Inquiry or Indoctrination?

Debate over first-year curriculum challenging "hegemony" at UC San Diego heats up as 2 graduate students lose their jobs.
May 3, 2007

Let’s face it: Comp 101 doesn’t tend to be the most controversial of courses. But at the University of California at San Diego, a campaign officially begun last month to alter a required freshman writing and social science curriculum has already claimed two casualties.

Benjamin Balthaser and Scott Boehm, two graduate teaching assistants who have led the campaign to restore the year-long Dimensions of Culture sequence to what they say is its original form, have not been re-hired for the upcoming academic year -- a circumstance all parties agree is attributable to their efforts to change the curriculum from within.

The graduate students charge that the year-long course sequence designed in the early 1990s to “challenge hegemonic assumptions about race, class, gender and sexuality” has lost its coherence as the program has been watered down into "a form of uncritical patriotic education that fails to interrogate the injustice integral to the founding of the U.S. and the current state of U.S. society." A coalition of 15 to 20 graduate and undergraduate students presented a list of grievances and demands -- including the development of a faculty and student advisory committee -- to the administration late last month after what its leaders characterize as unsuccessful negotiations earlier in the academic year.

In turn, the program's administrator says that he is resisting efforts “to turn this into a program of political indoctrination” -- while ensuring that the university maintains an atmosphere of collegiality.

The Dimensions of Culture sequence is required for all freshmen at UCSD’s Thurgood Marshall College, which as one of the university's six undergraduate colleges has a unique mission. Conceived by faculty and students and founded in 1970, the college has been distinguished by a particular commitment to issues of diversity and social justice. The Dimensions of Culture program specifically is supposed to consider the question of “how scholars move from knowledge to action” as a central, overarching course objective in each of three quarters focusing, respectively, on diversity, justice and imagination. Billed by the college as a “study in the social construction of individual identity,” the curriculum covers a range of issues surrounding the human relationship to the self, work, community and nation.

But while the course has come under fire on the one hand for what the grad students say is its growing conservatism, so too does it come under fire for being too leftist to begin with. Students consistently complain of a left-leaning bias in the curriculum on evaluations, says Abraham Shragge, the Dimensions of Culture program director -- even still.

The Web site, gives a glimpse: One student in 2003 describes the course as perpetuating “the ideology that the United States is nothing beyond a despicable and hypocritical country that continues to oppress minorities and the disadvantaged."

"Students were NOT encouraged to express opposing views," another student wrote that year. "Each section was a frustrated attempt by the TA to reteach the course material because the lectures were so bad. The TA force-fed us material, and approached opinions in the course reader as if they were facts. I definitely did NOT feel comfortable expressing my viewpoints as a conservative."

The Controversy

Depending on whom you ask, the critics of the Dimensions of Culture program as it’s currently taught are either political ideologues who want to see their own ideals perpetuated, or students and scholars committed to maintaining the heritage of the college by challenging freshmen to critically examine everything they’ve ever understood about the world they live in.

“From the beginning, the program was meant to be a de-territorializing experience that would make students question mainstream assumptions. It would be a very critical approach to questions of race, class, gender and sexuality in the United States,” says Boehm, a third-year literature student who, along with Balthaser (a fourth-year), was not rehired for his teaching assistant position this April after becoming an active and outspoken critic of the current Dimensions of Culture curriculum.

"We unapologetically feel that the program is there to raise very particular questions and particular issues," adds Balthaser. "It's okay that this program has a viewpoint."

Yet, Boehm says that, probably in response to complaints of a left-leaning bias, the course began to change. Balthaser and Boehm describe a gradual retreat from controversial subject matter, a “militarization” of the curriculum, and a gradual sense of incoherence caused by the uncritical introduction of “alternative” viewpoints to the syllabus.

They describe, for instance, the loss of foundational texts by Stuart Hall on critical race theory, and the addition of the introductory chapter of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind as the course’s seminal text -- Bloom’s book being the biggest critique of the type of education the Dimensions of Culture curriculum traditionally purported itself to provide, Boehm says.

By failing to critically examine texts brought in for the sake of balance, such as a Family Research Council article on gay marriage, Boehm says the course instructors perpetuate a false notion that there are only two sides to every argument. "The both sides issue is used by the right often to oversimplify the issue and ensure that their viewpoint is included," says Boehm -- who adds that it's fine if students critically examine writings by Bloom and the Family Research Council, so long as faculty situate the readings in their context.

