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Steve Nass And The Fear Of New Ideas In College Classrooms

January 8, 2017

Like many other Wisconsinites my concern about the words and threatened actions from State Senator Steve Nass regarding academic freedom in college classrooms runs deep.  There is a strong understanding among a large segment of the state that colleges have a duty to present ideas and challenge students to think anew.

What has played out over the recent weeks is Nass attacking UW-Madison courses slated to discuss the whiteness of America and the impact it plays on society, and how masculinity is defined and shapes our culture.  Not only has he voiced opposition to those courses but also has suggested his position as a member of the legislature means he will use the power of the purse to curtail free speech and academic freedom.   Regardless from which political perspective one views this story it can only be concluded that it is not a very (small d) democratic way to proceed.

It is clear that Nass has a certain political view that he wishes to see promoted and underscored within college classrooms. With that in mind one then can ask and ponder what he might have been saying as a legislator in other periods of our history about what must have seemed to some as controversial course work.

For instance, what would Nass have said about the first college class that critically examined the Founders of this nation without the mythology that for so long was cast around this group?  Would he have dismissed the idea that talking about white males who often held black slaves while at the same time crafting powerful words for the purpose of making a new country had educational importance?  Would Nass have been outraged if this truly politically talented group of men were also studied as flawed individuals?

One might wonder if Nass would have sent out a press release denouncing the use of the word de-peopling when historians researched the result of European migration to North America.  The destruction of native Americans by relentless wars and devastating diseases due to migration is without question.  At the time those ideas were first introduced to a college classroom there was certainly some who felt it totally inappropriate.   (As a descendant from the brother to John Ross, famed Cherokee Chief during the Trail of Tears, I have rather strong opinions about our history with Indian tribes.)

With hindsight it is clear that in each of the above cases our national perspective has adapted to the fuller insight from history and the conveyance of that research through our educational system.  What the likes of Nass might have denounced many decades ago about the teaching of the Founders or the settlement of this country is now accepted as fact.

Which leads me to then simply ask why is Nass treating the young men and women who volunteer to take this or that course at a state university, seen not as solid citizens in the pursuit of knowledge, but rather like newbies in the world who require a censoring protector? I strongly suspect that most parents who send their kids to college–along with the money to pay for it–desire that educators help pull those young minds out of the world in which you grew up and give them the reasoning power to gain a fresh view from which to see themselves and the world around them.  Suppression of speech, educational research, and the interactions within a university setting is never a good idea.

I have to believe that the majority of the legislature feels the same.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jerry permalink
    January 10, 2017 11:49 AM

    I have suggested to Sen.Nass and to Chancellor Blank that a simple solution would be for the U W to offer a venue or forum in which legislators could offer their own views or ideological positions. This might include the legislators themselves presenting or the legislators bringing in outside speakers or debates between the legislators and the professors or students supporting the controversial class offerings. It could even be an opportunity for legislators of the conservative stripe to offer classes or courses providing the ideological balance that they find missing on the U W campus. Sen.Nass’s response left me with the feeling that he was more interested in a public policy debate and in using cuts in funding to exert control over U W course content and actions than he being afforded the opportunity to present his own balanced response to the culture on the U W campus. I can think of no better way to achieve the balance that politicians demand than to give them their own stage and allow then to have at it on the U W campus. Perhaps even Gov. Walker could be convinced to travel down State Street and outline his budget cuts to the people they are impacting.

  2. January 9, 2017 10:39 AM

    Perfectly summed up, Peter.

  3. January 9, 2017 9:16 AM

    Nass would probably say that people like yourself (or myself) with Native American blood shouldn’t be weighing in on matters relating to Indian affairs. You don’t want blacks teaching courses on African-American history or lesbians teaching courses on gender relations either. White men can tell you everything you need to know about any of the above. Just ask your friendly local GOP.

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