Tuesday, February 28, 2006

An Open Invitation to David Horowitz

What bothers me most about David Horowitz’s jihad against American educational institutions is that it deflects from the very real need for reform within academic faculties. One of the problems facing our colleges and universities is a lack of intellectual diversity amongst the teachers, as Peter Schuck points out, but the solution is not the “Horowitzian” one of mandating political diversity through political control of educational institutions.

As I argue in an article for ePluribus Media, the reasons for the lack of intellectual diversity on campuses today are not nearly so simple as Horowitz and Schuck make them out to be. It’s not that the institutions deliberately keep people out, but that our universities are, by their very nature, humanist institutions, and so attract people of a more liberal bent. Similar cultural reasons lead people with more conservative frames of mind towards business. Demanding that businesses hire more liberals isn’t going to change that any more than is demanding that colleges hire more conservatives. The division lies deep within our culture; rearranging where people sit isn’t going to alter that fact.

Still, there are ways that our educational institutions could ensure that they are open to diversity of opinion and even teaching methodology—in addition to being open to diversity of race and gender. One such would be a restructuring of the tenure system, which tends to reward people for sitting still. Putatively a protection of outsider ideas, it is really an inherently conservative structure, keeping the insiders in and opening its doors only to those the insiders deem worthy. Tenure could be changed, making it a real protection of intellectual diversity—but that takes work inside our educational institutions. Another is through accepting the importance of a diversity of teaching methodologies—something that the nascent movement, in our federal government, towards standardized testing on the university level would make impossible (just as, through No Child Left Behind, our public school teachers are now finding they can only teach one way—“towards the test”). We need to let our great lecturers lecture—instead of forcing them to utilize small-group pedagogies (for example) that might be at odds with their abilities. And we need to let our great nurturers work with students on a more individual level. In the last few years, we have let inertia lead many of us to accept (without thinking about it) that there is only one effective way of teaching. If you don’t use the chalkboard, for example, you’ve done something wrong. Teachers should tell what’s going to be done, do it, then tell what was done—each class (making the class itself something like the horrid five-paragraph theme).

We need to break away from such patterns. But change cannot be effectively mandated from outside (as Horowitz would want), for that brings the faculty under direct political control with all the rigidity implied. All that would happen is that one set of strictures would be replaced by another, more draconian set—and education would suffer.

Ultimately, my problem with Horowitz is simply that he is demanding change from outside, from a position of no intimate knowledge of how our colleges and universities are operating. If he really does want to be a part of effective change in these institutions, he needs to come inside, to see how things really are working (or are not, in some cases). Effective change cannot be mandated from a distance.

For that reason, I have decided to present an open invitation to David Horowitz: come to my classes and observe! You will need to come more than once, for things are different on different days (as is necessary for any attempt to foster thinking), but do come!!

To really know what goes on, of course, you will need to attend many more classes than just mine. Why not, then, when you speak on campuses, as if you can be allowed to observe a class or two each time? After a semester or so, you may even have developed a good picture of how education manifests itself today.

To others reading this, either students or faculty: If Horowitz comes to your campus, arrange it so that there are classes open to him. Bring him in, doing it publicly and without any snarkiness. Welcome him and let him see exactly how things are done.

Of course, be careful: make sure you tape any classes he attends.

You don’t want to be misrepresented later.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Why David Horowitz Scares Me

In a post on The Daily Kos, I make a comparison between David Horowitz’s new book listing the professors he sees as most dangerous and Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television that appeared in 1950 and heralded the infamous blacklist of that era. Now, I don’t think Horowitz has the influence to start something similar today, but I fear the totalitarian impulse behind any attempt to publicly vilify any class of people such as Horowitz is doing. After all, few people took Red Channels seriously when it came out—and look what it did to way too many lives.

Look what it did, even to lives well removed from the spotlight. My own father was forced to become something of a wandering scholar, thanks in part to the loyalty oaths that many American organizations were stampeded into demanding soon after the appearance of Red Channels. He was a man of integrity and strong belief, one who had begun to doubt the value of war while serving in the Philippines in WWII, joining the Quakers not too many years after his return to civilian life. His life, my mother’s, mine, and my brothers’ were all changed, thanks to the Red Scare and my father’s insistence on integrity before comfort.

So I get angry when I see something like the Horowitz book appearing. And I want to attack it. And I do. On his own blog, Horowitz has noticed:

Last week I wrote in this space: "Over the weekend I came across this 'review,' which appears on TPMCafe a collective blog site created by Joshua Micah Marshall. The writer of the review obviously hasn't read the book, and hasn't the foggiest idea of what its argument is.

The writer, Aaron Barlow spotted my post and wrote this response: "Uh, David, that’s not quite it, now, is it? And you know it. My blog isn’t a review' at all. I’ve no interest in reading your book and don’t pretend to review it." Just to attack it.

