Monday, July 19, 2021

Public university and college faculty are the targets of the latest moral panic

About November of 2020, I received two sets of cryptic emails. The first set was forwarded from my Department Head, who needed to document the extent to which her faculty were utilizing Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the 1619 Project in their curriculum. The requests came from state legislators whose names I immediately recognized. I'll describe my answers in a moment. The other set of emails were for an FOI request. Those have to be handled expeditiously. In this case, the matter had to do with any personal emails I had received or sent regarding any activity with one of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee (DEI) or one of the subcommittees on which I am a member. I complied in each case. Still I found the emails troubling, as they were harbingers of what would become a difficult Arkansas state legislative session for me and mine. 

At the time the emails started circulating, I had some idea about the 1619 Project, to the extent I had found some time to read a New York Times article about it. I had no idea what CRT was, and in a very fundamental sense felt some shame in being ignorant about it. I forwarded the few emails I had at that point regarding my work with one of the subcommittees on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion subcommittee to which I am attached (which has to do with facilities). I sent some emails back to my Department Head regarding the legislative request. I put two and two together and sorted out that the latest moral panic had to do with college and university faculty being too "woke" and "brainwashing" students with CRT. With regard to DEI, whatever I submitted is presumably public record. It will be boring. Most of our concerns are with ADA compliance, as far as my subcommittee goes. 

My emails to my Department Head were fairly straight to the point. I did not use the 1619 project in any of my course curriculum nor did I us CRT. In fact, it seemed odd that as someone who mostly teaches methods and stats courses, I'd do so, even if I knew what CRT was. In my methodology courses, when we cover the topic of research ethics, I do discuss the Tuskegee Syphilis study as an example of very obvious ethical and human rights violations. Those are simply the facts. I am intending to introduce more information on the use of questionable research practices among psychologists tied to the eugenics movement. My main interest is in exposing how extreme devotion to an ideology can blind behavioral scientists to the truth, to the point of cutting ethical corners. In my stats courses, I've been known to spend a moment on how some of the statistical techniques my students are learning are tied to the eugenics movement (Karl Pearson's contributions are obvious). I do so more as a means of communicating that the statistical techniques themselves, although they come from somewhat dystopian origins are worthwhile when used properly as a means of conveying truth. So far, this sounds as exciting as a visit to the dentist's office. When we cover stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination in Social Psychology, I do add some supplementary readings that cover structural racism and sexism. I do so since those are topics that seem to be of practical importance, but largely ignored by a Social Psychology that is more geared toward individual cognitive responses. That can potentially generate some discussion, as this is often a rare opportunity to be exposed to the possibility that one can engage in or benefit from discriminatory behavior quite unwittingly, and due simply to the way the proverbial "rules of the game" are set up. The introductory psych course is set up in such a way that our focus is simply getting students to learn a bit about how psychological science works and pick up on some jargon. Conditioning and Learning is set up so that our focus is largely concentrated on classical and operant conditioning. Not a lot of CRT in discussions about rats running in mazes. 

What I am sharing is hardly a secret. Unfortunately in the eyes of some zealous state legislators, my even mentioning the eugenics movement and its abuses as they pertain to facets of our methodology apparently makes me and others who might teach like me existential threats, who are merely describing facts that any historian of my field worth a darn could recite. Needless to say, this last regular legislative session was rough. We came very close to the legislature giving itself the power to dictate, at least to an extent, what we can teach. In particular, the legislature's majority party wanted to prohibit anything that appeared to be CRT instruction from happening. Given the historically low educational level of our average state legislator, I seriously doubt that any of them have a clue about CRT. Heck, I have a PhD in an area unrelated to where CRT originated, and I have no clear idea. I have little doubt that at least for the near term such efforts would have been tied up in the courts, and we'd likely continue about our business. Thankfully, even with GOP super-majorities in both houses of the state's General Assembly, they failed. Enough else bad happened during the session, including tangible efforts to discriminate against transgender students at the K-12 and college level. That's another story for another day, perhaps. This latest moral panic - that college and university faculty are "corrupting" students with CRT (previously it was Cultural Marxism) is just the latest example of a phenomenon that goes back at the very least to the events surrounding the trial and death of Socrates. These sorts of moral panics end up inflaming subsets of the population who might otherwise have gone about their business, much like I would prefer to go about my business.

