Wednesday, May 14, 2014

"God Save Me From My Friends"

I've often used this space to bemoan the absence of the spirit of compromise in American politics. Not everything is a matter of principle, and political leaders do not serve us well when they act as if everything is.

That does not mean that compromise is always the right response to every question, however.

Yesterday's South Carolina Senate deal on the USC-Upstate and College of Charleston book controversy is a case in point. Some members of the state legislature (particularly in the House), angered by required readings dealing with LBGT issues at the two institutions, have tried to punish them by cutting their state funding by the amount spent on the reading programs.

The Senate "compromise" was to restore the funding, but at the same time demand that the institutions spent that much money on teaching the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Federalist Papers, and other founding documents. In addition, it required that students be allowed in the future to opt out of a reading if they object to the subject matter “based on a sincerely held religious, moral, or cultural belief.”

While some supporters of academic freedom hailed the compromise as a qualified success for avoiding the punitive cuts, I see it as a surrender of principle.

The point was not simply to avoid financial punishment for an education choice--it was to uphold the principle that educators must be free to assign reading material they deem to be well-suited to their educational purposes. Both "compromise" measures violate that basic principle.

The first part does so by effectively restoring the money cut on the condition that it be used for purposes determined by the state legislature. The worthiness of studying the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Federalist Papers, and other founding documents is not the issue. I happily teach them in my American history classes. The fundamental question is: who decides? In that crucial matter, the putative supporters of the institutions under attack actually give the same answer as those attacking them: the state legislature decides. The only difference is that rather than dictating which material should not be taught by punishing the institutions for assigning it, they dictate which material must be taught. In both cases, they remove the essential power to make the judgment about academic content of assignments from educators.

The second part similarly undermines the authority of educators. No one can reasonably judge whether or not a student's objection to subject matter is the product of a "sincerely held … belief." Of necessity, all students must be taken at their word if they say so. This then means that every student has been issued a veto power over content. This proviso amounts to granting every student the right to not have a belief challenged. The entire academic enterprise hinges on the ability of educators to subject ideas to critical analysis. If a student may say "my sincerely held belief may not be scrutinized, I refuse to read something that might challenge my beliefs," then educators are forced to teach with their hands tied.

I don't doubt that this "compromise" was legislatively necessary to avoid Senate approval of the budget cuts. The money was kept in the budget by the slimmest of margins: 22-21. It seems likely that some fearful senators were convinced to support the restoration of the money only on the condition that they would then be given the chance to vote for mandating the teaching of the founding documents and giving students the opt-out power.

I'm sure those who crafted and supported the compromise in order to maintain the funding think that they served the cause of academic freedom, but they did not. If forced to choose between the bigoted and ignorant idea of punishing institutions of higher education for the content they assign, and the allegedly "reasonable" idea that led to this compromise, I'd prefer the former. It is open, honest, and straightforward in its opposition to academic freedom. However well-intentioned the compromisers were, they actually showed that they don't understand the principle of academic freedom, and in trying to serve it, they actually undermined it.

The whole thing reminds me of a proverb: "God save me from my friends. I can protect myself from my enemies."