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The Conservatives' Misguided Plan to Force Balance in Colorado's College Classrooms

According to the Rocky Mountain News, the Colorado Commission on Higher Education and top Republican state legislators are preparing to introduce new legislation next term to counter the liberal bias of faculty and administrators at schools like mine. While the bill has not been finished yet, the paper reports that it "would require Colorado colleges and universities to seek more conservatives in faculty hiring, more classics in the curriculum and more "intellectual pluralism" among campus speakers."

Colorado Governor Bill Owens, who attended the meeting where officials discussed the plan, has spoken out about the shortage of Republicans among our state's political science professors. However, there is no doubt that the proposal is also intended to address bias among historians as well.

The conservative activist David Horowitz, who also attended the meeting, has helped create a group entitled Students for Academic Freedom. They have drafted an Academic Bill of Rights that will serve as the basis of the Colorado proposal. It specifically states that, "Curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences will respect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge in these areas and provide students with dissenting sources and viewpoints. While teachers are and should be free to pursue their own findings and perspectives in presenting their views, they should consider and make their students aware of other viewpoints."

The members of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education are my ultimate supervisors. The State Legislature represents the people of Colorado, who are my employers. Most people do not contradict their superiors in public. However, like the students who David Horowitz has organized, I possess academic freedom and am grateful for it every time I step in front of a classroom. Conveniently, my use of academic freedom in this instance only reinforces the perceived need for this plan since the fact that I think this proposal is a bad idea obviously makes me part of the problem.

But this is the History News Network, not a Colorado Commission on Higher Education meeting. Rather than write about the problems with this bill with respect to academic freedom, I want to use my experience as a history teacher to explain why this plan would be completely unworkable if applied to my discipline.

Conservatives who want to change history teaching through this kind of legislation don't really care about promoting a diversity of opinions. The Students for Academic Freedom motto is "You can't get a good education if they're only telling you half the story." They ought to understand that there are more than two sides to any historical argument.

Consider the causes of the American Revolution. The American Revolution had both immediate and underlying causes. The immediate causes were events like the Boston Massacre and the British Parliament's passage of the Intolerable Acts after the Boston Tea Party. Underlying causes included the ongoing struggle between colonial legislatures and royal governors, as well as the development of distinct American economic interests over the course of the 1700s.

Which one of those is a conservative argument? Which one is liberal? What is the conservative way to weigh these competing factors? The only truly conservative argument I can think of would be to take the British point of view in this debate, and that would run counter to a lot of other aspects of most modern conservatives' political philosophy as this would make the Founding Fathers look bad.

Another reason that this proposal won't work in history classes involves evaluating the intellectual underpinnings of arguments. Suppose I want to teach students about the Holocaust when covering World War II. Do I have to offer students the position of people who deny it even happened? Most people, not to mention most historians, give no credence to this argument. But they are a dissenting viewpoint, right?

Holocaust deniers are not a respected minority. How about Confederate sympathizers? Certainly there are many left in the South. Should I have to explain the Civil War from the perspective of the South? Which part of the South should I start with, the Confederate Congress in Richmond, the Yankee sympathizers in east Tennessee or the slaves hoping for freedom?

And do I have to explain Reconstruction from the perspective of the KKK? If I mention lynching, do I have to explain it from the perspective of the lynchers? The variations on this argument are endless. If I even tried to cover all these positions in a survey class, I would never be able to get through the years in the course description. I'd run out of time trying to do justice to dissenting views.

Finally, let's consider the Ludlow Massacre, an historical event that I've written about previously on HNN. In 1914, the Colorado National Guard killed at least twenty-five people, mostly women and children, when they machine-gunned and burned a tent colony full of coal miners' families during a strike. I like to bring it into survey classes because of its significance to American labor history and because it occurred about seventy-five miles from my classroom.

What is the conservative side of Ludlow? Nobody I know of has denied it happened. Not even the mine owners believed that those women and children deserved their awful fate. The only conservative response to that tragedy is to change the subject or, better yet, not to bring it up at all.

What's ironic is that this strategy pretty much describes the whole effort to force the conservative agenda onto Colorado's campuses. In the last year, the state has imposed massive cutbacks on higher education to make up for state budget deficits caused by difficult economic times. In response, tuition at most Colorado schools has increased by at least 6 percent. Some University of Colorado - Boulder students are facing increases of 15 percent.

Rather than address these problems, the Republican-controlled legislature is planning to change the subject. They should have better things to do, both for Colorado's colleges and universities, as well as for the rest of the state.