An Idea Too Dangerous to Ignore

An open letter from Brian Thill to those offering to pay students to report on their UCLA professors.

January 23, 2006

To Andrew Jones and the Bruin Alumni Association:

When ideas are merely bad, it is often best to ignore them. But when bad ideas are also dangerous and based on fallacious assumptions, and when they set up convenient straw men rather than dealing with the real problems, it is better to speak up against them. You appear to be deeply concerned about the type of education that hard-working college students receive, and you claim to be concerned about the "debasement" of higher education. In this we are in complete agreement.

With tuitions increasing at alarming rates; with federal research funding for higher education leveling off and in serious danger of decreasing due to a ballooning federal deficit; and with the value of humanistic inquiry and critical analysis needed as much now as at any other moment in history, we all ought to be actively fighting the debasement of education in the United States.

But the solution you offer is not centrally concerned with such trifling matters. Your solution is to pay students to tape or transcribe their professors’ lectures and provide you with other documentation of ideological “intrusions” into the classroom in order to help you gather momentum in the political sphere to impose restrictions on academic speech. There are several fundamental errors in your logic, and I would like to take this opportunity to address only the most egregious ones.

You claim to be most interested in providing students with a proper educational experience untainted by professors’ ideological intrusions, but in order to achieve this, you then ask the students to impose on their own educational experience by taking the time and energy to provide you with detailed information that you hope to use as evidence in support of your arguments about, as you say, “ideological issue[s] that have nothing to do with the class subject matter.” Can you explain how a student taking notes on other students’ reactions to statements made by their instructor, or taking particular care to transcribe an instructor’s “non-pertinent ideological comments” is not being diverted from the true matter of the class?

If your real concern is with burning away anything from the course that could be considered extraneous to the subject matter, one has to wonder why you think that paying students to perform tasks aside from their own reading, attendance, writing, studying, and participation would not also be a diversion from the true purpose of their class time. Because, as you argue, your “standards” for accepting evidence of radical proselytization are so exacting, “[t]he fees paid to students are truly nominal compensation for the extra work we demand.” This is particularly confusing. Is it the case that you are not interested solely in providing students with detailed information about which petitions a given professor signed, but with using these overworked and underpaid students as cheap labor for your own ideological ends?

Many students struggle daily to pay their way through college. In addition to the unpaid labor of their work as students, many of them work in demanding, low-paying jobs that are often insufficient to cover their expenses, even though many of them sacrifice precious study time, a social life, and even their own physical and mental health in order to attend college. I made similar sacrifices as a student, scrambling to keep up with my studies while also being concerned with how I was going to afford groceries each week. Your plan to dangle money in front of impoverished students is akin to the credit card companies that provide free pizza or T-shirts to those same students for filling out an application. In both cases, the parties that will benefit most from such transactions are not the students themselves, but those who have exploited their poverty for their own ends. Your offer reeks of opportunism. At the same time, you offer a crass material incentive for students to perform activities that they may not have had any interest in performing had they not been promised cash for their efforts. This approach sends a message to students that the relationship they ought to cultivate between themselves and their instructors is one based on surveillance, distrust, and economic gain rather than one based on dialogue and debate.

I will not deny that the power structure of the classroom can favor the instructor. The instructor is the person primarily responsible for the content and direction of the course as well as the grading of student work. The instructor is in many ways the person most likely to be heard in the classroom. But you imply a significant lack of agency on the part of students, when in fact they have at their disposal a myriad of resources. If they have legitimate problems with elements of the course that might be construed as “ideological,” as you are fond of saying, they can file complaints to course directors, deans, and chairs; write critical course evaluations (whether official college forms or the various online forums); offer helpful warnings to friends and neighbors; provide challenges and criticism in the classroom itself; and on and on.

Would I be wrong to assume that you or other acquaintances of yours have been subjected to what you characterize as ideological proselytizing in the classroom? If so, how do you explain the fact that you managed to emerge from the class without succumbing to the professor’s political propaganda? You should consider the possibility that you just might have a mind of your own, and that the same could hold true for other students. Of course, if this is true, then students are not the helpless victims you make them out to be in your many anecdotes, but in fact already possess sufficiency agency and power to deal with problems in the classroom. But admitting this would compel you to recognize yet another significant hole in your arguments and prevent you from using a convenient fiction about student/instructor relations to advance your own ideological goals.

