On Judicial Plagiarism

It is an open secret that judges sometimes plagiarize from submissions by the lawyers before them, and even from articles and books by academics.   With respect to the latter, they are often aided and abetted by their clerks—law students working with them as research assistants.

Unlike scholarly or literary cheaters, the worry about judicial plagiarists is not that they undermine the research process, violate authors’ ‘moral rights’, or steal someone’s intellectual property. Judicial plagiarism is worse than any of these. It undermines the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. A judge who knowingly or recklessly reproduces words or arguments of others as if they were his own may not be making his own decisions. If discovered, this undermines public confidence that the judiciary can be relied on to think for itself.

Still, we know judicial plagiarism occurs. We also know why. Courts are underfunded and under-staffed; there is far too much work; many judges struggle with an impossible docket.   So the temptations to silently lift others’ work can be powerful.   Some lifting will be obvious.   A claimant will not fail to notice if a judge copies out page after page of the respondent’s pleadings, interspersing phrases like, ‘as we can clearly see’, or ‘ surely the better view is….’ But unacknowledged material that a clerk, or judge, copies without attribution from sources on Westlaw or Google is harder to spot, and can silently infiltrate judicial decisions.

This is why we should be concerned by reports of plagiarism on the part of Trump’s nominee to the US Supreme Court.  Judge Neil Gorsuch’s 2006 book, The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia , has been shown to contain passages and descriptions offered, without citation or acknowledgement, as if they were his own, but which were taken from other authors. That book was in turn based on Gorsuch’s 2004 thesis, submitted for a degree at the law school where I teach. It can only be a matter of time before someone downloads the thesis from the Oxford University Research Archive, to see whether it also contained the passages impugned in the press reports on his book.

If it did, and if Gorsuch were still an Oxford law student, he would be subject to the jurisdiction of University, which unambiguously prohibits plagiarism.  It does not matter whether silently copying others’ work is intentional or not; it does not matter whether it is done with the tolerance of those copied; it does not matter whether the passages copied are central to an argument or peripheral.  At Oxford, as at most other universities, the wrong is in the misrepresentation. It is an offence of academic dishonesty.

There is, of course, an important question of degree to attend to.  There is much worse plagiarism around, even in our universities.  And plagiarism in Gorsuch’s book has only been alleged in a few passages, though one of them is fairly extensive. But why is there any at all?  These passages seem to have survived an awful lot of scrutiny. In writing a thesis, submitting it for examination, revising it for publication, responding to editorial comments, and correcting texts and proofs there are many opportunities to spot, and correct, honest mistakes or omissions.  Indeed, it is not too late to do so even now.  So why the silence from Gorsuch and all the loud denials from his apologists?

Here at Oxford, our chief disciplinary officers, the Proctors, do not merely have a reactive role. They have broad powers they must use, not only to enforce our regulations, but to prevent future breaches of them. Why is this important? Gorsuch is no longer a member of Oxford University, so the Proctors have no enforcement jurisdiction over him. But they can and must act to prevent misconduct on the part of current students or faculty.

They should be concerned, then, that Gorsuch’s former Oxford supervisor has provided a statement to the ‘Gorsuch team’ denying any plagiarism in the book:

Having reviewed the examples provided by BuzzFeed News to the Gorsuch team, the professor who supervised Gorsuch dissertation, Emeritus Professor John Finnis of Oxford University, provided a statement to the Gorsuch team, concluding, “[I]n my opinion, none of the allegations has any substance or justification. In all the instances mentioned, Neil Gorsuch’s writing and citing was easily and well within the proper and accepted standards of scholarly research and writing in the field of study in which he and I work.”

This opinion has been widely republished and read, not only by the politicians for whom it was written, but by law students around the world.  And this opinion, coming from such an influential scholar, sends the wrong message to young lawyers and scholars.

If by ‘the field of study in which [Gorsuch] and I work,’ Professor Finnis means university research in law or legal philosophy, then his claim is unfounded. Oxford University’s regulations and guidance to students, and years of interpretation of  them by the Proctors and others, put this beyond doubt.   But perhaps Finnis means that lower standards of integrity apply to law books than to law theses? I do not think that is true either; but it is in any case it is the standards of our University that our students need to comply with, now and in the future.

