Monday, May 24, 2010

A Dumbo's Pants Catch Fire

Last week, Robert Koons — a right-wing philosophy prof at UT-Austin — wrote an op-ed piece in the Austin Fishwrap that reflected the conspiratorial nature of right-wing thinking. A cabal of socialists and fellow-travelers has seized control of the UT-Austin history department to brainwash poor defenseless students. According to Professor Koons, this same cabal (and fellow-travelers around the nation) is attacking the State Board of Education of Texas for its Dumbo-majority's misguided attempt to Christianize and whiten the social studies curriculum of Texas public schools. The Austin Fishwrap has an entertaining feature, imported from Florida, known as "PolitiFact" and today's fact-checkers looked at Professor Koons' claim that only one of the fifty members of the UT-Austin history faculty voted Republican. The only complaint from this blogger is that — after reading Koons' account of his source of information about the voting pattern in the UT-Austin department of history — Politifact should have rated Koon's allegation with its ultimate falsehood rating: "Pants On Fire!" Full disclosure — while this blogger labored in the groves of academe at the Collegium Excellens, a regent, who was a member of the John Birch Society, was convinced that the blooger's department was filled with Communists, at worst, and socialists, at best, who attempted to brainwash poor Collegium students. Such sweaty conspiratorial thinking was nonsense then and it is nonsense now. The foolish regent wouldn't have known a Communist if one had come up and kicked him in the butt. Now wonder this blogger describes all of these fools (then and now) as Dumbos. If this is a (fair & balanced) attack on wrong-headedness, so be it.

P.S. Helpful hint from the blogger: click on the bracketed numbers below to hop from one item to another; click on "Back To Directory" to return to the starting point.

[Vannevar Bush Hyperlink — Bracketed NumbersDirectory]
[1] "Point" (Professor Robert Koons)
[2] "Counterpoint" (PolitiFact)

[x Austin Fishwrap
[1]Back To Directory
Liberal Bias Evident... [In Criticism Of The SBOE Of Texas]
By Robert C. Koons

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The State Board of Education's proposed revisions for K-12 social studies curricula have come under fire from a coalition of left-leaning politicians and their academic allies. Contrary to what an irresponsible media campaign would lead you to believe, the state board has taken a few, small steps in the direction of promoting objectivity in our educational standards, and it is the board's critics who are seeking to perpetuate a biased and one-sided treatment of our nation's history.

Studies have revealed how unbalanced America's humanities departments are. Democrats and Greens outnumber Republicans by 9 or 10 to one (according to The New York Times). In the history department at the University of Texas, out of 50 registered voters, only one is a Republican. Moderate and conservative Democrats are also rare.

This political slant is reinforced by the economics of scholarship: Academic historians have been trained and have invested their careers in a profession that counts as legitimate only those subfields that support the leftist orthodoxy. Military history, for example, has almost entirely died off: Not a single professor of history at UT lists military history as a specialty, while dozens list sexuality, ethnicity and anticolonialism.

This bias expresses itself in the selection of events, persons and movements by textbook authors, who tell a simplistic narrative in which an ever more powerful federal government is the sole engine of progress and equality. Thus, robber barons, the New Deal, and the civil rights movement are in, but the contributions of inventors and entrepreneurs, the decline of the family, and the failures of welfare programs and public education are out.

The board has strengthened the curriculum standards in ways that any scholar should recognize, adding the following:

Inclusion of neglected founders, including John Jay, Charles Carroll, John Peter Muhlenberg, John Witherspoon and John Trumbull, representing the religious diversity of early America.

Inclusion of the fine arts and culture and the contributions of scientists and inventors.

Emphasis on our common-law tradition, epitomized by the Commentaries of William Blackstone, the most commonly used textbook in our country for more than a century (used by everyone from Hamilton to Lincoln).

The opposition is relying on the Big Lie. This cynical effort will fail to influence the vast majority of Texans for one simple reason: the Internet. Texans can go to the Texas Education Agency website and read the new standards for themselves.

