Some critical comments about Illinois College have appeared recently on the online Open Line in our newspaper. While much of what is said on Open Line is not worth discussing, those comments reveal a much wider issue.
The comments began on October 25: “A student cannot speak up in a classroom that is run by a left-wing radical. There is no freedom of speech with radicals.” There was escalation the next day: “If Illinois College actually discourages open discourse and debate, then it’s really not a college at all. It’s more like the re-education/indoctrination camps of the former Soviet Union.” The next day these claims were generalized: “Freedom of speech doesn’t apply to the college campus. Students are indoctrinated with socialist ideology.” Finally, on October 29: “It is the left-wing liberals at the liberal arts colleges that do not tolerate a difference in opinion.”
We don’t know who wrote these comments, or if it’s all the same person. Although there is nothing to prevent a commenter from signing their name, these critical voices always hide behind anonymity. It’s clear that they have never been in an Illinois College classroom. Their fears about what happens on campuses come from somewhere else: right-wing fears of liberal arts colleges.
Liberal arts colleges compare favorably with business organizations. Colleges are less hierarchical, with power being distributed horizontally: faculty, even newly hired professors, have extraordinary control over what they do every day. Colleges are more democratic in their decision-making, as students and faculty enjoy unusual powers of self-government through egalitarian institutions. Colleges offer more protection against arbitrary firing of employees. Colleges are less likely to engage in corrupt financial practices, which is clear from the comparative histories of higher education and big business. Perhaps most important, colleges emphasize learning for its own sake, pay attention to the progress of individual students, and constantly seek to improve the delivery of knowledge.
Colleges are partnerships among trustees, administrators and faculty, who each play a crucial role in creating a safe place where students can mature, question, and discover themselves. Trustees bring financial experience and fiscal responsibility; administrators develop the mechanisms which ensure that the enterprise runs smoothly; faculty provide specialized expertise in every possible subject.
Liberal arts colleges are remarkable islands of discovery and democracy in American society. Young adults grasp responsibility for the first time – they organize their own education, they create and run organizations of the most varied kinds, they vote for and lead their own governing bodies, they publish their own newspapers.
So why does the right wing hate institutions of higher education? One reason is that many courses deal with subjects that make extreme conservatives uncomfortable. Biologists teach evolution, not creationism. Scientists believe that global warming is caused by human action. Men and women are treated equally in the content of our courses.
Topics like race, class, and gender upset conservatives. Dealing with those subjects inevitably means discussing our history of slavery and segregation, and of the dispossession of Native Americans. It means studying how women have been subordinated by law and custom until very recently. It means looking critically at the darker sides of our history, alongside the idealism of the American revolutionaries and the triumph of democracy, addressing both the good and the bad.
I admit to having taken particular positions on race in my own teaching. In the course on the 1960s which I team-taught with another professor, we were clear that we thought that segregation was wrong, morally and constitutionally, and that the civil rights movement was justified. Should we be teaching our students something different than that?
Here’s an example of the “indoctrination” that occurs at Illinois College. In a classroom used for political science courses hang several posters urging our students to vote. During the Presidential election, students were encouraged to see the primary debates, the Party conventions, and the election night reporting. I have never heard any professor tell any student how to vote.
In fact, the right wing is not against indoctrination, it is against institutions that do not indoctrinate students with their own ideas. William F. Buckley, Jr., argued in his 1951 book, “God and Man at Yale”, that higher education in America was hopelessly liberal, and then turned around and suggested “banishing from the classroom” all professors who did not advocate the ideas of Adam Smith.
Conservatives, according to their own words, prefer colleges which stress political indoctrination: Young America’s Foundation (motto: “The Conservative Movement Starts Here”) only approves institutions which “emphasize principles including smaller government, strong national defense, free enterprise, and traditional values”, which “proclaim, through their mission and programs, a dedication to discovering, maintaining, and strengthening the conservative values of their students.”
The Open Line writers imagine that everybody believes in substituting persuasion for teaching. I invite anyone who thinks that open discourse is discouraged at Illinois College to attend a class and see for themselves. We don’t try to strengthen either the liberal or conservative values of our students. We try to help them think about what their values are, test those values against the widest variety of human experiences, and realize that other good people have other values.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 5, 2013