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

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Education and Free Thought Under Siege: The Dots Connected

If you read nothing else this weekend, read this piece published yesterday at Inside Higher Ed on the linked path from Leo Strauss to Margaret Spellings--and more. Please pass it on, and on, and on:

Connecting the Dots

By all objective measures, the dawning of the 21st century should be a golden era for American higher education. A recent issue of The Economist described America’s system of higher education as “the best in the world” and provided convincing documentation for its claim. A recent review article by Jonathan Cole, provost at Columbia University, meticulously documents the preeminence of U.S. higher education in the world today as an established fact.

Perhaps sensing the current domestic political climate, however, Cole uses his analysis as the basis for sounding a strong cautionary note. “The United States paid a heavy price when the leaders of its research universities in the 1950’s failed to defend the leader of the Manhattan Project J. Robert Oppenheimer; the double Nobel Prize chemist Linus Pauling; and the China expert Owen Lattimore. But a wave of repression in American universities today is apt to have even more dramatic consequences for the nation than the repression of the Cold War.”

This broad-based and even global acclaim for higher education in the United States is strangely at odds with the concentrated political attacks that Cole warns us about and that the academy is currently experiencing. It is particularly out of step with the dark and dysfunctional picture of the academy painted by David Horowitz and his Center for the Study of Popular Culture. If Horowitz were simply a disaffected political crank, as many have hitherto regarded him, then his views on the academy could be easily dismissed. Such dismissal would seem to be all the more in order following his disastrous testimony before the legislative subcommittee in Pennsylvania in which he was forced to recant as unsubstantiated several of the cases that he had been widely circulating as documentation of alleged malfeasance in the academy.

Oddly, however, his campaign goes on. Horowitz, with assistance from Karl Rove and the former House majority whip, Tom DeLay, has briefed Republican members of Congress on his Academic Bill of Rights campaign and DeLay has even distributed copies of Horowitz’s political primer The Art of Political Warfare: How Republicans Can Fight to Win to all Republican members of Congress. Rove refers to Horowitz’s pamphlet as “a perfect pocket guide to winning on the political battlefield.”

In a more recent development, last fall, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings appointed a Commission on Higher Education. Spellings, described as a protégé of Rove, gained considerable attention as the principal architect of President Bush’s controversial “No Child Left Behind” initiative. Among the proposals being discussed by Spellings’s new commission is one that calls for scrapping the current system of accreditation, which is done by independent regional bodies, in favor of a National Accreditation Foundation that would be created by Congress and the president.

The current system of institutional review through independent accreditation boards is one of the hallmarks of American higher education and is one of the most important structural safeguards of the academy’s ability to ensure academic quality and intellectual excellence. The introduction of oversight by an inherently partisan political body in lieu of the currently independent accreditation process is a peculiar remedy if the perceived ailment in the academy is political bias. Carol Geary Schneider, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, has said that “the commission is sending out firebolts, one after another.” To chair this extraordinary committee Secretary Spellings chose Charles Miller, a former chairman of the University of Texas Board of Regents and, historically, a large contributor to the President’s election campaigns.

The question of why the academy is under such focused and persistent attack by individuals like David Horowitz and his political supporters despite the fact that it appears to be an extraordinarily successful enterprise and an unrivaled resource for the nation is a question that many Americans are asking. In understanding the origins, scope and staying power of this attack it is crucial to understand not only the political relationships that Horowitz enjoys, but the sources of funding that created and sustain his Center for the Study of Popular Culture and its Academic Bill of Rights campaign. It is also critical to understand that the same funding sources that brought Horowitz’s organization into being, also created and sustain a large and integrated network of ideologically defined think tanks and centers both outside of and within the higher education establishment.

When Michael S. Joyce died in February 24, his death received scant attention in the mainstream press. Although very few people in academic circles are familiar with his name, he was, nonetheless, one of the foundational pillars of the current ideological attacks on the academy. A tribute to him by Peter Collier was published in FrontPage, Horowitz’s Web site. Joyce and his intellectual muse — the late University of Chicago political philosopher Leo Strauss — would have been pleased by the level of anonymity that he maintained during his lifetime. Joyce’s ability to maintain such anonymity despite the enormous influence that he wielded in shaping and developing the infrastructure of the neoconservative movement in this country is quite remarkable.

