Education, not indoctrination?

Not sexist! Not racist! Don’t tell Lot’s Wife!

Back in the 1980s, it was left-wing students who used to complain about lecturers expressing inappropriate political views. Due to an attack on him in the Monash student newspaper Lot’s Wife, my criminal law lecturer, the late Kumar Amarasekara, had to preface his often hilarious jokes with the above disclaimer.

As the SMH reported this morning, now it is the turn of Liberal students to complain about political bias. According to their ‘Education. Not Indoctrination.’ campaign they want (getting in on the fashionable language) ‘inclusive’ universities that ‘foster intellectual diversity’. Incidents of bias could include:

* a verbal opinion offered by a teacher or lecturer that is overtly political or ideological
* a method of teaching that is hostile to opposing views
* the use or presentation of one-sided course materials or textbooks
* the promotion of a particular political ideology by university authorities


When I was a tutor, I used to try to keep my own political views from the students. That’s pretty hard to do in the Google era, but if you are teaching knowledge that is the subject of reasonable dispute I think professionalism demands that students be made aware that such disputes exist, and made to feel confident that they will be assessed on their ability to collect evidence and make an argument, even if it arrives at conclusions with which the assessor does not agree. That was my experience as an undergraduate, and I hope that was the experience of the undergraduates I later taught.

If the Liberal campaign reveals instances of the middle two problems that will be a good thing. Such departures from professional standards should be highlighted. But I’m not sure that a lecturer simply expressing an opinion is necessarily a problem in a class which has an open academic ethos. This is especially the case with later year classes, once students have worked out that, unlike school, success does not come from simply learning a set curriculum.

And as ‘university authorities’ don’t micromanage what lecturers say in the classroom, I am not sure that whatever views university administrators may express or promote are relevant to intellectual diversity on campus.

And the SMH article again highlights the tendency, revealed in their VSU stance, of some Liberal students to support freedom except when they don’t like the results:

“At this stage we’re encouraging universities to act of their own volition. Obviously if they don’t we will consider our position,” [ALSF President Tim] Andrews says. “Students for Academic Freedom has been pushing to get universities to institute polices which explicitly protect students from bias and to actually monitor universities. [emphasis added]

As with VSU, I encourage the liberal responses of voice (complaints, criticism) or exit (take your business elsewhere). But even if every anecdote about academic bias I have ever heard is true, it does not remotely constitute a case for further government intervention in Australian universities.

41 thoughts on “Education, not indoctrination?

  1. Andrew, these particular Young Libs are deep-blue authoritarian conservatives – you don’t belong in the same party as them. You’ve gotta suspect that their authoritarianism stems from personal insecurities they can’t articulate – they seek to shut down argument because they’d lose.

    They should be told to grow up, and meanwhile just ignored.

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  2. When I teach Advanced Corporate Finance it doesn’t matter what my political views are. Public Sector Economics is different – last year one of the students wore a Kevin 07 t-shirt to class in the hope of annoying me. He got the highest mark. I far prefer having students who don’t agree with everthing I say – it makes for better class discussion.

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  3. ” He got the highest mark”.
    Because he was the best student or because he wore the Kevin07 T shirt?

    All jokes aside, these Liberal students presumably don’t think this campaign to intimidate universities is going to succeed, so why are they doing it? They just come across as a bunch of Hooray Henry thugs. Peter Costello has time on his hands these days. He could advise them on what it takes to succeed on the student Right. This aint it.

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  4. I agree completely. The substance of the ALSF campaign however is not one that calls for greater government intervention. Rather, it is one that calls on universities to voluntarily implement codes to ensure students from all political perspectives can be protected and have avenues of recourse if they feel they are slighted.

    The quote of mine was said in the context of – having spoken about the benefits of universities freely choosing – i was asked what would happen if universities don’t do anything about it – and i think its fair to say we’ll reconsider our position and options and how to go about campaigning on this matter. At no point has the ALSF suggested government regulation on this matter, and any suggestion of ‘deep blue authoritarianism’ simply shows profound ignorance of what liberal students are about.

