UW and the Dangers of Critical Thinking

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By John Kaufman

Surely the highest purpose of higher education is the teaching of “critical thinking”, part of which is learning to make uncomfortable, perhaps very unpopular, dare we say risky and dangerous, judgments.  On Wednesday at UW-Milwaukee, UW System President Ray Cross was asked, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, if he was willing to resign in protest if Gov. Walker’s severe budget cuts to the UW System and a loss of tenure and other professorial privileges were indeed enacted by the Legislature. There seems to be some doubt among UW professors concerning their top leader’s public commitment to defending the UW System. Cross, to his credit, when pressed said he was prepared to resign.

But later that day, speaking at UW-Parkside, Cross said he was forced to “take sides” and that is “the most dangerous thing. I have to stand in the middle and I have to straddle this.” Cross seems anxious not to antagonize the legislators. But Cross is not some independent mediator; he is the leader of a public university system and he owes the public, UW employees and state legislators an unequivocal statement of why such a drastic attack upon the UW System and its professors is ethically and educationally wrong. The intent of Walker and Republican legislators is clearly to undermine and weaken the influence of higher education in the state, both to conform to an austerity ideology and, of course, curtail intellectual criticism. Too much critical thinking might lead, in the eyes of our Republicans, to a politically dangerous voter reconsideration of the guys and gals the state has lately put into governing power.

Academic freedom, like First Amendment freedoms, should not be tampered with. Cross is now floating the idea of something called “post-tenure review” which seems to me to chip away at the purpose of tenure. Without strong tenure protections, many college academics (as well as secondary teachers) would be far less willing to champion controversial positions and knowledge, if that’s where the truth leads them.

Nor will professors lacking tenure be as willing to confront administrators and state legislators, as UW-Milwaukee professors Richard Grusin and Rachel Ida Buff did when Cross stopped by campus. Cross reportedly told Buff that “he didn’t want to engage in ideology by taking sides.” But taking sides is what all of us at some point, especially prominent public figures and leaders of university systems, have to do. Buff told Cross: “I want you to do your job and represent us.” Education is the judging of ideology; we cannot– students or professors or administrators or the public–hide from a confrontation with ideas, nor duck our public responsibilities to speak out, especially those who teach at or help govern state institutions.

Far more dangerous to the state, education and to democracy is the unwillingness to risk the dangers (and delights) of critical thinking and taking sides.