For my own part, if ever I encountered plagiarism in work by one of my own students I would insist they revise their thesis to include full acknowledgement and citation, using it as a ‘teaching moment’ to explain why it is critical to get this right, especially for lawyers. Legal citation is, as they say, not exactly rocket science: misattributions or non-attributions, if not accidental, suggest a cheater seeking to gain advantage from the work of others, or someone who has contempt for academic culture.

Good judges are sensitive to the further issues at stake. In a British Columbia appeal against a trial judge’s decision that lifted wholesale from one the parties’ submissions, Mr Justice Smith wrote,

Trial judges are busy, and there can be cases… where a party’s submissions so accurately reflect the trial judge’s reasoning that nothing would be gained by postponing other pressing work in order to rewrite the reasoning and conclusions in the judge’s own words. However, judges who are tempted to prepare reasons for judgment in this way should be acutely aware they may create a perception that they did not reach their decisions independently. Such a perception would tend to undermine public confidence in the impartiality and independence of the judiciary generally and would bring the administration of justice into disrepute:

Of course, an academic book or article is not a party’s submission, but for a judge to rely on it without citation would raise similar worries.   Indeed, that case would be worse for, as I mentioned above, judicial plagiarism of that sort will be a lot harder for the parties and others to detect. Given that it can always be avoided by a mere footnote–by a moment’s attention–failure to provide one is wrong.   That is why we demand it of our students, our judges, and ourselves.

When writing as an academic, Neil Gorsuch did not have a trial judge’s excuse of the extraordinary pressures of work. He was not copying from submissions others had read, but from authors most readers would not even know. With the leisure of the ivory tower, and with no one but scholars depending on his writing, Gorsuch failed an easy, elementary test we demand of every student: acknowledge all your sources–every single one–truthfully and fully. How should we expect him to behave when the stakes, and temptations, are higher?

Why every academic under 60 must have a blog

As I have mentioned before, there is an enormous over-production of scholarly writing, especially in the humanities and social sciences. Some of it is driven by mandates imposed by governments, and lots by universities’ apparent craving for self-harm. Still, quite a lot is also caused academics themselves (i.e. ourselves). We are competitive, self-deceptive, and rarely good at much apart from academic writing—teaching not excepted.

What to do? One possibility is strive for  self-control and to resist writing—and certainly publishing—unless one knows something that at least twelve other people need to know and will never otherwise find out.

Two considerations argue against this approach. The first is that we seem to be very poor judges of what others need to know. The second is that we tend to over-rate the significance of own work. A good friend, X (an enormously distinguished academic) once told me—in a moment of ethanolic honesty—that he had now resolved to publish nothing more unless it was a true ‘X-gem’. Of course this came to nothing, as you will have guessed by the very fact that he presupposed that some non-trivial amount of his work would turn out to be not only of lapidary, but even gemological, beauty. Scores of papers appeared anyway, many of them repeating the repeated lines that had made him influential, in his own scintillating way.

But now consider the obvious alternative: external editors. Won’t that work? Sadly, no. And I say this, in all humility, as an editor of an annual, of a book series, and as a member of the editorial boards of what are regarded as top journals in my fields.

Undeniably, in the outlets for which I am part-responsible, it has never once been the case that we published because: we needed to fill a number, we needed to replace an author who didn’t produce, we thought there could be a market for a ludicrous argument, we liked someone, or we needed to keep up the pace in order to remain on the radar. Still—all of these are true of every other academic outlet in the English-speaking world. In particular, US law reviews (of which there are thousands) are filled (up) with material that, absent such considerations, would never find a home anywhere. They are products of ‘internal’ necessities only—and of the institutional necessity to publish the writings of their own faculty while buffing the CVs of their student ‘editors’.