If you will notice, David, it’s not your book I attack, it’s you and your methodology. You, and the moneymen behind you, who have seen that the Right now controls nearly all American institutions, so have set sight on academia. What you are attempting is intimidation, pure and simple, and it has to be responded to with vigor. And I will continue to do so, as long as I can.

Real freedom of expression is only possible when attempts to stifle it (like yours) are resisted every step of the way.

Oh, as to the fears you raise about our impressionable young: Many of the people on your list have been teaching for twenty or thirty years, as have their “fellow travelers.” Yet our college graduates continue to reflect the opinions of the population as a whole with no appreciable leftward drift. Clearly, our universities haven’t “brainwashed” them.

Clearly, your intention has nothing to do with "protecting" the youth of America--they don't need it, and you know it. Clearly, your intention is the investing of the Right with additional power. I hope you fail, and will do all I can to make sure you do.

Of course, we all know my real reason for attacking you: I'm jealous.  I'm neither famous enough nor leftist enough to make your list!

Saturday, February 25, 2006

David Horowitz, The Professors, blacklist, oppression, Joe McCarthy

In 1950, Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television was published by Counterattack, a "journal" produced by a group of anti-communists including a number of ex-FBI agents.  Red Channels listed over 200 people considered dangerous, along with organizations they had been affiliated with.  It can be argued that this was the start of the infamous blacklist of the McCarthy era.

David Horowitz is trying to generate something similar, through generation of his own list, The Professors: The 100 Most Dangerous Academics in America.  If he is successful, then fifty years of movement to protect freedom of expression and freedom of thought will have amounted to very little.

Let me give just one parallel between the attitudes towards the two lists by their creators.  In the Introduction to Red Channels the compilers write:

In indoctrinating the masses of the people with Communist ideology and the pro-Soviet interpretation of current events, the Communist Part, with set purpose, uses not only Party members, but also fellow-travelers and members of Communist adjuncts and periphery organizations.  It is the Party's boats that for every Party member there are at least 10 "reliables," dupes or innocents who, for one reason or another will support its fronts.  Our so-called "intellectual" classes--members of the arts, the sciences and the professions--have furnished the Communist Party USA with the greatest number of these classifications.
Horowitz, in writing about an appearance of his on a TV show, says:
I devote an entire chapter to explaining "Why The Professors Profiled In This Volume Are Representative." I inform readers that I could just as easily have written a book about 1001 or 10,001 professors who abuse their classrooms, turning them into political soap boxes. In my book I estimate that there are 30,000 professors nationally who fit the profile of the professors included, which is a very conservative estimate. The figure is probably closer to 60,000.
In both cases, the purpose is to scare people, to make them regard the people listed as dangerous but--and this is important--also to make them suspicious of anyone involved in intellectual activity.

Red Channels included names such as Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Ruth Gordon, Dashiell Hammett, Lena Horne, Langston Hughes, Arthur Miller, Dorothy Parker, Pete Seeger, and Orson Welles.  

The Horowitz book includes Derrick Bell, Noam Chomsky, Juan Cole, Michael Eric Dyson, Todd Gitlin, bell hooks, Frederic Jameson, Victor Navasky, and Howard Zinn.

Horowitz is lifting this new group into very distinguished company.  I hope its members don't have to go through anything like the vilification that was heaped upon the earlier.  And I hope that Horowitz fails in his attempt to stir up fear of intellectuals and artists well beyond the names on his list.

What happened in the fifties was horrible.  We don't need a repeat.

Friday, February 24, 2006

David Horowitz, Boy Scholar

What astonishes me most about amateur researcher David Horowitz is not simply his ability to twist things, but his audacity in claiming that he has something to say about education that is worth listening to. I’ll get to that last point, but let me start with a small example of his Chubby Checkering (is there a special school for this somewhere off to the right?): I posted a diary on him on my own blog and in a number of other places, including at TPMCafe, where Horowitz or one of his minions must have seen it. On his own blog, Horowitz wrote:

Over the weekend I came across this "review," which appears on TPMCafe a collective blog site created by Joshua Micah Marshall. The writer of the review obviously hasn't read the book, and hasn't the foggiest idea of what its argument is.
Uh, David, that’s not quite it, now, is it? And you know it. My blog wasn’t a “review” at all. I’ve no interest in reading the book and don’t pretend to review it. Why don’t I want to read it? For one thing, you even promote it as a list (101 professors… ), and I’ve no interest in reading or writing about lists. I was writing, instead, about your lack of knowledge about education. My point in that blog is that you have no business writing a book about college professors, for you have no expertise either on what they do or on who they are.

