Friday, January 27, 2006

Why Is David Horowitz Attacking Our Universities?

David Horowitz ends a recent op-ed piece in The Los Angeles Times with these words:
I believe that the majority of university professors in this country are people of goodwill, and the campaign I have launched is designed to encourage them to take a stand in defense of educational values and academic freedom in the classroom.
Oh, really?

His campaign, centering on an Academic Bill of Rights that has been rejected (as Horowitz admits) by the universities he approached, is now before (or has been considered by) almost a third of the state legislatures of the United States. It has also garnered a great deal of opposition from what Horowitz calls:
radicalized organizations that now represent the academic profession, such as the American Assn. of University Professors, American Historical Assn., Modern Language Assn. and American Federation of Teachers.
Oops. I think we’d better stop the reportage: ”Radicalized”? That’s a strange use of the word by a man who, in that first quote, calls the majority of professors, the very people who make up these groups, ‘people of goodwill’—a man who once was a real leftwing radical, editor of Ramparts magazine, one of the most leftist of the leftists. Horowitz knows just what it means to be radical—and the organizations he mentions certainly don’t fall into that category.

So why does he call them that? Just what is his agenda? It certainly isn’t to ‘encourage them to take a stand in defense of educational values and academic freedom in the classroom.’ If that were the case, he wouldn’t also be attacking them as ‘radical.’ Something else must be going on.
Horowitz’s campaign, methodical in some respects, is quite slip-shod in others, especially in the examples used to show just how bad a state US universities are in. It is strange: His examples are anecdotal and often fall apart under scrutiny. Certainly, if our colleges were in anything close to the dire straits he claims, he wouldn’t need to rely on such iffy backing but could find real examples—and he certainly wouldn’t need to repeat claims even after they have been proven incorrect.

According to Inside Higher Ed, Horowitz brushes aside questions about the truth of his stories:
For example, Horowitz has said several times that a biology professor at Pennsylvania State University used a class session just before the 2004 election to show the Michael Moore documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, but he acknowledged Tuesday that he didn’t have any proof that this took place.

In a phone interview, Horowitz said that he had heard about the alleged incident from a legislative staffer and that there was no evidence to back up the claim. He added, however, that “everybody who is familiar with universities knows that there is a widespread practice of professors venting about foreign policy even when their classes aren’t about foreign policy” and that the lack of evidence on Penn State doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem.
“These are nit picking, irrelevant attacks,” he said.
Uh, David, that’s not the way it works. The problem remains in your imagination until you can point to examples of it in the real world. Ours isn’t a Ronald-Reagan universe where imagining that welfare queens drive new Cadillacs makes it so. It’s a world of particulars where facts are necessary for backing up accusations. Especially if one is going to develop a campaign that threatens to change the very nature of our academic institutions, one ought to be able to provide reasons for the changes that are backed up by verifiable date—not simply providing stories that prove, on examination to be spurious. Certainly, then, Horowitz isn’t reacting to a “real” problem—and, just as certainly, he knows that, too. So why? What’s his purpose?

Horowitz goes on, says Inside Higher Ed:
Even if these examples aren’t correct, he said, they represent the reality of academic life. “Is there anybody out there who will say that professors don’t attack Bush in biology classrooms?” he said. Horowitz characterized the debate over his retractions as a diversionary tactic by his critics. “First they say that there is no problem [with political bias]. Then they say I’m a McCarthyite. Then they say I’m spreading false rumors. Everyone who is in public life and makes commentaries makes mistakes.”
Come on, David! The only reason anyone says there are professors attacking Bush in biology classrooms is that you keep claiming to know of examples.
Again: What’s going on here? What your real agenda?

On the one hand, Horowitz claims a mild, open purpose—simply something that opens up academia. Yet, he is also pushing distinction, touting differences in an attempt to marginalize some of the most mainstream and staid academic organizations in America. Why? Once more, just what is his agenda?

