Saturday, October 21, 2006

Why Battle the Universities?

David Horowitz is once again claiming to be a “supporter of academic freedom.” He is even going so far as to brag that his is an “academic freedom movement.”

This gets tiresome. It’s Orwellian, surely, but there’s only so much outrage one can expend on claims so inane and deceptive. Horowitz can make his boasts because he is sure that few people will even pay attention to the meaning of the term “academic freedom”—making it possible for him, like Humpty Dumpty, to make the words mean anything he likes.

Probably the most referenced definition of “academic freedom” is contained in the 1940 statement by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP):
(a) Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.
(b) Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject. Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.
(c) College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.

Certainly, over time, definitions of this sort change. But an individual, when he or she attempts to change a definition for his or her own purposes, needs to be called on the carpet for it—for that becomes a dishonest, rather than natural, change.

Horowitz, through one of the organizations he has created, Students for Academic freedom, claims that:
Academic freedom consists in protecting the intellectual independence of professors, researchers and students in the pursuit of knowledge and the expression of ideas from interference by legislators or authorities within the institution itself. This means that no political, ideological or religious orthodoxy will be imposed on professors, researchers and students through the hiring or tenure or termination process, or through the grading system or through the control of the classroom or any other administrative means. Nor shall legislatures impose any such orthodoxy through their control of the university budget. (emphasis added)

What Horowitz is trying to do is to take a clearly delineated professional right and responsibility, apply it to an entirely new constituency (students) and (this, through his attempt to enshrine his “Academic Bill of Rights” in law) to bring in an entirely new enforcement authority—one with absolutely no responsibility to the institutions, our universities, that benefit most from academic freedom. And he is doing this from a position completely removed from academia.

Though I can’t speak to why Horowitz wants to do this, except to guess that he wants to see academic independence compromised because academia tends towards the liberal side of the political spectrum, I can try to throw light on his strategy. Why, for example, does he want to extend “academic freedom” to students? Students, after all, do not have (or need) the professional entitlements of their teachers.

What Horowitz is doing is conflating “freedom of speech” with “academic freedom.” The former is a right guaranteed to all Americans through the First Amendment. The latter, on the other hand, is not a generalized freedom, but a specific freedom based upon specific professional responsibilities.

By adding students into the mix, and confusing the issue with First Amendment rights, Horowitz is able to position himself as an advocate of what he describes as a group (students) subject to indoctrination through abrogation of their academic freedom. This immediately puts the real defenders of academic freedom on the defensive, and in a difficult position. They don’t dare do anything that could be even seen as an attack on students’ rights or they fall into Horowitz’s trap. Skirting whatever real argument they are putting forward, Horowitz can then attack them (generally with out merit—but it’s the perception that is important) as proto-totalitarians against freedom of thought.

That, in turn, allows him to take the issue into the political realm, where he can claim that laws need to be instituted for the protection of the poor, innocent students from these nefarious professors.

It doesn’t matter that students (up to the graduate level) don’t need the special academic freedom accorded to professional academics. Their rights and freedoms are perfectly well protected. In addition, it doesn’t matter to Horowitz that our universities are already structured in ways that keep individual professors from exerting undue influence over their students (chief among these being the fact that students cannot simply study with a single professor—as undergraduates, they take courses from as many as 40).

In other words, this is a manufactured campaign.

But why? Why does Horowitz want to do this?

I can’t really answer that, for I can’t get into Horowitz’s head. But it strikes me as bizarre when American universities continue to be rated the best in the world—and American academics gather in the greatest of honors at a prodigious rate. The only Nobel prizes not won by Americans this year were for Literature (an arts prize, really, not an academic one) and Peace (certainly not an academic prize). We have a system that works. Why try to harness it without need?

In the piece I reference above, Horowitz writes:
My purpose in seeking legislation has now been served. In three years, we have been able to put the issue of intellectual diversity on the national radar. On every campus in the country, intellectual diversity is now a matter for discussion and debate. A large part of the credit must go to our legislative resolutions – none of which has been actually enacted. It is these proposed actions by legislatures that have produced the lion’s share of the attention.

Aha! Through a clumsy attempt a sleight-of-hand, Horowitz here gives a clearer indication of his real purposes. Most interesting, though, is his admission of defeat by claiming that what he had been aiming for wasn’t, in fact, what he was after at all. And it wasn’t about “academic freedom” anyway, but “intellectual diversity”—a different topic altogether (though one that, as he does with the First Amendment, Horowitz tries to conflate with academic freedom). By slipping “intellectual diversity” in for “academic freedom,” Horowitz may be giving us a clue to his real purpose.

And that, not surprisingly, is that his attacks on the universities are simply a minor campaign in what Horowitz sees as a larger political war.

I use military terminology here because Horowitz himself does so often, even once penning an essay called “The Art of Political War.” There are no rules, no ethics in this “war.” Anything is fair game, as long as it harms the enemy.

In Horowitz’s analysis, the universities are one of the last bastions of liberal resistance, but ones he had no means of attacking. So, he constructed one, taking academic freedom, extending it to students, then claiming that the professors themselves were abridging it. He then could take this to the legislatures to put pressure on the universities… for what?

The easiest way to take “control” from the liberal enemies, in Horowitz’s eye, is by replacing them with people more akin to his own point of view. By taking this trumped up “academic freedom” case as far as he has, he has been able to create an opening that, he hopes, will lead to the hiring of more conservative academics, a bow to his specious call for “intellectual diversity.”

Furthermore, the very concept of an enforced “intellectual diversity” abridges academic freedom in just the ways Horowitz wants. Liberal professors will be less likely to pursue topics that might be at all controversial, fearing that they will be accused of failing to live up to this new “diversity.” Universities will become less daring and more conservative—exactly the end wanted.

Why then has Horowitz taken on this campaign? Not for academic freedom, certainly, or even for intellectual diversity. To him, this is nothing more than one more campaign in the war to gain complete control of our nation for “his” side, the right.

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