    There is nothing wrong with lecturers having their own beliefs – it would quite frankly be silly otherwise. However, to intimidate students into not expressing their beliefs is contrary to what any tertiary institute should be about.

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  5. Tim – Thanks for that clarification.

    Spiros – As part of a general push to improve teaching standards and give students simpler means of complaint I think this could have some effect. But while academics should use their judgement in whether expressing their political views in class is appropriate or not, if they do offer an opinion it should not be grounds for complaint in itself.

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  6. I also agree. In these cases, the problem seems to be more the teacher’s professional competence than whether he or she expresses certain views in class. Certainly by third year, students should be able to ascertain the quality of a teacher within the first week or two (if not earlier by reputation), which should allow them time to switch subjects. Systematically biased teaching in core subjects should be picked up in poor exam performance (assuming a degree of uniformity in marking standards) and/or student feedback and the teacher should be sacked. But really, if the content of first and second year subjects is so open to debate that department heads cannot or do not enforce reasonable academic standards, there is a real question as to whether the subject is worthy to be taught at all. I can think of several examples from my own experience, such as “History and Philosophy of Law” taught in first year at Melbourne Uni.

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  7. Tim – if I could make two points. First, universities already have codes of conduct and mechanisms to deal with complaints. Second, it would be good to see some actual examples where students are disadvantaged because of their political views and the existing university mechansims have failed. While I have heard many anecdotal complaints about political bias etc. I have yet to actually observe political bias in action (this includes my experience as both a student and as an academic).

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  8. if the content of first and second year subjects is so open to debate that department heads cannot or do not enforce reasonable academic standards, there is a real question as to whether the subject is worthy to be taught at all.

    Exactly. In my experience the content of these subjects tend to be faily standard across universities and time. Heads need to keep an eye out for warning signs.
    – no textbook is prescribed.
    – non-standard book is prescribed.
    – lecturer is forever updating notes and materials (to the exclusion of everything else).
    – sudden changes in enrollment, pass rates, average grades, and general level of (dis)content.

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  9. Apropos Tim,

    Whether it’s government regulation or a university code – it’s still a form of regulation. Surely a market solution would be better. If students are annoyed by the quality or views of a lecturer, why can’t they simply change subjects or universities and write a complaint to the relevant bureaucrat?

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  10. Antonio – I don’t think there is anything wrong in principle with universities self-regulating; the only issues are the need for and quality of those regulations.

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  11. Any grievance process within a university must function well for students to have confidence in their education. But having said that, concluding that there is a strong correlation between final marks and differences of opinion is almost touching on insane. Many classes are so large there is little chance for lecturers or even tutors to get to know students very well. The most probable cause for you not doing well is that you don’t understand the concepts that are trying to be taught. For example, you might think that classical mechanics is a crock because it doesn’t explain observed relativistic effects. This doesn’t mean you chuck a wobbly and not learn about the concepts of Newton & co. The same goes for almost every subject. The example of Keynesian economics that was given somewhere is apt. If you take a class which uses these ideas, then learn about them. Don’t just show everyone how good a tantrum you can throw.

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  12. “simpler means of complaint”

    Complaint against what?

    There are two issues:

    1. Lecturers expressing opinions.

    That’s what they are supposed to do. If Liberal students want beige nothingness, they are free to stay home and watch Kerri Ann Kennerley on TV. If they sign up for a subject with the title Marxist Perspectives on Australian History, then they shouldn’t be surprised when that’s what they get.

    2. Students being victimised for expressing contrary opinions.

    The Liberal students have presented no evidence that this happens. One Liberal student said she changed law subjects after her lecturer announced he was a Green. She was afraid, on no evidence, that she would be victimised. This is just paranoia.

    If these Liberal students had any guts, they would take on left-leaning academics with reasoned argument. But they don’t have the guts or the intellectual fire power to do this.

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  13. Liberal students have in the past given me two examples, in the form of reading guides, that show that only one side of an issue is being offered to them. Whether or not students quoting materials outside the guides were penalised, there were clearly issues of academic quality control in both cases.