The Academic Bill of Rights is couched in terms that few could disagree with, at least at first, though, as we have seen, the reasons for it are certainly overblown. As Horowitz himself writes in that op-ed:
The Academic Bill of Rights is a modest attempt to improve a bad and deteriorating situation [this is the overblown part] on our campuses. It would restore the idea of intellectual diversity as a central educational value. It would make students aware that they should be getting more than one side of controversial issues and that they should not be browbeaten (or graded) on the basis of their political opinions.
But that’s not all it is.

It goes on to make these stipulations:
1. All faculty shall be hired, fired, promoted and granted tenure on the basis of their competence and appropriate knowledge in the field of their expertise and, in the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts, with a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives. No faculty shall be hired or fired or denied promotion or tenure on the basis of his or her political or religious beliefs.
2. No faculty member will be excluded from tenure, search and hiring committees on the basis of their political or religious beliefs.
3. Students will be graded solely on the basis of their reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge of the subjects and disciplines they study, not on the basis of their political or religious beliefs.
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.
6. Selection of speakers, allocation of funds for speakers programs and other student activities will observe the principles of academic freedom and promote intellectual pluralism.
7. An environment conducive to the civil exchange of ideas being an essential component of a free university, the obstruction of invited campus speakers, destruction of campus literature or other effort to obstruct this exchange will not be tolerated.
8. Knowledge advances when individual scholars are left free to reach their own conclusions about which methods, facts, and theories have been validated by research. Academic institutions and professional societies formed to advance knowledge within an area of research, maintain the integrity of the research process, and organize the professional lives of related researchers serve as indispensable venues within which scholars circulate research findings and debate their interpretation. To perform these functions adequately, academic institutions and professional societies should maintain a posture of organizational neutrality with respect to the substantive disagreements that divide researchers on questions within, or outside, their fields of inquiry.
Unlike his justifications, these have been carefully crafted. They have been made to seem almost innocuous.

But, on closer look, they prove alarming:

1. By use of the phrase “appropriate knowledge in the field of their expertise” Horowitz opens the door to closely defining the area in which any particular faculty member can operate. Many of the advances in scholarship that have meant so much to us as a society have come from people who have been working outside of areas deemed “appropriate” to their backgrounds. Furthermore, having such a statement legislated would have to lead to definitions provided by government on just what is and what is not “appropriate” and what constitutes a particular “field” and even “expertise.” As a result, academic decision-making would be moved from the universities to the legislatures. Horowitz likes to concentrate on his stories of people fired or not promoted because of their (generally right-wing) beliefs, but never comes up with a solid example. That that point here, clearly, is only a sop. It’s the first part of the point that’s important to him. And the first part that most restricts academics.

2. This is only a reiteration of the last part of Point 1. As Horowitz simply blows smoke when trying to give examples of this happening, the point is clearly not a serious one to him, but just another means of hiding his real agenda.

3. One of the most important tenets of American higher education is that the classroom needs to be under almost complete control of the professor. To balance this, each department has a variety of professors, many of whom alternate on the same courses and teach different ones in any sequence. Students, then, are not in danger of forced indoctrination to one professor’s point of view. Also, students can and do protest their grades, though changing a grade is difficult if the professor is not convinced. This, again, is an area where Horowitz makes loose claims. According to Inside Higher Ed, he:
has several times cited the example of a student in California who supports abortion rights and who said that he was punished with a low grade by a professor who opposed abortion. Asked about this example, Horowitz said that he had no evidence to back up the student’s claim.
If he can’t put in the effort to find examples of the ‘grave’ problem, Horowitz probably isn’t really concerned about protecting students at all. What he does care about, perhaps, is limiting professors, taking some of their classroom power away and moving it to legislatures (which are, admittedly, generally much more conservative than are faculties). That desire for limitation fits with his call in Point 1.

