Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Why Think, Explore, or Ask Questions When You Can Echo?

There was a storm on the right-hand side of the internet echo-chamber this week about a "residence life" program at the University of Delaware. A group called "Foundation for Individual Rights in Education" (FIRE) posted an article claiming "University of Delaware Requires Students to Undergo Ideological Reeducation." They appear to have taken bits and pieces of a program in place at UD, combined it with some examples of the program poorly implemented, and arrived at the conclusion that the University is a new part of the "axis of evil."

The story was picked up by a large number of blogs. They seemed to compete to see who could write the most extreme headline. Here are just a few examples.
  • Indoctrination At Delaware
  • U of Delaware student indoctrination teaches that all white people are racist
  • University of Delaware Requires Students to Undergo Ideological Reeducation
  • The U. Of Delaware: Made In North Korea
  • University of Delaware's Orwellian system
  • University of Delaware: No Free Thoughts Allowed
  • Welcome to the University of Delaware. Check Your Brain at the Door.
  • University of Delaware indoctrinates dorm residents in mandatory anti white dogma
  • University of Delaware Operating Student Thought-Reform Program
  • Intellectual Cancer: Political Indoctrination At The University Of Delaware
  • Is the University of Delaware Violating the Federal Law on Human Subject Research?
  • Ideological Reeducation Camps at University of Delaware
  • "Mandatory" "Treatment" of University of Delaware Students
Our own Southern Delaware talk-radio outlet featured a version on its blog. Morning host Dan Gaffney posted his take as All White People Are Racists. He wrote:
The University of Delaware is one of the worst brainwashing institutions in America.
Totalitarian socialist liberals have taken completely over. Time to withdrawal [sic] the children and your tuition payment, and end any Government funding the school receives. I’m serious.
I know my approach to blogging is usually meant to be one of moderation and calm reflection, but what a load of crap.

Did no one think to check with the University about this? Doesn't this sound so extreme as to be highly unlikely? Is it really a good idea to simply and uncritically accept the judgment of some web-based outfit?

I was most disappointed in the News Journal, which posted an AP version of the story which only quoted from the FIRE account and made no attempt to check with the University or to verify whether of not the FIRE report was accurate.

What is worse is the headline the News Journal used: Civil rights group rips UD dorm policy.

Civil rights group? Please.

I took some time to check out the UD web site this evening. The University has responded to FIRE (rather politely, I thought) and addressed the issue in a posting linked from their front page.

The University explains that the program is not, in fact, mandatory.
The program is designed to encourage students to think about and to consider a number of issues, but all make their own decisions about the outcome of this reflection. FIRE’s assertion that students are told what to think is inaccurate. In common with FIRE, our institution values free speech, active voice, and open dialogue. We believe that students learn and grow in part by engaging in significant discussions on both sides of the classroom door.
The University does note some problems with the program. They express a desire to make improvements and thank FIRE for their interest and input. But they take exception with the idea that UD students can be "indoctrinated."
You have examined many internal and public documents in your search for concerns. I invite you to explore our web site more fully to get a better picture of the capacity of a University of Delaware student. You will find that they are highly intelligent and capable to assert their viewpoints and to face challenges from a variety of areas. Our students are fully able to encounter multiple values and perspectives and remain true to their own identity.
An interesting notion, this idea of encountering "multiple values and perspectives." Maybe when we report on these sorts of issues we should open ourselves up to other viewpoints instead of just echoing back what someone else wrote.

I'm not just speaking to the right-leaning among the bloggers, by the way. Some of the left-handed writers are just as guilty of this sort of thing too.

Surely we can all do better than simply repeating whatever line our particular party has put out?


Duffy said...

Why do you not consider FIRE to be a civil rights group?

Anonymous said...

FIRE is a non-profit, non-partisan group founded by a UPenn professor and the former head of the Massachusetts ACLU. According to materials I've seen, their President, Greg Lukianoff, is also a former ACLU employee.

Not sure why you think they can't be a civil rights group. A quick peek at their page shows them to be pretty even-handed about defending students and faculty from all ends of the political spectrum.

Mike Mahaffie said...

My reaction to FIRE is admittedly somewhat based on instinct. "Defense of Liberty", while a laudable notion in and of itself, always strikes me as something of a catch-phrase of the political right. And I have seen that verbiage used in the past support of efforts that I found contrary to my notion of what a civil rights group would or should do (As in "extremism in....).

And, while I generally respect their work, I don't think I would necessarily describe the ACLU as a civil rights group. Nor do I think that just because someone was once a part of the ACLU that I should automatically trust their judgment or motives.

But I will acknowledge that I may have reacted too strongly to that part of the over-all story.

That said, I still think FIRE has gone way too far to present the University of Delaware in as negative a light as possible. I see an effort to stir up a self-righteous anger that doesn't really help solve any problems there may be with the program.

And I still think the News Journal should have given us more than just the FIRE side of this story. Their follow-up today makes a slightly better attempt, but I think this is manufactured outrage.

Mike Mahaffie said...

An added thought: I think my take on this story may be colored by my reaction to the tenor of the many blogs that have picked up and run with this story. Banner headlines weighed down with charged phrases like "People's Republic of Delaware" and "U of Delaware's PC tyranny" don't encourage reasoned dialog.

So, along with the echo chamber effect, we have an action-reaction-overreaction effect.

Duffy said...

I agree. They were alarmist as that draws eyeballs and (they hope) donation dollars. FIRE's follow up posts also include descriptions from participants who back up most of FIRE's complaints. To me, that indicates problems but not nec. that they are pervasive. Like any program, implementation is going to vary depending upon the facilitator. However, to UD's credit, they're going to suspend the program pending review. It's broken as designed.

hube said...

The only thing "self-righteous" is the program set up by UD. Have you ever attended such a program, Mike? Obviously not, else you'd know that FIRE is 100% on target here, pal.

Nancy Willing said...

Hube Cube - predictable as ever.

Mike, I retorted to the Jensen Show's regurgitation of the extremist blog's report. He said that he was reading quotes from the WNJ so I told him what you had written: the it was not maditory and that the WNJ did a crappy job on the story by not contacting the University. I do agree that what was reported about the class was abhorrent.

Anonymous said...

I was a UofD RA in the early '80's and this kind of stuff is entirely believable and consistent with the mind set of residence life 20 some years ago.

The only difference in my time was that there were not mandatory meetings with residents. There was intensive indocrination of Residence Life staff along the exact same lines as reported by FIRE.

Divesrity training and the "all whites are racists" cant was the guidon of Residence Life in trying to makes sure RAs had the "proper mindset" to serve.

I remember being forced to attend a mandatory speech by a black nationalist in the evening. In one of the large halls, he started by wanting everyone to rise for the singing of the black national anthem. During his rant about "only whites can be racists" I stood up and pointed out that anyone could be a racist regardless of skin color. (He must have faced this kind of question at many of his shows, because he was prepared) The speaker pulled out a bag of marshmellows, opened them and began tossing them to blacks in the audience. He instructed them to pelt any speaker who made statements like mine.

I walked out with a couple of other RA's in tow. Already known as a "trouble maker" because I usually questioned the whole PC line during our training sessions, my question and walkout brought a meeting between me and the head of Residence Life. She had a pile of eight or so books she wanted me to read to "get my mind right" about diversity issues and white racism.

I told her to pound sand and walked out. I've always wondered why they didn't fire me, but after that I was laregely left alone by senior residence life management.

True story.

Anonymous said...


Don't be fooled by the University's "these are only internal documents" and "it wasn't mandatory" line.

The Soviet Union used to maintain there was freedom of religion in their country because it "said so right in their Constitution."

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