The University of Colorado committee investigating Ward Churchill has found him guilty, guilty, guilty. And on some level, they’re right: Churchill is guilty of occasionally shoddy scholarship and the dubious practice of ghostwriting, and perhaps even more. But we should be alarmed by the investigative committee’s report, and not merely because the committee exists only because of a concerted effort to fire Churchill for his obnoxious and idiotic comments about 9/11 victims.
By stretching the meaning of "research misconduct" far beyond its true definition, and by supporting the suspension and even dismissal of a tenured professor for his use of footnotes, the Colorado committee is opening the door to a vast new right-wing witch hunt on college campuses that conservatives could easily exploit across the country.
If you don’t like a professor’s politics, simply file a complaint of "research misconduct." According to the Colorado committee, if you can find a factual error made by the professor with a footnote that fails to prove the contention, that scholar is guilty of "research misconduct" and can be suspended or fired.
The far right is already pursuing leftist academics for expressing their views in the classroom. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni just issued a report on “How Many Ward Churchills?,” proclaiming that "professors are using their classrooms to push political agendas." ACTA’s alleged proof that Ward Churchills are “common” on college campuses is a survey of course catalogs and syllabi, objecting to classes that mention social justice, sex, or race. (The ACTA report denounces a University of Colorado class on “Animals and Society” because it “[e]xplores the moral status of animals.”)
ACTA threatens that academic freedom will be revoked from colleges unless they start censoring their professors and ban such courses. Colleges “must also recognize that if they do not take swift and decisive action, they risk losing the independence and the privilege they have traditionally enjoyed.” According to ACTA, “students, parents, trustees, administrators, and taxpayers have a right to be concerned. They also have the right to raise questions, demand answers, and compel action.”
Compelling action is also the goal of David Horowitz and his Academic Bill of Rights legislation. In March, Horowitz testified before the Kansas legislature. He denounced women’s studies programs as a violation of academic freedom and standards. According to Horowitz, because the University of Kansas Women’s Studies program express a goal of educating students about “how and why gender inequality developed and is maintained in the United States and in our global society,” it should be banned. Since Horowitz thinks there may not be any gender inequality in the world, women’s studies programs “can in no way be justified as taxpayer-supported programs.”
Considering how effortlessly Horowitz misreads the meaning of academic freedom under the AAUP standards, one can only imagine how effectively he could distort "research misconduct" to pursue his crusade against left-wing professors like those in his book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. If Horowitz fails to get professors fired for talking about politics in their classes, he could try to have them fired for expressing controversial views in their research.
That's the harrowing possibility raised by the irresponsible claims of the Colorado committee. They claim to be following the University of Colorado’s statement on Misconduct in Research and Authorship, which defines research misconduct as “fabrication, falsification, plagiarism and other forms of misappropriation of ideas, or additional practices that seriously deviate from those that are commonly accepted in the research community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research."
Because Colorado’s policy explicitly exempts "honest error," the Colorado committee turned into a kind of character police. Noting their dislike for Churchill’s "attitude," the committee members seem to have concluded without the slightest evidence that Churchill intentionally deceived readers with his footnotes.
For example, the Colorado committee concluded, “Professor Churchill repeatedly and deliberately cited the General Allotment Act of 1887 and once cited Janet McDowell’s book for the details of historical and legal propositions that he advances. Because both sources in fact contradict his claims, this is a form of falsification of evidence.” This logic is repeated in four out of the seven charges against Churchill. The Colorado committee’s basis for the claim of fabrication depends upon a fundamentally narrow-minded view of what a footnote should be.
However, footnotes serve many purposes. A footnote is not always definitive proof of the sentence being noted. It is common practice for footnotes to be used in order to refer readers to general works related to the period being discussed (as Churchill does), and even to cite works which provide a different or contradictory view of the era.
In my forthcoming book, Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies, I include a quote by former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer admonishing Americans to “watch what they say.” I have a footnote listing a news report about the statement. But I also include in the footnote a reference to a letter to The New York Times by Fleischer explaining why he is being misinterpreted. I do not comment on this claim, because every word in my footnotes counts against the word limit for the book, and I don’t want to waste precious space scrutinizing some political hack’s line of bullshit. But I thought readers might want to look at a different view.
