Whatever the complaints about American universities—and there are many legitimate ones—the fact remains (as Michael Bérubé points out in his new book What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts) that the very rightwing critics of American higher education scramble to send their children to Harvard or Oberlin instead of Bob Jones University or Patrick Henry College, institutions with curricula that most of them would pretend to commend over that of, say, Yale. Why? Because the education is… better at Harvard, Oberlin, or Yale.
If Horowitz himself had experienced real academic training (he did receive a Masters degree in English at Berkeley in the sixties after attending undergraduate school at Columbia—but his coursework, clearly, included no grounding in research design or methodology), he might be able to conduct a useful study of American universities, pointing out weaknesses and possible improvements. As it is, Horowitz simply shows that he even has no understanding of the role of a course description or a syllabus—let alone of the complexities of a college course as a whole.
He also shows that he has absolutely no understanding of his subject in general, even though he begins this piece with a statement that seems to show Horowitz as a man with real experience with universities:
Three years ago, I began a national campaign for academic freedom designed to promote the restoration of academic standards, including intellectual diversity, in institutions of higher learning. I did so having visited more than three hundred campuses in the previous fifteen years and having interviewed several thousand students during these visits. In the course of these visits, I came to be familiar with the massive corruption of the academic enterprise that had occurred since I was an undergraduate in the 1950s….As usual with Horowitz, this is a bit disingenuous. When Horowitz visits college campuses, he does so as a paid speaker. Today (thanks to a pie in the face last year) he travels with his own security. His visits are confined to lecture halls and their green rooms. A visit of this sort does very little to increase one’s knowledge of the institutions—and Horowitz gives no indication that any of his visits included exploration of the institutions beyond hobnobbing with greeters and executives.
Like minor-league rightwing demagogue Dan Flynn, Horowitz, in the passage above, uses “interview” as though what he does has any sort of research design. The way he and Flynn use the word might lead one to believe that they engaged in a rigorous and directed sequence of interviews. Nothing could be further from the truth. Neither keeps records of the interviews that can be sorted in any sort of scholarly fashion and then examined. Neither uses a standardized interview design that makes any one interview comparable to another. Neither conducts interviews with subjects chosen as demonstrably reflecting a larger group. In other words, they just talk to people—and then imply that this constitutes scholarship.
To me, what’s most egregious about Horowitz’ attempt to justify himself as an observer of academia is what he leaves out. Though he has often had the chance (and has an open invitation from me—which he has turned down), Horowitz visits no classrooms when he comes to campus. He told me he has visited one—but that a movie was being shown that day.
As the classroom is the center of higher education, no study of academic institutions can have any validity if the researcher does not begin with primary observation of classroom activity. No syllabi, no descriptions, no handouts can take the place of the basic interactions between students and teachers that go on each day.
Until he starts visiting classrooms—and lots of them—nothing that Horowitz says about what American professors do can be taken seriously. Until then, we can continue to state with assurance that Horowitz doesn’t know what he is talking about.