Sunday, November 29, 2009

The FIRE Letter to President Bruininks

Concerning Disposition Assessment

at the University of Minnesota

College of Education and Human Development

Selections from the full letter:

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE; unites leaders in the fields of civil rights and civil liberties, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, legal equality, academic freedom, due process, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and religion, and freedom of association on America's college campuses.

FIRE is deeply concerned about new policies at University of Minnesota-Twin Cities proposed by the College of Education and Human Development. According to documents published by the college (see, it intends to mandate certain beliefs and values-"dispositions"-for future teachers. The college also intends to redesign its admissions process so that it screens out people with the "wrong" beliefs and values-those who either do not have sufficient "cultural competence" or those who the college judges will not be able to be converted to the "correct" beliefs and values even after remedial re-education. These intentions violate the freedom of conscience of the university's students. As a public university bound by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the university is both legally and morally obligated to uphold this fundamental right.

On the level of "Self," the task group seeks to require that:

Our future teachers will be able to discuss their own histories and current thinking drawing on notions of white privilege, hegemonic masculinity, heteronormativity, and internalized oppression.

Future teachers will understand that they are privileged & marginalized depending on context ... It is about the development of cultural empathy, if you will. Teachers first have to discover their own privilege, oppression, or marginalization and also are able to describe their cultural identity.

Future teachers will recognize & demonstrate understanding of white privilege[.]

Future teachers will understand the importance of cultural identity and develop a positive sense of racial/cultural identity[.]

In addition, this area demands that "Future teachers create & fight for social justice."

In the final section, "What Makes the University of Minnesota's Programs Distinctive from Other Programs in the State?" the task force even presumes to demand commitments from the college's faculty, in violation of their academic freedom:

Every faculty member at our university that trains our teachers must comprehend and commit to the centrality of race, class, culture, and gender issues in teaching and learning, and consequently, frame their teaching and course foci accordingly.

FIRE urges you to consider the Supreme Court's ruling in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943), which invalidated mandated allegiances to political ideologies at public schools. Writing for the Court, Justice Robert H. Jackson declared:
Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order. If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.

FIRE understands that the college intends to consult with the university's general counsel regarding its "dispositions assessment" in the summer of 2010. Let us urge you today not to wait until the college wastes valuable resources in taking several more months to plan such an unconstitutional and morally unconscionable set of demands on future teachers.

Indeed, the university's general counsel should be asked to comment as soon as possible. If the Race, Culture, Class, and Gender Task Group achieves its stated goals, the result will be political and ideological screening of applicants, remedial re-education for those with the "wrong" views and values, and withholding of degrees from those upon whom the university's political reeducation efforts proved ineffective. While the task group appears to have attempted to take matters of "social justice" to heart, it seems to have persuaded the College of Education and Human Development to adopt requirements that, by any non-totalitarian standard, are severely unjust and impermissibly intrude into matters of individual conscience. As these demands for "cultural competence" stand today, they are a severe affront to liberty and a disservice to the very ideal of a liberating education that appears to be behind the task group's ideas. It is a shame that the College of Education and Human Development has embraced such an illiberal view of education.

Please recognize your legal and moral obligation to respect the freedom of conscience of the future teachers of Minnesota. The College of Education and Human Development has a chance to demonstrate that it shares an understanding of the basic premises of a liberal education and truly embraces human diversity on its most profound and essential level. Great teachers come in all shapes and sizes, from all backgrounds and all beliefs. Let the college's policies reflect this reality.

FIRE requests a response by Thursday, December 17, 2009.


Adam Kissel

Director, Individual Rights Defense Program

Note that there is unfortunately more distressing commentary in the letter - this is only an excerpt.

Once again we find ourselves at the University of Minnesota in a situation that leaves us open to national ridicule if we continue in our pigheadedness.

That our president and provost - who is a lawyer - tolerate it is disgraceful.
Leadership matters. Time for change in Morrill Hall?


momo said...

