As a faculty member, I would be enormously dismayed if my dean sent this letter to my incoming students. Because now they’ll come into my class already having received a clear message about what my institution seems to value-and it isn’t them. The Chicago letter reeks of arrogance, of a sense of entitlement, of an exclusionary mindset; in other words, the very things it seeks to inveigh against. It’s not about academic freedom, it’s about power. Know your place, and acknowledge ours, it tells the students. We’ll be the judge of what you need to know and how you need to know it. And professors and students are thus handcuffed to a high-stakes ideological creed. Do it this way, in the name of all that is holy and true in the academy. There is no room here for empathy, for student agency, or for faculty discretion.Ok, so the U of Chicago is elitist. Isn't that the point?
Displaying empathy for the different experiences our students bring to the classroom is not a threat to our academic freedom. Allowing for a diversity of perspectives to flourish, even when that diversity might challenge the very structure of our course and its material, is not a threat but an opportunity. Our first reaction to expressions of student agency, even when they seem misguided or perhaps frivolous, should not be to shut it down. If we really value academic freedom, then we need to model that with and for our students. Ableism, misogyny, racism, elitism, and intellectual sloppiness deserve to be called out. That’s not a threat, that’s our students doing what they’re supposed to as engaged citizens of an academic community. This year, we should challenge ourselves to quit fixating on caricatures and hypotheticals and instead acknowledge the actual landscape of teaching and learning in all its messiness and complexity. When we act out of fear, we do harm. When we assume the worst from our students, that’s what we often end up getting-from them and from ourselves. We can do better than this.
As I wrote about the Oberlin protesters: if you don't believe that professors have something students don't, call it wisdom or knowledge or power or whatever, why are you in college? If you explicitly reject, as the Tattooed Professor does, that notion that "We’ll be the judge of what you need to know and how you need to know it," what are professors for?
There used to be a publication called The Insurgent Sociologist, and one night when I was bored in the U of Minnesota library I thumbed through it. It consisted entirely of far left professors bemoaning their part in The System. That is, they rejected the hierarchical structure of society, and it drove them crazy to ponder that half the point of college is picking the people who will occupy the upper rungs of the structure.
The point is that from a far left perspective it is very difficult to justify university education. For my whole lifetime the far left in America has been all about attacking privilege and hierarchy, and rejecting the notion that some people are better than others. If college graduates are not in some sense better than non-students, why have colleges? And if professors are not in some sense better than students, why should students listen to them?
Obviously this is crude language, and we could formulate more subtle distinctions; professors aren't better, they just have useful technical knowledge, or some such. But to some people the whole set-up of a classroom is hierarchical and therefore wrong. I wonder how the Tattooed Professor would justify his salary, if he doesn't think he knows any more than his students about what they ought to study?