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February 8, 2008 [feather]
Wolves in green clothing

There's a stealth ideological movement in higher ed. Now that we are all highly attuned to how certain marked categories--race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, etc.--are amenable to ideological manipulation on campuses, we have become a little bit complacent about the broader phenomenon of ideological manipulation. And we've let a lot slip in under the radar.

The animal rights movement is one of these. It may seem all warm and fuzzy to support this one--but when researchers' homes are being firebombed, things have gone a bit far. And yes, there is a line that can be drawn connecting the seemingly harmless PETA people to terrorist groups such as the Animal Liberation Front. They are not as separate or distinct as they may appear.

The green movement is another stealth ideological movement. As I've said before on this blog, I'm all for clean air, pure water, recycling, and reduced footprints. But at the same time, I am wary of the people who try to peddle anthropogenic global warming as a settled truth--it's not. And I'm wary, too, of folks who think it's okay to turn campuses and classrooms into environmental crusades, particularly when those crusades are predicated on questionable science or unproven but costly panaceas.

Focus the Nation, the recent global warming "teach in" aimed at getting campuses across the country to devote class time to promoting environmental awareness and activism, was a scary thing. So was the way 1500 campuses across the country just bought in, and willingly agreed to suspend regular operations to advocate for an openly political cause. So was the way the higher ed media didn't seem to pick up on the problem. I love Inside Higher Ed, and read it every day. But those guys missed the boat on this one.

Brown philosophy professor Felicia Ackerman explains what was wrong with the teach-in--and why she declined to participate, in today's Providence Journal:

A FEW MONTHS AGO, I received an e-mail offering me a "very exciting" opportunity. Unlike most such e-mails, it was not after my money. It was after what I guard much more carefully: my time and my ideological commitment. It asked Brown University's philosophy professors to participate in a national movement called "Focus the Nation" and to "devote a portion of class time" on Jan. 31 or during that week "to teach about climate change as it relates to your discipline."

This prospect enticed me about as much as the frequent e-mails offering Viagra at a reduced price. So I did not use class time to teach about climate change. Here are four reasons why not.

Reason 1: Climate change is not what students signed up to study in my courses.

Neither of the courses I am teaching this term has anything to do with climate change. I would not pay my veterinarian if he talked about climate change instead of examining my cat. I would not pay a piano teacher for a full hour's lesson if she spent part of that time teaching me about climate change instead of teaching me piano. My students are entitled to the same respect from me that I expect from service providers. This means providing the service my students signed up for rather than whatever I decide is most important. I could avoid the problem by changing my course titles to "Whatever Professor Ackerman Decides Is Most Important," but that might leave me with no students to teach at all.

Reason 2: I am unqualified to teach about climate change.

I am not an expert on climate change. I am not an expert on how climate change might relate to philosophy. Rather than taking the time to become an expert on these topics, I prefer to pursue the intellectual interests I already have.

Reason 3: My students can have better opportunities to learn about climate change.

Brown University has physicists, geologists, chemists, biologists and engineers. Brown probably also has non-scientists who are interested in becoming experts on climate change as it relates to their disciplines. Experts can offer courses and teach-ins on climate change. Why not leave the teaching about climate change to them? One possible answer is that while many students may not be interested enough to take such courses or attend such teach-ins, these students are unlikely to get up and leave if climate change comes up in a course they are already taking on some other topic. In other words, professors should take advantage of a semi-captive audience. Is this any way to respect students?

Reason 4: I do not think climate change is the most important social problem in the world.

I am not disputing the scientific consensus about the technical aspects of climate change. As a non-scientist, I would have to be a crackpot to think that I know more than scientists about scientific matters. But I can have my own views about priorities. Climate change holds danger of future catastrophes. But other catastrophes are happening right now. They are what I would focus on if I were willing to take class time away from my courses’ subject matter. The life expectancy in most African countries is under 60 right now. In America, millions of people lack health insurance right now. Are you prepared to tell an African, or an American with cancer and no health insurance, that climate change is the most important social problem in the world? I am not.

