Tuesday, December 16, 2008

William Felkner vs. College Conformity: Traditional Information Gatekeepers Face Another Challenge

Generally, I'm not a big fan of students - or their parents - who sue their school. Too often, it's looked like a case of wanting higher grades than they earned. On the other hand, as a recovering English teacher, I know that educational institutions can have problems themselves.

Which is why I take William Felkner's lawsuit seriously.

Boston.com wrote: "PROVIDENCE - A former student has sued the Rhode Island College School of Social Work, saying he was punished for his conservative views.

"William Felkner said that after enrolling in 2004, he realized he would have to adopt a left-wing ideology to get a master's degree...."

Information Gatekeepers and the War on Terror

A lawsuit by a disgruntled student doesn't seem to have much to do with the War on Terror. But I see Mr. Felkner's case as part of the struggle to determine whether information and expressions of opinion continue to be controlled by the traditional gatekeepers.

When a small group of people are able to control what everyone else is allowed to know, the opinions and assumptions of that group will tend to influence what they think is important to pass along: and what isn't.

In America, a relatively small number of people in the northeast had enormous influence over what did and did not get into the news; the publishers of academic journals decided what ideas and whose work would get discussed; and a rather centralized public school system ensured that America's youth be exposed to a consistent set of values.

GIGO and the War on Terror

I learned an expression while studying computer science, a couple of decades back: GIGO - Garbage In, Garbage Out. For programmers, it means that the best program will give incorrect results if inaccurate or just plain wrong data goes in.

I thing the GIGO principle applies to what people believe, too. Feed people information that's one-sided or just plain wrong, and their beliefs won't be a good match with reality. When those people apply their alternatively-accurate beliefs to selecting political candidates or deciding issues, there can be trouble.

It's my impression that the old order of gatekeepers is giving way to a more open exchange of ideas: I'll get back to that.

Liberal Bias on Campus?

Many, if not most, academicians will probably tell you that their colleges and universities are the epitome of open-mindedness.

And, in a way, they're right. Apart from a few individual professors and students, there is no liberal bias on campus in America. America's Academic Institutions are, by and large, by academia's standards:
  • Open-Minded
  • Bias-Free
  • Unencumbered by the Shibboleths of an Authoritarian, Hierarchical, Male-Dominated Society
It's a matter of what you define as "liberal," of course. The typical American college campus is quite moderate, in the sense that they don't insist that students embrace ideas like:
  1. Redistribution of wealth
    • From each according to his ability
    • To each according to his need
  2. The urgent need for implementation of the Kyoto Protocol
    • Rejection or denial of Paul Ehrlich's object lesson
  3. Opposition to Israeli colonial oppression of the Palestinian people
  4. Recognition of trans-species domestic partnerships
Actually, I'm not so sure about #2: environmentalism, reality-based or not, is pretty important on campus. But the rest, I think, might be recognized as 'liberal' points of view which would not be required of students.

Less extreme views, though, may not be recognized as "liberal" by the academics. I've gotten the impression that, for example, a calm statement of disagreement with gay rights advocates is "hate speech." The effect is to silence unapproved views.

Traditional Information Gatekeepers and the Information Age

College professors and school teachers have, traditionally, had quite a bit to say about what gets taught to America's citizens, from about age five to 22. And, it looks like quite a few of the sixties campus activists liked the halls of ivy so much, they stayed: and became today's college professors.

That might, or might not, have something to do with Mr. Felkner's perception that he had to conform to liberal ideals, or drop out.

Academia isn't the only traditional gatekeeper.

News media, print and broadcast, had - and has - a great deal of influence over what Americans know about what's happening in the world.

For most of the 20th century, a relatively small group of northeastern newspapermen decided what went into their papers and wire services - and that determined what showed up in 'lesser' newspapers. The result was that a sort of club of Yankee gentlemen and like-minded men decided what news was 'worth printing.'

Broadcast journalism was just as centralized. Between the triumvirate of ABC, CBS, and NBC, and the more refined PBS, only a few editors and journalists decided what information would be delivered to American citizens - and how it would be presented.

Entertainment media was created and distributed from a very few centers, too: mostly Los Angeles/Hollywood and New York City.

That was then.

The Internet, and the explosion of information technology and media that came with it, is changing who gets to determine you what you should know. To an increasing extent, individuals are free to search for information on their own, without relying on traditional gatekeepers.

I've written before, about gatekeepers, free access to information, and related issues: In the news: Related posts, on censorship, propaganda, and freedom of speech.

Related posts, on tolerance, bigotry, racism, and hatred.

