Wed, Sept. 5, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
VIEWPOINT: Editorial attacked Irresponsibly
Jack Russell Weinstein

Note: In the published version of this article, Tom Dennis, Editorial Editor for the Grand Forks Herald replaced his name with phrases such as "the editor" and "the editorial staff". Given the nature of my criticism I have chosen to retain his name, specifically.


The Grand Forks Herald’s attack on the UND law school in “Thou shalt not take on such cases” was inexcusable. While discussing the Ten Commandments monument in Fargo, the paper endorsed some of the most dangerous myths about education, showing a profound disrespect for the university, its professors, and its students. 

In the editorial, Tom Dennis asserts that professors should not teach controversial subjects and that taxes should not fund them. He claimed that professors should not make their opinions public, that doing so constitutes “indoctrination.” Finally, in using the Spotted Owl example as a poorly-written lead-in to his editorial, he implies that all professors are liberal. None of Dennis’ claims are true.

Dennis’s suggestion that professors should not teach controversial subjects is indefensible. Every subject is controversial. The more one learns, the less a person can be certain of. History has shown that what people think of as “facts” may at some point turn out to be false. To avoid teaching controversy is to avoid teaching, plain and simple. The theory of evolution is controversial; should UND not teach biology? What about mathematics, marketing, engineering, and medicine? Concepts in each field are exceptionally controversial, yet we still have a duty to educate our students. As decades of studies show, teaching controversy cultivates critical thinking and independent thought, the pre-requisites of a good education.

Dennis asserts that UND should not fund the case since North Dakotans are divided over the monument. Taxpayers have always had to pay for causes they disagree with. Every one of us contributes to the salary of both Democrats and Republicans. We help pay to enforce speed limits we may oppose. To do otherwise, to have line-item vetoes on every tax return, would be unworkable.

Dennis also demands that professors not make their opinions known. He claims doing so “indoctrinates” students. He does this while referring to Professor Laura Rovner by name, implicitly threatening her job. First, there is no guarantee that Rovner’s published opinion was her own. It is common for lawyers to make public statements on behalf of their clients. Lawyers continually endorse positions they disapprove of. Should a law professor be condemned for practicing good law?

Second, let us assume that Professor Rovner was speaking her own mind. Is doing so inappropriate? Apparently, Dennis has never outgrown the kindergarten belief that his teachers lived in the classroom and slept under the desk. Every college professor is a whole person with a complete life as a citizen. The public expression of a political opinion is the highest form of citizenship. Professor Rovner is a patriot, not a villain. To suggest otherwise is to pit teachers’ love for teaching against their love for America. Should teachers sell their citizenship for a paycheck? Don’t we have too few teachers already? Don’t punish teachers for being educated, and don’t attack Professor Rovner for using the American system of justice the way it was intended to be used.

Dennis accuses Rovner of being a bad teacher, yet he offers no evidence. Competent professors regularly filter out their political opinions during class. If teachers do bring them in, college students are smart enough to notice and decide whether or not they agree. Teachers do not “infect” their students with their beliefs. If they did, every student who went to Catholic school would become a priest or a nun. Teachers ought to inform, postulate, challenge and inspire a little healthy doubt. Dennis claims that professors not teach “one side is right and one side is wrong.” Does he believe we should teach that no side is right and no side is wrong in the September 11th bombings? Surely, teachers have some moral responsibilities in the classroom.

Finally, Dennis falsely cultivates the myth that professors are overwhelmingly liberal. Does he think that only educated people are liberal, and the uneducated are conservative? This is offensive. Teachers represent every point on the political spectrum. It’s good to have a wide variety of opinions in the classroom; only then will students grow to be competent citizens who can make informed choices

In short, the editorial that condemned the UND law school was poorly thought-out; the Herald acted irresponsibly in endorsing it. Its anti-intellectual message is destructive to the foundations of education, and its author, Tom Dennis, has much to learn about human inquiry, law, teaching, and what it means to be an American..

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