Litmus lesson: Teachers College’s political tests

October 12, 2006

Columbia President Lee Bollinger has been publicly praising the sacredness of free speech in the wake of the violent melee that last week forced the university to shut down a speech by Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist. Yet while Bollinger talks a good game, it doesn’t appear that his own university is listening to him.

Columbia’s Teachers College – one of our nation’s most prestigious education schools – has policies that go beyond telling students what they can or can’t say; it tells them even what they are required to believe.

At Teachers College, students are required to have a "commitment to social justice" – a requirement so subjective and politically loaded that it can only be enforced in a way that judges students on whether they have "acceptable" political views.

We may all think "social justice" is a good thing, but does anyone really agree on what it actually means? And who does the judging? Is a professor who thinks Israel has no right to exist – not exactly a wacky hypothetical at Columbia – going to decide that a Zionist student’s views are "socially just?" Indeed, the history of the 20th century shows too well that one man’s idea of "social justice" is often another man’s idea of totalitarian tyranny.

And just in case the "social-justice" requirement was not a sufficiently blatant political litmus test, Teachers College gets more specific: Students are also expected to recognize that "social inequalities are often produced and perpetuated through systematic discrimination and justified by societal ideology of merit, social mobility and individual responsibility."

Does anyone outside of academia really think that "individual responsibility" is a scourge upon our society? Is such an attitude really required in order to be a good teacher?

Worse, according to these policies – students "must recognize ways in which taken-for-granted notions regarding the legitimacy of the social order are flawed, see change agency as a moral imperative and have skills to act as agents of change."

To those students who feel that our nation’s social order is insufficiently illegitimate or who merely feel that teaching math or English might be a better use of their time, Teachers College has this message: Sorry, you’re not cut out to be a teacher.

It’s tempting to dismiss Columbia’s requirements for education students as so much academic puffery. Unfortunately, it’s not. Political requirements like Columbia’s in place at other schools, including Washington State University, Rhode Island College and Le Moyne College, have already been used to punish students (usually conservatives) who refuse to keep quiet and pretend they agree with a college’s officially sanctioned beliefs.

Even the top accrediting agency of education schools abandoned its own "social-justice" requirement earlier this summer after intense criticism from national groups that such criteria encourage abuse and political-viewpoint discrimination.

Bollinger and Teachers College need to understand that requiring students to hold certain beliefs is completely at odds with a free society. Who has the right to tell students what political beliefs they must have?

As Columbia has amply demonstrated this month, universities are certainly not the all-knowing, infinitely wise arbiters of truth. Telling students the specific political beliefs they need to have in order to graduate is thought control – not education.

If Bollinger really cares about individual freedom, he has to start by respecting the most fundamental freedom we enjoy: the freedom of the mind. If Bollinger’s public statements on free speech are to be taken seriously, he must reform Teachers College’s policies and abandon its ideological litmus tests.