SHORT TAKES


January 5, 2010

Further Thoughts on the Rotenberg Letter

KC Johnson beat me to the punch in registering doubts and concerns about the letter University of Minnesota General Counsel Mark B. Rotenberg has written to Adam Kissel at FIRE regarding the education department's review of the curriculum. Kissel and FIRE are to be praised for having wrought out of the university a letter assuring that the university will never "mandate any particular beliefs, or screen out people with 'wrong beliefs' from the University." But, as KC observes, other statements in Rotenberg's response cloud that pledge. As with ed school dean Jean Quam's explanation of the review process a few weeks ago in the Star-Tribune, Rotenberg's letter recasts several coercive and biased opinions about race, class, etc. into liberal, open-ended, broad-minded explorations of those matters.

The conversion happens in Rotenberg's description of the process. Whereas the Task Group for Race, Culture, Class, and Gender offered a set of tendentious "Outcomes" such as "Future teachers will recognize & demonstrate understanding of white privilege," and asked students to engage in "self-discovery" assignments in which they were to reveal attitudes they hold that damage other groups and identities, Rotenberg pictures a group of "creative thinking" faculty members "re-exploring the designs of our teacher education programs." For support, he cites Dean Quan chractertizing the process as "faculty brainstorming." In his version, the demands of the task force turn into a marketplace-of-ideas climate in which nothing is prescribed but everything is entertained.

KC cites the sentence that follows Rotenberg's assurance that the university will not mandate beliefs ("To the contrary . . ."). The following sentence is equally misleading, and deserves attention as well. It says that the ed school's "commitment" to liberal education "was recognized by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education in its 2006 evaluation of the College, which praised CEHD for 'exposing candidates to a diversity of ideas and viewpoints,' and for 'respecting the variability of race/ethnicity, nationality, culture, language, religion, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, disability status, and human potential.'"

Note, once again, the mendacious softening of language. Rotenberg defends the process as one aimed merely at "exposing" students to diverse viewpoints, and for teaching them to "respect" human variations. Would anybody reading the task group's recommendations conclude that they allow students who have been exposed to "white privilege" argument to dispute them? Does the group allow students to read about "institutional racism" and decide that it isn't all that important to the algebra classroom?

Not at all. Yes, "Outcome" says, "Future teachers are able to explain how institutional racism works in schools," and in principle one answer might be, "For the most part, negligibly." But the accompanying assessment forbids it:

"Autoethnography should reflect appreciation for how dominant pedagogical styles, school curricula, behavioral expectations, personal prejudices of school personnel (among other things) often convey overt and covert messages that devalue the culture, heritage, and identity of minority students."

Clearly, this isn't education. It's indoctrination. It warns, "You better 'appreciate' these victimizations, or you won't pass." So, when Rotenberg devotes the rest of the letter to defending the academic freedom of the faculty designers, he betrays his own office. In a stunning, but unsurprising reversal, he suggests that FIRE and other critics are that ones constraining inquiry:

"Academic freedom means little if our teaching faculty is inhibited from discussing and proposing currculum innovations simply because others find them 'illiberal' or 'unjust.'"

This is a common power play in such controversies, one that turns the intimidators into the intimidated. And people who warn against coerciveness become censors and bigots.

As with Dean Quan, Rotenberg ought to remember that his duty is not to defend his own faculty, but to defend the principles on which the university stands. The report issued by the Task Group for Race, Culture, Class, Gender is a violation of those principles, and no amount of duplicitous verbiage from the administration will rationalize it away.

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