Of what use is a philosopher who doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings?—Diogenes
One may view the history of philosophy as a history of heresy.—Walter Kaufmann
In the Florida legislature, House Republicans, on the Choice and Innovation Committee, recently voted to pass a bill that threatens to restrain academic scholars. The law would allow students to sue teachers for beliefs that do not concur with conservative perspectives. If, for example, professors argue that evolution is a scientific fact instead of a theory, and if they don’t devote equal time to creationism, under this bill, initiated by conservative David Horowitz’s campaign, students can sue the professor for being biased.
Although the bill has two more committees to pass before it can be considered by the full House, it represents a growing threat against the very foundation of scholarly research. The intended goal of this bill is to portray professors as tyrannical monsters who terrorize Republican-conservative students, rendering them into poor, helpless victims under the authority of those, ah yes, Brutal Liberal Dictators!
Indeed, the phrasing of the bill is comical. It turns the essential meaning of “liberal education” upside down: “leftist totalitarianism” by “dictator professors” in university classrooms. How’s this for an Orwellian twist? The bill is titled “The Academic Freedom Bill of Rights,” sponsored by Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.
In this rather oppressive atmosphere, particularly if one lives in a conservative county, as I do, teaching philosophy is a dangerous occupation. It’s not quite as dangerous as being a liberal journalist, but it has its risks.
I’ve written a cover piece for our local paper, New Times, entitled “The Politics of Restraint,” on this subject because I felt it was important for the community to know that if college teachers clarify fact from fiction, if they explain the truth on the invasion of Iraq, that Saddam was not responsible for 9/11, there were no weapons of mass destruction, and therefore he could not have been an imminent threat to the U.S, conservatives howl in agony that the teacher is spreading “anti-Bush indoctrination.”
If teachers dare to enlighten Republican students on Bush’s anti-environmental policies that benefit polluting industries at the expense of the public’s health, they’re immediately tagged “Bush-bashers.”
I, personally, was targeted by a group of Bush-supporting fundamentalists. As soon as they listed me on their websites, I received a flood of hate e-mails from nutcases across the nation. The author of “Bush Bashing for a College Degree” not only attacked the philosophy course, she proceeded to condemn the entire humanities department and Western traditional philosophers as being “secular evil influences.” Plato, Augustine, Kant, Nietzsche and J.S. Mill are unsuitable for study because they’re EVIL according to Jen Shroder.
Shroder wrongly claims that I yelled at my students, “If you like Bush or Limbaugh, LEAVE NOW.” I admit, I like the sound of it, but it’s flatly untrue. This woman has never attended my class. I have, however, mentioned to my students that the Bush administration’s favorable take on Iraq is being played 24/7 on all the corporate media networks and talk radio shows.
This explains why conservatives are now going after college teachers. Given the massive media control, it’s the last arena left where students are introduced to a humane and rational approach to serious moral issues, where they’ll be exposed to critical analysis, such as examining how the Iraqis, students their own age, feel about the U.S. invasion, an evaluation which has been deliberately ignored from the American corporate media reports from day one of this invasion. Not surprising, my students had never considered what it would be like to be in Iraqi civilian shoes, to be occupied by foreign invaders. It was the first time anyone asked them to think about Iraqi families from an empathic angle.
After we discussed Plato’s theory of Justice, I asked my students if Plato would agree or disagree with Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. Most of them understood the connection between Plato’s assessment of war and the fact that Iraq is the 2nd largest source of oil in the world. Plato argued that “the desire for more things will soon exhaust the resources of the community and before long, we shall have to cut off a slice or our neighbor’s territory…and they will want a slice of ours. At this rate, neighbors will inevitably be at war. Wars have their origin in desires which are the most fruitful source of evils both to individuals and states.”
Conservative students have complained to each other: “How can she call herself a philosophy teacher when she doesn’t’ allow students to express their opinions?”
Students labor under the false presumption that philosophy is about the expression of “their” opinions and that all opinions are equally valid. Never mind that most students haven’t read a single philosophy book in their entire lives. Never mind that they do not hold a single college degree on the subject. Degrees in philosophy are irrelevant to today’s students. Generally, students don’t value reading, which means that they don’t value learning, and if they don’t value learning, they don’t value teachers. There are exceptions, thank goodness, but this downward trend of poor reading and writing skills is getting worse with every year that passes.