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  14. The materials used in a subject depend entirely on what that subject intends to offer students.

    Deliberately leaving out well recognised facts that are centrally relevant to the topic being discussed is bias. But I have never seen such a case. I have seen cases of material not offered because it is part of another subject or taught later in the same subject, but that is the whole point of the progression of learning. You do not learn everything at once and I do not think that anyone tries to teach in this way.

    However, one must be careful. Deliberate additions of topics not relevant to a topic under examination IS a form of bias. Again, I don’t think I’ve seen this happen.

    The more common cause of grievance is that a student has not understood a concept, for whatever reason, and has felt frustrated and focuses frustration on the teacher. I can see how this might be seen as bias.

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  15. It’s not hard to find evidence of biased bad teachers. Back in 1993 I considered doing a third year subject called “The Great Economists”. After going to the first three lectures, I concluded that apart from not having room for it in my courseload, the teacher was a rabid lefty who simply wasn’t any good. It wouldn’t have been hard to parrot her views and do well, but I didn’t see the point. The question is whether regulation is required to avoid such situations. I would argue that by third year, students have to take some responsibility for their education and either exit a poorly taught subject or stay in if they believe there’s value in doing so and play the game if they want a good mark. Incidentally, for whatever reason, the teacher in question was not around much longer.

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  16. While it is indisputable that anybody so tragic to join campus Liberals and/or the Young Liberals should be shot, drawn, and quartered, nevertheless this type of luvvie-left bias can be suffocating in the humanities and the softer social sciences. It is not as blatant as “ooh, she’s in the Young Liberals, only 55% for her.” It’s far worse. It’s in how whole classes are designed.

    In a course on Australian history, the following are weekly tutorial paper topics.

    1. “How did Aboriginal people respond to the European invasion of their country?”

    2. “What does Daniels mean when she says that sexual relationships between convict women were ‘an important aspect of the way in which the culture and politics of the female convict institutions were constituted’”?

    3. “What can we learn from Annie Baxter’s diary about the marriages of people from other social groups, eg. servants, Aborigines?”

    4. “How did questions of class, race and gender define Annie’s sense of identity?”

    5. “What role did stories of indigenous cannibalism play in the processes of ‘domination and terror’ in colonial Australia? To what extent are such stories relevant to current race relations?”

    6. “In what ways were fin de siecle invasion fears gendered?”

    7. “Why were interracial marriages so threatening?”

    Charming and cheery lot aren’t they! 🙂

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  17. They’re all excellent questions, which should be asked of school students in the soon-to-be compulsory (courtesy of John Howard) Australian history they will be studying.

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  18. Rajat i’m currently doing the equivalent of “History and Philosophy of Law” at Melb Uni, and I agree with you. If it wasn’t compulsory, I definitely wouldn’t be doing it.

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  19. I once received an HD for attacking the prescribed textbook for the course I was doing, which happenned to have been written by the course lecturer/marker.

    The course was micro-economics. Somehow though, I doubt that same would have happenned had I written an equally as well argued critique of the received wisdom in wimmin’s studies.

    Tom

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  20. VCE English student asked me for advice on an online forum, “I was reading through your topics and found some of them interesting especially the merit pay…My teacher also said that she has many points against merit pay, and I should reconsider. What do you think stick with that topic”

    I replied:

    “Given that your teacher has already said that she has many points against merit pay, there is a high probability that she is in fact against the idea of performance pay.

    Assuming that your teacher is marking you, and that she has a negative predisposition to the idea of merit pay, the research on persuasion shows that she would mark you harder and be more critical of your work than if you argued a case that she agreed with. Yes, that is biased marking …but most teachers do it subconsciously and don’t notice it.

    So it depends how much you want to risk. If you are in year 12 it’s probably not worth it.

    If your primary objective is to get the highest marks possible with the minimum amount of input, then get to know her, talk to her a bit more, and find out what issues she is passionate about, find out her political positions, etc. Then argue a case that she would agree with. She won’t notice it, but she would probably be much more lenient in marking you.”