I take this sort of thing seriously to the extent that there is a long history of authoritarian political parties and rulers succeeding in dictating what gets taught in the classroom or lab and what is not. The end result bears poorly not only for the academy but for real people who expect that their experts and educators are working to benefit them as opposed to staying in the good graces of despots. One bit of disinformation (a fancy way of saying lie or lies) is that your faculty are "left-wing" - itself a rather loaded term. Someone living on a diet of Fox News or Breitbart probably thinks we're all "communists" simply because some person in a suit paid huge sums of money to make such accusations says so. Such accusations certainly get ratings and clicks, which is great for the advertising business. But intellectually, it is the equivalent of empty calories. The reality is that there probably is a good deal of self-selection that goes on when people choose careers, and it probably is not a surprise that people that are liberal or moderately liberal tend to end up in service sector vocations such as education (including higher education). Beyond that, you probably will quickly realize that when you spend some time with us, you are dealing with a bunch of heterodox thinkers. There are very few of us, at least in my experience, who are willing to even consider toeing a party line. Personally, I think I am incapable of toeing a party line. By my own admission, I am generally liberal. One could probably have read this blog over the last few years and sorted that out. At least that is my hope. That said, how liberal or conservative I appear depends on the issue in question. My preference in primaries is for centrist candidates. That frustrates some of my activist friends and acquaintances. The fun part is that none of that ever even enters the classroom. I am mainly focused on making sure that my course content covers the program and university learning objectives necessary for my students to gain the knowledge base and skill set necessary for them to enter the workforce, graduate programs, and so on. I do that? I am doing my job. End of discussion. Given my teaching load, and the adjunct load on top of my main gig? I have no luxury but to stay focused on those learning objectives. That is my life, at least the professional side of my life. I am far from alone. Naturally, I could show those who are hellbent on avowing that those of us in the academy are enemies of the state are basically benefiting students, communities, and the state economy to no end. It's difficult to argue with ideologues. Instead, we're in the same predicament as Socrates, so many decades ago.

In the meantime, I can recount the frustration of friends and acquaintances from the latter days of the USSR as they recount their work lives. Working as an educator meant being a good party member, which meant stating things that were obviously false and omitting things that were true, in order to demonstrate that they were good party members. The prospects for those who did not demonstrate that they were good party members was not favorable. Struck me at the time as a lousy way to work and to live. I cannot even fathom the garbage science that resulted. I don't really wish to. 

My bottom line is that the last thing I need is a chiropractor or evangelist preacher telling me how to do my job. I have an accrediting body, instructional support staff, and great departmental leadership to keep me honest. That's all I need. There was a scene in the HBO series Chernobyl, in which a scientist tries to communicate with her SSR's party boss what was at stake when the nearby nuclear plant exploded. In the series, the local party boss had enough education to work at a shoe factory before getting to lead the Belarusian SSR. He didn't care. He got off on his power. That likely cost real lives. He seemed to enjoy the rough equivalent of "owning the libs" based on the narrative. It's that sort of thinking that has put our society in a precarious position now. This is the time to ignore party bosses - regardless of party - and listen to educators. We're more attuned to the needs of our students, and have devoted many years of our lives gaining the training to do the jobs we do now. In the meantime, elections have consequences. I really want folks in my state to have opportunities that will change their lives in a positive sense. The last thing I need are a bunch of party bosses standing in my way or in the way of my students. Moral panics are the most idiotic way to do so, if for no other reason than enough real people with real common sense will find themselves with no choice but to question what the party bosses are telling them, as they try to measure that nonsense against their own lived experience.

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