Tuesday, January 10, 2006

A Modest Proposal



I have a suggestion that I think everyone here can get on board with, whether you are a Hyman Hater, a Point-head, or anywhere in between. More on that in a moment.

Hyman
takes another swipe at academia, this time in the guise of reporting on the Young America’s Foundation’s releasing of “The Dirty Dozen -- America’s Most Bizarre and Politically Correct College Courses.”

Hyman says that this list documents the “worthless, dopey classes” taught at prominent colleges and universities. As
pointed out in this blog before, this is a common technique when attacking higher education: find courses that have unusual or provocative titles and/or advanced seminars on narrow topics, and then suggest that they are somehow representative of the state of higher education.

This is exactly what YAF and Hyman have done. For example, two courses listed by Hyman are seminars offered at
Occidental College that are part of a program in which freshman can choose from among 30 or more topics to focus on as they learn the basics of college research and writing. The idea of giving freshman the chance to dig into a narrow and focused topic that intrigues them in lieu of a more generic “Intro to College Skills” course is not new (I took such a freshman seminar myself in the 1980s) and has much to be said for it. The idea is to get students interested in provocative topics from the beginning of their studies. At Occidental, they take this a step further by giving many of their seminars eye-catching (and often humorous) names.

That’s the case with the two seminars Hyman notes: “The Unbearable Whiteness of Barbie” and “Stupidity.” The first (a play on the title “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”) is in fact a look at how Barbie and other childhood toys reflect/affect cultural beliefs and stereotypes—not a trivial or unchallenging topic. The second, “Stupidity,” is actually a philosophy seminar that includes readings by folks such as Friedrich Nietzsche Gilles Deleuze, writers who are rarely encountered until upper level seminars or graduate school. My guess is that Hyman couldn’t spell their names, let alone read them with any comprehension.

Then we have a series of courses listed that are supposedly scary simply because they touch on social or political issues Hyman and the YAF find objectionable on principle: “Psychology of the Lesbian Experience,” “Lesbian Novels since World War II,” and “Marxist Concepts of Racism.” Hyman doesn’t explain why these courses are objectionable or “worthless.” Apparently the simple inclusion of the words “lesbian,” “racism,” and “Marxist” in the names of the courses is evidence enough.

Then there’s a course about which Hyman simply makes stuff up. About Duke’s course “American Dreams/American Realities,” Hyman says that it “reportedly debunks the myth that America is a decent place to live.”

Reported by whom? Hyman doesn’t say. A quick visit to the
course description on the Duke webpage reveals that the course actually focuses on how archetypal American stories and figures (e.g., “rags to riches,” “the immigrant,” etc.) affect our lived experiences and vice versa. But because the course’s title suggests there might be some distinction whatsoever between the symbolic America we construct through language and the actual place we live, Hyman and YAF suggest it is un-American.

I’ll get to the last course Hyman mentions in a moment, but first just a bit on YAF. As you might guess (though Hyman doesn’t mention it), they are
a conservative activist group. Nothing wrong with that in itself, but it goes to the issue of credibility. They’ve got an agenda, and that should be noted (and would be, if Hyman followed basic journalistic ethics).

A visit
to their webpage is an interesting experience. YAF is clearly not interested in combating “wacky” ideas being disseminated on college campuses in general, since they actively market intellectually suspect speakers to college campuses if they happen to be conservative, such as Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter (of whom, bizarrely, YAF offers a pinup poster you can buy from them).

They also have culled a list of
their top ten recommended conservative colleges and universities. This is particularly interesting. If you visit the sites of some of these colleges, it takes no time at all to find courses that are every bit as narrowly conceived and politically motivated as YAF claims their “Dirty Dozen” are.

For example,
Harding University offers a course on “The Christian Family” as well as an entire program that teaches students how to more effectively convert non-believers to Christianity.

In addition to offering courses such as
“Conservative Political Theory” and “Christian Political Theory,” (and, needless to say, no course on liberal political theory), Patrick Henry College states that “Any biology, Bible or other courses at PHC dealing with creation will teach creation from the understanding of Scripture that God's creative work, as described in Genesis 1:1-31, was completed in six twenty-four hour days. All faculty for such courses will be chosen on the basis of their personal adherence to this view.”