Nevertheless, college students believe that they have equal status with their professors. And that is how this movement began—with the absurd notion that students’ opinions, no matter how stupid or wrong those opinions may be, have as much validity as academic scholarship.
To reiterate the charge: Ah yes, poor conservatives are being terrorized and victimized by the Big Bad Liberal Teachers. How so?
Considering the lecture on Plato, you’d think that conservatives would be on Plato’s side since Plato is a Moral Absolutist. Plato argued that “Justice does not entail harming others.” Oh, oh, that doesn’t sit well with war-monger conservatives. Regarding categorical imperatives, I equated Plato’s definition of Justice with the Biblical Commandment, Thou Shall Not Kill. What’s all the fuss about? Alas, conservative Christians talk big on the Ten Commandments, but do they really accept moral absolutism?
Given the brouhaha last election over conservative “moral values,” I brought up the obvious contradiction between the pro-life position against abortion on the one hand, and on the other hand, unquestionable support for an unjustifiable invasion of Iraq that has led to over 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths, mostly children. Moral Absolutism, I argued, calls for CONSISTENCY. Otherwise, if you allow for exceptions, it’s no longer absolute. Make up your minds. Either you adhere to the moral imperative or you’re a relativist.
The Bush-supporting, conservative students were not intimidated; they were raging mad at me for pointing out the contradiction. One student screamed in a fit of rage that “there are NO civilian deaths in Iraq!” In response, I asked, “What planet are you on?” All right, I confess to being a tad bit sarcastic. But come on! No civilian deaths?! What an idiot. So sue me! No wait! I’m kidding.
Another student demanded to take over my class. I swear I’m not making this up.
A conservative student actually tried to push me aside at the beginning of class, dressed for the occasion in his tie and suit, with a digital camera, to deliver his Thou SHALL Kill presentation. It never occurred to him to discuss his proposal with me after class or during my office hours. He simply presumed that he was at equal status with the teacher, and that he has the “Academic Freedom” to take up precious class time with his flaky opinions on interpreting the word “kill” in the 6th Commandment.
I explained that students are paying to learn from an accredited teacher with degrees in philosophy/humanities. They’re not paying to hear HIS opinions. The test will be on Plato. He stormed out of the class and then dropped out the next day. (Praise the Lord!)
Here’s a follow-up question for Republican legislators: Some students still believe that Saddam was responsible for 9/11. Now if I were to tell them that even the Bush administration has announced that Saddam was not responsible for 9/11, under this bill, if passed, would students have the right to sue me because I clarified fact from fiction? Do I now become a Big Bad Liberal Dictator for challenging misinformation?
In today’s FOXTV-anything-goes-media, lies are facts. So it makes it exceedingly frustrating for teachers to question media-repeated lies, distortions and misinformation.
Philosophers have a long tradition of questioning conventional norms and popular beliefs. Socrates was accused by the mob for being unpatriotic because he didn’t believe war with Sparta and the poorly planned Sicilian invasion were good ideas. As it turned out, he was right and they were wrong. Athens was demolished. He was promptly executed on trumped up charges, “Corrupting the Youth” and “Atheism” (gee, that sounds familiar!). In other words, Socrates was found guilty for being a critic of society, which made him an “enemy of the state.”
The intended goal of this bill is to allow students the opportunity to express FOXTV lies or misinformation, and their conservative views, in the classroom without teachers getting in the way. If the teachers challenge their Limbaugh or Hannity views, then the teacher will be sued, tarred & feathered and thrown into prison in the name of “Academic Freedom.” Oh, and let’s not forget the Hemlock.
Jacqueline Marcus’ (firstname.lastname@example.org) editorials and letters have appeared in the Washington Post, Salon, Slate, New Times, (San Luis Obispo, CA Cover story: “The Politics of Restraint”). Her poems have appeared in national university journals, The Kenyon Review, The Ohio Review, The Antioch Review and many more periodicals. Her book of poems, Close to the Shore, was published by Michigan State University Press. She teaches philosophy at Cuesta College and is the editor of ForPoetry.com