Afterword: National Association of Scholars and Bias at Rhode Island College (RIC)

Particularly considering the sanctions that people with deviant, unapproved, views may face on campus, I was a bit surprised to find these postings on the National Association of Scholars (NAS) website:
  • "The Scandal of Social Work Education"
    Update on Bill Felkner: Rhode Island College Bias-Revelers Evacuate
    May 16, 2008 By Ashley Thorne
    • "Bill Felkner was a graduate social work student at Rhode Island College who never received his diploma – not for flunking out or committing any criminal or inappropriate act, but for holding views contrary to those of RIC’s School of Social Work."
    • "Ryczek ]Felkner’s first policy professor] told Felkner that social work is a 'value-based profession that clearly articulates a socio-political ideology about how the world works and how the world should be.' Ryczek was also the professor who declared in an email to Felkner, 'I revel in my biases.' "
    • The Rhode Island College president's "promise to conduct an investigation of Felkner’s claims was never fulfilled."
    • "Felkner said that if Rhode Island College were ever to give him a sufficient extension for his project, he would still like to do work on welfare reform, the banned topic that had originally cost him his degree.
      "Perhaps soon, there will be no one left at RIC who was involved with Bill Felkner’s case. But if this school of social work institutionally revels in its biases—and we believe it does—then the revelry will go on, regardless of which individuals are present."
  • "Initiatives"
    The "I-Revel-in-My-Biases" School of Social Work -- And What It Does to a Student Who Declines to Join the Revelry
    February 21, 2008 By Ashley Thorne
    • "Allan Bloom wrote in The Closing of the American Mind, 'Every educational system has a moral goal that it tries to attain and that informs its curriculum. It wants to produce a certain kind of human being.'
      " 'At the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College, that human being is politically liberal -- or perhaps more precisely, a committed political progressive who views American society as inherently oppressive and who upholds a vision of education as a means to advance "social justice.' "
    • "Also during his first semester, Felkner objected to the School of Social Work's promoting the film Fahrenheit 9/11, including showings in social work classes. In Felkner's view, the film was politically biased and should not have been treated as part of the curriculum. He argued that the War on Terror was outside the School of Social Work's expertise. Having failed to persuade the School about this, he then wrote an email to Professor Ryczek, asking if the SSW would be willing to sponsor a subsequent viewing of FahenHYPE 9/11, a film rebuttal to Fahrenheit 9/11. Ryczek's reply was that 'as a profession we do take sides,' and that social work is a 'value-based profession that clearly articulates a socio-political ideology about how the world works and how the world should be.' Ryczek closed his email saying:
      " 'I revel in my biases. So, I think that anyone who consistently holds antithetical views to those that are espoused by the profession might ask themselves whether social work is the profession for them…or similarly, if one finds the views in the curriculum at RIC SSW antithetical to those they hold closely, then this particular school might not be a good fit for them.'
      "Felkner also met with the Chair of the Bachelor Social Work program, Professor Mildred Bates, who refused to countenance his request for SSW to show FahrenHYPE 9/11. 'It's not going to happen,' she said. 'We hope that all social workers are liberal.'
    • "What should a student in Rhode Island who seeks a master's degree in social work do if he or she holds political opinions at variance with those of the Poverty Institute or the School of Social Work? The only options that Rhode Island appears to provide is that the student abandon his or her views and conform with the School of Social Work party line; abandon the field of social work; or attend a more expensive out-of-state program."
      [emphasis mine]
I should explain that the National Association of Scholars doesn't seem to be an official American academic organization. Their "Who We Are" page reveals:

"NAS is an independent membership association of academics working to foster intellectual freedom and to sustain the tradition of reasoned scholarship and civil debate in America’s colleges and universities.


"NAS was founded in 1987, soon after Allan Bloom’s surprise best-seller, The Closing of the American Mind, alerted Americans to the ravages wrought by illiberal ideologies on campus. The founders of NAS summoned faculty members from across the political spectrum to help defend the core values of liberal education...."

And, apparently, NAS thinks that the "core values of liberal education" don't include the ham-handed application of politically correct views, and strict indoctrination that I experienced.

1As defined by organizations like the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. In light of recent events, NAMBLA may not be regarded as centrist by many academicians.
Arguably another example of traditional information gatekeepers being challenged:
  • "Scientists Call AP Report on Global Warming 'Hysteria'"
    FOXNews (December 16, 2008)
    • " Scientists skeptical of the assertion that climate change is the result of man's activites[!] are criticizing a recent Associated Press report on global warming, calling it 'irrational hysteria,' 'horrifically bad' and 'incredibly biased.'
    • "They say the report, which was published on Monday, contained sweeping scientific errors and was a one-sided portrayal of a complicated issue.
    • " 'If the issues weren't so serious and the ramifications so profound, I would have to laugh at it,' said David Deming, a geology professor at the University of Oklahoma who has been critical of media reporting on the climate change issue...."
Those scientists are taking a real risk. There's evidence that there's a price to pay for denying the doctrine of global warming.

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.