Friday, December 29, 2006

Watch Out! I'm Dangerous!

With so much competition these days, it’s hard to get any recognition for your efforts in corrupting the youth. But every once in a while...

One of the classes that I, Aspazia, and everyone else in our department teaches, a course that goes by the seemingly innocuous name, “Contemporary Moral Issues,” has been listed on the right-wing website Family Security Matters as one of ten of "America's Most Dangerous College Courses.” This is funny and disturbing on many, many levels.

First, our department at Gettysburg is extremely quirky. In the world of very staid, starched collared philosophy departments, we have an unusually large number of offerings that are not only creative and off the beaten path, but the sort of courses that right-wing nutjobs would get their panties twisted in a knot over. But Contemporary Moral Issues ain’t one of them. That class is everywhere. It’s standard fare. There are a huge number of textbooks on the market for these courses and pretty much all of them look the same which means that not only is it a course that is taught all over, but pretty much identically taught all over. If Mr. Rantz wants to list some of our courses as dangerous, a little research might prove useful. I, for instance, will be teaching a course next semester entitled, “Wrong Science, Bad Science, and Pseudo-science” that will examine issues including intelligent design and the false claims of there being a scientific controversy, the corporate influence on science, and the way partisan appointments affect what government scientists can tell the public. Let me invite others to nominate their "most dangerous" courses.

Second, I love the hypocrisy. We hear over and over and over again from the right how we need to teach morality, we need to teach values. Ok, what would such a class look like? I guess it would look at, oh, I don’t know,...contemporary moral issues and discuss them intelligently.

But I suppose the most worrisome part is the model of education that Mr. Rantz has in his head. There are two pictures that get presented by conservatives in their war on learning. One is to extrapolate from the high school classroom to the college classroom. Often in secondary education, the model is training rather than teaching. The teacher says something, you write it down, remember it, believe it is true, and write it on the exam. This is clearly the model behind the testing fetish of those who brought us “No Child Left Behind.” The world is comprised of facts, education’s task is to put those facts in kids’ heads, and we need to make sure they know all the important facts. Teaching, on this model, is just a form of indoctrination. This, of course, is NOT how the college classroom works. I am not out there creating “Gimbel Youth” when I teach any class, but least of all Contemporary Moral Issues. That class is about moral reasoning; it teaches how to think about hard ethical questions, not what to think. That distinction between process and result is the one that folks like Mr. Rantz need to understand. Everything deserves to be thought about careful, cleanly, and rigorously. That goes double for the hard ethical questions facing us today. Legitimate discourse is not comprised of O’Reilly-style rants where the goal is simply to shout louder than your opponent whom you are trying to dehumanize. We need to learn to take all positions seriously, subject them all to rigorous scrutiny, reject those that fail to meet muster, and rationally, but passionate discuss those conflicting views that are left. That is what Contemporary Moral Issues is all about and if that is dangerous, I plead guilty.

But then there’s the other conservative understanding of education that gets all of this and still objects. I had a rabid conservative Christian once tell me that my course “Critical Thinking” was incredibly dangerous and should not be taught because it trained people to doubt, to demand evidence, and to question their own faith. Yes it does. And it does more. It gives them the tools to see where they are being bullshitted, lied to, and tricked. And it gives them the tools to build arguments, good, solid, rational arguments for what they believe and enunciate it clearly and persuasively. This course does lead many students to re-evaluate positions they had accepted unquestioningly for their whole lives. Some change their views, others think hard, and realize that there is good reason to hold the beliefs they have. But that sort of process is healthy – especially for a society that claims to be a democracy.* A flourishing democracy requires rational, passionate discussion and anyone who seeks to undermine it is not only unamerican, but truly dangerous.

I wish I could flatter myself and think that I am one of those dangerous academics the right keeps screaming about. But, fact is, it’s just philosophy. It’s questioning presuppositions, building arguments for alternatives, and evaluating the relative strength of those arguments. If you find that worrisome or problematic and want to see something dangerous, may I suggest a mirror?

*Void where prohibited. May not apply in Florida and Ohio. Consult Diebold for details.