Although The Atlantic Monthly, as early as 1986, was describing Joyce as “one of the three individuals most responsible for the triumph of the conservative political movement,” he nevertheless adhered rigorously to the secretive and profoundly antidemocratic principles advocated by the enigmatic Strauss. As characterized by Jeet Heer in The Boston Globe, Strauss held that “the best regime is one in which the leaders govern moderately and prudently, curbing the passions of the mob while allowing a small philosophical elite to pursue the contemplative life of the mind. Such a philosophical elite may discover truths that are not fit for public consumption.... For Strauss the art of concealment and secrecy was among the greatest legacies of antiquity.”

In 1979, Michael Joyce entered the world of large-scale philanthropy with assistance from his mentor Irving Kristol, when he assumed the reins of the John M. Olin Foundation from the retiring president, William Simon. At Olin, one of Joyce’s first projects was to organize support for the launching of the Federalist Society. Joyce’s work in creating and fostering the development of the Federalist Society is instructive and foreshadows the role that he has played in current efforts by neoconservatives to restructure American higher education. The Federalist Society, with Joyce’s ongoing support, not only fostered the development of ultra-conservative legal scholars and politicians such as Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Robert Bork, Samuel Alito, John Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzales and Kenneth Starr (all of whom are members) but organized them into a powerful force for reshaping American jurisprudence in support of a larger neoconservative agenda.

Also significant in this regard is a report by Jerome Shestack, former president of the American Bar Association, that the Federalist Society is being increasingly being used as a platform from which to launch ideological attacks on the mainstream legal community. Through the device of the Federalist Society publication, ABA Watch, the society has launched a vicious attack on the ABA. In a special edition of the Watch, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), co-chair of the society, announced that he would no longer invite the ABA to participate on a pro forma basis in the Senate judicial confirmation process. Employing rhetoric eerily parallel to that being used in the current attacks on the academy, Justice Clarence Thomas openly denounced the ABA, declaring “I am doubtful that the ABA can ever reform itself.”

In her testimony before Pennsylvania’s Select Committee on Academic Freedom in Higher Education, which convened in Philadelphia, Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, expressed a similar sentiment as to the ability of the academy to reform itself. “Faced with growing legislative pressure on this issue, the higher education establishment issued the American Council on Education statement, figured it would pretend to have a quick conversion, endorse intellectual diversity, get those yahoo legislators off their backs and go back to business as usual. DO NOT LET THEM GET AWAY WITH THIS CHARADE.”

In 1985, Michael Joyce left the Olin Foundation to assume the presidency of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, in Milwaukee. During this time, he not only built the Bradley Foundation into the largest and most influential right-wing foundation in the country, he also forged a formidable alliance among a small group of the nation’s largest, far right-wing foundations so that their resources could be more strategically deployed in support of the developing neoconservative agenda. Included in this alliance are the Koch Foundation (either directly or through its subsidiary the Claude Lambe Foundation), the Castle Rock Foundation (Coors) and the Sarah Scaife Foundations (either directly or through its subsidiaries the Carthage Foundation and the Alleghany Foundation) which, together with Olin and Bradley, have collectively financed the rise of the neoconservative movement in this country and have done so with an impressive display tactical precision.

It is a telling marker of the ideological cohesiveness and extremism of this core group of philanthropies that three of the five founding members, Joseph Coors, David Koch and Harry Bradley, were members and financial supporters of the John Birch Society. The Scaife foundations, headed by Richard Mellon Scaife, are also involved, albeit in less direct ways.

In the past 20 years this core group of funders has, by many reports, built and strategically linked an impressive array of almost 500 think tanks, centers, institutes and “concerned citizens groups” both within and outside of the academy. It is particularly telling to observe the funding sources of these organizations during the first 10-15 years of their existence, when their ideological identities were being established. A small sampling of these entities include the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Manhattan Institute, the Hoover Institution, the Claremont Institute, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, Middle East Forum, Accuracy in Media, and the National Association of Scholars, as well as Horowitz’s Center of the Study of Popular Culture.

