While the issue at its most superficial level might appear to be about the validity of climate change, it’s not. Not even a little bit. Believe or disbelieve, it doesn’t matter.* The issue at hand could be anything. That it happens to be the validity of “human induced climate change” doesn’t matter. That some profs at University of Colorado-Colorado Springs are throwing a course where they announce, in advance, that no student can question their premise, does.
Three instructors co-teaching an online course called “Medical Humanities in the Digital Age” recently told their students through an email that climate change is not up for debate and those who think it is should not enroll in the course, according to documents first obtained by The College Fix.
“The point of departure for this course is based on the scientific premise that human induced climate change is valid and occurring,” the email sent to students read. “We will not, at any time, debate the science of climate change, nor will the ‘other side’ of the climate change debate be taught or discussed in this course.”
In reaction to the University of Chicago letter to incoming students, that the school does not support safe spaces and trigger warnings, Jeet Heer cried “academic freedom!” What if profs wanted to give trigger warnings? What if they wanted to make their classrooms “safe spaces,” replete with puppies and Play-Doh? What about the academic freedom? Heer’s complaint was unpersuasive, as if a physics prof could teach deviant gender studies if that’s what she felt like teaching because to require her to teach, you know, physics, would impair her academic freedom.
But does a professor’s “right” to academic freedom extend to teaching a course premised on a controversial political position, but where no student can question his politics?
The message, signed by professors Rebecca Laroche, Wendy Haggren and Eileen Skahill, was sent after some students expressed concerns about their ability to do well in the course after watching the first lecture about climate change online.
“Opening up a debate that 98% of climate scientists unequivocally agree to be a non-debate would detract from the central concerns of environment and health addressed in this course,” the email continues. “[I]f you believe this premise to be an issue for you, we respectfully ask that you do not take this course, as there are options within the Humanities program for face to face this semester and online next.”
One of the curious tricks these days is to be conceptually disrespectful, but throw in the word “respectfully” as if that makes it totally cool. The students attending the school might have thought that, assuming they were otherwise qualified by meeting whatever requirements and prerequisites were established, they could take any course they wanted, any course that interested them or furthered their education. To receive an email informing them that if they didn’t share the profs’ views, they should “respectfully” get lost, gives rise to an unanticipated clash of “rights.”
The word “rights” is in scare quotes here, because “academic freedom” is a manufactured right. There is no such “right” in the Constitution, but rather a pedagogical norm that has become so embedded in academia as to take on the appearance of a right. The problem is that it’s a “right” that applies to everyone in academia, student and teacher alike.
Academic freedom means that both faculty members and students can engage in intellectual debate without fear of censorship or retaliation.
Seems clear enough, except when rights are created out of the mist, there can be irreconcilable conflicts.
Academic freedom gives both students and faculty the right to express their views — in speech, writing, and through electronic communication, both on and off campus — without fear of sanction, unless the manner of expression substantially impairs the rights of others or, in the case of faculty members, those views demonstrate that they are professionally ignorant, incompetent, or dishonest with regard to their discipline or fields of expertise.
This addresses “the manner of expression,” which emits the unpleasant odor of tone. If a prof doesn’t care for the way a student expresses himself, perhaps in a way that the academic deems “disrespectful,” then sanctions are fine because it “substantially impairs the rights [there’s that word again] of others” to not have to endure speech in a manner they dislike? As for professional ignorance, incompetence or dishonesty, try making that case stick.
Academic freedom does not mean a faculty member can harass, threaten, intimidate, ridicule, or impose his or her views on students.
Is banning ideas, questions, challenges from the classroom the same as imposing ideas on students? The thrust is that these academics are flexing their academic freedom by banning the students’ academic freedom, making it a zero sum game. To further the “rights” of teachers, they are eliminating the “rights” of students. Can this be justified?
Consider a course directed toward the constitutional methods of eradicating hate speech that included a proviso that no student question whether the elimination of hate speech violated the First Amendment. After all, if you can’t get past the initial question, you can’t get to the crux of the course, how to fix the problem. Except, the premise of the course, that the First Amendment doesn’t protect hate speech, is not merely controversial, but fundamentally flawed.
Does that mean an academic can never teach a course that seeks to address downstream fixes that require students to either agree with the controversial premise or, at least, never question the premise, because then they will be unable to get to where the academic seeks to go? If the answer is no, then the apparently absurd notion that a student can be banned from asking questions or challenging a belief isn’t such a terrible thing.
In stating the course’s focus and rules, Hutton said faculty members are offering students the chance to choose whether this particular class is something in which they would like to enroll. He also said the professors of the course have “offered to discuss it with students who have concerns or differing opinions.”
They will be happy to “discuss it,” but the answer will be “no, differing opinions will not be allowed.” And welcome to college!
*This is my kind way of saying no comments about climate change. If you’re struggling with this notion, substitute climate change with “1 in 5 college women will be raped,” or “hate speech isn’t free speech,” or “Lena Dunham is universally considered to be an attractive woman.”