That’s not the only reason I don’t need to read your book. Lists aren’t arguments, after all—though you are certainly trying to make an argument through your list. Your list is meant to make us believe that these “most dangerous” professors are representative, to some degree, of leftist college professors and that all they do in the classroom is indoctrinate. As I reject both propositions, there would be no point in my reading your book, even if you were competent to comment on the topic.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s no point in my commenting on you, David! I’ve read some of your other books, and have seen first hand (through them and through your writings on the web) that you have no real interest in scholarship or academia at all. Your goal (it is clear from your writing) is to extend political power over universities; your goal isn’t reforming but controlling.

Let’s leave that aside, though. Let’s pretend that you really do have an interest in education, and not just in bringing universities under the influence of right-wing politicians (along with all the rest of the institutions of our country).

Answer me this: What have you ever done that makes you an expert on education, that makes any ‘Academic Bill of Rights’ you might devise, any book on universities or university teachers you might write, worth considering? If it weren’t for the right-wing funding machine behind you that promotes you, what would you be able to point to, showing that you know enough about education topics to be listened to at all, to be taken seriously at all? As far as I can tell, it’s only money that brings you attention. As far as I can tell, you have built no credibility of your own as a commentator on education.

As far as I can tell, you can’t answer “yes” to any of the following questions:

Have you ever been a teacher or a college administrator?

Have you studied education theory or practice in any formal way?

Have you developed a rigorous experimental design that could lead to grounded conclusions about education?

Have you at least talked to the professors on your list about their pedagogy?

Have you surveyed students and graduates in any significant fashion about their professors?

If you could answer “yes” to any of these, perhaps (and just perhaps) your book could be taken seriously.

Go back to school, David. Learn something.

Then, perhaps, you’ll have something to say that’s worth listening to.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Horowitz and the Professors: Mapping His Misreading

Behind David Horowitz’s continuing attack on American higher education lies a deliberate misreading of both the purposes and methods of learning. In his latest salvo, a book called The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America published by the far-right Regnery, Horowitz lists 100 college teachers whose views, he claims, are subverting our youth. (Follow the links in this earlier diary of mine for more about the book itself).

As Horowitz’s agenda is specifically political in its purpose, he has to bring education into that sphere (I don’t think he believes there is any other, actually), completely ignoring the realities of American education itself—or its needs. That is, he knows that our American politics is essentially bicameral in nature—and has been, ever since Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton took their dislike for each other out of George Washington’s cabinet and into Congress itself. So, by extension (in Horowitz’s view), education must contain the same sort of division—or it falls into a monolithic, totalitarian framework.

Because his own views are not a part of contemporary American education, therefore, contemporary American education must be totalitarian, controlled by the “other” side—by these subversive professors and their fellow travelers.

But education is not politics, and learning has nothing to do with the political beliefs of the instructor. Not in our system, at least. Certainly, the choices are not those Horowitz sees, between presenting an “either/or” or presenting a “truth.” The goal of education in America is to produce participants in an open society, not adherents to any one view or another. Ultimately, by not understanding that, Horowitz is on a path towards destroying the very strength of our educational institutions, making them in fact the propaganda mills that he mistakenly believes they are already.

Our universities are not loci for political propaganda—yet the assumption behind Horowitz’s book is that they are. Professors do not go into the classroom intent on imbuing students with their own points of view. Not only is that not their job, but it is (and I cannot emphasize this too greatly) not what they do.

One of the things Horowitz likes to point to is as a sign of the propagandistic nature of contemporary college education is political advocacy on office doors. He claims this intimidates students with opposing views—and that this advocacy is predominately leftist. He is wrong on both counts: students aren’t intimidated by such stuff—they see it as personal expression, much the same as their own, with meaning to the individual alone. And they recognize the office door as serving the same function as a dorm-room door or one’s clothing or hair style—as personal expression that does not infringe on the space of anyone else.

One thing Horowitz doesn’t want to recognize is this: our students are not stupid and are not just clay for professors to form. They are involved in their own expression, political and otherwise, and they really do respect the rights of others in the same regard. In fact, they understand the fundamental right of expression better than does Horowitz—for they are just now getting to really express themselves, now that they are finally out from under the thumbs of high-school administrators and parents.

As to the views on office doors being predominantly leftist, well… Horowitz should count the number of American flags and “support our troops” (read “support the war”) ribbons. They far outnumber all other sentiments.

But the real problem with Horowitz’s entire venture is that he is, as I have said, deliberately misreading education for his own political purposes. He bases his attacks on the assumption that education is, in fact, a process of assimilation of propaganda or, perhaps, simply of making choices between competing views. By making that assumption, he can use the political views of academics as a straw man for taking consideration away from the real problems of education (and there are many) and turning it into what will be, ultimately, a process of the real politicization of education.

Simply put, Horowitz can’t see anything as more than an attempt at propaganda, not education, not anything else. So, naturally enough, he wants to see education turned to the needs of his own propaganda, rather than that of his “enemies.” If he were a teacher, his energies would be focused on getting his students to embrace his views. He can’t understand that real teachers act in a very different way. After all, he is not a teacher (thank goodness) and has no real experience of what teaching means.