I would rather tell students that my classes are not designed to address the most important social problems in the world, and that's okay. My classes are not my students' whole lives. Students can use their ample time outside my classes to address whatever social problems they find most important, which may or may not include climate change.

Ackerman nails it. And she does so in terms very closely tied to the AAUP's foundational conception of academic freedom, which reminds professors to stick to their areas of expertise and orders them not to impose on students by haranguing them about politics or wasting their time with inappropriate digressions. The wonder is that she seems to be pretty much alone in speaking up. Where are the other professionally responsible professors? Where is the AAUP?

Focus the Nation is not the only green agenda that's having its way with campuses. There is also the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, which enjoins college presidents to pledge to make their campuses climate neutral within two years while integrating "sustainability education" into the curriculum (read: environmental sensitivity training). Inside Higher Ed missed the boat on this one, too, giving it the subtle endorsement of blinkered and uncritical reporting.

To its credit, the Chronicle of Higher Education did a piece on schools that declined to sign the commitment, citing some genuinely intelligent reasoning from the presidents of Reed, Colorado College, U Minnesota - Twin Cities, and Williams. Reed's president noted that the College is committed to political neutrality in its institutional decision making. Officials at Minnesota noted that the president does not have the authority to make unilateral decisions about curricular content (academic freedom, remember?). Others noted that it's irresponsible to commit to something like "climate neutrality in two years" without any sense of what that would entail or how much it would cost. All of this is immensely sensible.

What's not sensible, and what is scary, is that hundreds of presidents did not have these thoughts, and did sign the commitment--thus putting ideology (and the cred that comes with being on the "right" side) ahead of fiduciary responsibility and respect for academic freedom. And the faculties (who should be more protective of their academic freedom) and the trustees (who have ultimate fiduciary and fiscal responsibility) appear to be fine with it.

posted on February 8, 2008 11:07 AM

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Ackerman's first three reasons are right on, and they would hold true for any teach in.

But her fourth reason is poorly reasoned. It does not make sense to say, "I won't talk about X because Y is more important." The more logical reasoning is, "I will first talk about Y and *then* talk about X."

She confuses a set of priorities with a set of absolute commitments. If a man is being robbed and beaten, I'll probably stop the beating before the robbery. But that's a priority. I'm still committed to stopping the robbery.

(Of course, then there's the larger philosophical issue. If global warming will in the long run destroy *all* life in Africa, it might be the more pressing issue than increasing the quality of life of a single generation. I completely disagree with that, but it's an open argument that should be recognized as open by a philosophy teacher.)

Ackerman's argument can be applied to this entire blog. Is a teach-in a more pressing social concern than, say, health care or adjunct labor or the violence in Kenya or X or Y or Z? If not, then by her logic, we should all first only do what is most important, thus disregarding what William James called live and dead beliefs among individuals.

Posted by: Luther Blissett at February 8, 2008 1:17 PM

The point about the connections between the relatively harmless PETA people and the Animal Liberation Front is well taken. I thought so myself recently, when a group of animal rights people was going nuts over an elephant enclosure at a zoo here in Arizona. Essentially, what these activists want is to close down zoos and send the animals back to their native environments, or have nice people, like them, take over the job. Zoos, as you know, are concentration camps and the keepers are Nazis. In their letters and guest columns in the local press, the activists displayed an emotionalism that was rather creepy. I'm dreading the day when a bunch of customers at a burger joint are going to get gunned down by some hysterical vegetarian.

Regarding LB's comment -- Ackerman's first three reasons are good general reasons and make logical sense. Her fourth reason was personal and makes perfect sense, as well. Though she said in any case that she wouldn't teach climate change because it is not what her students signed up to study, that she is unqualified to teach about climate change, and that her students have better opportunities to learn it elsewhere, she added that if she were somehow to end up teaching subjects outside her field, there are ones she feels are more important, and those would crowd out climate change. That happens in most any course -- when an instructor puts together a syllabus every last thing cannot be included. It's just the way things are.