So here is my suggestion. Every university teacher under, say, 60, should be contractually required to have a blog. (Oldsters will be forgiven their tech-phobias.) The blogs will be hosted and maintained by their own universities, and the universities will not claim intellectual property in the blog-publications, and will never attempt to impose any regulations on faculty blogs apart from those required by general law. But no blog entry will be citable, or mentionable, in any internal context, including deliberations about tenure, promotion, salary, etc. And no one will be allowed to complain in any such context that Professor X is a sourpuss on his blog, or that he published something that their students found offensive, micro-aggressive, or dumb.

The idea is that compulsory blogs could in time become safety valves, relieving pressure from journals and book publishers. Professors will thus be nudged—not compelled—towards writing in places where the marginal cost, and harm,  of another publication is about zero. No longer will someone wake up, realize there is a tiny non-sequitur in some argument, and then start his article-generator grinding away at the literature review, the three alternate interpretations, his own ‘better view’, his reply to all possible objections, and his final, predictable, agonizing, Summary of My Argument—which gets fed into a paper-submission-app, inevitably to be accepted by, shall we say, the Southern-Canadian-Columbian-State-Journal-of-Transystemic-Legal-Studies.  Instead, he will  just have a double espresso, practice three minutes of mindfulness, and then take to his blog. After the scholarly ejaculation has subsided, he will take a nap and prepare for class.

How can I be sure? Actually, I’m not. But what alternative do we have? Everything I can think of seems much worse.

Israel’s Bar Ilan University: letting the side down yet again

Professor Hanoch Sheinman is one of Israel’s most distinguished legal philosophers. Like many thoughtful Israelis, he deplores the illegal and oppressive aspects of Israel’s foreign policy.  He is not shy about this. During the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza, Sheinman introduced a bland housekeeping email to his law students by saying he hoped it,

‘finds you in a safe place, and that you, your families and those dear to you are not among the hundreds of people that were killed, the thousands wounded, or the tens of thousands whose homes were destroyed or were forced to leave their homes during, or as a direct result of, the violent confrontation in the Gaza Strip and its environs.’

Many of Sheinman’s right wing students were enraged. How dare a professor express political views in a work email? How dare a Jewish law faculty employ such a person? How dare anyone suggest the moral equivalence of innocent Israeli and innocent Palestinian lives?

Bar Ilan University’s Dean of Law, Shahar Lifshitz, sided with the outraged students, announcing that their complaints were justifiable: ‘[The] Letter from Professor Sheinman – both content and style – is contrary to the values ​​of the University and the Faculty of Law.’ He continued, ‘This is abuse of power by a lecturer who exploits his position as a jurisprudence teacher to send messages reflecting his views, which are highly offensive to the feelings of students and their families. ‘ Lifshitz promised to deal with Sheinman in due course: ‘I assure you that the matter will be handled with the appropriate seriousness.’

Now one might debate whether a politically charged email is protected by academic freedom. Still, it seems to me that I should be permitted to introduce an email by writing, for example, ‘I hope this finds you healthy and well, and that you have not been driven to food banks as a result of the Government’s policies on student loans.’ That might be gauche or inappropriate—I imagine that my Conservative students and colleagues might think so—but it would be ludicrous to say it amounts to an ‘abuse of power’ or the ‘exploitation’ of a professor’s position.

In any case, even if Professor Sheinman’s comment was not protected by academic freedom, Dean Lifshitz’s threat was condemned by it. For it is clear that by ‘appropriate seriousness’ Lifshitz did not mean ‘the degree of seriousness appropriate to an otherwise innocent, one-off comment that gravely offends some students’ (viz: a degree of about zero). No; Lifshitz plainly meant a degree of seriousness that might warrant formal reprimand, or worse.   When Deans make threats like that, they do not need to carry them out in order restrict the academic freedoms on which teaching, learning and scholarship depend. That they show themselves ready to do so is enough. If there was any ‘abuse of power’ or ‘exploitation’ of one’s position in this matter, it was on the part of Dean Lifshitz.

As is common in cases like this, everyone could see that except the victim’s own colleagues. They mostly went scurrying for cover. (Advice to junior faculty: never get between your senior colleagues and their own self-image.) It fell to outsiders to defend Sheinman. Bad press, the intervention of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, pressure from hundreds of foreign academics, and threats of lawsuit eventually induced Lifshitz to think again. On reflection, he acknowledged that he had mis-spoken in promising the students that Sheinman ‘will be handled’.