Students are neither sponges nor teeter-totters. They don’t just take in what their teachers tell them nor do they simply come down on one side or the other. They are asked to listen to what their teachers say and respond with questions, challenging the assumptions and even the methodologies behind what they are hearing. Even when they don’t do so directly in the classroom, students do challenge their professors—sometimes with a simple “that’s b.s.” and at others with carefully reasoned argument that never goes beyond a room-mate’s ears. Rarely do students accept what their teachers say completely—and our educational systems are set up so that they don’t, making sure they are exposed to a number of different teachers with different ideas and different means of presentation. Yes, Virginia, there are checks and balances in our colleges.

Nor do students simply “weigh” propositions set before them, deciding in favor of one or the other. In Horowitz’s mind, this may be the “best” education, views presented side-by-side, then “you decide.” But that’s not how it works; education is not simply the choosing between competing viewpoints. Students are not asked to be passive viewers and listeners—jurors—deciding for themselves once all the evidence is in. Instead, they are asked to be active explorers, digging out information (not viewpoints) and coming to conclusions that are entirely their own.

That’s why it really doesn’t matter what the political bias of a professor is. Students aren’t parrots, nor are they expected to be—but they are developing intellectual skills allowing them to mine primary information (and not simply to learn the opinions of others about that information), place it within contextual frameworks that they, themselves, have built, and then explain how the information strengthens or weakens the frameworks.

Instead of choosing between viewpoints, in American education students are expected to create their own.

That’s what Horowitz, who was raised in a Stalinist milieu, does not understand. Because of his background, he is unable to see beyond any simplistic either/or. He saw real education, when he was exposed to it, simply as a chaos he could not trust.

Real education: that’s what we must protect. Not our politics or even our jobs. We need to focus on it, rather than letting Horowitz drag us into arguments that, really, have nothing to do with the quality of education but that have everything to do with political control.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Why the warrantless NSA spying program?

No, this isn’t a new question—and it certainly isn’t an unreasonable one to ask: even the timid White House press corps is willing to put it forward. As a result, the Bush administration has been “answering” it over and over again, ever since the story broke late last year. Its answers, though they do seem to satisfy a great number of Americans, always fall flat on close examination. They are not providing the “real” reasons.

So what is the real reason?

There has been plenty of analysis of what the Bush administration says about the program. Claims that it could have stopped 9/11, that there isn’t time to get warrants, and so forth, have been rebutted many times. By now it is clear to anyone paying attention: Everything that the Bush administration claims it needs to do to “protect” America could be done within the outlines of the FISA law.

So why step outside it?

There are only two possible reasons:

  1. The administration does not believe that Republicans will ever lose control of the White House now that they have it. However, they are not quite so sure about Congress. Therefore, they want to expand presidential power as much as they can as quickly as they can, establishing precedents for presidential prerogative that can be used to stop opposition at such a time as the Democrats regain control of at least one House of Congress. If you are paranoid, you may already believe that they now know they can fix any national election, but have found that local and state elections are harder to control. They may have the arrogance to believe the same thing, though I doubt “fix” is a word they would use in that regard.

    Some conservatives do recognize the danger of such arrogance. Grover Norquist, of all people, is one of them. The other day, he said:
    Even if you believed an angel was making these decisions, and that's not what I'm saying, at some point the person in the White House will change, Hillary Clinton might be making these decisions.
    But Norquist, for all of his high-profile conservative credentials, is not part of the insider neo-con cabal that is really running this country. After five years in power, they may seriously believe that no one will ever get them out. Hell, they may have actually believed that back in 2001, once the Supreme Court put them in power!Certainly, there is no way the group in the White House would have countenanced expansion of presidential power by the Clinton Administration—and would be just as against its expansion by another Clinton—or any other Democrat. The argument, then, is not far-fetched: they would only put forth such a program of expansion of power if they believed they would never relinquish power.


  2. This possibility is almost as scary. And it is that the real reason for spying without warrants is that the administration wants to make sure there is no “paper trail” (no warrants that could be sifted through by a subsequent administration) concerning the objects of the spying.If this is the case, then the objects are not merely possible terrorists (that their identities might be discovered at some distant time would bother no one) but are people the administration never wants known to have been the objects of surveillance.

    Who could such people be? The representatives of foreign governments, for one. Investigators looking into misdeeds by administration allies, for another. Exposing such spying would cause a much greater furor exposure of spying on the obvious targets: Democrats, progressives of all stripes, and Quakers. It could ruin the legacy of the administration, if it were found out later, and could destroy it, if it were exposed now.

Try as I might, I can’t come up with any other reasons for ignoring FISA that stand up.