Monday, September 12, 2005

My disposition is none of your business 

Columnist and former Minnesotan Linda Seebach does a great service in covering the KC Johnson story. Her discussion of the use of "dispositions" theory in colleges of education is very enlightening.
The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, which gets to stamp its imprimatur on certification programs that conform to its views on pedagogy, in 2002 moved further into politics by making student "dispositions" a part of its accreditation process. To earn accreditation, teacher-preparation programs were evaluated on how well their graduates demonstrate a disposition toward social justice.

That's in addition to demonstrating that their graduates know their subject matter well and are effective in presenting it in the classroom, two essential matters that most ed schools are notoriously unable to accomplish.

The problem with "social justice" as a goal is that it is something everybody can be for as long as they don't have to agree on what it means. Does social justice in college basketball require that men and women play on the same teams, or on different ones? And if they play on the same teams, does social justice require that the teams "reflect" the male/female proportion of the student body, or that men and women with equal skills have an equal chance of making the team?
It was this test that Johnson protested, claiming that the lack of intellectual diversity in education schools makes disposition exams a liberal litmus test.
As one conference devoted to the concept explained, using this standard would produce �teachers who possess knowledge and discernment of what is good or virtuous.� Advocates leave ideologically one-sided education departments to determine �what is good or virtuous� in the world.

...The program at my own institution, Brooklyn College, exemplifies how application of NCATE�s new approach can easily be used to screen out potential public school teachers who hold undesirable political beliefs. Brooklyn�s education faculty, which assumes as fact that �an education centered on social justice prepares the highest quality of future teachers,� recently launched a pilot initiative to assess all education students on whether they are �knowledgeable about, sensitive to and responsive to issues of diversity and social justice as these influence curriculum and pedagogy, school culture, relationships with colleagues and members of the school community, and candidates� analysis of student work and behavior.�

At the undergraduate level, these high-sounding principles have been translated into practice through a required class called �Language and Literacy Development in Secondary Education.� According to numerous students, the course�s instructor demanded that they recognize �white English� as the �oppressors� language.� Without explanation, the class spent its session before Election Day screening Michael Moore�s Fahrenheit 9/11. When several students complained to the professor about the course�s politicized content, they were informed that their previous education had left them �brainwashed� on matters relating to race and social justice.
So now he is being persecuted. Seebach points out that this is a double standard: Colorado University does not prosecute Ward Churchill for his "little Eichmanns" speech, but Brooklyn College threatens Johnson for exercising his right to criticize pedagogical standards.

SCSU has a history with dispositions exams. In 1992 the Social Work Department issued a "position on attitudes towards gay and lesbian people." Asserting that there were 1500-2000 gay and lesbian members on campus (which would be about 10% of campus population) they stated:
Many of our students come from strong religious backgrounds that do not accept homosexuality. For these students who seek a career as professionals in social work it is especially important that they understand what it means to accept gay and lesbian people. [It] does not mean accepting them as individuals while simultaneously abhorring their behavior. The separation of the client from the client's behavior cannot be used here to resolve a social worker's personal or ethical dillemmas. It is not o.k. in this case to "love thesinner and hate the sin." ... The only legitimate position of the social work profession is to abhor the oppression that is perpetrated in gay and lesbian people and the act personally and professionally to end the degredation in its many forms.

...Students who have predetermined negative attitudes towards gay and lesbian people, and who are not open to exploring values will not find this program very comfortable and should probably look elsewhere for a major.
A letter was signed by the Center for Law and Religious Freedom, the MCLU, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the Center for Individual Rights which argued the policy violates state and federal law and the "nation's commitment to freedom of religious belief and speech". The Social Work Department, facing this criticism in both campus and the press, backed down. But the thought remains there.

Is not the dispositions theory used now also in violation of the Supreme Court's opinion in West Virginia v. Barnette when it said
If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religions, or other matters of opinion.
Professor Johnson is protected in his speech, and FIRE should continue to do all in its power to get Brooklyn College to stop this behavior.