Katherine Kersten fired the first salvo, and this letter uses a similar rhetoric of alarm over the supposed ideological brainwashing they claim this task force is proposing. But it is intellectually dishonest for the FIRE authors and Kersten to claim that the task force is recommending some kind of litmus test for teachers. This is the spin they are putting on it, and should be taken for what it is: fear-mongering and catering to an anti-intellectual backlash that assumes that all pointy-head professors are out to turn our poor little children into brainwashed drones. First, that is not what the actual task force document says; you are highlighting their spin, not the facts. Secondly,if it were so darn easy to brainwash my students, they'd all get As because they would learn what I'm trying to teach them!
Seriously, this particular campaign is fairly odious.

Do you want teachers teaching math who are not mathematically competent? do you want teachers teaching reading who are barely literate? Do we want teachers teaching civic values who refuse to think about the possibility that they themselves may have to examine their values carefully and reflect on how our society is rife with prejudice? Teachers do not come to the classroom as a tabula rasa, and their training as teachers is an excellent place for them to examine, in a safe place, the thorny issues of racism, sexism or prejudices that are going to bite them in the ass when they walk into a classroom with special needs kids, poor kids, kids who do not speak English well, or are don't share their background. If they don't think about these things as they learn about teaching, where will they do it?

Mr. B. said...

Thank you for your comments, Momo. You know that I have the deepest respect for your work and your teaching, so I certainly take anything you say seriously.

First paragraph. You may be correct that the right wing is using this issue for generally fear mongering purposes. My problem is that my reading of what is proposed is disturbing. I am concerned that it might be used to force some sort of "cultural cookie-cutter" upon students and faculty alike. There is also an issue of academic freedom.

Of course I do not want people teaching math who know nothing about math. I would hope that teachers would think about racism, sexism or prejudice during their training. But again, the language of this draft committee concerns me very much. To give just one example:

"Every faculty member at our university that trains our teachers must comprehend and commit to the centrality of race, class, culture, and gender issues in teaching and learning, and consequently, frame their teaching and course foci accordingly."

Sorry, I just don't buy that. And I have a forty year record of concern and action in teaching to other than privileged white people.

momo said...

What is so alarming about that? seriously? This is not a party line telling people what to think, it's an approach to teacher training that says that we will put the social conditions in which are student live into the picture and take them seriously. What is wrong with that?

Mr. B. said...


I guess the thing that concerns me the most about this is the disposition assessment and cultural awareness assessment. I've given you a link elsewhere to Margaret Soltan's piece on this. She is a professor of English at George Washington University - hardly a right wing toady.

Fire makes some real points about academic freedom. These just seem to get blown off.

I'm sorry, but I seriously DO think that what I read could very well be "a party line telling people what to think."

Please read the FIRE letter and tell me where you think they are wrong. Simply saying that the CEHD folks are good people and have their hearts in the right place - as I know you do - is not satisfactory.

Your friend, sincerely,


momo said...

I have read the FIRE letter, in fact I read it before I saw your tweets and posts. It's rhetorically dishonest. It is designed to do precisely what it has done: distract us with red herrings about supposed litmus tests in order to discredit the ideas of critical thinking as a component of education.
Did you know that the U of M's teaching license program require 100 hours of classroomm volunteer time before you can even apply? or that you have to attend as a full time day-school student rather than as a night-school student as you can at U of St Thomas? Each of these things is a greater barrier to some segment of the applicant pool (those who work full time) than any supposed "disposition" assessment.

Mr. B. said...

Fire Letter: "discredit the ideas of critical thinking as a component of education."

I didn't take the letter that way at all.

These are the kind of thing in the letter that concern me:

"The University of Minnesota also should remember the Supreme Court's timeless expression of the important role of our universities in Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 354 U.S. 234, 250 (1957):"

"The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth. To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation."

As to CEHD presenting other barriers to enrollment, I'd encourage you to pursue this with Dean Quam. Seems to be a valid complaint. There are places other than the U to receive teacher training and they will be only too happy to fill the void.