Manufacturing dissent: Following recent decisions by San Francisco and Oakland school boards to hold Iraq teach-ins in their public schools, it was only a matter of time before Berkeley jumped on the peace train, making the same toothless promises to offer students a multisided discussion in a largely one-sided town.
Although there were lessons to be learned from recent controversies in these other districts, Berkeley Unified School Board directors forged determinedly ahead last Wednesday, voting 5-1 to hold a district-wide peace-in on February 5 and 6. "This is one of those opportunities where elected officials can use their office to emphasize issues that are morally important to them," director Terry Doran told his colleagues.
San Francisco's teach-in proposal was toned down after parents complained that the one-sided antiwar rhetoric was inappropriate for classroom discussions. And while Oakland Unified went through the motions of recruiting a balanced selection of speakers, organizers claim they were unable to locate anyone willing to take the Bush administration's side.
Director John Selawsky, who brought the issue to the Berkeley board, isn't worried about balance. "I have faith in the teachers of Berkeley to be fair about this," he said. Never mind that the Berkeley Federation of Teachers has already asked the board to emphasize the antiwar theme by shortening the resolution's title from "BUSD School Days of Public Education on Peace and the War Against Iraq" to simply "BUSD School Days of Public Education on Peace."
Still, the directors acknowledged that their last-minute proposal left no time to review the two-day curriculum in advance. They were also unsure whether the proposed classroom discussions would violate the district's ban on controversial speakers. But moral imperative trumped any concern over breaking the rules. "We're arguing over issues that I don't believe are significant," Doran told his peers.
In the '60s, teach-ins were largely conducted by student leaders distrustful of the establishment and its motives. In this case, though, the peace activists are the local establishment -- faculty and administrators are making use of their official capacities to tout the antiwar message in the classroom.
In her lone dissenting vote, Director Shirley Issel decried the contradictions she felt were inherent in the resolution. "I'm highly distressed at the thought that we would in our passion lose sight of our obligation to protect a neutral learning environment," she said, referring to a subcommittee of the teachers union. "What makes you think the Subcommittee on Peace will develop lessons that present both sides of the issue?"
Issel cited a recent situation in which a Spanish teacher had offered "substantial extra credit" to students who attended the January 18 peace rally in San Francisco.
Teach-in proponents argue that any antiwar discussion in the classroom is already balanced by the media's alleged warmongering. A teach-in, they say, will merely give students the information they need to make up their own minds about the war. Balanced discussion, Issel countered, needn't require a teach-in. "Current events should be a part of every student's curriculum, every week," she said. "We don't need a resolution to do that." -- Helene Blatter
Speech, $1.35 a minute: Thanks to a string of reactionary attacks and vandalism against the Daily Californian, the lefty students of UC Berkeley have acquired a rather unsavory reputation as "thought Nazis" -- folks who aim to suppress campus speech that doesn't coincide with the prevailing progressive orthodoxy. Throw in the syllabus of graduate student Snehal Shingavi's De-Cal course, which stated that "conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections," and the inaugural scandal of Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, and the national press has a plateful of delicious irony to chew on: The liberals who once fought so hard for free expression are now arguably its greatest impediment.
Not so fast. Following the recent Emma Goldman Project scandal -- when Cal administrators censored a fund-raising letter because the selected Goldman quotes were a bit too relevant to current events -- even the most conservative pundits have had to acknowledge that the left doesn't have a monopoly on the suppression of inconvenient sentiment. And now, the Berkeley blogosphere -- that collection of undergraduate insta-pundits who maintain Web logs where they gossip about university politics -- has put forth yet another candidate for bête noire in the marketplace of ideas.
Russell Wardlow, a Cal undergrad who runs the blog known as "Mean Mister Mustard," recently attended the introductory session of "Marxism and Fascism in the Far East," a course taught by political science professor James Gregor. Wardlow was surprised and amused to read Gregor's own syllabus. "The course will not be conducted in a politically correct manner," the professor cautioned, "which means that some students may find the treatment offensive. If you are among those who cannot tolerate alternative opinion, who feel that any departure from the prevailing folk-wisdom of Ethnic Studies or left-wing posturing is objectionable -- do not take this course."
In fact, Gregor suggested several types who might be too fragile to hear about the sins of Marxism: "If you are a Marxist enthusiast and believe that all the evil in the world is the product of a 'vast right-wing conspiracy' -- do not take this course," he wrote. "If you require medication to remain civil -- do not take this course."
Entertaining, yes. But Wardlow and the other Berkeley bloggers couldn't help but notice the similarity to Shingavi's controversial caveat. Is there a double standard at Cal when it comes to pouncing on intellectual intimidation? Does Gregor's syllabus qualify as Shingavi-esque? The blogosphere is predictably divided. "Your prof is saying that people with the above-quoted viewpoint shouldn't enroll," one poster argued, "just as Snehal said that people with a conservative viewpoint shouldn't enroll." Wardlow countered that Gregor's quote was aimed at ideologues -- like Shingavi, for instance -- who are unwilling to confront ideas with which they disagree.
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