"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A Student for Academic Freedom

This from a Dartmouth College Student:

McCarthyism Redux
Morgan Cohen

The politics of fear-mongering have been given yet another target: education. Conservative activists who have long bemoaned the changing face of the university in U.S. society have mounted a campaign for education “reform” in college classrooms. Unfortunately for college students, this campaign is not driven by a concern over the quality of education in this country, but rather by nostalgia for a bygone era when the university was the exclusive domain of wealthy white men. As the demographic makeup of the student population has steadily become more diverse over the past several decades, so too has the content of college curricula. This move away from the canon of dead white men has prompted many conservatives to charge that institutions of higher learning are afflicted with a “liberal” bias so deep-seated as to undermine academic freedom and alienate conservative-minded students.

Indeed, it seems as if history is gearing up to repeat itself. In the days of the “red scare,” the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)—chaired by the infamous Joseph McCarthy—selectively targeted the country’s colleges and universities. The ivory tower was thought to be overflowing with Marxist professors and Soviet sympathizers. To many in America after World War II, the thought of communist agents masquerading within sectors of U.S. society was terrifying. The government used this paranoia to broaden its definition of communism and, by extension, the communist threat.

The public’s perception of the red menace gradually evolved from initial tolerance for dissent and hesitations about violating people’s basic civil liberties to the conviction that communists were so uniquely dangerous that their rights could be ignored. The weight of public opinion, along with considerable pressure from the government, forced the academic community to purge itself. In the name of national security, many left-leaning teachers were driven out of the school system amid charges that they were unfit to teach. University of Washington president Raymond B. Allen expressed the views of many in 1948 when he insisted that communists, by virtue of their party membership, were “incompetent, intellectually dishonest, and derelict in their duty to find and teach the truth.”

In a stunning display of hypocrisy, many of the nation’s leading educators completely ignored the research and teaching of supposed communist professors on their campuses. They claimed that because party members were, by definition, unable to speak and think independently, they could not be objective scholars and were thus, in the words of Harvard president James Bryant Conant, “out of bounds as members of the teaching profession.” In other words, they fell victim to the very same intellectual conformity that was the basis of their charge against communists in the first place.

Today, U.S. colleges and universities are once again the subject of an ideological witch-hunt. Under the guise of protecting academic freedom, conservative groups are pushing state governments to adopt what is being disingenuously referred to as the Academic Bill of Rights. The bill—which has also been introduced in the House of Representatives—is the brainchild of ultraconservative ideologue David Horowitz and his group, Students for Academic Freedom. Despite its seemingly democratic handle, the Academic Bill of Rights is nothing more than a transparent political attempt to silence the opinions of those with whom Horowitz and other conservatives disagree. Also outrageous is that this bill attempts to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

Horowitz’s mission, according to his website, is “to end the political abuse of the university and to restore integrity to the academic mission as a disinterested pursuit of knowledge.” This goal presupposes that there are two limitations on academic freedom—first, that universities discriminate against conservative professors in the hiring process; second, that liberal professors indoctrinate their students to the point where “conservative-minded students are intimidated into silence.” Neither of these claims is true and the “evidence” that supports them is so superficial that one must wonder how this bill continues to be debated at the highest levels of government.

In order to “prove” that conservative professors are treated unfairly in the hiring process, Horowitz surveyed professors’ political party affiliation. Because the number of registered Democrats was significantly higher than the number of registered Republicans, he made the dubious inference that liberal professors receive undue preference when being hired. But the only thing proved by a head count of Democrats and Republicans is that there are more Democrats than Republicans. This is hardly evidence of a massive liberal bias.
As for the second charge—that professors are brainwashing their students with radical liberal ideas like evolution and the minimum wage—Horowitz has compiled a list of anecdotes by students who have been upset by the conduct of their professors. These complaints indicate that some students aren’t too happy about hearing different viewpoints, but they do little to suggest indoctrination. However, the nature of this claim makes it harder to disprove. There is no objective standard for classifying non-offensive material and thus the only way to assess the validity of these allegations is by a case-bycase investigation. I have no doubt that the student’s interviewed by Horowitz were outraged by the conduct of their professors, but that does not mean that we must automatically recognize their complaints as legitimate.

This last point is especially important given Horowitz’s tendency to distort the truth in order to buoy his political crusade. This past March a well publicized complaint from a student at the University of Northern Colorado was found to be patently false. The circumstances surrounding this complaint are particularly important, as it formed the basis for a great many of Horowitz’s speeches promoting his bill. In his version, the student (who remains nameless) was asked on a test to “explain why George Bush is a war criminal” and when she submitted an essay on why Saddam Hussein was a war criminal, she received an F. In reality, the test question was not the one Horowitz described and the grade was not an F. The professor who was held up as an example of out-of-control liberal academics is a registered Republican.

Aside from being completely baseless, the Academic Bill of Rights undermines what it supposedly aims to protect: academic freedom. Although Horowitz would have us believe that pluralism is needed to enforce the American Association of University Professor’s neutrality principle—which states that “no political, ideological, or religious orthodoxy should be imposed on professors and researchers”—in truth, it’s a Trojan horse for his right-wing agenda. Under the cover of pluralism, the Academic Bill of Rights would force teachers by law to adopt political instead of scholarly standards when evaluating what does and doesn’t belong in the classroom.
According to the AAUP, “a fundamental premise of academic freedom is that decisions concerning the quality of scholarship and teaching are to be made by reference to the standards of the academic profession, as interpreted and applied by the community of scholars who are qualified…to establish such standards.” The Academic Bill of Rights on the other hand requires colleges and universities to appoint faculty “with a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives” in order to ensure a diversity of ideas in the classroom.

