Monday, January 19, 2009

One more comment on the upcoming inauguration 

Let me give a more local view of the hagiography of Obama. Over the weekend a small debate on campus broke out over Inauguration Day events being offered by the multicultural student services office here on campus (and some viewing opportunities through the student programming board.) Classes were invited. Some people wondered why we are doing this.

Undoubtedly some of the fascination with Obama is race. How could anyone think not? So when we have groups on campus dedicated to advocacy for particular races (called "underrepresented" or "historically underserved" or some such), celebrations of an advance of those races is to be expected. Tuesday is a great day for many reasons -- it reminds us of the robustness of our democracy, for one thing, and for another it marks an important expansion of political participation that we could not have imagined fifty years ago. So I do not have any problem that student organizations organized on race -- of which we have all but one, as there's no white student organization; just as Indoctrinate U pointed out, we have no male analog to a Women's Center -- celebrate the accomplishments of that race.

Is this hagiography evidence of left bias in the university? I don't know. When you have Obama visiting the Post and they snap cellphone pictures like ten-year-old girls at a Jonas Brothers concert, it's hard to blame a university for setting up a few big-screen TVs to watch an inauguration. It just reflects the mood of the times.

Nor would I complain greatly of having students taken from a classroom to watch the Inauguration, provided that the course is one for which presidential inaugurations or race relations was germane to the topic. I would ask, if a chemistry professor took her class to this event, what the Inauguration has to do with chemistry. I teach economics of developing countries tomorrow, 12:30-1:45. I will not take my class to it; we will have our normal lecture. That's my contract with them and what the state pays me to do. If students want to cut class and watch the Inauguration it is their right to do so. As with any other class, I do not incentivize absenteeism by sending out notes ex post or answer emails of "what did we do in class today?" Nor will I tomorrow. But that's my decision, based on what I see my contractual and ethical duties to be to my employer and to my students.

So while some, including some campus readers of this blog, have questioned the events, I see no reason to complain about it. But two last observations that are less positive about the events on campus. First, I think it's fair for one to wonder how many classes will take advantage of this. It may be many. Faculty these days tend to think more about the object of study than the disciplines with which they study. They can justify taking the students to view the Inauguration by saying something like "I study current events". All of the fill-in-the-blank studies programs will have no problem providing some rationale. It is this lack of disciplinarity that, in my view, is cheapening college education. Lacking a discipline means lacking its ethical standards. That is stuff out of the toothpaste tube, alas, not likely to ever be put back in.

Second, in the course of defending the campus viewing opportunities, one professor wrote this:
I would hope the majority of those who did not vote for Barack Obama did not "not vote" for him because he is an African American. And of course, now he is President elect for all Americans, not just those of us who voted for him.
How unfortunate a paragraph. 56 million people voted for someone other than Obama, and each one of them now has to be judged by the anointed like this professor. Did a few vote for McCain because Obama was black? I suspect so. But did a majority of those who did not vote for John McCain not vote for him because McCain is white? Did a majority of those who work in multicultural student services "not vote" for McCain because of race? These questions are absurd, of course. So is the question implied in the quote.

If Obama is going to be a post-racial president, he needs to work on professors who cast aspersions on those who might have voted for McCain because they don't like trillion dollar stimulus bills, or who think a 72-year-old guy has more experience than a guy who writes a biography before he has one, or who thinks the guy with military experience might be better for national security than the guy without. Nobody should have to prove those reasons were not rationalizations for racial animus.

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