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From: Len Gutkin
Subject: The Review: Legislating Curricula Is Very, Very Bad
The incursion into academic freedom represented by such Republican attacks on public-university curricula as Florida’s “Stop WOKE Act” has an answer, of sorts, in legislation in New York State that, as The Chronicle‘s Eva Surovell reports, would “require all 89 campuses in the State University of New York and City University of New York systems to establish courses in ethnic studies, women’s studies, and social justice. The legislation would also require students to complete at least one three-credit course in one of those disciplines to graduate.”
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The incursion into academic freedom represented by such Republican attacks on public-university curricula as Florida’s “Stop WOKE Act” has an answer, of sorts, in Democratic legislation in New York State that, as The Chronicle’s Eva Surovell reports, would “require all 89 campuses in the State University of New York and City University of New York systems to establish courses in ethnic studies, women’s studies, and social justice. The legislation would also require students to complete at least one three-credit course in one of those disciplines to graduate.”
New York Senate Bill 1452 offers no definitional criteria for “women’s studies” or “social justice” courses, but its understanding of “ethnic studies” is curiously restrictive: “For the purposes of this section, ‘ethnic studies’ shall mean an interdisciplinary and comparative study of race and ethnicity with special focus on four historically defined racialized core groups: Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latina and Latino Americans.” So you’re out of luck if you want to count a course on, say, Arab-American encounters with the U.S. surveillance state after 9/11, or the postgenocide Armenian networks that extend from Massachusetts to Southern California, or the role of Hasidic Jews in the culture, politics, and urban geography of Brooklyn — to name a handful of the potentially infinite series of topics one might have assumed would qualify as “ethnic studies.” (Never mind that ethnicity is not a uniquely American phenomenon. Nothing in the text of the bill explains why acceptable topics of ethnic studies are all U.S.-based, a restriction that does not apply to women’s studies or social justice courses.)
This legislative intervention could seem weirdly arbitrary — why just these topics, and why now? The obvious answer is that Republicans have made ethnic studies and related fields into political symbols of the university’s leftward tilt; by the binary logic of partisan politics, therefore, Democrats have taken them up as a cause.
Will Creeley, the legal director of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, told me that bills like SB 1452 are what happen when politicians realize that “universities are really interesting political signaling grounds.” But as written, he said, the bill is probably kosher, since it merely demarcates required fields of study without either prescribing or prohibiting specific attitudes or arguments in the classroom. He compared it to red-state bills like South Carolina’s Reach (Reinforcing Education on America’s Constitutional Heritage) Act, which requires courses on the American founding. While Reach is surely meant as a signal to conservative voters, that’s fine so long as the South Carolina legislature doesn’t “reach into the classroom” and tell professors that they can’t, for instance, excoriate the Founders as racists or génocidaires.
But “the possibility for overprescription is very high,” Creeley told me. What begins as political signaling to a partisan electoral base could end up as political indoctrination inside the classroom. It might be better if legislatures abstained on principle from topical interventions into university curricula. Otherwise, they risk heedlessly accelerating the political polarization of attitudes toward the university. The text of South Carolina’s Reach Act is pretty benign, but the bill’s very existence has a propagandistic character evinced by that loaded — vague yet resonant — word “heritage.”
Speaking of vagueness and resonance: While the proposed New York State bill’s definition of ethnic studies strikes me as peculiarly narrow, more symptomatic from the point of view of ideological signaling is the radical underspecification of the definition of “social justice,” left entirely undefined. That’s possible only because everyone already knows that the phrase is code for a suite of progressive policy commitments with strong partisan coloring.
There is no doubt that, to the extent that partisan political actors are exerting corrupting pressure on the mission of the university, Republicans are largely to blame. That is true even if you consider undesirable such Democratic regulatory efforts as the ramped up Title IX enforcement called for by the Obama administration’s 2011 Dear Colleague letter. There may be plenty of left-wing political pressure in our colleges, but it hasn’t mostly been coming from the state. If bills like New York’s 1452 catch on, that could change. Scholars should be very, very wary of these efforts. They risk degrading education to a partisan political contest: a Democratic curriculum when Democrats are in power, a Republican curriculum when Republicans are in power. Nothing is more alien to the university’s mission.
In last week’s newsletter, I erroneously named Holden Thorp, editor in chief of the Science family of journals, as the author of an essay about Nature‘s endorsement of Joe Biden for president in 2020. The essay was written by the editorial board of Nature, and Thorp had merely expressed his support for it on Twitter. The error has been corrected.
- “Policymakers of good will face the enormous and perhaps insuperable task of restoring integration to center stage while somehow avoiding the political and logistical errors that characterized busing and affirmative action in the past.” Thomas B. Edsall in The New York Times with a data-rich rundown of recent studies on segregation in the US.
- “The point is not that our digital-media environment necessarily generates vice; rather it’s that it constitutes an ever-present field of temptation, which can require, in turn, monastic degrees of self-discipline to manage.” In The Point, L.M. Sacasas on the extraordinary virtue demanded of us by our social-media environments.
- “Although she did not — contrary to scuttlebutt — have intercourse with a chicken in his militantly provocative Pink Flamingos (1972), her sex scene in that film is one of the most discomfiting in cinema history.” In The New York Review of Books, Negar Azimi on the actress and writer Cookie Mueller, whose collected works have recently been published by Semiotext(e).
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