The danger here is that diversity will be measured by the political standards of mainstream conservatism and not by the criteria of academia. For example, no department of political science should be obligated to establish a “plurality of methodologies and perspectives” by hiring a professor of Nazi political philosophy if that philosophy is not considered to be a reasonable option within the discipline of political theory. The only measure of diversity should be academic judgment guided by the relevant disciplinary standards of the day. The reason this wasn’t written into the bill (aside from the fact that it is already the established policy of the AAUP) is because Horowitz isn’t really interested in balance and even-handedness, he’s interested in silencing liberal professors. In order to do this, the Academic Bill of Rights would literally prevent faculty members from exercising their own judgment.

Currently, the line between pedagogy and indoctrination is determined by reference to scholarly and professional standards as interpreted by the professors themselves. In other words, we leave it up to a biology professor to decide whether or not, as President Bush has said, “the jury is still out on evolution.” By contrast, the Academic Bill of Rights proposes that such distinctions be made by the college and university administrations or by the courts.

The difference is fundamental. At its most basic level, the purpose of higher education is to teach students to exercise responsible judgment. This objective can only be fulfilled if the faculty has the authority to freely and independently guide and instruct students. Horowitz would deny professors this authority and thus prevent colleges and universities from achieving their fundamental purpose. When coupled with the skepticism of professional knowledge that is the central theme of the bill, we find ourselves in a situation where decisions that should be grounded in professional competence and expertise are being based on political criteria—like the number of Republicans on the faculty.

There is an ugly irony to all this. The problem, according to Students for Academic Freedom, is that “You can’t get an education if you’re only hearing half the story.” The solution, it seems, is to sacrifice the quality of everyone’s education in the name of an illegitimate and artificial diversity. Consider this passage from the bill: “Curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences should reflect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge in these areas by providing students with dissenting sources and viewpoints…. Academic disciplines should welcome a variety of approaches to unsettled questions.”

For many, evolution is an “unsettled question.” Should we then have biology professors teach creationism in a scientific setting? Some people no doubt believe that the Holocaust never occurred. Should we then teach Holocaust revisionism in our history classes out of allegiance to “the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge?” Balance is not the same as academic freedom. The best way to ensure academic freedom is not to restrict it. But the Academic Bill of Rights does just that. It introduces content-based restrictions that regulate what books professors can teach and what subjects they can discuss.

All this begs the question: if the Academic Bill of Rights undermines academic freedom, what is the real motive behind Horowitz’s campaign? Unfortunately, the answer is not as simple as many of the bill’s opponents may think. The Academic Bill of Rights is not just the work of one person, but is the mantelpiece of a much broader conservative crusade to “reclaim” the university.

The social transformations of the last half-century—civil rights, women’s liberation, and the rise of multiculturalism—have legitimatized new disciplines of study and college curriculum has been reformed accordingly. As with most progressive cultural shifts, it was only a matter of time before a backlash developed. Horowitz is currently riding the wave of this reactionary movement, a movement that marks another battle in the seemingly endless culture wars. What remains certain is that the Academic Bill of Rights is this decade’s blacklist. Like Joseph McCarthy before him, Horowitz is prosecuting a witch-hunt. This time around, let’s make sure that history does not repeat itself. The education of America’s youth hangs in the balance.

Morgan Cohen is a student at Dartmouth College.


  1. A History or Poli-sci major no doubt:

    "Indeed, it seems as if history is gearing up to repeat itself. In the days of the “red scare,” the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)—chaired by the infamous Joseph McCarthy—selectively targeted the country’s colleges and universities."

    A --House-- committee chaired by a Senator. Yeah, right.

  2. Anonymous12:26 PM

    I read your comments hoping I'd find someone to agree with, but alas…I got a bit suspicious when "conservative" students were attacked as racists in an argument that has nothing to do with racism, but with everything to do with freedom of speech. I've been on both sides, as a graduate student with a professor who tried to intimidate me into silence and as a college professor who tries to keep an open mind. Yes, sometimes it's hard not to argue with those you disagree with.

    Nevertheless, there are a few points you've made about the Academic Bill of Rights that I don't agree with, and in the interest of free speech, I can have my say.

    -- Here's your statement: "The best way to ensure academic freedom is not to restrict it. But the Academic Bill of Rights does just that. It introduces content-based restrictions that regulate what books professors can teach and what subjects they can discuss."

    Here's what the Academic Bill of Rights really says: "While teachers are and should be free to pursue their own findings and perspectives in presenting their views, they should consider and make their students aware of other viewpoints."

    Isn't this a part of asking college students to think for themselves with the information that you as a college professor provide?

    -- Your statement: "The Academic Bill of Rights is not just the work of one person, but is the mantelpiece of a much broader conservative crusade to “reclaim” the university.

    Does the university need "reclaiming? Who "owns" it now"? I would hope that it is open to all, the liberal, conservative, and all in between. If indeed, it is the liberal, then, yes, it needs some reclaiming by conservatives.


    Finally, just in case you're wondering, many universities already have stated policies that read very close to:

    What the Academic Bill of Rights does say: "Faculty will not use their courses for the purpose of political, ideological, religious, or anti-religious, indoctrination."

  3. The problem with Horowitz's idea is that he wants to legislate academic neutrality. Whatever you think about his politics or the politics of academia, legislating curriculum and taking the decision away from the experts--the professors--is surely the wrong way to go. See a letter I've written. --Ben Bayer