According to the Colorado committee, I have committed "research misconduct." My footnote includes a source contradicting my interpretation of the comment. On the other hand, if I simply omitted the reference to Fleischer’s letter, and deprived readers of a chance to find a view disagreeing with my perspective, I would be a perfectly fine scholar in the committee’s eyes.
There is no reputable source for the Colorado committee’s claim that footnotes cannot include sources who disagree with the author. In order to evaluate the charge of research misconduct, the Colorado committee proclaimed that it would use the American Historical Association “Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct” as “a general point of reference.” However, the AHA statement is not intended to be a basis for punishing professors. Indeed, if anything the AHA justifies Churchill’s approach by urging scholars to be “explicit, thorough, and generous in acknowledging one’s intellectual debts.” Nor does the AHA statement include anything about the proper use of footnotes which would justify a charge of falsification.
The Colorado committee provides a footnote quoting the AHA statement that “historians pride themselves on the accuracy with which they use and document sources. The sloppier their apparatus, the harder it is for other historians to trust their work.” But there a vast difference between saying that lousy footnotes will affect your credibility and claiming that lousy footnotes can justify revocation of tenure.
In other words, the Colorado committee “proved” that Churchill was guilty of research misconduct for providing footnotes that did not support his claims by citing a footnote which did not support its claims. It seems strange that a committee which provides a thorough and fascinating account of the historical minutiae surrounding an 1837 smallpox epidemic would somehow fail to do any research on the meaning of fabrication and research misconduct. The Colorado committee’s shoddy work on the meaning of fabrication and misconduct stands in sharp contrast to its extensive research of the charges against Churchill.
The problem is that when a policy largely developed to address scientific misconduct is applied to the humanities, it must be properly interpreted. For example, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology dismissed a professor last year for research misconduct, it was because he literally fabricated data. No one has ever accused Churchill of fabricating data (such as making up historical sources). He is accused of making broad claims, without adequate evidence, which are probably wrong. That is lousy historical research, but it’s not research misconduct by any stretch of the imagination.
There is some evidence to find Churchill guilty on other charges of ghostwriting and plagiarism. But using footnotes as an excuse to fire Churchill makes the entire committee’s findings look like political expediency to remove an embarrassment to the University of Colorado. By turning every case of bad research into research misconduct, the Colorado committee threatens to expose the entire academic system to a political witch hunt. In an era when the right-wing is already targeting college professors for their extramural statements and political comments in class, this radical revision of research standards could mark the next step in the war on academic freedom.
Tomorrow night at a church in London, there will be a gathering of several hundred people to celebrate the launch of "The Euston Manifesto" -- a short document in which one sector of the British and American left declares itself to be in favor of pluralist and secular democracy, and against blowing people up for the glory of Allah.
The Eustonians also support open-source software. (I have read the document a few times now but am still not sure how that one got in there. It seems like an afterthought.)
More to the point, the Eustonians promise not to ask too many questions -- nor any really embarrassing ones -- about how we got into Iraq. The important thing, now, is that it all end well. Which is to say, that the occupation help build a new Iraq: a place of secular, pluralist democracy, where people do not blow each other up for the glory of Allah.
Suppose that a civic-minded person -- a secular humanist, let's say, and one fond of Linux -- takes a closer look at the manifesto. Such a reader will expect the document to discuss the question of means and ends. This might be addressed on the ethical plane, at some level of abstraction. Or it might be handled with a wonky attention to policy detail. In any case, the presumed reader (who is nothing if not well-meaning) will certainly want to know how Eustonian principles are to be realized in the real world. In the case of Iraq, for example, there is the problem of getting from the absolutely disastrous status quo to the brilliant future, so hailed.
Many of the signatories of the manifesto are, or until recently were, some variety or other of Marxist. Its main author, for example, is Norman Geras, a professor emeritus of government at the University of Manchester. His work includes Literature of Revolution, a volume of astute essays on Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg. (Full disclosure: Geras and I once belonged to the same worldwide revolutionary socialist organization, the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, and probably both choke up a little when singing “The Red Flag”).
