Young Liberals' academic witch-hunt falls flat

Issue 

The Young Liberals are testing the long-held notion that academic autonomy is sacrosanct. Their so-called "Make Education Fair" campaign is really a witch hunt against progressive educators and academics.

The crusade against what the Young Liberals perceive to be "ideological biases" within educational institutions was taken up by Victorian Liberal Senator Mitch Fifield, who successfully moved to launch a Senate inquiry into academic freedom. The innocuous-sounding Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee is due to report to the Senate by November 11.

Fifield called for an investigation after receiving reports of academic bias against students with conservative political beliefs. "We must ensure that students at school or university are not discriminated against or fed a particular ideological or political view", he said.

Students' academic endeavors should be assessed on methodology and research content, and not on ideology. But the witch-hunt atmosphere generated by the Make Education Fair campaign places the academic focus back solely on ideology.

An October 17 ABC Online article by Noel McCoy, federal president of the Young Liberals, indicates the duplicitous nature of the Liberals' campaign. He argues that the campaign is not simply about fairness, but about "naming and shaming" academics who stand accused of progressive thought.

One such lecturer is Gregory Martin of Griffith University. While McCoy fails to detail any student complaints against Martin, he cites Martin's membership of the Socialist Alliance and of the National Tertiary Education Union as "evidence" that his students are presented with a "biased" point of view.

Martin is not a lone suspect. The Make Education Fair website contains a long list of academics, their place of employment and a list of quotes that the Young Liberals have declared are "unbalanced" thoughts.

McCoy has also "listed" Grant Banfield of Flinders University in South Australia as biased on the basis that he is "informed by commitments to social justice and human emancipation".

On October 9, blacklists of professionals who have an academic focus in feminist, education and cultural theory were given as "evidence" to the inquiry. These lists have been denounced by the wider academic community.

The October 10 Sydney Morning Herald reported University of Sydney law lecturer Ben Saul describing the lists as an attack on the professionalism of academics. "I think it's kind of a witch hunt or McCarthyism by students who happen to disagree with a lecturer, who call that difference of opinion prejudice or bias", he said.

The same article also described McCoy's research methodology to generate the lists he used as "evidence" of academics' bias: Google searches.

It is difficult to take seriously McCoy's claim that "We do not want a right-wing or a left-wing education", when the Make Education Fair campaign website is designed exclusively for "conservative victims" of "progressive academics" to report "bias".

If the Make Education Fair campaign was really about ensuring diversity and tolerance within academia, it would be encouraging progressive students to report instances of conservative bias too!

The nature of many conservatives' complaints on the site are reflected in a posting that takes offence at the study notes for Professor Larissa Behrendt's Home (part of the year 12 VCE curriculum), in which the European settlement of Australia is described as a "white invasion". Conservatives are also irritated by "claims that sexual abuse [by European settlers] was used intentionally" against Indigenous Australians, and believe that issues should be taught in a "balanced way".

The absurdity of the conservatives' arguments was highlighted in the SMH article by Katharine Gerber who asked: "Does that mean a history course on the Holocaust would be obligated to include the views of the Holocaust denier to balance out their curriculum?"

Not content with attacking respected activist academics and writers, incredibly, McCoy has extended his criticisms to entire courses that he believes reflect the "same sort of radical thinking". One example is Culture, Identity and Education, which encourages students to "become critically aware of the debates on multiculturalism, gender, race and ethnicity".

Are the Young Liberals suggesting that students should not be encouraged to become critically aware of debates on these issues?

The conservative agenda advocated by the Liberals' campaign is also evident from the fact that its attacks are heavily tilted toward the humanities rather than the sciences.

A reason for this was suggested by Peter Slezak from the School of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of NSW in the October 20 SMH. "It is well understood the very mechanism of discovering the truth in science depends on institutionalising dissent. Heroes in the history of science are heretics such as Galileo, Darwin and Einstein who exemplify the 'critical tradition' of science", he said.

Within the progressive history of science, Einstein's subversive theory of relativity prompted a conservative attack by supporters of Newtonian physics. Clearly, the Young Liberals and their parent party's stunt is similarly politically motivated. Perhaps the conservative Young Liberals consider that science should be allowed to progress unfettered because the technology it creates can become highly profitable?

Most academics are understandably angry at the conservatives' blatant censorship attempt and the calling into question of the ethical responsibilities of educators. But as for the outcome of the Senate inquiry, few academics expect to be placed under house arrest, a la Galileo.

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