Targeting academic balance

If you have never heard of Andrew Breitbart, think yourself lucky. He is a man with a mission in the United States, mostly to do with combating anything he regards as liberal. He has maintained several websites dedicated to these pursuits, some of which use interesting techniques: secretly taken video footage is used to discredit people featured in them, usually people who are not on the more extreme end of the conservative spectrum.

His most recent outing into this kind of territory has been on his website biggovernment.com, where he published edited video footage of two university lecturers in the University of Missouri explaining industrial relations tactics in the classroom. The extracts were edited to make it appear as if the lecturers were urging a partisan, pro-union approach on students, including the apparent condoning of violence. It later emerged that the extracts were shown totally out  of context, and that the lecturers were explaining how such views emerge, and were in no way representing them themselves; this was obscured by the editing.

In fact, education is is Breitbart’s sights. In a recent interview he announced that he would be setting up a new website, bigeducation.com, and that this would be its mission:

‘Yeah, Big Education is probably going to be the most controversial one; teachers, professors, teachers unions. The ones who feel obligated to hit our children over the head with indoctrination are now going to be held accountable for the first time ever by new media. It allows the exposure of the algebra teacher who rails against Sarah Palin for a half hour; let’s do a video expose.’

In fact, this has become one of the key tactics of the US extreme right: to intimidate those who might wish to explain liberal policies in the classroom as part of the education process. The aim is to ensure that teachers must fear the consequences of presenting a balanced picture. In the process it is not just academic freedom that gets destroyed, but a sense of confidence in the value of dispassionate analysis. It is based on the assertion that only conservative views are factual and impartial, and that therefore only they deserve to be heard.

Of course conservative views do deserve to be heard objectively, but not as a monopoly source of all truth. The task of the teacher is to present all shades of opinion and to explain their background and origins.

Because of the noise created by Breitbart and his videos, one of the lecturers has resigned and has suggested that he may have been put under pressure to do so. It is time for Americans to take note that where the expression of facts and opinions becomes dangerous to academics, more than just academic integrity will suffer. Andrew Breitbart is a very dangerous man.

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3 Comments on “Targeting academic balance”


  1. […] “If you have never heard of Andrew Breitbart, think yourself lucky. He is a man with a mission in the United States, mostly to do with combating anything he regards as liberal. He has maintained several websites dedicated to these pursuits, some of which use interesting techniques …” (more) […]

  2. Mary B Says:

    It also exposes the potential problem of students taping or videoing lectures. Students with a disability or dyslexia do this as a matter of course – it’s not feasible for a lecturer to check each one in a large class. As a life long Trade Union member I have used examples from my union activity to illustrate employee relations issues in lectures and it would be very easy for anyone to tinker with a video or tape to suggest I was urging students to join the ‘revolution’. It seems to me that Breitbart is at the end of the spectrum on ‘brutalist’ education – i.e. it should be about creating quiescent graduates to become cannon fodder for capitalism. The opposite extreme view would be the 1960s belief that education is about turning out revolutionaries. Both are flawed but both suggest to me that universities and their staff should be about critical analysis of the ‘real world’, not just accepting it from whatever is one’s ideological stance – ‘a plague on both your houses’ as it were.. Personally I could live with the revolutionary group if they could write properly and not use ‘redundant apostrophes’ so much!

  3. jfryar Says:

    A number of years ago I was involved in giving science lectures to secondary-level students. The topic I’d chosen was how physics was relevent to biological evolution. At the end of one of the talks, one of the teachers approached me and complained that I had not presented evolution as a theory, more as a ‘physical fact’. We had an interesting discussion, which I’m sorry to say became quite heated, surrounding issues of ‘indoctrination’ and ‘bias’.

    Maybe she had a point. I did present evolution as a ‘fact’. I didn’t attempt to discuss alternatives with students, or attempt to engage in a ‘critical analysis’. I didn’t present ‘shades of opinion’, ‘backgrounds’ or ‘origins’. But I don’t feel I was wrong not to do so – I gave a talk on a particular subject.

    So the issue isn’t just people taking elements of a lecture out of context but the entire lecture process. If someone wants to discuss evolution, do we really need to go back and present every alternative view? Do we need to engage in discussions more than a century after the theory was proposed? Do we re-hash centuries worth of arguments to give students ‘balance’?

    In other words, how ‘balanced’ can we actually be?


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