Surely, then, the Euston Manifesto will bear at least some resemblance to the one written by a certain unemployed German doctor of philosophy in 1848? That is, it can be expected to provide a long-term strategic conception of how the world reached its current situation (“The history of all hitherto existing society is a history of class struggles”). And it will identify the forces in society that have emerged to transform it (“Workers of the world unite!”). And from this rigorous conceptual structure, the document can then deduce some appropriate shorter-term tactics. In The Communist Manifesto, for example, Marx and Engels pointed to universal suffrage and a progressive income tax as mighty strides forward towards the destruction of capitalism.
OK, so the proposals might not work out as planned.... Hindsight is 20-20. But a manifesto -- to be worth anyone’s time, let alone signature -- will, of course, be concrete. At the event in London tomorrow night, the comrades will rally. Surely they would never settle for broad and bland appeals to high ideals, rendered in language slightly less inspiring than the Cub Scout oath?
Well, judge for yourself. “The Euston Manifesto” was actually unveiled in April, when it was first published online. It is has an official Web site. The inspiration for it had come during a meeting at a pub near the Euston stop on the London Underground. (Hence the name.) The document has been debated and denounced at great and redundant length in the left-wing blogosphere. So the fact that the event this week in London is being described by the Eustonians as a “launch” is puzzling, at least at first. But when you realize what a rhetorical drubbing the manifesto has taken, the need for a public gathering is easier to understand. The Eustonians want to show that their heads are bloody but unbowed, etc.
The most cogent arguments against the manifesto have already been made. In April, Marc Mulholand, a historian who is a fellow at Oxford University, presented a series of pointed criticisms at his blog that seemed to take the Eustonian principles more seriously than the manifesto itself did. “Why should we expect pluralist states to foster the spread of democratic government?” he asked. “How can we audit their contribution to this universal ideal? What mechanisms ensure the coincidence of state real politick and liberal internationalism?”
And D.D. Guttenplan -- the London correspondent for “The Nation” and producer of a documentary called Edward Said: The Last Interview -- weighed in with an article in The Guardian accusing the Eustonians of, in effect, staging a historical reenactment of battle scenes from the Cold War.
In passing, Guttenplan wrote of the manifesto that “every word in it is a lie” – a bit of hyperbole with historical overtones probably lost on his British readers. (In a memorable denunciation -- and one that prompted a lawsuit -- of sometime Communist sympathizer Lillian Hellman’s work, Mary McCarthy said: “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”) Guttenplan tells me that he now considers his remark “a bit intemperate” yet still calls the manifesto “that bastard child of senescent sociology and the laptop bombardiers.”
Mulholand performed a kind of immanent critique of the Eustonians’ liberal-humanitarian proclamations. That is, he held their rhetoric up against their concepts -- and found the manifesto wanting no matter how you looked at it.
For Guttenplan, the manifesto makes more sense as a case of political bait-and-switch. “The political glue holding these folks together,” he told me, “was a kind of Zionism that dare not speak its name, in which anti-Semitism was the only racism worth getting excited about, and opposition to any kind of practical pressure on Israel or its UK supporters/defenders the only program that got these folks up from their laptops. Personally I find that both sneaky and, as my late mother would say, bad for the Jews.” (Complex irony alert! Guttenplan himself is Jewish.)
The liberal-internationalist case for military intervention in Iraq has recently been hashed out at length -- and in all of its disconcertingly belated moral passion and geopolitical irrelevance -- by the contributors to A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq, published last year by the University of California Press. The editor of that volume, Thomas Cushman, is a professor of sociology at Wellesley College, and a member of the editorial board of the online journal Democratiya -- as is Norman Geras, who drafted the Euston Manifesto.
Many of the contributions to the book and the journal are intelligently argued. They are worth the attention even -- and perhaps especially -- of someone opposed to the war. For a whole wing of the left, of course, to admit that one’s opponents might be capable of arguments (rather than rationalizations) is already a sign of apostasy. But I’ll take my chances. After all, you can only listen to Noam Chomsky blame every problem in the world on American corporations just so many times. It’s good to stretch your mental legs every so often, and go wandering off to see how people think on the other side of the barricades.
That said, reading the Euston Manifesto has proven remarkably unrewarding -- even downright irritating. It is not a matter of profound disagreements. (I am, broadly speaking, in favor of pluralist and secular democracy, and against blowing people up for the glory of Allah.) But the Eustonians seem to be issuing blank moral checks for whatever excellent adventures George Bush and Tony Blair decide to undertake.
