Quotas Can't Create Great Teachers · 04 January 2004

Filed under: Press Coverage

Read David Horowitz's Letter

Quotas Can't Create Great Teachers
By Bob Ewegen--Denver Post, 01/03/04

Not every issue in politics is the same as a problem, at least not one that can be solved by government. Senate President John Andrews' complaint that there is a pervasive liberal bias on state-supported college campuses in Colorado is such a case.

I have been intimately connected with Colorado's higher education system for 40 years as a student, an adjunct professor at CU-Denver, Metropolitan State College and the University of Denver, and as the parent of two college students. I did see a pervasive liberal mindset in the college faculties I encountered in those roles. But I'm not sure that mindset is a problem - let alone one that can be solved by using the bayonet of government to enforce ideological quotas under the rubric of David Horowitz's "academic bill of rights."

For openers, on most college campuses - especially CU-Boulder - faculty liberalism is juxtaposed with student conservatism. As a group, CU students are only liberal in their consumption of alcohol. They come disproportionately from upper middle-class families and mostly reflect the orientation of their parents - Republican. In the 1984 presidential election, Boulder County was one of just two Colorado counties carried by Walter Mondale. But it was the townies who were liberal - precincts that were dominated by student voters went for Ronald Reagan.

To be sure, there is evidence that college students are liberal on social issues, such as gay rights. But that reflects a libertarian influence in the younger generation, not support for the traditional liberal positions such as higher taxes or more government spending for social programs.

To some extent, faculty liberalism may actually increase the natural bent of college students to conservatism. College students are at a rebellious time of life. Give them ruled paper and they'll probably write the wrong way. Andrews has recounted anecdotes of students complaining about leftist faculty trying to indoctrinate them. He has shown no examples of such indoctrination succeeding. I suspect the problem of faculty bias is one already redressed by the unerring eye for adult hypocrisy possessed by today's youths.

One of my favorite memories of Boulder in the '60s involved a class taught as a semester-long debate between a liberal historian, Walt Simon, and philosopher John Nelson, an ardent champion of Ayn Rand.

Campus activists thronged to this class. To protect students against the kind of bias Andrews is now warning against, the entire grade was based upon a paper - and students could choose whether to write it for Nelson or Simon. Every right-wing student signed up for Nelson. With only one exception, every lefty headed for Simon's sheltering arms.

I was that exception. Then a campus liberal, I chose Nelson to grade my paper. And I proposed as my topic a comparative analysis of the philosophies of Nelson's beloved Ayn Rand and the Marquis de Sade!

My friends assumed I was intent on academic suicide. But while I enjoyed the shock value, I was exploring a serious point - how to establish a basis for moral behavior in atheistic value systems such as both Rand and de Sade espoused.

Here's my illustration. We meet in a dark alley. You have a hundred-dollar bill. I have a gun. For the sake of argument, there is no possibility that I will be caught by the law and punished if I kill you and steal your money. Why shouldn't I do it?

In a religious-based morality system, the answer is simple: God is watching and would send me to hell for my sin.

But de Sade's philosophy gave no such deference to deities. In my example, he probably would kill you and take your money, perhaps raping and torturing you in the bargain. Rand never advocated the brutalities de Sade celebrated. But if selfishness is a good thing and altruism a bad thing, as Rand argues, then what is wrong with the strong crushing the weak under her value system?

When I presented my paper, Nelson wasn't offended by my effrontery toward Rand. But he lacerated my inadequate research and the gaping holes in my logic. Then, he sent me back to rewrite it.

I never did find an irrefutable argument for moral behavior in a godless system. But I finally concluded that the fierce pride in one's own abilities that fueled Rand was incompatible with immoral behavior. Rand wouldn't refuse to shoot you because she was afraid of God. She wouldn't violate your rights because doing so would rob her of her own self-worth.

I got an A, to the amazement of my conservative friends - very few of whom had received so high a grade from Nelson, a tough grader who had no use for sycophants. By deliberately crossing the ideological divide, I tapped the mind of a brilliiant scholar who ignored his own biases and concentrated - not on converting me - but on equipping me with the tools for tough intellectual combat.

The task of finding and nurturing great teachers such as John Nelson simply can't be reduced to quotas or formulaic ratios tallying political registrations. But developing faculty who can challenge students to develop the best within them is what education is ultimately all about.
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Bob Ewegen is deputy editorial page editor of The Denver Post. He has written on state and local government since 1963.