Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What do we call two legislators who have started a witch-hunt in academia? Dumb and Dumber
by John Sugg
Georgia Online News Service

Let's talk for a minute about Martin Heidegger. You say the name doesn't ring a bell? Well, considering the state of Georgia's schools, that's understandable. But I assure you, the ghost of Heidegger is stalking the halls of the Georgia Capitol. He's found some avid adherents hereabouts.

Heidegger, you see, was a philosopher, and the mere fact that he could claim some degree of intellectualism usually would make him unwelcome among many Georgia officials, for whom blithe avoidance of thinking is a hallmark.

What brings the German philosopher to mind was his stern declaration: "That much-sung 'academic freedom' will be thrust from the German university." Did I mention that he uttered that warning, echoes of which are today reverberating around the Gold Dome, in 1933? Or that as the new rektor of University of Freiberg, Heidegger had donned a Nazi uniform and would soon begin a purge of any thought that might offend the sensibilities of his fuehrer?

So, my question for two Republican state representatives, Charlice Byrd of Woodstock and Calvin Hill of Canton, is: Why not credit ol' Professor Heidegger for your anti-university jihad? You could change one word of his jeremiad and it would read: "That much-sung 'academic freedom' will be thrust from the Georgia university."

I first came across that anecdote about Heidegger ages ago while a student journalist at the University of Florida (hey, Dawgs, I'm sorry we beat you so often). The university system in the 1960s and 1970s was fractured from the work of another Heidegger adherent named Charley Johns. The former governor of Florida had started a witch-hunt nicknamed the Johns Committee in the late 1950s that for a decade held the university system hostage. The committee would roll into a college town, set up shop in a motel, and with subpoena power drag professors from their beds late at night. These profs were alleged to be reds, pinkos, homosexuals or just about anyone who was suspected of anything. The general procedure was to threaten professors with exposure unless they provided other names of colleagues who might be somehow deviant.

The Johns Committee was disbanded by the time I started college, but its legacy lived on with an awful national reputation for Florida's schools. That bad smell was reinforced during my days at UF by repetitive denials of tenure to professors who supported civil rights, opposed the Vietnam War or were suspected of any thinking that wasn't pure antebellum in origin. Fear in the faculty ranks was rampant, and that hardly gave rise to good academics or to a good academic standing among the nation's universities. One of the axed professors got his revenge, however he founded the United Faculty of Florida, a union that still represents professors at 11 state universities. That's a variant of what's called "blowback."

Back to Georgia, circa 2009. It seems the righteous legislators Hill and Byrd were offended to learn that among professors at state universities are some who are experts on such things as male prostitution and oral sex. Outrageous! "I believe the timing is perfect to eliminate professors and staff," Byrd thundered at the Gold Dome, channeling Heidegger.

Now, of course, the two representatives didn't actually delve into what aspects of prostitution and oral sex were the subjects of the professors' inquiry. That lack of homework is very understandable. We're talking about the Georgia General Assembly, after all, where lobbyists for big-money special interests write the legislation and all that's required of legislators is that they agree to be wined and dined before signing onto bills they've never read.

As it turns out, the Georgia State University professors, Mindy Stombler and Kirk Elifson, who had found themselves in the legislative cross-hairs had very worthwhile pursuits. For example, Stombler "conducted research to better understand the cultural messages surrounding oral sex and their connection to an increase of such activities among teenagers. This research helps public health officials make policy to deal with this increase," according to a GSU spokeswoman. Elifson, meanwhile, studies risk factors involved in the spread of HIV/AIDS, among other public health issues.

Already, Georgia's universities are attracting scorn from national educational leaders. "What's sad about it is that each time this happens it's yet another assault on the principles of academic freedom, and the right of the faculty to shape their own research agendas," Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, told the online publication Inside Higher Ed. "I think that in this kind of financial crisis people will be looking for opportunistic victims left and right. A crisis is an opportunity for genuine community and collaboration to arrive, and a crisis is [also] an opportunity for the body politic to tear itself apart. We'll probably see both."

Anti-intellectualism is almost synonymous with Georgia after all, state School Superintendent Kathy Cox was busily snipping references to evolution from curriculum guidelines just a few years ago. We don't need more foolishness from legislators. This state has real problems that the Legislature does its best to ignore and with higher education the paramount crises are funding and retaining good scholars, another fact that eludes Byrd and Hill.

The moral to this story something that should have been learned long ago in every state is that anytime politicians get mixed up in academic affairs, disaster lurks, whether in 1930s' Germany, 1970s' Florida or 2000s' Georgia. So, for their work in undermining education, I give the Heidegger Ignorance Is Strength Award to Reps. Byrd and Hill.

John F. Sugg is executive editor of the Georgia Online News Service.   [full bio]


Editor's note: Hello, Georgia. The big news today is that the Georgia Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill that will allow Georgia Power to hike consumers' rates in 2011 -- for nuke plants that won't come on line until years later. Maggie Lee, one of the Georgia Online News Service reporters covering the General Assembly, has the full story today.

Also, one of the perennial hot topics in Georgia is school funding. How much is enough? Is money wasted? Will more school funding result in better educated kids and higher graduation rates. No one is likely to find the answer, but in today's Soapbox, Ben Scafidi, director of the Economics of Education Policy Center at Georgia College & State University, stimulates the debate with research that shows the per-student increases in education spending haven't pushed up the graduation rates.

Finally, in my column, I am fascinated by two legislators who were shocked -- shocked! -- to find out that professors at state universities are experts on subjects such as oral sex and male prostitution. I've been a college professor, and I've long reported on what happens when politicians collide with professors. The result is bad public policy and threats to academic freedom. In the current brouhaha, the legislators apparently thought the professors were teaching "how to" courses. That shows very bad study habits by the politicians. The professors were actually researching some very important subjects on issues such as HIV/AIDS.

As always, we'd like to hear from you. GONSO is an enterprise founded and staffed by more than two dozen leading journalists and media executives in Georgia. We're providing content free -- for a limited period. Newspapers, broadcasters, bloggers and websites are welcome to use our articles -- please credit the writers and the Georgia Online News Service.

Send your comments and any story ideas to executive editor John Sugg at john.sugg@georgiaonlinenews.org. You can also call us at 800-891-3459.


Today's GONSO

Senate OKs Georgia Power Nuke Financing Plan

by Maggie Lee
By a 2-1 margin, the state Senate has passed a controversial bill that would allow Georgia Power to start raising residential customers' power bills in 2011 for two nuclear reactors that won't come online until 2016 or later.
Full Story

What do we call two legislators who have started a witch-hunt in academia? Dumb and Dumber

by John Sugg
Anytime politicians get mixed up in academic affairs, disaster lurks. Such is the case with two Republican state representatives, Charlice Byrd of Woodstock and Calvin Hill of Canton, who have launched a jihad against Georgia universities that would make Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger proud.
Full Story

SOAPBOX

Per-student school funding soars as graduation rates fall

by Ben Scafidi
A new, 25-year analysis of education spending in Georgia shows something that many have suspected for a long time. Investing more taxpayer funds in education does not produce greater student achievement.
Full Story

Tomorrow's Budget
Governor Perdue: Deliver us from the land of nuclear make believe
by Lyle Harris
Legislature Takes Time Sizing up Federal Funds
by Maggie Lee
Recipe for preventing a disaster
by Susan Puckett

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