They call for supporting the reconstruction of Iraq “rather than picking through the rubble of the arguments over intervention.” The systematic campaign of disinformation and phony diplomacy engineered over the course of two years preceding the invasion, then, is to be forgotten. It’s hard to imagine a more explicit call for intellectual irresponsibility. Or, for that matter, a less adequate metaphorical image. Anyone upset by “the rubble of the arguments over intervention” is definitely facing the wrong crater.
The Eustonians seem also perfectly indifferent to the cumulative damage being done to the very fiber of democracy itself. This summer’s issue of Bookforum contains a few poems by Guantanamo Bay detainees -- part of a much larger body confiscated by the military. As a lawyer for the detainees notes, a poem containing the line “Forgive me, my dear wife” was immediately classified as an attempt to communicate with the outside.
It is hard to imagine that this sort of thing really advances the Global War on Terror, or whatever we’re calling it now. But it is not without consequences. It destroys what it pretends to protect.
As I was musing over all of this, a friend pointed out a conspicuous absence from the list of signatories to the manifesto: Todd Gitlin, a professor of sociology and journalism at Columbia University. His book The Intellectuals and the Flag, published earlier this year by Columbia University Press, defends the idea of left-wing American patriotism with a frank interest “in the necessary task of defeating the jihadist enemy.”
This would seem to put him in the Eustonian camp, yet he did not endorse the manifesto. Why not? I contacted him by e-mail to ask. “I recognize a shoddy piece of intellectual patchwork when I see one,” Gitlin responded.
He cites a passage referring to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as “a liberation of the Iraqi people." A fine thing, to be sure. The sight of a humiliated dictator is good for the soul. “But the resulting carnage is scarcely worthy of the term ‘liberation,’” Gitlin told me. “I'm leery of the euphemism.”
Humanitarian interventionism needs an element of realist calculation. “The duty of ‘intervention and rescue’ when a state commits appalling atrocities,” he continued, “must be tempered by a hard-headed assessment of what is attainable and what are the reasonably foreseeable results of intervention. The document is cavalier about the ease of riding to the rescue. So while I support the lion's and lioness's share of the document's principles, I find it disturbingly, well, utopian. It lacks a sense of the tragic. I have not foregone the forced innocence of the anti-American left only to sign up with another variety of rigid, forced innocence.”
But in the final analysis, there was something else bothersome about the manifesto -- something I couldn’t quite put a finger on, for a while. A vague dissatisfaction, a feeling of blurry inconsequentiality....
Then it suddenly came into focus: The manifesto did not seem like the product of a real movement, nor the founding document of a new organization – nor anything, really, but a proclamation of dissatisfaction by people in an Internet-based transatlantic social network.
I dropped Norman Geras a line, asking about the virtuality of the phenomenon. Aren’t the Eustonians doomed to a kind of perpetual and constitutive blogginess?
“It's true that the manifesto is not seen by us as the rallying point for a particular organization,” Geras wrote back. “But it is seen as a rallying point nonetheless - as a focus for debate on the liberal-left, and for initiatives that might follow from that. The focus for debate part has already happened: there's been an enormous response to the manifesto and not only on the internet, but with significant press coverage as well. The venue for the launch meeting had to be changed because we ran out of tickets so fast for the original venue. So this isn't just a ‘virtual’ affair.”
The question from Lenin’s pamphlet comes up: What is to be done? “I'm not going to try to predict where or how far it will go,” says Geras. “One step at a time. But we already have more than 1,500 signatories and that means a lot of people in touch with us and interested in what the manifesto is saying. After the launch, we'll see what we want to do next in the way of forums, conferences, campaigns.”
Perhaps frustration with the document is misplaced? Something better might yet emerge -- once well-meaning people see the limits of the good intentions they have endorsed. You never know. But for now, with only the text to go by, it is hard to shake a suspicion that the Euston Manifesto owes less to Marx than to MySpace.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s report "How Many Ward Churchills?" has caused an uproar in some corners of the Internet. Criticism has centered on two issues: method and message. The report’s principal critics, Swarthmore history professor Timothy Burke and The Myth of Political Correctness author John K. Wilson, have attacked it, respectively, as a “casual, lazy, cherrypicking survey of whatever materials the author(s) were able to access on the Web,” and as part of “a vast new right-wing witch hunt on college campuses.” Both critiques share confused and erroneous assumptions about the report’s message and about ACTA’s right to criticize academic culture.