A story at The Leiter Reports now suggests that Lifshitz has been having second thoughts all over again.  A poisonous atmosphere, angry students, and a truculent administration have paved the way for an  ‘interim review’ being imposed on the as-yet-untenured Sheinman.   His lawyers claim that this procedure has been set up without proper university authority, that it is imposed retroactively, and that Sheinman has not been given reasonable opportunity to prepare for it. I have been told by sources close to the Bar Ilan administration that they expect Sheinman to be in trouble on the teaching side. (It is inconceivable that Sheinman’s research could be found wanting; he is more able, and already much more distinguished, than all but a few of Bar Ilan’s tenured law faculty.) Given that outraged students led the charge against Sheinman in the first place, and that the Dean encouraged them, nothing would be less surprising than for Sheinman to be confronted with bad student evaluations. It is amazing that he even manages to continue his research in such a poisonous atmosphere.

You may be tempted to roll your eyes and say, as Rick does to Ilsa in Casablanca, ‘the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.’ But it is precisely because academic life in Israel has become so crazy that this matters so much. Bar Ilan’s image problem is nothing new. After all, its law faculty is the alma mater of Itzakh Rabin’s murderer; it is a university where male students can be kicked out of lectures for refusing to wear a kippa, where the administration can demand that faculty defend the contents of their books, and where gay students are prohibited from holding events on campus. Life in the bush league, you say? Maybe; but put this in the national context. Israel’s universities are all struggling to resist the academic boycott movement. Bar Ilan is, shall we say, not exactly helping the cause. Many Israeli academics feel under intense pressure to show that they are not just lackeys of Brand Israel. The Bar Ilan law faculty are doing nothing to help them either.

The latest criticism has now elicited a ‘reply’ from nine of Bar Ilan’s tenured law professors.   Their letter is embarrassingly irrelevant.   Were it a first year student’s answer to a statement of claim it would get a failing grade. It does not even notice, let alone answer, the gravity of the charge: that, as applied, this particular review is unfair and is motivated by Bar Ilan’s desire to silence faculty who, like Sheinman, infuriate their right-wing students. Instead, they irrelevantly say that other law faculties have interim reviews, and they reaffirm their touching faith that ‘Prof. Sheinman’s political views will have no bearing on the committee’s evaluation of his performance. Neither will the letter that Prof. Sheinman sent to students during the 2014 war in Gaza.’

Clap your hands if you believe.

 

 

 

Wednesday’s Child: My job description grows again

Every year, my job description gets longer. Research and teaching, obviously, and a share of university administration ancillary to that. (For instance, preparing the Law faculty’s REF submission and, more dangerously, chairing my college’s Coffee Committee [OfCoff!].

For the professoriate, these things have always come with the territory. Now, however, I am also drafted as a delegate authority to assist the government in implementing its political agenda. The UK’s self-destructive policies on migration, including the admission of foreign students, are to be monitored by people like me. I have a duty to report how often I lay eyes on my visa students. (What if Oxford students are not really having panic attacks in the library but are actually off in Isis training camps?) I also have a ‘prevent’ duty to make sure they aren’t being sucked into terrorism. (What if they come to believe John Locke’s claim that one may make a violent ‘appeal to heaven’ whenever the rulers try to govern without consent?)

My own view—I wish the Vice Chancellor would endorse it—is that these new duties must not only be ‘balanced against’ my duty to support academic freedom and my Public Sector Equality Duty to advance the status of protected groups—they must be subject to them.  Academic freedom and social equality should be side-constraints within which any ‘prevent’ duty or duty to monitor migration is exercised. Otherwise, the essential bond of trust between teacher and student will be ruptured, and the status of our universities will be undermined.

Consider this. If I do not see a postgraduate student at least three times in eight weeks, I need to report that to the administration.   If I have concerns about why I have not seen her, I need to report those too.  If I fear a student is being ‘radicalised’ I also need to report that. How will I know? The University has a duty to train me: ‘We would expect appropriate members of staff to have an understanding of the factors that make people support terrorist ideologies or engage in terrorist-related activity.’ Of course, the University can’t know what ‘factors’ cause support for ‘terrorist ideologies’ until it knows which ideologies are actually ‘terrorist’. No worries— ‘BIS offers free training for higher and further education staff through its network of regional higher and further education Prevent co-ordinators. ‘ I am not making this up.