Or perhaps you do recognize that students are not mere empty vessels, and that the real complaint is not with the particular political views you document in such lavish detail, but is simply a practical one: class time is limited and there is much to learn about the French Revolution or Baroque architecture, so kindly spare us your personal opinions of U.S. foreign policy. But this isn’t quite your complaint either, because it is not really the simple fact of “talking about” the war in Iraq or “any other ideological issue” that you believe has no bearing on the legitimate subject matter of a course that so concerns you. Rather, it is only criticism of President Bush’s policies or the war in Iraq (to name but two of your examples) that compels you to castigate professors for their views. In the elaborate profiles you have produced, I find no stinging indictments of professors who dared to say something laudatory about those same subjects when they should have been lecturing on anthropology, law, or Germanic languages.

Since you say your concern is with the deviation from the “true subject matter,” perhaps we can expect similar efforts on your part to expose such dangerous expressions once you have finished scouring the Internet for names of people who signed petitions that you, coincidentally, would never sign. As your project gathers steam, I look forward to reading the accounts of professors who interrupted their lectures on Stoic philosophy or South American history (or perhaps more likely their lectures on business strategy or advanced economics) to interject their criticisms of Michael Moore’s voiceover techniques or Noam Chomsky’s obsessive interest in the U.S. military-industrial complex. It will be useful to know which professors have a penchant for praising the incisive commentary of Bill O’Reilly or the profound wisdom of U.S. reliance on extraordinary rendition and the torture of prisoners. Better yet, in order to relieve our hapless students of distractions and restore higher education to its vaunted purpose of delivering content, we also ought to expose those instructors who cannot help but burden their students with endless anecdotes about their family dogs. Surely there are cat-loving or pet-hating students in the audience who must be rescued from such blatant pro-canine ideological claptrap.

In addition to the dissemination and memorization of names, dates, and key ideas, the true subject matter of the college classroom includes the cultivation of an environment of open discussion, critical analysis, and intellectual inquiry that lends higher humanistic education its particular value. You seem to recognize this when, in one of your articles, you fault certain instructors for intellectual partisanship. Your main complaint here, however, is that such an approach does not give equal time to competing viewpoints. So is it the intrusion of anything you consider extraneous that is the real problem, or the fact that there isn’t enough space devoted to the other sides of an issue?

Here is where the disingenuous nature of your rhetoric manifests itself most clearly, for your real complaint is neither of these. If you were in fact concerned with eliminating extraneous ideological viewpoints from the classroom, how could you also want more space devoted to competing views on those same subjects? This would mean these competing views would also be a distraction from the “true” subject matter, or it would mean that the original views expressed by the professor do in fact connect to the matter at hand. As it turns out, your general complaint is not that these ideological views cut into class time or that they are not situated alongside contrary perspectives, but that the particular views being expressed are radically different from those you or your supporters endorse. By virtue of that fact alone, such ideological intrusions are worthy of opprobrium.

I cannot remember the last time I proselytized (according to your definition) in class, if I ever did; nor have I found it necessary to offer a disquisition on any of the particular subjects you consider off-limits or ideologically suspect, but this has nothing to do with the fact that I think your entire approach is wrong. In fact, all of what I have said thus far is really only a relatively minor criticism of your ideas, the faulty assumptions behind them, and the dangers inherent in your approach to solving this perceived problem. In the end, the greatest weakness in your investigative project is that your own ideological investment in curtailing academic freedom to express views you disagree with has blinded you to a whole set of profound crises that are in fact debasing higher education and shortchanging generations of hard-working students.

While you target professors whose political views conflict with your own and attempt to paint a shocking portrait of the corrupt ideologies that are eating away at the very foundations of higher learning, you ignore the legitimate problems most students face and instead direct your energies toward the worst sort of partisan whining and straw-man argumentation. If you were genuinely interested in preventing students from receiving a “debased education,” you might want to devote some of your estimable energies to dealing with the following crises in education: the increasing burden of debt being carried by students; the skyrocketing costs of attending college (from tuition increases to the lack of affordable housing); restrictive immigration policies that prevent many excellent international students from attending American universities; the corporate takeover of the university; and so much more. In order for me to continue to talk about these issues, however, I may find it necessary to mention something other than Shakespeare, Harold Pinter, or the assorted subjects you are willing to grant me license to discuss. If I do, perhaps I can monitor myself, and provide you with all the materials you need to add another profile to your archive. For the sake of convenience, please make the check out to “Cash.”


Brian Thill is completing his Ph.D. in English at the University of California at Irvine.


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