Burke complains that the report’s criticisms are ill-founded: They “see what they want to see,” they “ignore context or specificity,” and they “avoid REAL argument of the kind that scholars routinely engage in,” he grumbles. “The report talks about the need to guarantee that students have unrestrained rights to the free exchange of ideas in the classroom. Seriously, unless you bother to get off your ass and stop reading catalogues online, you have no idea what happens in classrooms.”
Setting aside Burke’s contemptuous tone, let’s examine the gaps in his reasoning. Burke’s initial objections are throw-away examples of faulty logic. The first, in which he accuses ACTA of post ergo propter hoc thinking, is itself an example of that logical fallacy: Burke sees ACTA seeing what ACTA wants to see because Burke wants to see ACTA that way. But the course descriptions ACTA cites are hardly unique or isolated. There are hundreds of similarly tendentious descriptions published by institutions across the country. They were chosen for their utter typicality, not their uniqueness.
Burke’s second objection is remarkably solipsistic -- context and specificity are whatever he defines them to be. ACTA quotes course descriptions verbatim, working from exactly what students (and interested parents) read to select a class. The reason? Course descriptions are designed to stand alone -- if they are all a prospective student needs to know about a class, then they are also all tuition-paying parents, taxpayers, and concerned citizens need in order to form a preliminary judgment.
This objection is part of Burke’s larger criticism of the report’s reliance on course descriptions. But his claim that these documents -- the main resource students use to decide whether or not to register for a class -- do not tell us anything about what happens in the classes in question is illogical at best, disingenuous at worst. If true, this charge would mean either that professors routinely engage in false advertising or that the process by which students choose courses is a charade that fools no one but students themselves.
In so arguing, Burke has chosen to stretch a point ACTA freely concedes -- that course descriptions are neither courses nor perfect windows into the curriculum -- in order to avoid ACTA’s more fundamental argument about why course descriptions matter. They matter because they are professors’ own public representations of what happens in their classrooms. That so many professors describe their pedagogical aims in ideologically loaded ways raises entirely legitimate questions about accountability and balance.
Of course, ACTA has never claimed to know exactly what is happening in classrooms, and does not assume authority to determine whether a class is pedagogically sound. All ACTA’s report does is to urge college and university presidents, deans, and faculty to examine the issue themselves. ACTA has already outlined ways campus leaders can review departments and programs while still being fair, respectful, and sensitive to academic freedom and academic autonomy. Our 2005 report, "Intellectual Diversity: Time for Action," was praised for its sensitivity to academic freedom and self-governance. Burke’s hasty and intemperate critique studiously evades these points.
Burke’s other criticism, that ACTA avoids “REAL” argument because it does not argue in the same manner as scholars do, is self-servingly dismissive: ACTA’s argument need not be considered, Burke implies, because ACTA has not made its argument as Burke thinks arguments should be made. But the truth is that ACTA’s report is expressly not an academic paper. It is a report designed to initiate dialogue about the college curriculum by outlining some of the dominant terms and patterns displayed in course offerings across the country. To condemn it, as Burke has, for failing to maintain scholarly standards of data analysis is like damning an apple for not being an orange.
Burke thus badly misunderstands ACTA’s report. He both thinks ACTA isn’t qualified to judge the academic curriculum and complains that ACTA has not framed a satisfactory program of reform. But ACTA stresses that academics should address the problem of self-regulation, and that they should do so now -- in the face of mounting legislative interest in controlling the curriculum. ACTA’s report is as friendly to institutional self-governance and academic freedom as it is possible for a watchdog organization to be.
Now for Mr. Wilson.
Writing at Inside Higher Ed, John K. Wilson treats ACTA’s report as Exhibit A in “a vast new right-wing witch hunt on college campuses”: “The far right is already pursuing leftist academics for expressing their views in the classroom,” Wilson writes. “ACTA threatens that academic freedom will be revoked from colleges unless they start censoring their professors and ban [courses that mention social justice, sex, or race].” But Wilson’s scaremongering misrepresents the report to an audience who, he seems to expect, will not check his sources.
