Frontispiece from Prophets of Dissent–A Collection of Essays Published in 1918 (Wikimedia)
In a 2003 LA Times article, entitled “The Power of Dissent,” Harvard law professor Cass R. Sunstein, makes a reasonable argument about how a dangerous culture of conformity within NASA helped aid and abet the Columbia shuttle disaster that took the lives of the shuttle’s seven-member crew. At the conclusion of the article, Sunstein summarizes the stunning conclusions of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board that well over a decade later should give today’s administrative-heavy educational institutions with a top-down leadership mentality pause:
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board emphasized the need for NASA to develop a distinctive kind of culture, one that discourages deference to leaders, sees dissent as an obligation, promotes independent analysis and insists on a wide range of voices. The broadest lesson is simple. Well-functioning organizations discourage conformity and encourage dissent — partly to protect the rights of dissenters but mostly to promote interests of their own.
Discourage deference to leaders? See dissent as an obligation? Insist on a wide range of voices? Isn’t that against THE CODE? Yes, sisters and brothers, it is, and God bless it.
The suppression of dissent, no matter from what political, social or religious perspective, is dangerous for higher education, leading to meaningless bureaucracy, rote learning, demoralized faculty, and unmotivated students, who care, or are encouraged to care, more about their minimum wage after-school jobs than they do about their educations. It also breeds the unreal expectation of what a piece of paper, without symbolizing true learning, can give them in life.
Conformity is anathema to college education. Standardizing for the sake of the nebulous “giving the students the same exposure to the same material” is not the point. If college is supposed to be preparing students for real world experiences, how does requiring all faculty to teach the same curriculum prepare students? Will all of their bosses be the same, having the same expectations, assessing their performance in the same way, promoting for the same reasons? And if our students become the bosses, heaven help us if they seek to suppress opposing viewpoints or disallow any honest debate.
At a community college, even if its mission is only to train the local workforce (of course it is much more ), then that community college fails if it does not offer students a rich and diverse curriculum, introducing them to multiple educational methodologies, personalities, disciplines, attitudes and expectations, teaching them one of the most important and desirable of all skills in the workplace–adaptability, the ability to conform, yes, but to a reasonable degree, while dissenting when necessary, when it could be hurtful, if not fatal, to just shut up and do the job.
Therefore, I will continue to dissent, against those things that violate my academic freedom–the freedom to be the kind of teacher I was called to be. No, I will not dissent for dissent’s sake, but yield to reasonable requests and accept constructive criticism. But I will fight against any pettiness that threatens to derail almost thirty years of quality teaching–even if I am a bit strange, excitable, stubborn, even insubordinate and obnoxious. I may be those things in some people’s eyes, even in my own sometimes, but mainly I choose to see myself as unique, passionate, steadfast, questioning, and if some people find my demeanor obnoxious, I can live with that, and sleep at night.
Anne Hutchinson–Puritan Dissenter
As Sheryl Crow sings,
I was born in the South
Sometimes I have a big mouth
When I see something that I don’t like
I gotta say it.
Dissent is not the dirty word some seem to think it is. Don’t rock the boat, they say. Why not? Because it might turn over? So what if it does? We might learn to swim.