‘We Don’t Need That Kind of Attitude’

Robin Wilson, Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec. 16, 2005

Partway through her teacher-training program, Karen K. Siegfried started pulling her red compact car to the far end of the campus parking lot. She didn’t want her professors at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks to see her bumper stickers: One proclaims her opposition to abortion, and the other is emblazoned with the name of one of Alaska’s Republican senators.

“It worried me what they could do based on my politics,” says Ms. Siegfried, who had already clashed with education professors over her views on affirmative action and gun control. When Ms. Siegfried disagreed with one professor’s contention that video games make children violent, she says, the professor told her: “We don’t need that kind of attitude.”

Although she earned a 3.75 grade-point average in the one-year program, Ms. Siegfried says her professors told her last spring that she lacked the “professional disposition” necessary to be a good teacher. She was inflexible, they said, and wasn’t open to new ideas or responsive to other cultures. Ms. Siegfried left the teacher-training program, she says, before her professors could show her the door.

She is one of several students—backed by national conservative organizations—who have complained in the last year about education professors who are more interested in students’ political views than in their classroom performance. In addition to evaluating whether students are responsible and have good communication skills, for example, some education schools have begun questioning whether students value social justice, acknowledge white privilege, and agree to be change agents in battling sexism, racism, and homophobia.

Some conservative groups have written to members of Congress and the U.S. Education Department, complaining that the questions amount to a political litmus test that violates students’ rights to free speech. “It is not the job of a state university,” says David A. French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, “to implement an orthodox ideology.” Professors, he says, have no business assessing students’ dispositions “after a classroom session where they are encouraging students to voice their opinions, and then extrapolating from those that these people cannot teach.”

This friction at education schools may be an indication of a broader political divide on campuses, pitting liberal-leaning professors against a student population that has grown more conservative over the past several years. The schism has caused people like the activist David Horowitz to call on universities to hire more Republican faculty members and be more tolerant of conservative students.

Education professors, however, say what they do has nothing to do with politics. Evaluating students’ dispositions is important not only because the organization that accredits their programs requires it, professors say, but because states hold them responsible for turning out prospective teachers who treat all schoolchildren fairly. They deny this turns professors into thought police.

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Although Mr. Wise says the accreditor only meant to suggest that schools consider a commitment to social justice, not require it, many schools have adopted the term as part of the “conceptual framework” that sets each school’s agenda. For example, the framework posted on the Web site of the University of Alabama’s College of Education says it is “committed to preparing individuals to promote social justice, to be change agents, and to recognize individual and institutionalized racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism” and to “break silences” about these issues. The Fairbanks campus cites “social justice” as one of the teacher-training program’s goals and says “all teachers, counselors, and administrators need to constantly examine the status and power that comes from being white.”

The conceptual framework at Brooklyn College says: “We educate teacher candidates and other school personnel about issues of social injustice such as institutionalized racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism and invite them to develop strategies and practices that challenge biases.”

The ‘Oppressors’ Language’

Perhaps that was what Priya Parmar, an assistant professor of education at Brooklyn College, believed she was doing when, in her course “Language Literacy in Secondary Education,” she showed the film Fahrenheit 9/11 the week before the 2004 presidential election. Five students in her fall 2004 class eventually complained to the dean, contending that Ms. Parmar presented a one-sided view of political issues and criticized those who disagreed. In particular, they said, Ms. Parmar—who is Indian—taught students that “white English” is the “oppressors’ language,” and that white people perpetuate a “culture of power.” As one student, Christina Harned, wrote in a letter: “She made me personally feel like I should be ashamed of my heritage and the fact that I am white.”

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Ed Swan, who is earning his bachelor’s degree in teacher education at Washington State, flunked the evaluation four times last academic year. He first ran into problems when a female professor talked about “white-male privilege” in her course as if it were a given, he says. “I told her I don’t think it exists.” Instead of completing a classroom writing assignment on how ethnic groups learn differently, he told her he wanted to write about how education could bring different cultures together. The professor, he says, encouraged him to do so, and he earned a good grade on the paper. But then she failed him on the test of his disposition. She said he “revealed opinions that have caused me great concern in the areas of race, gender, sexual orientation and privilege.” In the evaluation, the professor acknowledged that she had “asked students to be honest” about their opinions and that Mr. Swan’s “honesty led to a number of concerns that I have about him.” Another professor who evaluated Mr. Swan’s disposition called him a “white supremacist.” The professors made their determinations based on what Mr. Swan said and wrote in his classes; they had not yet witnessed him in a schoolroom.

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