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Start SRJC dialogue with an apology
Published: Friday, March 11, 2005 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 10, 2005 at 9:00 p.m.
The English department at Santa Rosa Junior College wishes to add some facts missing from The Press Democrat's coverage of recent events on campus, and to respond to the important educational issues that have been raised.
Two weeks ago, on Feb. 28, two English instructors and eight other instructors on campus found that fliers, bearing a red star and signed "Anonymous Students," had been taped to their office doors overnight. The fliers, pointing out that California law forbids teachers from advocating the violent overthrow of the government in favor of a totalitarian communist dictatorship, appeared to be a cranky non sequitur.
The following Monday, the College Republicans took responsibility for the fliers, and publicly charged "certain SRJC instructors" with violating state law (presumably the law against totalitarian indoctrination), but they continued to attribute the charges to other, unnamed students. As of today, these charges remain anonymous, unspecified and undocumented.
Over the past two weeks, it became clear that the fliers were a successful play for media attention; the scheme was revealingly tagged "Operation Red Scare" on the Web site of the California State College Republican organization.
The "controversy over communism" that The Press Democrat covered last week was entirely fabricated by the college Republicans, whose considerable organizational and public relations skills are evidently not matched by their actual knowledge of totalitarianism. They seem unaware of the ironic similarity between their tactics - anonymous accusations of treasonous thought crimes, posted on doors in the dark of night - and the tactics of the 20th century's most infamous totalitarian movements.
These students now claim that the red scare tactic was merely intended to open a "dialogue" about the "liberal bias" of SRJC instructors. Their new charge is not random or isolated; they speak for a national movement of Republican campus activists. This charge thus warrants a response.
First, to open a dialogue on bias by lobbing anonymous, inflammatory accusations at one's interlocutors strikes us as a strangely self-canceling gesture, not to mention a deeply impolite one. Civil dialogue is an excellent idea - we're English teachers; we love to talk about ideas with students - but we feel that an apology from this group be the civil way to open such a dialogue.
Second, we take it that by "bias" these students mean something like an individual, subjective point of view. But everybody has a point of view: conservative teachers have conservative points of view, liberal teachers liberal points of view, and so on.
While most of us would reject the notion that our politics fit neatly into such simple boxes, all of us in the English department believe passionately that a good teacher, of any political stripe, recognizes the subjective threads woven into his or her own views, and remains open to new views.
Instructors teach students skills in formulating and expressing their views, challenge them to keep their minds open and defend their freedom to hold and express independent opinions. In times of controversy, such as we are living through now, this job can be especially difficult - and thus all the more crucial. As teachers, our greatest shared "bias" is by far in favor of this rigorous process of free critical inquiry. The politics of this freedom, and this critical rigor, are our professional politics.
When students have good-faith complaints about unfairness in the classroom, SRJC offers a due process for taking grievances up the ladder, to the department chair, the dean and on up to the academic vice president.
By choosing to ignore this process in favor of a malicious publicity stunt, these students have shown a regrettable contempt for the college's principled commitments to free and fair academic inquiry. Here, we believe, is the real issue raised by last week's events: that the goal of such tactics, at SRJC and nationally, is not to start but to stop genuine dialogue, in all its critical difficulty, its ethical constraints and its challenging pluralism, in favor of unprincipled efforts to enforce a party line.
We would welcome further discussion of the true evils of totalitarianism and the ways in which freedom of speech and expression, and rigorous critical inquiry, offer crucial safeguards against those evils.
In full support of all of our SRJC colleagues, regardless of their political views, we affirm our shared dedication to free and open critical inquiry.
This story appeared in print on page 5
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