October 18, 2005
The cultural Left has a new tool for enforcing political conformity in schools of education. It is called dispositions theory, and it was set forth five years ago by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education: Future teachers should be judged by their "knowledge, skills, and dispositions."
What are "dispositions"? NCATE's prose made clear that they are the beliefs and attitudes that guide a teacher toward a moral stance. That sounds harmless enough, but it opened a door to reject teaching candidates on the basis of thoughts and beliefs. In 2002, NCATE said that an education school may require a commitment to social justice. William Damon, a professor of education at Stanford, wrote last month that education schools "have been given unbounded power over what candidates may think and do, what they may believe and value."
NCATE vehemently denies that it is imposing groupthink, but the ed schools, essentially a leftist monoculture, use dispositions theory to require support for diversity and a culturally left-wing agenda, including opposition to what the schools sometimes call "institutional racism, classism, and heterosexism."
Predictably, some students concluded that thought control would make classroom dissent dangerous. A few students rebelled when a teacher at Brooklyn College School of Education showed Michael Moore's movie Fahrenheit 9/11 in class and dismissed "white English" as "the language of oppressors." Five students filed written complaints and received no formal reply from the college. One was told to leave the school and take an equivalent course at a community college. Two of the complaining students were then accused of plagiarism and marked down one letter grade. The two were refused permission to bring a witness, a tape recorder, or a lawyer to meet with a dean to discuss the matter.
Robert Davd "K. C." Johnson, a history professor at the school who defended the dissenting students, became a target himself. After writing an article in Inside Higher Ed attacking dispositions theory as a form of mind control, Johnson faced a possible investigation by a faculty Integrity Committee. The Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education entered the case on Johnson's behalf, accusing the college of viewpoint discrimination and a violation of academic freedom. FIRE is a national civil liberties group that does what the American Civil Liberties Union should be doing but usually won't. FIRE said: "Brooklyn College must confirm that it tolerates dissent, that it is not conducting another secret investigation of one of its own professors." FIRE says the college has "disavowed any secret investigation."
Another battle over dispositions theory has been unfolding at Washington State University's college of education. The college threatened to terminate a student, Edward Swan, 42, for failing four "professional disposition evaluations." Swan, a religious man of working-class background, has expressed conservative opinions in class. He opposes Affirmative Action and doesn't believe gays should adopt children. His grades are good, and even his critics say he is highly intelligent. One teacher gave Swan a failing PDE after spotting the statement "diversity is perversity" in Swan's copy of a textbook.
At the start of the current semester, Swan was offered a choice: Sign a contract with the college or be expelled. The contract included mandatory diversity training, completing various projects at the faculty's direction, and the possibility of above-normal scrutiny during Swan's student teaching this fall. Instead of signing, Swan contacted FIRE. "Almost immediately, Swan's situation changed," said an article in the local newspaper, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News. The faculty told Swan he did not have to sign the contract and would not be expelled.
Judy Mitchell, dean of the college of education, said the school would continue using the PDEs. A reporter asked her if Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia would pass a PDE if he were a student at the college. "I don't know how to answer that," Mitchell replied. David French, president of FIRE, then jumped in. "I commend the dean for her honesty," he said. "But the answer is alarming because Scalia shouldn't fail any 'character' test because of his beliefs."
Obviously, the dean had a problem. She couldn't say that no conservatives need apply, and she couldn't tell her faculty that the PDE s would be waived for someone like Scalia. In both the Johnson and the Swan cases, the colleges backed down when FIRE went public, but neither agreed to avoid using dispositions theory for apparently ideological purposes. The lesson for education students is clear: Say what you think in class, and if the administration moves against you, give FIRE a call.
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John Leo writes for U.S. News & World Report.