Reason 4: I do not think climate change is the most important social problem in the world.

Posted by: Tom G at February 8, 2008 5:42 PM

A university administration with intelligence and integrity could have organized an interesting series of interdisciplinary events around these issues. The physics people could talk about atmospheric physics. The math and computer sciences people could take about mathematical models--what they are, their successes, and their failures. Electrical and mechanical engineering could discuss realistic energy alternatives. Economists could discuss the economic impact of ideas like shutting down all coal-fired electrical generation.

But "administrators" don't think in such terms. Managers and leaders do, and they seem to be very scarce among university top officials.

Posted by: david foster at February 9, 2008 8:01 AM


Thanks for the thoughtful criticism -- you've given us some things to think about. I did just want to point out to you that we have in the past written about colleges that are skeptical about (or have chosen not to participate in) some of the efforts you discuss; see this article from a year ago, for instance, on Yale's decision not to sign the presidents' pledge:

Still, we appreciate the constructive criticism, and your watchdog role, which we see as consistent with ours.


Doug Lederman
Inside Higher Ed

Posted by: Doug Lederman at February 9, 2008 12:19 PM

Many thanks for this, Doug!

Posted by: Erin O'Connor at February 9, 2008 2:22 PM

This is much ado about nothing. I am a professor at a "notoriously" liberal campus... I did NOT discuss global climate change in my class because it had nothing to do with my course. In fact NO professors in my department discussed it... and we're a physics & astronomy department. Did leftist Nazi stormtroopers ransack our offices for not participating? NO. In fact ABSOLUTELY NOTHING happened at all... although our campus did indeed have MANY events related to climate change, not a single professor was pressured in any way whatsoever for not incorporating it into our courses. I checked with friends at other liberal institutions, and none of them included it in their courses, and there was no pressure nor negative repercussions for not participating...

It appears to me that Professor Ackerman got an email (oooh, scary intimidation and thought control), which she prompty ignored with ZERO result.. even she admits it was as much a nuisance as spam for Viagra.

So the professor got an email request which she ignored... there are indeed REAL instances of undue pressures on faculty and academic integrity... sorry, but this isn't one of them.

Posted by: jab at February 11, 2008 5:22 PM

jab believes that this post is much ado about nothing, because nobody he knows either felt pressure to fit global warming into their class offerings, much less did they teach GW.

But it would be wrong to believe that that negates the crucial point of O'Connor's post.

It seems to me that the point is this: whoever does follow FtN's lead will talk about one side of the issue, not both.

Students will be taught, in essence, all the purported benefits of following the "green path", but not the costs.

And costs are important. Take, for example, the ban on DDT. Estimates are that the ban has costs hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of Third World lives per year owing to malaria.

A good discussion about banning DDT would be begin with this question: How many lives are too many to lose, before the ban is lifted? That question goes to costs, but is never asked, much less answered.

The same point can be made for global warming: FtN isn't interested in discussing the controversy over the assumptions that underly the green movement, viz. whether GW is manmade or not, a controversy which is alive and well -- though you'd never know it from reading the MSM, listening to NPR or from anything FtN has to say.

Nor is FtN interested in discussing the costs of implementing their agenda (as Bjorn Lomborg has been).

What FtN is sneaking into the curriculum is the antithesis of open debate: we're killing the planet, and must do something to save ourselves and the other creatures who inhabit Mother Earth. There is room in FtN's agenda for a presentation of alternative viewpoints or questioning of FtN's assumptions.

What FtN and other green groups are up to when they use this approach is indoctrination, pure and simple.

It is stealthy, and it is scary.

And it certainly isn't much ado about nothing.

Posted by: minerva at February 12, 2008 12:03 PM

I wrote: "There is room in FtN's agenda for a presentation of alternative viewpoints or questioning of FtN's assumptions."

I intended to write: "There is NO room in FtN's agenda for a presentation of alternative viewpoints or questioning of FtN's assumptions."

I apologize for the error.

Posted by: Minerva at February 12, 2008 7:02 PM