Today, I learn that the government is pressing ahead with legislation to ensure that the security services have access to a year’s worth of our online data, including a complete list of every website you accessed. (If you haven’t done so, download Tor now, and browse with nothing else until this legislation is repealed or, if you are in Scotland, until independence frees you from still more English insanity.) The availability of this information will feed into the duty to monitor migration and prevent terrorism.

It isn’t hard to see where this could lead.  I’ve only seen a visa postgraduate twice in eight weeks? Her email says she is away conducting research in Washington. But we can check to see if she has accessed our servers, and from where, and what she is searching for.  We have a duty to keep that data.   A student used to favour power-sharing in Northern Ireland but now jokes that the DUP needs a whiff of gelignite?  I can alert the university to check out his Facebook and Twitter feeds.  Indeed, I must. The statutory guidance says:

‘Radicalised students can also act as a focal point for further radicalisation through personal contact with fellow students and through their social media activity. … Changes in behaviour and outlook may be visible to university staff. Much of this guidance therefore addresses the need for RHEBs to have the necessary staff training, IT policies and student welfare programmes to recognise these signs and respond appropriately.’

It is clear that this government cares little about academic freedom, civil liberties, or social equality. More surprisingly, they seem to care little about the competitive position of our leading universities. (Our opposite numbers at Yale or Harvard are not burdened by any of this–nor by REF or TEF.)   So where are our senior administrators on the issue?  Where is UUK? Where is the professoriate of the ‘elite’ Russell Group of British universities?  I guess they are all off at free BIS training sessions on how to recognize and prevent radicalization among  students.  Or perhaps at job interviews at U.S. universities.

Germaine Greer is right about trans-women

Germaine Greer does not think new clothes, new hormones, or sex-reassignment surgery can turn men into women (or, I assume, women into men).   She is right about that, and a Cardiff University controversy about her planned lecture this month is a tsunami in a teaspoon.

Of course gender is not fixed at birth. Simone de Beauvoir was right that no one is born a woman. Possibly, no one is even born female. Sex is cluster-concept, a bundle of attributes, some of which do not develop until puberty or later. And gender is another cluster-concept.  Gender is constituted by norms and values that are conventionally considered appropriate for people of a given sex. Gender is a lot more vague than sex, and a lot more historically and geographically variable.

But gender has another interesting feature.  It is path dependent.  To be a woman is for the pertinent norms and values to apply a result of a certain life history. Being a woman is not only ‘socially constructed’, as they say, it is also constructed by the path from one’s past to one’s present.   In our society, to be a woman is to have arrived there by a certain route: for instance, by having been given a girl’s name, by having been made to wear girl’s clothes, by having been excluded from boys’ activities, by having made certain adaptations to the onset of puberty, and by having been seen and evaluated in specific ways.   That is why the social significance of being a penis-free person is different for those who never had a penis than it is for those who used to have one and then cut it off.

The path dependence of gender is not unique. Many social categories are shaped by the way they come to take hold. It is one thing to grow up with English as one’s mother tongue, another to speak English as a second language; one thing to be born to privilege, another to be a ‘self made man’; one thing to be raised a Jew, another to be an adult convert. Admittedly, it would be silly to say that fluent learners of English are utterly different from native speakers, that millionaire parvenus have nothing in common with trust-fund babies, or that converts are simply not Jews. These things aren’t black or white. But by the same token it would be just as silly to say they are all simply white. And that is the sense in which MTF transgendered people are not women.

But that is Greer’s point. She says, ‘I just don’t think that surgery turns a man into a woman. (…) I mean, an un-man is not necessarily a woman.’ People focus on her first sentence at the expense of the second. Greer is not saying that MTF people are stuck being men, no matter how they feel, what they choose, how they are seen, or how they are treated. She is not saying that the oppression of transgendered people has nothing in common with the oppression of women.  She is saying that ceasing to be a man does not make one a woman. These things aren’t black or white.

