Many conservatives and moderates alike are critical of the direction academia has taken in recent years.
At Skidmore College, one can take “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus: Race, Class, Gender, and the Media.” At Oberlin, one can study “How to Win a Beauty Pageant,” (not actually a how-to, but an “analysis of the interplay of race, gender, class, sexuality and nation”). And at Occidental College, one can take a course that delves into "phallogocentrism."
While studies of the U.S. Constitution and what used to be called “civics” languish, universities and colleges are elevating courses once considered fringe electives and bringing closer to the center of their liberal arts programs. Many observers take a skeptical view of such gender studies courses that analyze society through “gender hierarchies” and gender inequalities in ways that seem increasingly rigid, ideological, and abstruse.
Whatever one’s view of these courses and the philosophies they represent, however, Protect The 1st recommends that politicians resist the impulse to restrict academic freedom at public institutions with broad-brush directives. The Wyoming state Senate helped crystalize this question by recently passing a bill that stipulates:
“As a condition of these appropriations, the University of Wyoming shall not expend any general funds, federal funds or other funds under its control for any gender studies courses, academic programs, co-curricular programs or extracurricular programs.”
Wyoming senators are trying to perform the delicate task of challenging academia’s prevailing culture with a sledgehammer where a scalpel is required. Such a heavy-handed approach is sure to backfire, spurring a rebellion by professors angered by an encroachment on their freedom to teach. State legislatures and the taxpayers they represent certainly have a right to influence the content of state-supported teaching. But when the directives veer into viewpoint discrimination and First Amendment rights, the result will only be fruitless litigation.
This point is clear in the Wyoming bill’s restrictions on student organizations, which run afoul of Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. In that opinion, the Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional to deny funding to Christian student organizations on the basis of viewpoint. The Wyoming law is sure to be slapped down under Rosenberger because it effectively bans support for student organizations and speakers with particular viewpoints on gender-related issues.
State legislators have every right to air this debate. Universities and colleges should not be immune to questioning. Ultimately, however, there is only one effective route forward for better curricula – long, arduous, criticism, debate, and reform within the academy.