Opponents claim that the new standards neglect the contributions of women and ethnic minorities. The opposite is true: in every subject and at every level, the new standards increase their prominence. Just a few examples of the names added include Crispus Attucks, Jose Bernardo Guillermo de Lara, Wentworth Cheswell, Bernardo de Galvez, Juan de Onate, W.E.B. DuBois, Carmen Lomas Garza, Henry B. Gonzalez, Raul A. Gonzalez, Maria Mitchell, Ellen Ochoa, Jose Antonio Navarro, Irma Rangel, Juan Seguin, Phillis Wheatley, Lulu Belle White, Diane Gonzales Bertrand, Bessie Coleman, Tomie de Paola, Marcus Garvey, Lydia Mendoza, Kadir Nelson, Danny Olivas and Raymond Telles.

The opposition has claimed, most preposterously of all, that the new standards eliminate Thomas Jefferson. To the contrary, the new standards place greater emphasis than ever on Jefferson's drafting of the declaration. In fact, Jefferson's political philosophy is covered in U.S. government instead of world history, a sensible change that critics have distorted.

Much has been made of the board's substitution of "free enterprise system" for "capitalism" and of "representative" or "constitutional republic" for "democracy." The board's language is more precise in both cases. The term "capitalism" was introduced by Karl Marx, referring to a system in which the owners of capital control absolutely both the government and culture. Whether America is or ever has been "capitalist" in that sense should be an open question.

Similarly, scholars on both the right and the left will agree that the founders did not intend to create a "democratic" system, defined as a system in which the government always and immediately reflects the will of the majority. Our Constitution includes many counter-democratic institutions, including the Senate and appointed federal judges.

This artificially inflated controversy points to a larger issue: The people must not develop the habit of blind deference to academic experts. Just as war is too important to be left entirely to the generals, so history education is too important to be left to the historians. It is through our conception of our history that we define ourselves as a country. The fundamental question is this: Shall we continue to have a government ruled by the people, or shall we instead yield to a self-perpetuating caste of "experts"? Ω

[Robert Koons is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Texas-Austin. He received a B.A. in philosophy from both Michigan State University (Summa cum laude) and Oxford University (First Class Honours) and a Ph.D. in philosophy from UCLA. Koons is the author of Paradoxes of Belief and Strategic Rationality (1992).]
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PolitiFact: Philosophy Professor Says... [The UT-Austin History Department Lacks Political Balance]
By Ciara O'Rourke

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In revising Texas' social studies curriculum standards, the State Board of Education has come under fire for pushing a conservative agenda in the classroom. But the board has its defenders, including Robert Koons, a philosophy professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Koons wrote an opinion piece, published most recently in Tuesday's Austin American-Statesman, suggesting the board has taken steps to make the curriculum standards more objective, and blasting critics — "a coalition of left-leaning politicians and their academic allies" — for their liberal biases.

"Studies have revealed how unbalanced America's humanities departments are," Koons writes. "In the history department at the University of Texas, out of 50 registered voters, only one is a Republican. Moderate and conservative Democrats are also rare."

Only one Grand Old Partier in the history department? We wondered.

When we asked how he reached his fraction, Koons said he referred to "a breakdown of voter registrations by department at UT that was completed some years ago by a student working with then-Professor Joseph Horn in psychology." Koons, saying he was ill at home, didn't send us the data before we wrapped up our research. He said: "My understanding was that the student looked up public records concerning voter registration."

A little perspective: Unlike voters in some other states, Texas voters don't register their party affiliation. In Pennsylvania, for example, voters must register with a party to participate in that party's primary. When registering to vote in Texas, a person only needs to provide their name, birth date, address and driver's license number (or the last four digits of their Social Security number).

Public records show whether individual voters have participated in specific elections, but the records don't necessarily reveal which way you swing, politically speaking. Texas is an open-primary state, which means any registered voter can vote in any party primary, switching back and forth if they so choose. That said, it's fair to say that if someone routinely votes in one party's primary, they're probably leaning in that political direction.

With the right information — like your name and address — anyone can look up your voting history and see that you voted, say, in the March Democratic primary.

Lacking the student study mentioned by Koons, we endeavored to check voting records of UT history professors kept by Travis County. While voting in particular primaries isn't a foolproof measure of political leanings, it's as close as public records get us.

