Classroom should be place of learning, not propagandizing

March 16, 2006|By THOMAS SOWELL

Gov. Bill Owens of Colorado has cut through the cant about "free speech" and come to the defense of a 16-year-old high school student who tape-recorded his geography teacher using class time to rant against President Bush and compare him to Adolf Hitler.

The teacher's lawyer talks about First Amendment rights to free speech, but free speech has never meant speech free of consequences. Even aside from laws against libel or extortion, you can insult your boss or your spouse only at your own risk.

Unfortunately, there is much confusion about both free speech and academic freedom. At too many schools and colleges across the country, teachers feel free to use a captive audience to vent their politics when they are supposed to be teaching geography or math or other subjects.

While the public occasionally hears about weird rantings by some teacher or professor, what seldom gets any media attention is the far more pervasive classroom brainwashing by people whose views may not be so extreme but are no less irrelevant to what they are being paid to teach. Some say teachers should give "both sides," but they should give neither side if it is off the subject.

Academic freedom is the freedom to do academic things - teach chemistry or accounting the way you think chemistry or accounting should be taught. It is also freedom to engage in the political activities of other citizens - on their own time, outside the classroom - without being fired.

Nowhere else do people think that it is OK to engage in politics instead of doing the job for which they are being paid. When you hire a plumber to fix a leak, you don't want to find your home being flooded while he whiles away the hours talking about congressional elections or foreign policy.

It doesn't matter whether his political opinions are good, bad or indifferent. Only among "educators" is there such confusion that merely exposing what they are doing behind the backs of parents and taxpayers is regarded as a violation of their rights. Tenure is apparently supposed to confer carte blanche.

The Colorado geography teacher is not unique. All across the country, from elementary schools to universities, students report being propagandized. That the propaganda is almost invariably from the political left is secondary. That it is political propaganda instead of the subject matter of the class is what is crucial.

The lopsided imbalance among college professors in their political parties is a symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself.

But politics has intruded not only into the classroom but also into hiring decisions. Even top scholars who are conservatives are unlikely to be hired by many colleges and universities. The same is true with people training to become public school teachers. Some in schools of education have said that to be qualified, you have to see teaching as a means of social change - meaning change in a leftward direction.

Such attitudes lead to lopsided politics among professors. At Stanford University, for example, the faculty includes 275 registered Democrats and 36 registered Republicans.

Such ratios are not uncommon at other universities, despite all the rhetoric about diversity. Only physical diversity seems to matter. Inbred ideological narrowness shows up not only in hiring and teaching but also in restrictive campus speech codes for students, created by the very academics who complain loudly when their own "free speech" is challenged.

So long as voters, taxpayers, university trustees and parents tolerate all this, so long it will continue.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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