” by social activist Andrea Ayvazian, who writes: “Many of us feel overwhelmed when we consider the many forms of systemic oppression that are so pervasive in American society today. We become immobilized, uncertain about what actions we can take to interrupt the cycles of oppression and violence that intrude on our everyday lives.” Ayvazian’s solution is to enlist activists in projects “aimed at dismantling the oppression of others in areas where [the activists themselves] benefit...” Ayvazian advocates taking “small, daily steps” to change our communities. She makes note that in her own life, she and her male partner have refused to wed until homosexual couples can do the same, and suggests confronting businesses that do not consider homosexual couples a “family unit.”
Another article is “Building Coalitions among Communities of Color: Beyond Racial Identity Politics,” by Manning Marable. Marable, a Marxist professor of History and Political Science at Columbia University and national co-chairperson of the Committees of Correspondence, a Communist Party splinter group formed out of the wreckage of the CPUSA. Like Gilbert, Marable blames whites for the world’s problems, and seeks to recruit students to “a commitment to a society committed to social justice…”
While many of Gilbert’s students passively or even enthusiastically accept what she gives them, others are resentful that they are getting only a thin and ideologically frosted slice of some of the most important issues facing our society. The following comments appear on the website Ratemyprofessors.com, where students have an opportunity to comment on their professors’ performance:
“…Teacher showed feminist bias. Would not recommend in the least!”
“Racism and Sexism are only one side. She is one of the biggest feminists I know…Oh and if you're a white male, you can't ask her a question, she yelled at me after class for asking test structure. She’s hypocritical and a HUGE Feminist. Very bad teacher.”
“Wow... she's so bias[ed]... apparently for all intents and purposes racism and sexuality run one way from white to black and from male to female. She defines things to ‘back up’ her version of events. Do not take her.”
On one Internet forum, an anonymous Temple student who took Gilbert’s course had this to say:
I had one class this semester [Urban Society: ‘Race,’ Class, and Gender in the City]…in which the professor compared, amongst other things, not allowing gays to marry and homophobia to the Nazi holocaust and fear of Jews which killed over 11 million people. The professors are out of control... [Gilbert] obviously has an agenda that she is pushing as well as ‘flipping out’ if anyone challenges her in class. It seems ridiculous to me that I am REQUIRED by the university to take this class, as it is not presented in an unbiased fashion and does not allow descending opinions. I cannot prove, but I will assert that students who do speak against her in class receive lower grades than those who just go along with her little game and don't challenge what she says.
This week’s second round of hearings into the state of academic freedom and intellectual diversity in Pennsylvania will open a window onto classrooms like Melissa Gilbert’s. Legislators, parents, and taxpayers looking through this window and seeing what resemble chambers of indoctrination far more than free marketplaces of ideas will likely wonder how higher education could have changed so drastically since they were young. They will also want to know what must be done to restore free and open inquiry and genuine learning at Temple and the state’s other colleges and universities.
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