March 02, 2005

Putting thought police in the classroom

Most of you would have heard by now about the bill pending in the Ohio legislature (Senate Bill 24) to “establish the academic bill of rights for higher education.�

The bill is both silly and misguided. It mixes motherhood and apple pie language (“The institution shall provide its students with a learning environment in which the students have access to a broad range of serious scholarly opinion pertaining to the subjects they study.�) with language that is practically begging students with even minor grievances to complain to higher authorities.

In a previous posting, I spoke about how lack of trust leads to poor learning conditions and that we need to recreate the conditions under which trust can flourish. This bill goes in the wrong direction because it effectively creates a kind of ‘thought police’ mentality, where any controversial word or idea in class can end up causing a legal battle.

Let me give you an example. The bill says “curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social studies shall respect all human knowledge in these areas and provide students with dissenting sources and viewpoints.�

As an instructor, how would I respect “all� the knowledge in the area? What do we even mean by the word “knowledge.� How do we even separate knowledge in the humanities and social sciences from those in the sciences? What constitutes “dissenting viewpoints?� And how far should “dissenting� be taken? If a particular point of view is not mentioned by the instructor, is that grounds for complaint?

Take another example.

“Students shall be graded solely on the basis of their reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge of the subjects and disciplines they study and shall not be discriminated against on the basis of their political, ideological, or religious beliefs.�

Grading is an art not a science. It is, at some level, a holistic judgment made by an instructor. To be sure the instructor has a deep ethical obligation to the profession to assign the grade with as much competence and impartiality as he or she can muster. But even granting that, a letter grade or a point allocation for an assignment is not something that can be completely objectified. Give the same essay or problem to two different teachers and they will likely arrive at different grades even if it were “graded solely on the basis of their reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge.� And this can occur irrespective of how agreeable or disagreeable the student’s views might be perceived by the instructor. So if a student complains about a grade, how can this be adjudicated?

As I said in a previous posting, the reason we currently have so many rules in our classrooms is that we seem to have forgotten the purpose of courses, and have lost that sense of trust that is so vital to creating a proper learning atmosphere.

This bill, rather than increasing trust in the classroom, will decrease it. Because as soon as there is legislation prescribing what can and cannot be done in the classroom, it will inevitably lead to teaching and grading issues ending up in the courtroom. And in order to avoid that tedious and expensive process, universities will start instituting detailed lists of rules about what can and cannot be done in the classroom, and teachers will start teaching and assessing defensively, simply to avoid the chance of litigation.

Is this what we want or need?


Tomorrow (Thursday, March 3) from 7:00-9:00 pm in Thwing Ballroom, Case’s Hindu Students Association is hosting an inter-religious dialogue on how to reconcile a belief in God in light of major disasters like the recent tsunami.

There will be a panel of religious scholars representing all the major religious traditions (drawn from the faculty of the Religion department at Case and elsewhere) and plenty of time for discussions. I will be the moderator of the discussion.

The event is free and open to the public and donations will be accepted for tsunami relief efforts.


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If you haven't already, do read John Holt's works, mostly on learning, children and education. After reading his works I am convinced that measuring the performance of students in the classroon is unjustified. This measurement creates a formal hierarchy, creates unhealthy competition, and is never a measure of quality.

Posted by Jayant on March 5, 2005 10:45 AM

Dr. Singham
I read your Article in Change on the Authoritarian Classroom. I found it disheartening that we get ourselves bullied into such positions and are lauded for carefully designed course outlines!

I have just moved to this Univeristy from McMaster, where everything functioned in a loose-limbed way. Here students have to give me permission to write reference letters on their behalf as though I really had nothing else to do! We have sanctified silliness!

Thanks for exposing it!

Posted by P.K.Rangachari on May 26, 2005 02:31 PM