UT's history department lists about 125 professors and lecturers as faculty members on its website, including faculty from other departments whose courses double as history classes. We limited our initial scope to 76 professors and lecturers who have an office in Garrison Hall — the department's digs — and a history professor who offices in the Harry Ransom Center.

Of them, we found 26 listing home addresses in the online UT Directory; we focused on them because their addresses spared us from potentially checking voters who simply have the same names as professors.

What we found: 18 of the 26 faculty members are registered to vote in Travis County. Separately, Democratic political consultant Jeff Smith found three history profs registered in Williamson and Montgomery counties, bringing our total sample to 21. Of the 21, five voted in this year's Democratic primary; two voted in the Republican primary.

Bigger picture: Sixteen of the 21 professors have voted in only Democratic primaries; the earliest records we could find dated to 1990. One voted in only Republican primaries and two voted in Democratic and Republican primaries in different years. Two have not voted in either party's primaries.

Next, we made a run at gauging the voting history of the remaining 50 faculty members whose addresses aren't in the UT directory. We tried to be as accurate as possible, using middle initials and comparing each professor's birth date to their photograph on the history department website, but we acknowledge these results are less certain.

We excluded two professors because we couldn't distinguish them from voters with identical names. Of the remaining 48, 18 weren't registered to vote in Travis County and four appeared to have no primary voting history. That left 26. As far back as 1990, 24 had only voted in Democratic primaries, while two had voted in both Republican and Democratic primaries. This March, nine of these history professors voted in the Democratic primary; two voted in the GOP primary.

Summing up, of 76 history department faculty members, 14 voted in the 2010 Democratic primary and four voted in the Republican primary, records indicate. Historically, we found one person who had only voted in Republican primaries and 39 who had only voted in Democratic primaries.

Where does that leave us? We don't know — and that's a significant point.

By our count — which is by no means perfect — 45 history professors have voted in primary elections. Of them, 40 voted Democratic and four voted in both parties' primaries. Per Koons' statement, only one has voted solely in Republican primaries.

Still, this sampling doesn't guarantee the faculty members with primary histories are Republicans or Democrats, nor does it show which party's candidate they favored in general elections. Consider Mark Smith, an associate professor in American studies whose courses are crosslisted with the history department. Smith, who voted in the March Republican primary, wondered what it means to be a Republican. "I was an assistant scoutmaster with Rick Perry when our kids were in Boy Scouts together," he said. "Does that make me a Republican? Almost all the faculty I know would consider themselves independents."

And in Texas at least, pragmatism can trump political ideology. In a May 2009 blog post, Texas Monthly political columnist Paul Burka advised: "I tend to vote in Republican primaries (4 of the 6 elections starting in 1998), since that is the only election that matters for statewide candidates."

However, Koons has a point about the typical political lean of American academics. In 2005, The Washington Post cited a study by two political science professors at George Mason University saying that "by their own description, 72 percent of those teaching at American universities and colleges are liberal and 15 percent are conservative... with 50 percent of the faculty members surveyed identifiying themselves as Democrats and 11 percent as Republicans."

Our legwork's done; how does Koons' statement look now?

His 1-in-50 figure from dated research doesn't jibe with what we found in our review of local voting histories. Of 48 history department faculty members registered to vote in Travis County (save three registered in Williamson and Montgomery counties), five have participated in Republican primaries, four of whom voted in the March GOP primary.

There's an even bigger issue here. Voting in a Republican or Democratic primary doesn't necessarily mean a person belongs to that party — never mind the bulk of voters (and history professors, our check suggests) who abstain from primaries altogether. Their political affiliations, if any, aren't reflected in voting records. Without polling faculty members individually, no one can say with certitude what they are.

If Koons presents compelling evidence that indeed, as he says, one in 50 registered voters in the department is a Republican, we'll re-plumb this topic.

We rate his statement as False. Ω

[Ciara O'Rourke is a staff writer for PolitiFact Texas. Before joining the Austin American-Statesman in the 2009, she worked at the International Herald Tribune in Paris. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism and French from Western Washington University.]

Copyright © 2010 The Austin American-Statesman

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