The absence of formal organizational linkages between the entities within these networks creates an illusion of independent analytical voices reaching similar conclusions about strategic policy issues, a technique known in the public relations industry as “astroturfing.” This network has developed an enormous capacity to generate “data” consistent with the targeted political agenda and world views of its core group of funders to quickly and redundantly represent these issues in the mainstream press by what appear to be the voices of independent analysts and to translate these viewpoints into public policy that serves the focused ideological agenda of this core group of funders. The Bradley Foundation under Michael Joyce’s leadership has even established a publishing house, Encounter Books, to ensure that grantees like Horowitz have a quasi-academic outlet for their viewpoints.

The degree of interconnectedness within this network of organizations is considerable but almost invisible to the casual observer. For example, when ACTA’s president, Anne Neal, introduced herself to the Select Committee on Academic Freedom in Higher Education in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, she presented ACTA as “a bipartisan network of college and university trustees and alumni across the country dedicated to academic freedom.”

Full disclosure should have required some mention of the fact that ACTA (see funding sources above), which changed its name from the National Alumni Forum in 1998, was established by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in 1994. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute in turn evolved from William Bennett’s Madison Center for Educational Affairs and the Institute for Educational Affairs founded by Irving Kristol, Michael Joyce’s mentor, and William Simon, the first president of the John M. Olin Foundation. Bennett and Kristol also sit on ACTA’s Board of Directors. The remarkably consistent record of funding across all of the incarnations of this organization and the high degree of redundancy with Horowitz’s own, highly partisan Center for the Study of Popular Culture is not consistent with Neal’s definition of ACTA as an independent, non-partisan organization.

Another example illustrative of the quietly incestuous nature of this network is presented by an article by the Boston Globe columnist Cathy Young. The article is entitled “Liberal bias in the ivory tower” and by all appearances is an independent opinion piece written by a regular Globe columnist. At the end of the article Young identifies herself as “a contributing editor at Reason Magazine.” What is undisclosed in the article is that Reason Magazine is the publication of the Reason Foundation, whose funding sources are virtually the same as those funding Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights” project and Neal’s ACTA.

Young’s premise for the article is stated in her opening sentence: “Yet another study has come out documenting what most conservatives consider to be blindingly obvious: the leftwing tilt of the American professoriate.” The study that she references was conducted by Stanley Rothman, now emeritus professor at Smith College; S. Robert Lichter, emeritus professor at George Mason University; and Neil Nevitte of the University of Toronto, and was published in the online journal Forum. This study was also cited by Neal in her testimony in Pennsylvania. Young does not inform her readers that Rothman is director of the Center for the Study of Social and Political Change, a center with funding sources that are remarkably redundant with Horowitz’s Center for the Study of Popular Culture. Lichter is also president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which again has funding sources that are redundant with those referenced earlier.

In addition, a recent article in Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting is highly critical of Lichter’s research methodology. Another example of such conflicted interests is provided by Professor Thomas Reeves. When Reeves writes in strong support of Horowitz’s proposals on the History News Network, he fails to note that he is a spokesman for the California Association of Scholars, a branch of the National Association of Scholars (see funding sources above) and that he is director of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, which was, again, brought into being by the Olin and Bradley Foundations.

This manufactured drumbeat against “academic bias” is amplified by Stanley Kurtz of the Hoover Institution (see funding sources above), Heather MacDonald, a John M. Olin fellow at the Manhattan Institute (see funding sources above), and Brian C. Anderson, editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal and a former research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (see funding sources above).

The relentlessness with which columnists and experts with direct funding relationships with Olin, Scaife, Bradley, Koch and Coors level charges of academic bias and assert the need for legislative reform of higher education is remarkable. The goal of this narrowly focused and ideologically driven public relations campaign can only be understood in terms of its fostering of a political climate in which federal regulatory “reform” of what is universally recognized as the finest system of higher education in the world, will be tolerated.

Indeed, as has been discussed, such regulatory oversight may already be in the offing. The academy stands today as one of the last spaces in America where the democratic ideas that shape the social, economic and political fabric of the nation can be openly and independently debated on the basis of their merits and without coercion or distortion from vested economic and political interests. It is certainly in the national interest that it remain such.

Alan Jones is dean of the faculty and professor of psychology and neuroscience at Pitzer College.

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