Jean Anouilh’s play Becket is set about 100 years after the Normans seized control of England from the Saxons. But Brother John, a young Saxon monk who feels that he and his race are being ground to dust by the merciless machine of Norman oppression, dreams of a day when things will be different. “We’ll set a fine, new, well-oiled machine in the place of the old one,” he says, “and this time we’ll put the Normans into it instead. That’s what justice means, isn’t it?”
This passage came to mind in the wake of the decision to deny Scott McConnell admission to the Le Moyne College graduate program in Education. A Jan. 20 story in The Post-Standard quoted the rejection letter sent to McConnell, which cited “grave concerns regarding the mismatch between your personal beliefs regarding teaching and learning and the Le Moyne College program goals.” In this same story, McConnell said he was told that the basis of these concerns was an essay submitted for a course he’d already taken, in which he wrote that his teaching philosophy embraced corporal punishment in the classroom but not multiculturalism in the curriculum.
On Feb. 16, another Post-Standard story reported that the McConnell case was no longer a matter of merely local attention. Le Moyne’s stance had been condemned by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which the story described as “a national nonprofit group that promotes academic freedom,” and McConnell claimed that this organization’s statement of support had prompted The New York Times and ABC News to contact him as well.
In the meantime, while the Post-Standard itself weighed in with an editorial in support of the college’s actions, some of the paper’s readers seized on the occasion to vent antagonisms that clearly pre-dated McConnell. One writer smugly noted the American Civil Liberties Union’s failure to rise to McConnell’s defense as proof that its members care only about the suppression of non-conservative viewpoints. Another labeled Le Moyne a preserve of leftist professors, saying that McConnell’s rejection was just what one would expect from an institution under their imagined domination.
I therefore feel obliged to say that the present piece is being written by a card-carrying member of the ACLU who votes for Green or Socialist Labor candidates more often than for Democrats. I should also make clear that I know no more of McConnell’s case than anybody else who’s read about it in the newspaper, and I wouldn’t know McConnell himself if he were to walk into the room and—well—slug me.
I love Le Moyne, and feel allegiance to the principles it proclaims. And in 17 years of teaching here I have never had occasion to feel ashamed of it—until now.
Personally, I find McConnell’s stance on corporal punishment repugnant, and consider his views on multiculturalism misguided. The issue here, however, is not his beliefs but his right to dissent from the currently prevailing dogma of the education profession. Indeed, if McConnell and others with outrageous views are denied that right, the party most deeply harmed will be, ironically, the college itself.
My point, I think, is admirably expressed in a quotation I dug up. “A college or university is a marketplace of ideas,” it reads, “and it cannot fulfill its purposes of transmitting, evaluating, and extending knowledge if it requires conformity with any orthodoxy of content and method. In the words of the United States Supreme Court, `Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.’”
The source for this is the Regulations on Academic Freedom in the Le Moyne College Faculty Handbook. These regulations are said by the handbook to exist “for the benefit of all who are involved with or affected by the policies and programs of the institution,” and there’s no exception made for those whose ideas we dislike.
Indeed, the wording of our published policy helps to highlight the context in which Le Moyne ought to have made its decision on McConnell’s admission. We would have been inducting him not into the teaching profession but rather into a community of learners—where, perhaps, he would have been asked to defend his beliefs, and might have gained “new maturity and understanding” in the process of so doing. And such might also have been the case for the classmates exposed to his views as, rather than being allowed to wallow in mindless “conformity” to some unchallenged “orthodoxy of content and method,” they would have been forced to think about just why they agree—or, perhaps, disagree—with the ban on corporal punishment and the promotion of multiculturalism.
Now I’ve heard it argued that these practices are decreed by New York State, and Le Moyne therefore cannot admit an Education student who wouldn’t adhere to them in the classroom. But we have not been asked to hire McConnell as a teacher; we have only been asked to admit him to a course of study. Had we done so, it would have been quite appropriate to ask him, before he began any placement as a student teacher, whether he was prepared, in spite of his beliefs, to follow the rules set down by the state—and the same question might just as justly be put by any school district that interviewed him for a job. Had McConnell answered this now hypothetical question in the affirmative—and I have no way of knowing if he would—that would and should have been enough.
In other words, advocacy should not be equated with action. When I began teaching, at the end of each semester we would post on our office doors a list of final grades, with students identified only by their Social Security numbers. Since then, laws regarding privacy have been passed which no longer allow us to do this. I think that this particular provision of the law is just plain dumb, especially when students themselves, anxious to learn their grades as soon as possible, are content that their privacy is sufficiently protected by omission from such lists of their names.
Does the fact that I dissent from a state regulation on education—and am doing so here, as McConnell did, in writing–render me an unfit teacher? I follow the law, however much I object to it—but if merely stating such an objection disqualifies one as an educator, then I ought to be tossed on the dust heap of the profession alongside McConnell. Or is McConnell judged unfit simply because he’s dissented on more controversial matters than the posting of final grades?
The irony here is that, 50 years ago or so, the regulations of many states sanctioned corporal punishment and stipulated that the curriculum was to focus on white western male culture. Should those Education students brave enough to write or speak against these regulations have been granted admission to the teaching programs of their time? If we say no to McConnell, how can we possibly say yes to that?
Undoubtedly, many opponents of corporal punishment and advocates of multiculturalism were, unjustly, weeded out on the basis of their beliefs. We should applaud and be grateful to those who stuck to their principles until they were incorporated into our educational system. Sadly, however, now that the heirs of these pioneers have gained control of that system, their response has been to build a fine, new, well-oiled machine in place of the old one, and put all their conquered opponents into it. Which is why Brother John’s conception of justice comes to mind.
McConnell received his letter of rejection two days before the holiday in honor of Martin Luther King. Perhaps the saddest irony of all is that Le Moyne seems to have celebrated this occasion by ostracizing someone who dared to question the dogma of his day—thus reenacting exactly what was done to Martin Luther King. If there’s anything of value to be extracted from this blatant denial of freedom, it’s the reminder that Dr. King’s work is still a long way from done.
Professor of English