At Jerry
Falwell’s Liberty University, the two basic courses in government that are required to take any more advanced courses are “Constitutional Government and Free Enterprise,” which the course catalog says, “emphasiz[es] the close relationship between a system of limited constitutional government and the freeenterprise economy and providing an overview of the Christian world view with regard to government and economics,” and “American Government,” which emphasizes the “struggle between liberalism and conservatism.”

Are these courses that promote beliefs and values not held by most Americans? Yes. Most people don’t believe the universe was created in 144 hours (whatever “hours” would mean before the Earth was created). And most Americans don’t hold the narrowly constructed version of conservative or Christian beliefs promoted by these universities. And some of us believing Christians find the theological views of Falwell & Co. contrary to basic scriptural truths and the explicit tying of these beliefs to a political agenda to be quite literally “unholy.”

Should these universities offer such courses? Sure—if their students want them. The point is simply that one person’s “worthless and dopey” classes are another’s core curriculum. YAF, Hyman, and other conservative critics who play the “outrageous course” game have no problem with narrowly conceived, highly specialized, or politically active college courses—they just have a problem when they perceive (often erroneously) that the ideas discussed in the classes don’t happen to coincide with their own belief system.

Which finally brings us back to my idea. The last course Hyman mentions is a course in Egyptology offered at Johns Hopkins University titled “Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ancient Egypt.” As with the Occidental University offerings mentioned earlier, this is a course that’s given a dramatic title to capture interest. In fact,
it’s a beginning course in ancient Egyptian culture taught by the chair of the Near Eastern Studies Department who has done extensive archaeological work in Egypt and authored important scholarship. YAF and Hyman pick it simply because of its title, obviously not having bothered to actually look at the course content.

Here’s my idea: Johns Hopkins is in Baltimore, Maryland, home of Sinclair Broadcasting. Why doesn’t Hyman take this course himself and report on it? He can post the assignments and his class notes to the Newscentral.tv website so we can all see the course for ourselves. If it’s half as “worthless and dopey” as he says it is, Hyman should have no trouble acing the class and showing us how silly it is. If, on the other hand, Hyman finds that he actually learns something about Egyptian culture and finds the readings and work challenging, he can offer an on-air retraction and apology to the professor for publicly defaming her as a “nutty” professor teaching a “loopy” course.

The beauty part is that all of us can get behind this. Hyman fans, who believe that courses such as this are worthless, would love to see Hyman nail higher ed to the wall by systematically demonstrating the triviality of a course offered at one of the nation’s most prestigious schools. Those of us who think Hyman’s being dishonest would love to see him eat crow when he finds one of the courses he mocked is actually substantive and challenging.

So what do you say? Let’s send Hyman back to school! I encourage everyone to go the
Newscentral.tv website to post feedback or email Hyman (editorial@sbgnet.com or mhyman@sbgnet.com) asking him to step up to the plate and participate in this little educational experiment.

How about it, Mark?

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 5.19

5 Comments:

At 4:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ted,

Yes, there are plenty of loopy, stupid, ideas out there. And yes, there are some loopy, stupid college courses out there, no doubt. But they (and their graduates) won't amount to much and won't really threaten anything. But they are awfully ripe and convenient targets for Propagandist Hyman.

And the truth needn't get in Hyman's way... let's not forget that he just plain lied to attack Blogmaster Ted and Prof. Michael Ball, another university victim of verifiable HymanLies.

I bet that less than 0.1% of all college courses are loopy or stupid. Can the same be said for lunchtime conversations or products for sale at the mall? Do we need to pay 1$ for 16 oz of, uh, water in a plastic bottle? Do women really want jeans that fail to function as jeans? Do we really need yet another permutation of a George Forman grill for Christmas (oops, Holidays)?

And what about the number of loopy conservative pundits? If we assume that there are 100 conservative pundits on radio and TV, then consider fact-, civility, and ethics-challenged individuals such as Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Neil Boorts, and the Very Reverend Pat Robertson... I think most reasonable people would say that at least most of these folks have loopy ideas. That makes for much greater than 0.1%! My point is that Universities have some dud professors, but they aren't nearly as spectacular as some other really stupid things in our culture.

