Friday, February 8, 2008

"In my opinion, ..."

Regarding the content of a college course, an incensed parent responds to a request by another parent asking to please not make waves for the rest of us:

My son is 20 years old. He was previously homeschooled, but this has nothing to do with that fact. What he encountered was inappropriate at any age. My son thought it was "wierd", and if I would have been a student in that class at 40 something years old, I WOULD HAVE BEEN UNCOMFORTABLE WITH IT. I understand what you are saying in your email, however, wrong is wrong, and I think this professor was wrong! He's trying to pass along his own strange ideas, in my opinion, and perhaps he was looking to see what responses he got. There's a lot of wierd people in this world. Complacency is wrong in my opinion! I have not done anything about it yet, but I won't even mention that my son was homeschooled. That has nothing to do with it, and he is 20! Wrong is wrong, and I won't ignore it!

What immediately precedes that posting provides context:

Homeschooling parents, like others, sometimes find that their children are ready for advanced teaching before the traditional age. Whether it is because the parents cannot provide this teaching on their own, whether it is because the parents want to reintroduce their children to institutional learning, whether the parents want to put their children on a path toward a college degree, or for whatever other reason, one might imagine that there are obstacles for children, whether below the traditional age or not or with proper documentation or not, to reenter the mainstream.
We are fortunate that there are colleges and universities locally that are amenable to such situations, and we are aware that such opportunities may be fragile, especially if issues of legal liability are exposed. Thus there is the request not to make waves, and thus there is this response.

Keep in mind that to judge the author and then allow that judgment to affect you would be to act as the author. This is not to say, though, that there is not something here to be examined.

  • Does information offend, or are recipients of the information offended?
  • Does it matter whether or not the delivery of the information was intended to offend the recipient?
  • Does the absence of controversy necessarily imply that a correct understanding has been reached? Is the popular view always correct?
  • Are there circumstances wherein controversy can be skillfully used to create understanding?
  • Why do people attend college? Why do teachers teach? Need those objectives align?
  • What is the intended purpose of academic tenure?

I remember the day when I clearly knew that I should not become a college professor. My mentor in the university was uncommonly good to his students. A grey-beard with a pipe dangling from his mouth were markings that paled in comparison to his continual support to the ideals of academic excellence, academic honesty / integrity, and to the academic tradition itself. He was a stalwart against attacks on the university system of transmission as well as a champion of the students and fellow workers.

This professor allowed me to hang out with him in his office and to use that office while he was teaching. One day while I sat alone at his desk, the door slammed open and this tenured, full professor stormed in. He threw his attache case down and continued an uninterrupted stream of curses started sometime before. When he calmed down enough to be intelligible, the story emerged:

In the beginning of the year, this professor released a fully detailed syllabus that includes the dates of all course exams as well as the policies surrounding taking and missing exams. A week or two before one such exam, a young student approached the 60-something professor and explained matter-of-factly that he would be away on a cruise during that particular week and would thus be missing the exam. The student wanted to know what alternative arrangements the professor could make for him. The professor explained what you might imagine: The schedule and the policies were clear and published; it's the student's responsibility to meet those requirements.

We can assume both that the student was a bit more arrogant and that the professor was a bit more cantankerous; nevertheless, the exchange took a drastic turn for the worse when the student spoke these words to the professor:

I pay your salary!

That was the moment in a nutshell. It's the classic "the customer is always right" mentality, now appearing in academia. The professor would eventually have to do the expected paperwork and answer to the department chair, who had been contacted by the parents, before the professor was eventually found in the right, receiving an apology from the student.

Consider that this was a calculus class, the professor a mathematician. Except for occasional disputes regarding who claims title to different theorems' proofs, there is not much that would be considered controversial or offensive in pure mathematics---and that is particularly true in basic calculus, a topic that is well trodden. But even here, an arbitrary student made the argument, and that argument was supported to some extent by the student's parents. And this argument did not even surround the content of the class.

It's still inconceivable to me that this happened at all. Imagine how much more this situation could have erupted had this actually been a controversial course filled with thought and opinion---even more so had the course explored social mores.

How did we come to this?

"I believe this, and I am offended that you do not. You are wrong! See things my way, or else!" is the argument. A service-based economy and a litigious society give life to every threat are among the problems.

What are possible solutions?

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