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Parr: Progressive professors and academic ‘freedom’

September 15, 2017

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Noted economist Thomas Sowell once said, “The next time some academics tell you how important diversity is, ask how many Republicans there are in their sociology department.”

If media bias is the number one thing conservatives like to complain about, the abject lack of ideological parity in higher education must be a close second. Progressive professors (but I repeat myself) can be sorted into three categories: First, the majority who go about their job and students are none the wiser; second, those who are open about their beliefs but believe intellectual pluralism and challenging students are essential features of higher education; and last, those whose mission is to proselytize and gain converts to their cause.

For purposes of academic freedom and intellectual diversity, the first group rarely poses a problem, except for whatever “implicit bias” might creep into their scholarship (they undoubtedly think implicit bias exists for the rest of society, so why not also for them?), and of course, sheer numbers. They go to class, teach the material, and go home. They have their personal beliefs, but don’t insert them into lectures and material.

Some of my favorite professors, including several with whom I stay in regular contact, are in the second category. For students who are afraid to examine why they believe a certain way, or are unwilling to admit they might not have it all figured out (i.e. the conservative version of “snowflakes”), these professors can seem intimidating, and *gasp* mean.

But in reality, such professors embody what higher education is about: learning how to critically think about complex issues by distilling issues and beliefs down to their core and analytically examining fundamental principles. Conservatives who complain about professors in this category are hypocrites and uninterested in intellectual diversity, academic freedom or the pursuit of knowledge. They simply want the conservative version of progressive apologists.

In the interest of fairness, of the roughly 60 professors I have experienced through undergrad (at IU Bloomington) and half of law school, a handful or less fall into the third category. The problem then, is not quantity but rather quality—or the lack thereof—of substantive learning. Quite different from those in the former two categories, the professors in this group are myopically focused on converting others to whatever is their pet issue. Cultivating minds through reason is somewhere down the list of priorities. Said another way: They are more interested in telling students what to think, than in how to think.

The distinction between those instructors who fall into the second category and those who fall into the third group can be nuanced, but it is essential for both the sake of developing students’ critical analytical skills and creating an environment of intellectual freedom.

A quick example of a teacher who unquestionably falls into the third category: Professor “A” made it clear from early on in the semester that her primary goal was for students to see things her way. On one occasion when a student was (legitimately) challenging her interpretation of a law, she replied, “If you approach issues like [Justice] Scalia, you’ll get it wrong every time.”

And there are no legitimate means of recourse for students. Try drawing attention to it? The response from on high is “academic freedom and professor autonomy.” Of course, that is circular reasoning.

But why even bother with reasoning at all?•

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Parr is a student at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis and is treasurer of the Indiana Young Republicans.Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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