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Redefining "fairness": A view from the eye of the ABOR tornado

“You can’t get a good education if they’re only telling you half of the story!!!” So, shouts the banner at the top of the Students for Academic Freedom web site, an organization that supports the so-called Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR). I admit that I actually laughed when I first heard of this effort to infuse “fairness” into higher education. As a women’s studies scholar, I am painfully aware of how education (as one of many social institutions) has relegated the stories, creations, achievements and perspectives of all but a select few to the margins of our knowledge tradition (if they were included at all). “Was there something suddenly new?” I asked.

As the storm clouds have gathered and the rumblings of the ABOR tornado have grown louder, the answer to this question has become clearer. The voices of many perspectives that have previously been marginalized in higher education are getting louder and are increasingly being heard. The effect is just as Susan Faludi describes in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women—when the voices from the margins get loud enough, the dominant social institutions will “push back.” The ABOR folks are pushing back. There is great irony and great opportunity in this situation. The irony is that this ABOR conversation has actually placed the previously marginalized issues raised by fields like women’s studies at the center of the conversation for a change. The opportunity is that women’s studies is in the eye of the ABOR tornado and maybe like Dorothy we can use this to find our way home.

In my view, women’s studies seems to have lost its way a bit in recent years. Although this kind of identity struggle is a normal result of trying to build a new knowledge tradition against the weight of centuries of different knowledge, it is time for us to regroup. Just as Dorothy’s encounters with the characters on the Yellow Brick road taught her, we must muster up the courage, the heart, and the intellectual clarity to speak the truth as we see it. We must redefine “fairness.” Here are some ideas about how to talk to your students about ABOR, the knowledge tradition, and your role as a feminist educator.

In his essay “In Defense of Intellectual Freedom” in the February 13, 2004 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, ABOR advocate David Horowitz claims that its primary purpose is “to enumerate the rights of students to not be indoctrinated or otherwise assaulted by political propagandists in the classroom or any educational setting.” The fundamental explicit and implicit assumptions here are flawed. The explicit assumption is that education (as a social institution) does not have as one of its primary purposes the “indoctrination” of students. However, that is in fact the very purpose of all social institutions—to teach us about our society and our social location within it. As such, education is both a purveyor of the status quo and a potential site for radical social change.

There also seems to be an implicit assumption in Horowitz’s statement—that education used to be fairer and now it is not, that suddenly politics have entered the classroom when they weren’t there before. I find this assumption particularly ludicrous. When has higher education ever been “fair” and told “both sides”? Was it fair to leave women and people of color out of our history books? Was it fair not to include the writings of most women and people of color in the literary canon? Was it fair to define science in exclusively “objective” terms that does not consider the social context within which scientific thought was created? Was it fair to define good research from the lens of a limited set of mechanistic perspectives? As a feminist scholar, I am painfully aware of the fact that my early education only told one side of every story—it was the white, male, heterosexist, Euro-centric side. There has rarely been “fairness” in higher education. Many of the new disciplines that have developed in the past 30 years are attempting to redress that imbalance and it is this very thinking from these very people—women’s studies scholars and other so-called “liberals”—that is under attack by ABOR advocates.

Perhaps the greatest hypocrisy in the argument of ABOR advocates is that the storm has clearly gathered around one core political fact—that Democrats outnumber Republicans in most university faculties. I’ve actually had some students innocently ask me: “Why do you think so many university professors are liberals?” I tell them that I believe that formal education often breeds more liberals for a reason (and it doesn’t come from the “fair and balanced” curriculum). My theory is that the more you learn, the more you realize that few ideas fit neatly into the rigid “either/or” construct of traditional Western thought. The constancy of paradox and uncertainty leads one closer to the challenging complexities of “both/and” thinking, which often also means a perspective that is more communal than individualistic, more liberal than conservative, more flexible than rigid, and more often Democratic than Republican.
What is even more disturbing about the ABOR advocates’ focus on the Democrat to Republican faculty ratio is the lack of focus on other longstanding imbalances among faculty. For example, no one is asking the following questions about imbalance: Why do men far outnumber women in most faculty positions? Or, why do whites far outnumber people of color in most academic units? Or, why are there far more women and people of color in the lowest ranked, least permanent faculty positions? None of the ABOR advocates seem concerned about these imbalances as “political” issues, but I sure do. The imbalanced representation of women and people of color among the ranks of tenured full professors is the direct result of the imbalances that have existed for centuries in society and in education as a social institution. If the ABOR advocates are so concerned about “fairness” and telling “both sides” of the story, why aren’t they concerned about these imbalances, too?

Now that the great and not-so-powerful Oz has been more clearly revealed, let me click my ruby slippers and return home. As a feminist scholar and educator, I’d like to share some ideas about how I have talked to my students about these issues. Let me begin with what may seem to be a very radical statement. I do not view my primary role as an educator in terms of “fairness,” and most especially not in terms of telling “both” sides of a story (especially because there are often more than two sides). Here are my reasons for this view.

I don't believe in the assumption of objectivity about knowledge of most kinds. I don't believe that it is possible for a human being to separate themselves from what they perceive, from the questions they ask, nor from what they decide to be true about the ideas they explore. I believe that we (as subjects) are confined by the limits of our own experience, our own perspectives, and our own knowledge. I believe that the best we can do is work very hard to name those limits and to keep expanding them outward. I believe that the more we all learn to do that, the more we may begin to create truth.

I also believe that every aspect of the dominant knowledge tradition has been deeply steeped in one set of historical perspectives, and that most students’ previous education has been grounded in this one set of perspectives on most ideas. Therefore, I view my role as a teacher in terms of exposing students to questions and ideas from perspectives that they may never have explored before. I assume that they have already heard “other” views and in many cases assimilated (no pun intended) them without question.

I believe that my primary responsibility as a teacher is to expose students to the ideas and the questions that I have studied most about. I also believe that I must share what I have come to know to be true with as much integrity as possible. I do not believe that students need to think what I think. I heartily believe that in formal education, and in life, each person must determine their own truths from all of the information that is available. I hope that my perspective informs my students’ search for truth, not defines it.

My passion about these ideas comes from deeply held values and well-researched investigation of my own. However, the ideas that I currently hold to be true are mine. Students must decide for themselves what they are ready to incorporate into their current knowledge and their current beliefs. I can only share what I've discovered in the sincere hope that it helps illuminate an area that was previously dark. I encourage students regularly to please, please, please never just passively receive anything any instructor tells them, including me. This is the key to being a good critical thinker. I say to my students: “Until you carefully consider and choose what ideas to invite into your current understanding, you are only a passive recipient of information, not a seeker of truth. I want you all to be seekers of truth.”

From my perspective in the calm at the eye of the ABOR tornado, our purpose as feminist educators is clear. This debate has renewed our opportunity to use education as a site for radical social change. We must not shrink from that purpose. We must sustain our determination to redefine the knowledge tradition to be more reflective of the multiplicity of perspectives that have shaped our human story. We must redefine “fairness” by challenging our students to be seekers of truth rather guardians of the status quo. We must continue to have the courage to speak for those who have been silenced for too long. Only then will we return to our true human home, with our little dog, Toto, too.

This piece was originally published in NWSAction. 17.2 (Spring 2006): 13-17.