From time to time, I am confronted by conservative friends who are absolutely convinced that the higher education system of the United States has an ulterior motive — to corrupt the minds of young people by imposing their “left-wing liberal political beliefs” on the nation’s impressionable young students.
It is an assertion that I had never taken seriously. In fact, I usually needed to ask a single question to explode their theory: Where did you earn your degree?
In every case I can recall I find that the people who are most convinced that college is a training ground for liberals hardly ever bothered to show up at college — or at least stick around long enough to find out for themselves.
It’s one of those fallacious “everybody knows” arguments that quickly crumbles when the bothersome matter of facts come into play.
In my college career, which now spans 35 years, I had never once encountered a situation where a professor made any discernable effort to impose his political views on a student.
Until a few weeks ago.
Depending on when you read this, I will have earned my degree at long last, although for a while there I was tempted to pursue a course that might well have prevented me from graduating.
When I signed up for “English 3313: Writing for the Workplace” as an elective taught by Professor Peter Olson, I figured it would be an easy A because I have made a living as a journalist for 30 years or so.
But I seriously contemplated an act of defiance that might have earned me a failing grade in the class.
The issue at hand is one of the three assigned texts: Technical Communication by Mark Markel, On Writing Well by William Zinsser and, finally, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution — And How It Can Renew America by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.
That last selection seemed odd to me given the focus of the course, but I didn’t give it too much thought until a few weeks ago when Professor Olson told us that it would be the basis of one of our major projects.
Each student would be required to write a four-page paper on a chapter from the book along with an in-class oral presentation on the chapter. I was assigned Chapter 12, which calls for a national power grid. The implications, although not stated in the book, are obvious — the nationalization of America’s power system. If you think the government “owns us” now, just wait until that particular Utopian nonsense becomes a reality. It won’t happen, of course.
Beyond the obvious left-wing slant of Friedman’s book, it hardly seemed to meet the standards for academic work — Friedman routinely refers to “many scientists” agreeing on this or that without bothering to tell the reader who those scientists are. There are no footnotes and little cited source materials. It is not a scholarly book. In all fairness, it was never intended to be.
When I raised these issues in class, the professor seemed perturbed. He defended the exercise by saying that the book was an excellent example of how a writer takes a complicated subject and presents it in a way that the average reader can understand.
As a writer, I could appreciate that. So I was willing to reserve judgment.
And then my fellow students began their in-class presentations, during which Professor Olson interjected his thoughts repeatedly and guided the students toward the main themes rather than how those themes were expressed, which would have been, at least, relevant to the course.
During one class, he asked us, in an almost reverential tone, if we couldn’t see how Friedman’s argument was beyond question.
Then Professor Olson said something that really elevated my blood pressure: “Don’t you think this book should be required reading for every college student?” he asked.
I bit my tongue so hard, I tasted blood.
Those who have followed my writing over the past year or so will notice the irony: I have become severely disillusioned with the modern conservative movement. Among many, I have become a liberal, although Professor Olson has convinced me that the only sane ground is firmly in the middle, where there is at least some tolerance for independent thought.
So it’s not the political orientation of the professor that bothers me. I would be equally offended if he had assigned a book by Ann Coulter as required reading and then slobbered all over it.
No, it is rather an abuse of his position as a professor. He has every right to hold whatever views he chooses. He has every right to express those views as a private citizen. But he does not have the right to use his status as a professor as a means of imposing those views on his students. His behavior cheapens his profession and demeans his students and actually weakens the cause he is promoting, in my view.
For a while, I was determined not to write that paper or give the presentation. Maybe I was itching for a fight, but it seemed that if I acquiesced, I’d be doing something against my principles.
But ultimately, I did write the paper he wanted me to write and gave the presentation he wanted me to give.
I had my fingers crossed the whole time, though.
So give me that diploma. I’ve earned it.
Slim Smith is a former Arizona journalist now attending school at Mississippi State University. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow his “new life as an old student” at http://anelderstatesman.blogspot.com.