Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Samuelson's "Soft Censorship" Isn't Censorship At All

As you may know, for years now many educators have disliked the college rankings published annually in U.S. News and World Report. They consider the rankings simplistic, misleading, pointless, and say they encourage schools to compete on meaningless standards that will boost their place in the standings rather than focusing on activities that actually benefit students. (And undoubtedly some college administrators don't like the rankings because they feel their schools have been given unfairly low scores by the magazine editors.)

And that brings us to the current brouhaha:

Now a rebellion has broken out. A majority of some 80 small liberal-arts colleges says it will refuse to cooperate with the U.S. News colossus. They won't supply personal opinions of same-category colleges, which make up 25 percent of the ratings formula. Much of the other information the guidebook uses is public and can't be withheld.
So, fine. Obviously the schools are within their rights to refuse to cooperate with the editors of U.S. News, no? How is this any different from telling a telephone pollster "No, thanks" when he calls to ask you a few questions?

But don't say that around WaPo's Robert Samuelson. Today he wanders from his usual economics beat to denounce the rebellious schools for--of all things--censorship:
What's so shameful about this campaign against the rankings is its anti-intellectualism. Much information is in some way incomplete or imperfect. The proper response to evidence that you dislike or dispute is to supplement or discredit it with better evidence. The wrong response is to suppress it. And yet, that's the agenda of these college presidents. By not cooperating with the U.S. News survey, they hope to sabotage the rankings. They say they'll provide superior information. But they want to control what parents and students see. This is soft censorship.

What their students will learn, if they're paying attention, is a life lesson in cynicism: how eminent authorities cloak their self-interest in high-sounding, deceptive rhetoric.
Ahem. Evidently in Samuelson's world, once a newsmagazine (at least one edited by someone Samuelson describes as "a friend") has decided it wants to survey the colleges of America, those colleges are under a moral obligation to provide the information the editors want--otherwise, they are guilty of censorship (though of the "soft" kind, whatever that means).

I think I'll call Samuelson's office tomorrow and ask him to spend half an hour on the phone with me so I can write a follow-up post. I'm sure he'll clear his schedule to answer my questions--after all, he wouldn't want to impose censorship on me, would he?

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