4. If there is any element of Big Brother in the first three points, in this one it is stronger. Nobody in academia would deny that there is an “uncertainty” and “unsettled character” in knowledge, but that is not the case of “all human knowledge,” and it is here that Horowitz can start to get most scary. This isn’t a call for diversity (as it claims to be) but is an insistence that any minority viewpoint be given a place at the academic table—something that limits the effectiveness of any professor in any classroom. This is an extension of the cop-out claim that there’s always an opposing view that should be considered; this can be used to dilute conversation, side tracking it down endless dead-ends. There’s a large group of people (mostly outside of academia), for example, who dispute that William Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him. It’s an interesting argument, but not one that’s fruitful in a course on Shakespeare’s plays. To force consideration of it only takes time away from what should be the course’s real concentration. This, of course, is a rather innocuous example. In a class on 20th-Century Balkan History, an insistence that the Turkish claim that there was no genocide against the Armenians be taken seriously can be much more problematic. Then there’s holocaust denial and creationism… and the list can go on and on. Much of what would pass for education would be meaningless, were this point enforced in the classroom—though that may actually be what Horowitz wants. It would make education much less effective through dilution.

5. I teach literature. Literature—like all of the arts—has “political, ideological, religious” points built into it. If I am to do what Horowitz asks, all I can really do is the narrowest close reading of the text. No cultural placement would be allowed. No discussion of authorial intent would be possible. Otherwise the claim could be made that I am using the material to promote a certain point of view. Institution of this would force faculty to pretend to no political viewpoint at all, an intellectual dishonesty that I could never accept. I also teach composition, where I want students to learn to make arguments forcefully and with confidence, based on careful consideration and research. If I were forced to stay away from controversy, my students would only learn to be timid. This point also presupposes an impossible “objectivity.” What this is, really, is an attempt to narrow the scope of any class, making wide-ranging, intellectually challenging discussions impossible. Again, the point, instead of providing rights, is to tie the hands of academics.

6. If this is enforced, only speakers acceptable to whatever system of legislative oversight is instituted would be possible. The programs would be bland, lacking any sort of spark, guaranteed to offend no one. That’s not what education is about. All it does is reduce discussion, not enhance it.

7. The wording of this point is extremely interesting. It starts by speaking of “civil exchange of ideas” and ends with the edict “will not be tolerated.” Which is it? That it ends with the constricting phrase is more than just a clue.

8. This one goes back to meaningless generalizations, ending, though, with that call for “organizational neutrality” on the parts of universities and professional organizations. Neutrality of the sort Horowitz imagines never has existed and never can. What this is, really, is a call for a gag to be placed over the mouths of our universities and their representatives and over the scholarly organizations of the faculties. It’s almost like saying anyone can talk about a subject—except those who know about it most.

Horowitz, again in that op-ed, claims he only wants:
to persuade colleges and universities to adopt an "Academic Bill of Rights" to protect students from unprofessional political indoctrination by their professors.
Clearly, from any close examination of the Academic Bill of Rights, he wants something more than that. What he wants to do is narrow the field any academic can play upon.

But why?

In his op-ed, Horowitz quotes Stephen Zelnick of Temple University about what he has heard in classrooms:
"I have rarely heard a kind word for the United States, for the riches of our marketplace, for the vast economic and creative opportunities made available for energetic and creative people (that is, for our students); for family life, for marriage, for love, or for religion."

But why should he have? Does he expect professors to be propagandists for the United States?

In how many classes would it be appropriate to give a “kind word” of the sort he asks? In my American literature classes, perhaps, I can talk about the successes of the United States as they are reflected in our literature (and I do). In US History classes, too, such things might come up (and they do). The same is true of Economics. But elsewhere? Would it be better if Horowitz’s fictional Penn State biology professor (the one who allegedly forced his students to watch Fahrenheit 9/11 instead waxed poetic on the wonders of America? No. But the implication of the quote is that this is a lack that needs to be made up for—when, in fact, it is no lack at all, but the way things should be. In fact, it would make people scratch their heads if it weren’t the case.

