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.

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