And those pundit bozos have much bigger audiences and negative impact than some loopy-headed college teacher who craves for a class to read her favorite dike novels.

So Hyman's outrage is (surprise) way disproportional to the both the harm done and the size of "the problem". But why, then, does Hyman spend so much time dissing academia and so little criticizing his own, or, for that matter, greater societal evils? Even BushCo came out strongly against the senile rantings of Rev Pat. The ability to self-criticize is important for credibility. Hyman lacks both.

So, while the Republican party runs amok, losing 9 BILLION in Iraq (oops!), needlessly endangering our young men (with understrengthed forces), lavishes pork on itself, has vulgar apologists (Coulter, Robertson, and Savage come to mind), Hyman focuses on stupid-sounding courses.

Okay, Mark! Uncle! Uncle! There are stupid courses out there! I CONFESS! Please, no more ENHANCED INTERROGATION! But as Ted Remington has made clear, there are some stupid comments made every night on broadcast TV!

So back to the question... why does Hyman repeatedly attack Academia? For the same reason he attacks the ACLU and John McCain: They are perceived threats to his narrow, self-interested vision of the world and our govenment. One wouldn’t expect academia – the home of at least some reasonably smart people – to kowtow to all the stupid agendas of Hyman-Limbaugh-OReilly-Coulter. Those academics – they are the enemy.

But haven’t societies been down this road before?

It's the classic tool of the propagandist, plain and simple. Which is why I propose a class: Propaganda in the 21st Century: A look at Mark Hyman. (Ted: I'll let you on the ground floor in "helping" me develop the textbook!!!!)

 
At 5:41 PM, Anonymous Bradley said...

Ted--

As always, very well done.

I have a question for you, and for anyone else who posts to this blog who might live or work on or around a college campus: Has anyone else noticed that conservative attacks of higher education seem to be less successful these days than they were just a couple of years ago? It seems to me (and I could be wrong) that David Horowitz and his Students for Academic Freedom [sic] are losing momentum-- we had a chapter on our campus, but they no longer seem to be meeting. Our College Republicans haven't updated their website in a year or so. Similarly, a conservative student publication that caused quite a stir on campus last year hasn't published since school started in the fall.

So, I'm wondering what other people are experiencing. Rampant liberalism? Paralyzing fear of winding up on a list at the SAF website? Honest exchange of ideas?

 
At 11:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a grad student at Hopkins in the department listed, I can say that indeed, Ted, you have it right on the money. Indeed, Dr. Bryan tries very hard to make her classes sound (and be!) interesting to the typical undergrad. And that requires a little bit of clever marketing.

Of course, this isn't to say that ancient Egyptians didn't have sex, or imbibe mind-altering chemicals, or listen to music. Or maybe they didn't-- apparently Hyman (ever the Egyptologist) is a bigger expert in such things even without a PhD from Yale! I anxiously await his published dissertation on what Egyptians really did...

 
At 12:35 AM, Anonymous hyman's turtle said...

ted,
love the idea. it's like "back to school" starring mark hyman as thornton mellon. and it's practical too since hyman should have no problem getting into johns hopkins to take the egypt course. afterall according to mark's bio at newscentral, he's an alum:
"In 1995, he attended Johns Hopkins University on an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellowship"
of course, his alma mater might not be too happy that he's trashing them on national tv. not exactly the kind of thing you put in your college application essay. then again, the chance to see hyman attempt the "triple lindey" would be hard to pass up.

hyman's turtle

 
At 12:30 PM, Blogger Ted Remington said...

Bradley--

Those are interesting observations. Of late, I haven't noticed a particular drop (or increase) in conservative political activities on campuses I've been, but then again I haven't been making a point of noting them anyway. One thing that crosses my mind is that it's often easier to get people energized when they feel threatened and/or on a mission. Since the "election" of Bush in 2000, and the current stranglehold by social conservatives on much of government, it might be tougher to get people fired up to fight a battle they may feel (with some reason) they've won, if only for the moment.

I'd be interested to hear if anyone else has anecdotal evidence about the level of conservative activism on campuses. There's certainly no lack of anti-academic rhetoric coming from the talking head crowd, but it would be interesting to see if this has any relationship to the level of activism at the local level.

tjr

 

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