Is SB5 Designed to Hinder Critical Thinking?

By Michael Aparicio


Recent events at Santa Rosa Junior College have drawn attention to a California bill authored by Senator Morrow (R- Oceanside).  This legislation, which has been dubbed the “Student Bill of Rights,” is fundamentally flawed in ways that could lead to unacceptable consequences; for while the bill makes numerous references to principles which have long been accepted by educators, it applies these principles in ways that are problematically vague.


The bill declares “Curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences shall respect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge in these areas.”  At first glance this seems reasonable.  But in what way are such topics “unsettled”?  Is it implying that there is an equal amount of evidence for all views?  It is not clear.


By itself this vagueness would not be significant; but the bill refers to the “unsettled” nature of these disciplines while prescribing how educators should organize curricula and reading lists.  If it is implying that there is an equal amount of evidence for all views, what does the bill mean when it then directs educators to "provide students with dissenting sources and viewpoints"?


It is common for topics to include a lot of different views.  For example, when examining different types of societies, one textbook discusses plutocracy, meritocracy, theocracy, aristocracy, monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, capitalism, and communism.  Does the “Student Bill of Rights” require teachers to provide students with all viewpoints on a topic or only some of them?  If it implies all of them, a problem arises.  For, there is not enough class time to discuss all views on every topic; and if all views are equally “unsettled,” teachers seemingly would violate this bill when they exclude any views at all.  In fact, a teacher would have to supplement the above textbook because it excludes fascism and anarchy, along with other views.


If the bill is mandating educators cover only some dissenting viewpoints and not all of them, which ones are required?  This is a significant question; for, despite sensational claims to the contrary, it already is standard practice for college educators to cover dissenting views.  So, if the bill is mandating educators to cover only some views, what does the bill actually mean when it directs them to "provide students with dissenting sources and viewpoints"?  Unfortunately, it is not clear; and this leaves the bill open to speculative interpretations.


An alarming consequence of this bill’s vague reference to the “unsettled” nature of viewpoints can be foreseen when one considers that the bill is applied to disciplines which do not teach viewpoints.  These disciplines help students think about a topic’s dissenting viewpoints. 


For example, when I teach students to recognize fallacious reasoning (e.g., Ad Hominem Attacks, Red Herrings, Straw Man arguments), and I use an example, I am not criticizing the view addressed by the example.  I am criticizing the reasoning used to support the viewpoint.  This is a basic distinction which I, as a dedicated teacher, repeatedly convey to my students. 


The fact the “Student Bill of Rights” fails to address this distinction is important.  For, criticizing the reasoning used to support a viewpoint can be misconstrued as criticism of the viewpoint.  By vaguely prescribing educators to treat topics as "unsettled," vaguely directing them to “provide students with dissenting sources and viewpoints,” and neglecting to make a clear distinction between a viewpoint and the reasoning used to support the viewpoint, the bill can be interpreted to imply that educators should not point out flawed thinking unless they present the criticism as only another “unsettled” viewpoint.


Given these problems, my concern is that this “Student Bill of Rights” will have a tragic effect on a teacher's ability to help students think critically.  Teachers who correctly point out flawed reasoning can be accused of being biased against a viewpoint and indoctrinating a contrary viewpoint.  I think these anticipated consequences were recently foreshadowed by S.R.J.C.’s Red Star Flyer incident.


In fact, given the absence of evidence justifying a need for this bill – so far I have seen only ‘politically correct’ references to the percentage of registered Republican educators and anecdotal references to allegedly biased behavior, references that typically are described sensationally, fail to name specific instructors, and/or are unverifiable – my concern is that this bill is maliciously targeting educators who are dedicated to teaching students how to think critically.