Obviously, the fact that something is true need not stop people taking offense at it. But there is actually no evidence of widespread offense at Greer’s remarks. I called the controversy a ‘tsunami in a teaspoon’ because, contrary to what you might suppose from the press, the students were mostly untroubled by Greer’s comments. Not one in a hundred even felt moved to click on an anti-Greer petition. No serious opposition was mounted; no policy of exclusion was formulated. There was no ‘hecklers’ veto’; in fact, there was a pretty effective hecklers’ veto veto.

So this is all rather puzzling. Greer’s remarks are correct and are neither dangerous nor hateful. The number of critics of students who supposedly want to ‘no-platform’ speakers dwarfs the number of students who want to ‘no-platform‘ anyone.  Maybe the transgender tsunami hit the press, not because of some seismic event in our universities, but because commentators want threats to freedom of speech and inquiry to come from a politically safe source.   And what safer, softer, target than an imaginary recrudescence of virulent PC-ism in our student unions?

Wednesday’s Child: The Teaching that Students Pay For

The universities minister, Jo Johnson, criticizes the ‘lamentable’ teaching some UK undergraduates receive. He is determined to ‘drive it out’: by subjecting universities to for-profit competition, by letting weak universities go under, and by imposing on everyone another costly and destructive regulatory scheme, the threatened ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’.

Never mind that there is no empirical evidence that bad teaching is pervasive. Never mind that our leading universities compete in a global market against peer institutions that do not waste time on ‘Excellence Frameworks’. Never mind that the best teaching is expensive, and  if there are to be more contact hours, more feedback, and more Nobel laureates in smaller classrooms, someone will need to pay —if not the public, then students.  But another reporting scheme, in which first prize may be permission to raise regulated fees by no more than inflation, will make teaching worse, not better. Hundreds of millions of pounds are already wasted in a national research evaluation scheme whose benefit has never been tested, let alone demonstrated.

Of course none of this is about empirical evidence. The government is worried about optics: ‘It is not at all clear to some students what their tuition fees of £9,000 a year actually pay for…,’ says Johnson.

It varies, but at my university (of which Mr Johnson is actually a graduate) one thing tuition fees do not pay for is the cost of tuition. We subsidize that, by spending our endowment to the tune of something like £8,000 per year per undergraduate. Yet there is no scenario in which the government will allow any university to let tuition fees rise to £20,000 or £30,000 a year. (Nor, in my view, should it.)

What then are students ‘unclear about?’ The answer is obvious. It is unclear to them why they should be paying even £9,000 a year when their counterparts in excellent German or Scots universities are not. It is unclear to them whether they should be going to university at all, since the economy is not producing enough graduate-level jobs for all who graduate.

We could clarify their minds about that without yet more bureaucratic regulation:

(1) They are paying tuition fees because they (mostly, their parents) voted for political parties who think higher education should be paid for privately and not publicly. (I set aside the massive charge on the public purse that will be racked up through unpaid student loans.)

(2) Their degrees are worth less because the economic value of going to university, though still significant, is lower than it used to be.  A degree is in part a ‘positional good’. The more graduates there are, the less valuable it is to be a graduate. And as long as the austerity-cult continues to depress the economy, even the few who graduate from elite universities now compete for fewer good jobs. (I set aside the bullshit jobs created by the regulatory schemes themselves.)

But maybe I oversimplify.  Perhaps the unclarity in students’ minds is of a different kind.  Maybe they are asking, ‘What am I doing here anyway?’ or ‘What’s the point of education if it doesn’t land me a better job?’  If that is a widespread worry then it is a sign, not that university teaching is failing, but that it is succeeding.

Top-25 US Philosophy Placements by PGR Rankings

There is an informative table here showing where the 2015-16 tenure-track  appointees to the top 25 US Philosophy departments did their doctoral work.  (This is interim data; I’ll do this again later.)

I excluded foreign graduate schools (which are ranked in their home jurisdictions, not against US programmes) and then did a multiple regression of placement numbers against inverse 2006 and 2014 PGR ranks  (recklessly treating these, I know, as cardinal variables).

