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Sunday, December 25

what would Einstein teach?

"How could this happen?" Ms. [Jennie Mae] Brown asked Representative Gibson C. Armstrong two summers ago, complaining about a physics professor at the York campus of Pennsylvania State University who she said routinely used class time to belittle President Bush and the war in Iraq. As an Air Force veteran, Ms. Brown said she felt the teacher's comments were inappropriate for the classroom.

The encounter has blossomed into an official legislative inquiry, putting Pennsylvania in the middle of a national debate spurred by conservatives over whether public universities are promoting largely liberal positions and discriminating against students who disagree with them. New York Times


At first blush, you too may think, "well, what does a physics professor know about politics? He should keep his opinions to himself and teach science."

We don't actually know what Ms. Brown's professor said or didn't say in his physics classroom. We don't know if this is a publicity stunt, and it certainly has the feel of it. We don't know if the photogenic, patriotic, wholesome Ms. Brown, not a typical co-ed, is the latest useful soldier in the culture wars for David Horowitz, a professional busy body and president of his self styled Center for the Study of Popular Culture. Mr. Horowitz, not found in headlines as a liberal, has shed his early political ideology to get his name in the papers and no doubt raise money for his flavor of the week cause. He has taken a break from studying popular culture and made a foray into lobbying state legislatures, the political repositories of intellectual capital in our intellectually giant nation, and evidently a way of getting into BlondeSense and the New York Times.

But let's say, and why not, that Ms. Brown's professor, unidentified in the New York Times, but perhaps was one of the many professors listed in the campus website, did indeed say something untoward about Mr. Bush and Mr. Bush's war. Since Mr. Bush has injected himself into the American classroom discussing intelligent design and ignoring the theory of evolution, it isn't beyond the scope of a college physics classroom to illustrate that perhaps Mr. Bush should leave the teaching of science to the science teachers and conduct his experiments in social and political engineering in Iraq. Not that he doesn't need the help of rocket scientists to do that. And he certainly got the help of physics experts when it came to the development of weapon systems. One of the reasons college campuses erupted in the 1960s was college and university support and development of weapons, chemicals, and ever increasingly efficient methods of killing large numbers of men, women, and children. The Establishment of which colleges and universities certainly are, don't really want eruptions. It cuts into their fundraising.

What of German physics teachers who were required to inject the tenets of national socialism in their classrooms? And when they refused to teach only German ideas, college students ran professors off campuses and burned libraries. What of the Russian mathematicians who were required to teach Stalinist algorithms for the creation of the new Soviet Man? Their personal mail was opened and they were imprisoned for criticizing Stalin in it. It isn't wrong for secondary teachers like Aleskandr Solzhenitsyn or university professors like Albert Einstein to criticize their nation's leaders. An educated populace demands it.

Ms. Brown and Mr. Horowitz are injecting political correctness into the classroom by criticizing professors. They want academic freedom for students while they would deny it to professors. I am sure the Penn State physics professor did not ask Ms. Brown about the political correctness of her views about Bush or the war on his final exam. He asked her about physics.

My own students complained to a local radio talk show host about their assignment to use New York Times accounts of the perception that there was something rotten in the Florida presidential election in 2000 and write about what makes some people believe the election was stolen. The radio host had listeners call the community college, a place not unlike the Texas Legislature, and complain about me. My supervisors wrung their hands and asked to see my assignment, never realizing that academic freedom means never having to question a veteran teacher's assignments. I should have known that academic exploration is impossible at the community college level. In my teaching career I had already gotten reprimanded for telling my favorite political quote to a class. I was discussing our state's reluctance to fund bilingual education and recalled that our first female governor, Miriam Ferguson, commented that Texas school children didn't need bilingual education because the English language is good enough for Jesus Christ and therefore good enough for the school children of Texas. My academic dean told me not to challenge students' myths. I am not sure which myth he wanted to preserve, the one that our political leaders have sense or that Jesus Christ spoke red-lettered English. [An administrator of that particular junior college came by my office while I was hanging a photo of JFK and Jackie campaigning in a New York tickertape parade. He commented, "We were so relieved when he was killed."]

The myths that conservatives want to preserve--that Bush has sense, our political leaders know best, that college is full of crazy, academic anarchists with funny ideas about human nature, the natural world, and the really dangerous stuff like, civil rights, worker rights, sexual, political, and economic freedom-- are the myths the world, according to The Establishment, would be better off ignoring. We don't need no trouble making religious leaders, college professors, Christmas hating Jews, uppity Negros out of New Orleans or wild college students thinking about not supporting the war their students loans were cut to pay for. We certainly don't need any blonde co-eds thinking for themselves and questioning military service which funds her education. We can't ignore Mr. Horowitz. He is not just studying the political culture but is acting upon it.

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