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Lessen Plan 

What's behind the GOP's charges of academic bias?

Thanks to Republicans in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's college students may soon have a new excuse for flunking out:



The liberals ate my homework.


Last week, the state House passed a resolution to study whether Pennsylvania's 18 state-related universities offer "an environment conducive to the pursuit of knowledge and truth." Sadly, that does not mean your dorm roommate faces prosecution for "sexiling" you before finals. Instead, a House committee will focus on the threat to your education posed by...your professors.


"Students and faculty should be protected from the imposition of ideological orthodoxy," the resolution reads, "and faculty members have the responsibility to not...introduce inappropriate or irrelevant subject matter." After all, the resolution noted, "academic freedom is likely to thrive in an environment of intellectual diversity."


The measure passed 111-87, largely on a party-line vote. Democrats angrily opposed it, but Republicans cut off the floor debate with dozens of representatives still wishing to speak. All in the interests of "intellectual diversity," naturally.


What prompted such concerns? The measure's principal backer, Lancaster County Republican Gib Armstrong, says he's received some 50 complaints of professorial bias and abuse "from students who said, 'I was singled out; I was treated differently.'"


Liberal academics -- especially history profs who lecture on McCarthyism -- will be alarmed to hear that, while Armstrong has a list of such complaints, his office wasn't willing to turn it over. "I hesitate to give examples," Armstrong says, "because I don't want this to be a partisan debate." Armstrong does cite a Penn State University instructor who showed the film Fahrenheit 9/11 in a biology class last fall. Penn State officials confirmed the incident, Armstrong says -- though they also told him the school already has policies forbidding such behavior.


Other claims of academic abuse, meanwhile, don't always make the grade. A USA Today story in May, for example, cited one Penn State student who said she got poor grades "solely because she argued a conservative viewpoint in her assignments." (Yeah, that's what I'd tell my parents if I got a bad report card.) The student, a College Republican, told the paper a new law would ensure "someone from the state could step in" in such cases.


It's remarkable to see a College Republican -- whose party supposedly advocates for self-reliance and limited government -- calling on state officials to improve her GPA. At this rate, soon we'll be seeing affirmative action for college kids raised in affluent white suburbs.


Armstrong knows that some students will say anything to explain a bad grade. And to his credit he acknowledges, "The fact that a student says, 'I was made to feel uncomfortable,' is not necessarily a bad thing." Learning, he says, sometimes means "being exposed to ideas that may not be comfortable at first." What's of greater concern to him is when professors make "inappropriate use of the class time." Screening Fahrenheit 9/11 in a biology class, he says, is "a perfect example."


Armstrong seems a reasonable enough guy, and obviously, it is inappropriate to talk politics in biology class. By the same token, though, it ought to be inappropriate to talk about God there too. And yet Armstrong has co-sponsored another piece of legislation allowing schools to do just that.


The measure, House Bill 1007, permits school boards to require teaching Intelligent Design -- which holds that variation among species is the work of a godlike Creator -- in classes that teach evolution. The bill prohibits teachers from "stress[ing] any particular denominational, sectarian or religious belief." But the fact remains: The overwhelming scientific consensus is that Intelligent Design has no merit. You might as well have a Flat Earther lecture your geology class. If science classes should teach only science, then Intelligent Design has as little place in biology classrooms as Michael Moore.


I don't expect Armstrong's committee to stir up much trouble. He seems an honest guy, and most professors I know are honest too. Still, on issues ranging from evolution to Terri Schiavo, the GOP appears to be targeting not liberals per se, but rationality itself. If we just have faith, they argue, you can see the hand of our Maker in a trilobite fossil. If we just believed in miracles, Terri Schiavo could have walked again someday. If you were too hung-over to pay attention in class, a timely prayer just might get you a passing grade.


And if God lets you down, try calling your congressman.


Speaking of Potter's Field


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