As expected, the line slopes down slightly to the right–the lower-ranked a programme, the fewer people it placed in top departments.  But not by much.Version 2The  coefficient for the 2014 rankings is -0.15, and for 2006 it is -0.07, which you can pretty much see with your own eyeballs.  And none of this is  significant at p=.05, except the intercept (0bviously).

A couple of  comments. There are few data points.  They are placement numbers; not success rates. This does not test the predictive power of PGR rankings: we would need to know about lower-ranked departments and about rejected candidates.  We would want to add more independent variables.

Still, this does not suggest that well-informed departments, when hiring to the tenure-stream, are in the thrall of the PGR.  Apart from the very top-ranked departments–which, on anyone’s account are stellar and, whether by selection effect or treatment effect, turn out stellar candidates–lots of other places are about equally successful in elite placements.  Not that elite job placements are the only thing, or even the main thing, to think about in life.

You knew that already, right?

 

 

 

 

Occupy (the right aspect of) the syllabus!

Brian Leiter comments on the mindless identity politics among the Berkeley undergrads who demanded that a course on ‘classics of social theory’ (Plato to Foucault) should mirror the social justice interests of the privileged college students who chose it:

We must dismantle the tyranny of the white male syllabus. We must demand the inclusion of women, people of color and LGBTQ* authors on our curricula.”

They ask,

‘Are your identities and the identities of people you love reflected on these syllabi? … Is it really worth it to accumulate debt for such an epistemically poor education?’

First, as Leiter notes, there is the humiliating fact that these students seem unaware that Foucault was gay.  Not to mention the interesting case of Plato.  And all those confirmed bachelors among the tyrants.  Yet the students turn lavender contemplating their own firm belief that there are no ‘LGBTQ*’ authors on the curriculum.

They have a better complaint about sexism.  It is troubling that Foucault makes the syllabus while none of Wollstonecraft, Beauvoir or Arendt do.  Choices always need to be made, but to omit all of these is a poor one.  And I also share the view that ‘classics’ of social theory might include something from the Asian philosophers.

But a question: I take it that these students, or nearly all of them, want Asian philosophers translated into English, the lingua franca of the white male corporate plutocracy that runs their state and nation? (California is the home of the US “English Only” movement.)

As far as I can see, that is how they were served their Plato and Aristotle, their Marx and Weber–and their Foucault.  Or are Sanskrit, Pali and classical Chinese now more widely read among Cal undergrads than are Greek, German or French? Somehow I doubt it.

I have a feeling that the linguistic mono-culture of most American students is utterly invisible to them. That is how hegemonic blinders work.  White students don’t see their own race; American students don’t see their own language. They want their identities to be reflected in their syllabus.  But in one of the ways  most salient to the humanities and social sciences, they already are–and not to good effect.  Of course, ‘unilingual Anglophone’ is, for most American students, not a social ‘identity’ they are aware of, let alone one they care to reflect on and, perhaps, transcend.  (Ditto, of course, for social class.)

It seems to me that a college education that leaves students–especially in the humanities– linguistically crippled is an ‘epistemically poor education’ if anything is.  (I know: ‘What ableism!!)

It gets worse.

The students’ complaint is introduced, without comment, with this backgrounder:

“This call to action was instigated by our experience last semester as students in an upper-division course on classical social theory. Grades were based primarily on multiple-choice quizzes on assigned readings.

At first, I thought OK that is a pretty good reason to ‘occupy a syllabus’.  Many American college students are racking up huge debts, and for what?  A ‘classics of social theory’ course in which the instructors’ main tool of assessment is multiple-choice quizzes? (‘Hobbes is the foundation for unbridled capitalism: (a) Yes; (b) No; (c) I couldn’t get the reading.’)

It is easy to poke fun at the narcissistic self-involvement of privileged students who think everything should be a branch of “me studies“.  In truth, thinking about one’s own identity can be a first step in thinking about others’ identities–and then  a further step up the ladder to thinking about social identity as such.  But not if you think the problem is just the poverty of the reading list, as opposed to one’s own  impoverished ability to read beyond it.