The claim that there isn’t enough extolling of America in our classrooms is simply being used by Horowitz to insinuate that the generally left-leaning professoriate actively hates and derides America and American accomplishments—a claim he cannot back up so cannot often make directly (only when he cannot be challenged to provide proof). How can I be sure? It’s simple: By Horowitz’s own Academic Bill of Rights professors should be no more shills for American than they should be its critics—under his Bill of Rights, they simply should be emasculated purveyors of information.

And not of thought.

And that, at least in my view, is the clue to the “why” of his campaign.

At the heart of American academia is the desire to make students into thinkers, into challengers of orthodoxy and questioners of assumptions. As even Horowitz knows, there is no left-wing orthodoxy to challenge; Will Rogers once said something to the effect that he was not a member of an organized political party—for he was a Democrat. It has been like that on the left ever since in America (even the Communist orthodoxy never really had a chance, here). Take any three of the leftist professors Horowitz rails against and put them in a room: in a few minutes they will be arguing. Orthodoxy and the American left have never had much in common.
It’s on the right that one finds much more unanimity, and a proprietary feeling about America—as if it really belongs to them, and not to people on the left. Certainly, it’s the assumptions about this America by the right that Zelnick did not find in the classrooms he visited—and it is this that Horowitz wants taught uncritically and unchallenged, for this is the America he is promoting.

Like many authoritarians on the right and on the left, Horowitz has never had much room for disagreement. He didn’t like it when he was on the left, and despises it now that he is a right-winger. Yet debate is what college is about. As most Americans grow up accepting without challenge the more conservative assumptions about America (which is natural—any country’s most conservative identity is going to be the first encountered by a youngster), it is useful to turn the college experience into a time for testing those assumptions. Most of us come out of college with a political make-up tempered through those challenges—something that makes us better citizens, whether we end up on the right or on the left. The challenges don’t really change us, but they make us learn about what is behind the assumptions we have long made.
The cultural truisms examined by college students, however, have to be strong enough to withstand their challenges, or the students will rebel against them, as they did during the Vietnam War. And that scares Horowitz.

Horowitz is scared that the truisms of today’s rightwing American cannot stand up to such challenges any more than his stories of the left running rampant in our universities can be. He knows that the structure he is now a part of is a house of cards that has no base and no real structure.

To protect the panoply of right wing assumptions requires restricting examination—and that, as any examination of Horowtiz’s Academic Bill of Rights shows, is what Horowitz’s campaign is all about. He doesn’t want students to learn, but to accept.

Why? Because even he knows that the right that provides is bread and butter is a fraud. If it is finally and ultimately exposed, he will lose his livelihood.

It’s as simple as that. Why does he promote this Academic Bill of Rights?

In short, he is afraid.

The Blade Runner Experience

A new anthology, The Blade Runner Experience: The Legacy of a Science Fiction Classic edited by Will Brooker, has been published by Wallflower Press (distributed in the US by Columbia University Press).

Anyone who loves the movie as much as I do, or the fiction of Philip K. Dick, or the "sequel" novels by Kevin Jeter, or the video games based on the movie, might want to take a look. Anyone interested in popular culture in general may also want to dip into this book, for the movie is a starting point for a wide range of discussions.

Of course, I am biased: my own article, "Reel Toads and Imaginary Cities: Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner and the Contemporary Science Fiction Movie" is a part of the book.

Blade Runner has become much more than just a movie (just as Philip K. Dick has become much more than simply a science-fiction writer in the years since his death) in the two decades (and more) since its release. The very title has become a descriptor of a certain urban look, one that has come into being since the movie was released. The movie, also, has been the most influential of any on science-fiction film since (Star Wars notwithstanding).

In other words, this book is much more than simply a discussion of a movie with a look back at the writer whose work inspired the movie. It's also a discussion of how the images in movies mediate our "real world" experiences of the sites used in the movies, just to take one example.

Grab a copy!