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  21. Brendan, I agree with your advice, but what in the world is a teacher doing discouraging a student from writing an essay (I presume?) on the grounds that she has counter-arguments to the student’s proposed position??! Such a person is not fit to teach.
    As for HPL, in my view the problem with this subject is that it (ironically) forces students to engage with a bunch of theories free of much subject-matter context. Perspectives such as critical legal studies and feminist jurisprudence are much better examined within coursework subjects (eg tort, contract, etc) than in the abstract in a first year subject. Further, the treatment of economic analysis of law (Posner etc) was woeful and insulting when I did it.

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  22. Particularly the third question:

    “3. Relate today’s process of ‘globalisation’ to the imperialism practiced in the twentieth century.”

    Is what got me. It could literally have been written by Indymedia.

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  23. Yobbo, it’s always open to students to answer that question by saying there is no connection, and here’s the reason why.

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  25. I’m not sure if anyone is still paying attention to this post but for what it’s worth, here’s my input.

    The problem of bias at universities is a structural one, particularly with relation to arts degrees. Does anyone remember “the long march through institutions”? At this level, the left (loosely defined) have well and truly succeeded.

    For example, at ANU there is only one political science undergrad course that mentions Hayek, or Mill or Burke and then it is in largely negative terms. Yet you can take your pick on politics courses discussing Marx, Heidegger or Hegal (not to mention later postmodern philosophers).

    I wanted to do an honours thesis on Hayek or some otehr aspect of classical liberal political thought. Yet no academic would accept me even though I qualified for honours. So now I am not doing honours and I think how many other liberal minded students are there that are prevented in this way from at least starting on an academic career. It is self-perpetuating – no liberal/conservative honours students equals no phD students = no lecturers.

    When the only academic who has consistently let me present a conseervative or liberal viewpoint without making me feel like it was an unwelcome contribution is the postmodernist (Jim George), there is a problem at at least the ANU.

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  26. Sally – There is a Hayek expert at ANU, Jeremy Shearmur. I agree there is a problem with too few liberal or conservative academics, though I also think this is as much self-selecting out as discrimination.

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  27. Yes, I took a philosophy course with Jeremy but there was nothing in the political science stream! (Jeremy’s course was excellent by the way) And Michael Mckinley (who is a senior academic in the pols department) is always talking to classes about how Shearmur’s views are wrong, outdated, irrelevant etc. Completely unprofessional. (this hostility could be why Shearmur switched departments many years back but I’m just speculating).

    You attribute too few academics in part to self-selection but isn’t the problem that potential academics self-select out because they perceive hostility or discrimination towards their views?

    No one wants to work in an environment where the views get mocked or are treated with contempt, and my experience of ANU is that far from being an open-minded environment of free inquiry, the politics department is openly hostile to liberal and conservative viewpoints.

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  28. Sally – I self-selected out, mainly because I perceived the job prospecs in my then field, political theory, as poor. My political views would not have helped, and I agree there are some toxic departments. But I think it is fair to say that right-of-centre people have long perceived that there are more rewarding fields, both financially and otherwise, than academia. Eventually this becomes self-perpetuating, as non-left students do not get the academic support available to left-wing students.

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  29. But even though you’re not officially an academic, it’s still possible to submit articles to mainstream journals right? E.g. Australian Journal of Political Science. When I’m doing research on the Melbourne university database, articles from the mainstream journals always come up first. It’s worth it for the CIS fellows to get published in some mainstream journals, just to shake up the group-think and show people there is an alternative to big-government solutions for every problem. I think that’s one reason Friedman was so influential – he hardly ever published in the free-market journals, always in the “solid” journals of the field like the American Economic Review, Quarterly Journal of Economics, etc.

    Is Policy considered a refereed journal? Because it doesn’t come up in most searches on the uni database.

    I do agree we need more libertarian academics. But it’s quite a nerdy job, so I guess not many libertarians would interested in it. It’s not bias. Libertarian foreign policy, and a some social policy, reflects the consensus view in Australia (e.g. get out of Iraq, concern over civil liberties) and economics is very empirical so that is judged on its own merits via peer-review. Political philosophy might be different.

