Saturday, March 11, 2006

David Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights: Restriction or Freedom?

Is it possible to promote academic freedom by forcing professors to present divergent viewpoints—or is that itself an abridgement of academic freedom?

On his blog, David Horowitz responds to criticism of his Academic Bill of Rights:

Anyone who bothers to read the Academic Bill of Rights, let alone anything the author has written about it, would know that it is designed to remove politics from the academic curriculum into which it has been inserted by the radicals who oppose the bill. The very first tenet of the Academic Bill of Rights, as I have been forced to repeat to the hard of reading innumerable times forbids the hiring or firing of faculty for political reasons. Yet here is yet another article, this time by the aforesaid President [Donald R. Eastman III, the president of Eckerd College] writing in the St. Petersburg Times called "Leave Politics Out of Faculty Hiring Choices" asserting that black is white and up is down and I am the one attempting to insert the politics and the tenured politicians who have blacklisted conservatives for the last 25 years are academic innocents who have not.

What Horowitz’s ingenuity artfully leaves out is that the very attempt to enforce his Academic Bill of Rights through a political process makes Eastman’s point. Academic freedom is a freedom from scrutiny over political belief. Horowitz wants to change that and, in so doing, would destroy it. He would make political scrutiny an active part of his own version of academic freedom. That is, to attain “balance,” he would insist that all professors be judged on a political scale and that university hiring, etc. be used to keep a spectrum of views on the faculty. Therefore, his own methods undermine his so-called end. His whole point is to insert a conservative element into academia, whether that element is qualified or not. In no way will that help bring about academic freedom.

His use of the word “blacklisted” in response to Eastman also shows the extremely political nature of his jihad. He cannot show a blacklist against conservatives, nor does he have any example of anyone who can reasonably demonstrate that they were kept out of academia through such a blacklist. Yet he throws the word around as if it were something “everybody knows.” In fact, the reasons that there are more liberals in academia, as I have written elsewhere, have nothing to do with a blacklist but have everything to do with the nature of the beast. Academia is essentially humanist at its base and so, as liberalism and humanism fit together quite easily, it’s no surprise that most professors are politically liberal—no more so than businesspeople being conservative for other cultural reasons.

Horowitz is imagining a blacklist because he wants to change academia, to rid it of that humanist base and to create something else—not a place of exploration, but a place of transferal (as if knowledge is a thing and not also a process). His Academic Bill of Rights, at first glance, seems to deny this (a rather devious placement, designed so that Horowitz can use those passages to try to rebut people like Eastman), but a reading of the whole thing gives a different picture—and it is a reading of the whole thing that Eastman has done.

Consider these points:

4. 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 where appropriate. 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. Academic disciplines should welcome a diversity of approaches to unsettled questions. 5. Exposing students to the spectrum of significant scholarly viewpoints on the subjects examined in their courses is a major responsibility of faculty. Faculty will not use their courses for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination.
Who decides what are “unsettled questions”? Who enforces all those examples of “should”? Though couched in terms of broadening debate and exploration, these points actually narrow it. Academic Bill of Rights supporter Stephen Balch, in testimony the Select Committee of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in Pittsburgh on 11/9/06, said:
The legislature must expect a full accounting on progress toward these goals each time the state’s universities seek new statutory authority and renewed financial support. If a good-faith effort is being made to overcome these problems, it should leave the remedial specifics to the universities’ own decision making. If a good-faith effort isn’t made, it should urge governing boards to seek new leadership as a condition of full support. Failing even in that, it might, as a last resort, consider a full-scale organizational overhaul, to design governance systems and institutional arrangements better able to meet the obligations that go with academic freedom.

In other words, academic freedom would cease to exist if certain standards were not met.

Freedom is not freedom if it is restricted. Through its demands, Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights is a limitation of freedom absolutely—its own words to the contrary notwithstanding.

One other thing Horowitz would do is limit the range of exploration open to any one professor. In an article titled “Academic Hanky Panky,” Horowitz writes:

The first point I made… was that as a trained animal psychologist Barash was academically unqualified to write an academic text on the complex issues of geopolitics and in particular the social, cultural, and economic causes of war and peace. In other words, Barash’s co-authored text was not a scholarly work and should not be presented as such to students.
In other words, animal psychologist David Barash’s work should not be judged on its own merits, but on the academic background of the author! Such reasoning doesn’t deserve much of a reply, but a quote from Edward O. Wilson’s book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge is appropriate:
A balanced perspective cannot be acquired by studying disciplines in pieces but through pursuit of the consilience among them. Such unification will come hard. But I think it is inevitable. Intellectually it rings true, and it gratifies impulses that rise from the admirable side of human nature. To the extent that the gaps between the great branches of learning can be narrowed, diversity and depth of knowledge will increase. They will do so because of, not despite, the underlying cohesion achieved. The enterprise is important for yet another reason: It gives ultimate purpose to intellect. It promises that order, not chaos, lies beyond the horizon. I think it inevitable that we will accept the adventure, go there, and find out.

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