Among other examples of concrete ways in which the course has changed, Balthaser and Boehm point to the replacement of a writing prompt on affirmative action with what they characterize as a less controversial prompt: In a recent year, students examined Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education. “I don’t remember what they were asked to do but it produced horrible papers,” Boehm says, characterizing the exercise as a wash for critical thinking skills. “Basically the students were put in a position to say Brown v. Board of Education was good and Plessy v. Ferguson was bad.”

“This program was a program designed in order to teach students how to teach critically,” Boehm says. “I’m concerned that my students are bored in this class, a class that was designed to shake them up.”

Shragge, the program’s director for three years now and a historian who studies civilian/military relations, concedes that there was a problem several years ago when faculty failed to critically address the Family Research Council reading -- a problem he says he attempted to address. But he takes issue with the argument that the program has been watered down, and questions the political motivations of those behind the campaign.

“The T.A.s who have been so critical of the program have argued that this should be a program in political indoctrination; it’s supposed to lead our students to political and social action. That’s not the purpose and it never was: This is social sciences, humanities, writing, with social justice as the backbone of the readings,” Shragge says.

"One thing we have done in recent years is add some material that does articulate the other side of the argument.... I know some of the T.A.s really object to the fact that our reader could include a reading from [free-market economist] Milton Friedman. 'How can we do that?' "

But, he continues, "If you look at the syllabus, there’s a lot of pretty hard-hitting material in there. I don’t believe that the course is conservative in any way: We’re criticized by many of our students for being too liberal, too left-wing.” Among the texts in the first section of the course (on diversity): George Lipsitz's The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, Audre Lorde's "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House," and Jonathan Kozol's "Still Separate, Still Unequal: America's Educational Apartheid."

Yes, the course features a Milton Friedman article arguing that corporate boards have no reason to exercise social or moral responsibility, Shragge says, but it’s paired with an essay by Robert Haas, the former CEO of Levi-Strauss, describing the need for every corporation to act in a morally responsible manner. As for the switch away from the affirmative action prompt, Shragge says that with more than 800 students taking the course each year, prompts must be continually refreshed. And as for the Bloom and Hall readings, slight variations in the syllabus are often attributable to the varying interests of the three faculty lecturers assigned to the course each quarter: the inclusion of either of those two authors in future years, he says, will depend on faculty inclination.

What Next?

Boehm (who won a teaching award in 2006) and Balthaser say it was very clearly indicated to them that the reason they might not be considered for renewals of their T.A. positions in the Dimensions of Culture program this coming year had nothing to do with their teaching. When other T.A.s received notification last week they'd be returning, they received no word whatsoever.

"They get good ratings as teachers. That's a fact," says Shragge, who describes the T.A.s as undermining faculty autonomy and working outside the program guidelines. "But because I was not moving in the right direction and not moving quickly enough to address their demands that Dimensions of Culture be turned into a course in political indoctrination, they have gone all over the campus to stir up a lot of campuswide dissent that I find very damaging to the program. They've created a very hostile atmosphere; they've been very hostile to me. This is a working environment that depends on collegiality."

Not surprisingly, not all faculty are pleased with the decision. "As T.A.s, as intellectual workers, they have a right to have a say," says Luis Martin-Cabrera, an assistant professor in the literature department who works closely with Boehm. "It's very clear to me that because they are using their freedom of speech they are being punished."

Yet, the conversation about the Dimensions of Culture curriculum has emerged as an issue separate from the fates of Balthaser and Boehm. In addition to the efforts the two T.A.s have been spearheading, the Thurgood Marshall Student Council unanimously passed a resolution February 1 calling for a review of the Dimensions of Culture program by a panel made up exclusively of Thurgood Marshall students, faculty from critical race theory, ethnic studies, critical gender studies, literature, American studies and social movements, and members of the Student Affirmative Action Committee.

As for faculty, Ross Frank, chair of the ethnic studies department, and Lisa Lowe, a literature professor, say it seems as though a serious discussion about the mission of the program -- and how that fits into the larger mission of the college and its commitment to diversity and the study of topics outside the academic mainstream -- may be about to begin.

"This shouldn't be an ideological battle," Frank says. "It should be about whether one can have a discussion about curriculum issues without it becoming a campaign. Right now, it's a campaign because one side says the other won't negotiate."

"It's too early to know what all the views are, but the question is what sort of curriculum should Dimensions of Culture, and the university for that matter, have? Let's hope we can get back to that somehow."


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