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  30. Regarding the topic of academic bias: I haven’t yet found any bias in the marking. When I got a bad mark it was because of my own sloppiness. They don’t mind if you argue a contrarian position.

    But there is a LOT of bias in how the courses are taught and in the reading materials. For example, in my “public policy making” subject which I’m taking now, the reading pack is totally stacked with “left-wing” socialist stuff (there’s no textbook). The lecturer mostly invites guest lecturers from charities, who push their own “more government funding” agenda.

    It was even worse in “Indigenous People and the State” (taught by an indigenous lecturer who seemed unable to look objectively at the situation). It’s like a deliberate attempt to ensure students think there is no disagreement on the issues.

    The most balanced subjects I’ve taken so far are the international relations subjects.

    But it’s the purpose of the student surveys to weed bad lecturers out isn’t it?

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  31. “But it’s the purpose of the student surveys to weed bad lecturers out isn’t it?”

    No. Part is to make students happy and part is to help make subjects better since you can get very different marks in different subjects (although the feedback is often quite poor — people complain about anything and everything, like schedules, dirty rooms, broken equipment etc. — nothing you can do anything about. In addition, the surveys they use are often poorly designed, so everything correlates with everything, so you don’t know what aspects students don’t like. You may as well just have used a single like/dislike question).
    Unfortunately, at places like mine where you are supposed to take them seriously (many places don’t), it means you end with subjects driven by student expectations. A subject I run, for example, is turning into a multi-choice one this year after students complained they didn’t like written answers in exams. Another example is what students expect to do with assignments — I have to tell students I won’t tell them how to format tables (!! – as it turns out, other lecturers tell them how and they expect you too as well) otherwise they complain. Similarily, I used to like to set assignments which they couldn’t solve via intuition (it forces them to methodologically solve problems), but they complain too much about that too. C’est la vie I guess.

    Incidentally, most people I know are happy to have students criticize their work/opinions, and I work in a place with a fair few hard-left people (although the subjects are generally not especially political).

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  32. Sukrit – For thinktankers, the incentives for publishing in academic journals are poor. They take extraordinary amounts of time to get into print, and you might eventually be read by a few students. Far better to put out a paper while the data is still up to date and the subject is topical, and get media and blog coverage for it.

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  33. Andrew, some US thinktanks have explicit incentives to publish in leading field journals (California’s PPIC won’t renew contracts if staff fail to meet this criteria). I guess it reflects the fact that we don’t have any Australian thinktanks of the “university-without-students” type.

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  34. Andrew – I guess it also depends on the career paths of think-tank staff. If people wanted to go into (or back to) academia a think-tank may support dual-use research. While I have had a few things in academic journals as spin-offs from other things I have been doing, I don’t want an academic career so this is not generally a good use of my time. I don’t like the editing standards either (including one case of a change that turned a sentence into nonsense, and another of clear prose being re-written to convoluted academic prose).

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  35. I’m happy to give the vast bulk of uni students some benefit of the doubt when it comes to educational bias. I think they’re smart enough to realise when they’re being railroaded by lecturers (and they often are) and if they’re too apathetic to fish for an alternative viewpoint they probably weren’t paying attention to the lecturer’s meaningless drivel in the first place. We all have access to a grain of salt.

    My concern comes from biases which may exist in individual teachers, their material and the broader curriculum (where the marginally more maleable minds of children and teenagers are concerned).

    I picked up some primary school teaching material at Borders today on Australian Prime Ministers.

    Rudd is portrayed as a hero of sorts on a par with Gough Whitlam with glory references to the “education revolution” and other such fiction.

    Howard, on the other hand was mediocre at best and Fraser was portrayed as some right wing usurper of the throne who achieved very little at best.

    How you regulate this I don’t know. I think the best response is simply for “good men to do SOMETHING” and ensure access to more “fair and balanced” material to offset the “left wing rubbish”.

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