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Statement of Professor John Ellis to the Joint Committee on the Master Plan for Higher Education of the California Legislature, March 22, 2010

Mar 23, 2010 |  John M. Ellis

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Statement of Professor John Ellis to the Joint Committee on the Master Plan for Higher Education of the California Legislature, March 22, 2010

Mar 23, 2010 | 

John M. Ellis

Editor's note: The following is a statement by John Ellis presented at the March 22, 2010 meeting of the California legislature. The "master plan" referenced in the title is a document that sets out the differing roles of the state's three public systems: University of California, California State University, and  California Community College. It is occasionally revised by the Joint Committee.

I am John Ellis, and I’m the President of the California Association of Scholars. I’ve been a Professor of German Literature at the UC Santa Cruz since 1966.

I should like to take your concern with accountability in the widest sense: that is, public higher education’s accountability to the tax-paying public for teaching its children how to think in a disciplined way: how to shape arguments and recognize weak ones, how to marshal evidence, how to analyze issues, how to weigh differing interpretations of complex problems against each other.  That is the core of a college education, and nothing is more important than to make sure we are not failing in this.  And if we are failing in it, as I think we are, then our highest priority should be to do something about that.  Training students to think for themselves means that we must never give them a comfortable environment of intellectual uniformity and conformity where they know what to think at the outset and are never challenged.  What it requires is intellectual diversity, and that is where the universities at the moment have a real problem.

I want to explain exactly what my worry here is, and what it is not, with a case history from my own field of study.  In the late Middle Ages a local dialect of German that had never been seen before appeared in the eastern part of the country.  Within a few hundred years that upstart dialect had become the standard German language that all Germans now use.  How could that happen? Some scholars said it was because Martin Luther used it in his translation of the Bible.  Another group said it was because the Holy Roman Emperor’s bureaucracy in Prague began to use it in their commercial transactions with Germany.  But this was not just any dispute between scholars.  The first group were all Protestants, and the second were Catholics.  Now suppose you are a university dean, and you see your German department hiring only Protestants to teach the history of the language.  What do you do?  Well, if you are doing your job you tell them to stop doing that.  But the reason you do this is not because you are pro-Catholic, or because you want to be fair to both religions:  your objection has nothing to do with religion.  You do it because you see a group of faculty who are getting intellectually lazy, and who want to make life more comfortable for themselves by appointing only people who think as they do, even though the result will be a dumbing down of the education they give their students.  The existence of this problem right at the heart of the field of German studies creates a wonderful educational opportunity.  Whatever the conclusion students reach after studying all the known historical evidence, they will know that they are going to be challenged by a very determined and well-informed intellectual opponent—but only if the department is well managed.  In a situation like that, students are really going to learn to think for themselves, and that’s something that will stay with them for a lifetime.

I’m sure you will already see the relevance of what I’ve said to what is happening on the campuses.  The clearest indication of how serious the lack of intellectual diversity has become is the state of Political Science departments in the University of California.  Surveys have found that many of them are almost exclusively staffed by professors who are politically left of center.  In any department, this would be regrettable, and suspicious.  But in a politics department, the lack of intellectual diversity in political thought raises a serious question of competence.  Departments that exclude one half of the spectrum of thought in their field are simply incompetent departments.  They can’t provide students with a challenging intellectual environment where they learn to think for themselves, and know that whatever position they take, they will have to face tough scrutiny from contrary opinion.  One has to wonder: what kind of professor of politics would want a department like that?  And how did we come to appoint them?  If accountability is your concern, why not ask those simple questions of the university?

Let me be quite clear:  my concern here has nothing to do with being fair to conservatives any more than the issue in how the standard German language arose was fairness to either Protestants or Catholics.  It’s a far more serious matter than that, and it should concern everyone, whatever their political opinions.  It’s about the dumbing down of education.  One-sided departments can’t educate.  John Stuart Mill put the point best when he said: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”  What Mill is saying here is that you don’t really understand the case for the left until you also thoroughly grasp the case for the right, because the one is an answer to the other and so each is a necessary part of understanding the other.  If leftist professors think they can simply present the other side’s case themselves, Mill had this devastating response: “Both teachers and learners go to sleep at their post as soon as there is no enemy in the field.” And for that reason, he went on to say, the student must “be able to hear [the arguments] from people who actually believe them, who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”

If you follow this thought, you’ll see that it is not just the side that is excluded that suffers.  In fact, the side that does the excluding suffers the most intellectually.  A political monoculture sooner or later always degenerates into extremism and incoherence, because it needs an opposition to keep it healthy.  Only your intellectual enemies have the motivation to pick off your weaker arguments and keep you intellectually sharp.  The proof of this proposition is there for anyone to see.  The general public has a very low opinion of the campus political culture, and that is exactly what we should expect to be the fate of any political monoculture.  A lack of intellectual diversity hurts both left and right.

Let me give you just one example of how the political monoculture degenerates.  Some time ago there was a teach-in on the Iraq war on the UC Santa Cruz campus.  It was advertised as an educational event, and as such was sponsored and funded by several academic departments including even the chancellor’s office.  Now we’d expect an educational event to look something like this:  first, someone would put the best case for the war; then, somebody else would put the best case against the war; and following that there would be a discussion to probe the strengths and weaknesses of the two rival accounts.  That would be genuinely educational, and students would learn a great deal from it.  But that is not what happened in this case.  Every single speaker was not just against the war, but virulently so.  In this hostile atmosphere, no dissenting voice dared to be heard, so there was no analysis of the issues, no testing of arguments, no development of a greater understanding.  Taxpayer dollars had been spent on what was really a political rally, not an educational event, but the worst thing about it was that the campus seemed no longer able to recognize the difference between the two. 

I’ve chosen to dwell on departments of politics and on political events because that’s where it’s most obvious that a university department can’t be considered competent when its members don’t include the full spectrum of viable political thought.  But the same considerations are relevant to all departments in the humanities and social sciences.  History, Literature, Sociology—they all need to contain a broad spectrum of social and political viewpoints if they are going to teach their students how to think productively, and to avoid degenerating into a cozy and unchallenging orthodoxy.  And at present in the University of California, they don’t.  And we can infer the reason why they don’t from one single fact.  Not all departments on campus are politically one-sided, but the more that politics is relevant to the subject matter of a department, the more the faculty of that department are politically one-sided.  The reason for this distribution can only be the conscious choice of the departmental faculty: as politics become more germane to the work of a department, the faculty want only one kind of politics to be brought to bear.

No problem facing the university is more important than this one.  The problem of student access to the university certainly matters, but what we give them when they get there matters a great deal more.  The people of this state have supported and taken pride in its great public universities for a long time, but they know that something is wrong.  They see the distortions caused by this lack of intellectual diversity.  They sense a sharp decline in the quality of education, and they know what has caused it.   Public funding depends on public support, and that support may drain away if something is not done, and soon, about this very serious problem.

I have tried to make the case that this should not be seen in partisan terms. I am sure that some of you will wonder how I can hope to persuade a body with a Democratic majority to be concerned about a condition on the campuses from which it draws support.  But that is precisely why I address this statement to you.  When Republicans complain about the absence of intellectual diversity, that can seem like a demand for a better deal for themselves.  But this is not about political advantage; it’s about the public interest, the quality of a college education, and the intellectual strength of its graduates, who will be our workforce, our citizenry, and our future.  Only you can credibly put the emphasis where it really belongs.  Something must be done about the most degraded campus climate I have seen in my lifetime.  If I am correct, this should be your highest priority. 

John Ellis is President of the California Association of Scholars, and a Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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