Nowhere does ACTA advocate censoring professors or banning courses. The report urges academic officials to address -- voluntarily, and in institutionally appropriate ways -- professors’ obligation to respect students’ academic freedom to learn about controversial issues. The report recommends institutional self-study, hiring administrators committed to intellectual diversity, careful vetting of job candidates’ work, review of personnel practices, post-tenure review, and -- most importantly -- fostering robust debate on campus.
Here are the study’s concluding paragraphs, which follow directly from the sentence Wilson quoted to argue that ACTA is endorsing censorship:
Ultimately, greater accountability means more responsible decision-making on the part of academic administrators, more judicious hiring on the part of departments, and more balanced, genuinely tolerant teaching on the part of faculties. It also means acknowledging--openly and unapologetically--that education and advocacy are not one and the same, that the invaluable work of opening minds and honing critical thinking skills cannot be done when professors are more interested in seeing their own beliefs put into political practice.Finally, it means defending the academic freedom of even the most militantly radical academics. Our aim should not be to fire the Ward Churchills for their views, but to insist that they do their job--regardless of their ideological commitments. We must insist that, in their classrooms, they teach fairly, fostering an open and robust exchange of ideas and refusing to succumb to a proselytizing or otherwise biased pedagogy. Only then will their ideas be subject to debate; only then will they and their students learn to defend their positions in the marketplace of ideas. Only then will other views challenge, complicate, and even displace theirs. Only then can we hope to create a truly diverse academy.
Far from calling for censorship or the banning of classes, ACTA urges transparency about what professors teach; far from trying to silence politically engaged professors, ACTA defends academic freedom while at the same time noting that 1) academic freedom does not mean freedom from criticism or freedom from accountability; and 2) students have academic freedom too. Also worth noting: When the Ward Churchill scandal broke in 2005, ACTA defended Churchill from those who sought to fire him for his speech.
Wilson mistrusts definitions of research misconduct that include egregiously misleading citations -- and no wonder. His own argument about ACTA depends on the willful manipulation of sources.
Neither Burke nor Wilson reads ACTA’s report objectively, choosing instead to see it as proof of that worn professorial complaint, that no one outside the ivory tower understands academics. But what neither grasps is that it is not the public’s job to intuit the special worth of professors. Insofar as Burke and Wilson represent an academic consensus that outsiders are not qualified to judge -- or scrutinize, or question -- higher education, they signal the depth of the complacent insularity ACTA’s report takes to task.
If ACTA’s report has a take-home message for academics, it is that they urgently need to justify to a skeptical public why their work deserves special protections. Only then, ironically, will they have a chance of preserving the independence they cherish. With transparency comes respect; with accountability comes autonomy. That’s the paradoxical point of "How Many Ward Churchills?" -- that the more open one is about one’s practices, the more willing one is to allow one’s work to be scrutinized, the more responsive one is to legitimate criticisms, the more likely one is to be allowed to carry on without undue interference. What a pity that Burke and Wilson could not take off their ideological blinders long enough to see that.
Anne D. Neal
Anne D. Neal is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
Two years ago -- before David Horowitz, the Academic Bill of Rights, and other pressure points on political and ideological bias made the topic such a hot one -- we were speaking at a national conference in Washington about a study that we are now just finishing. The study is called the Political Engagement Project and examines 21 undergraduate courses and programs that aim to strengthen the understanding, the skills, and the motivation needed to be politically engaged citizens.
As a way to make the work in these courses and programs come alive, we told what we thought was a compelling story about a Duke University student in one of the programs, called Service Opportunities in Leadership. The student interned in a New York City textile workers union, and subsequently helped organize Students Against Sweatshops at Duke, which led to a new code of conduct for Duke licensees, the first in the country.
We finished the talk at the national conference that included this tale, turned to questions, and were faced with this one at the outset. “What,” the questioner asked, “does the Duke program do to ensure that conservative students have opportunities if they want to work in businesses or with conservative political or Christian organizations for their summer internships? Why,” the questioner went on, “did you refer only to a liberal group and not a conservative one?”
The question was a good one, and it forced us to stop and think, not just on the podium, but for some time thereafter. Fortunately, the program leader was in the audience, and she was able to say that she did make special efforts to ensure a range of internship opportunities, including some with conservative organizations. The question caught us off guard, however, and caused us to reflect hard on issues of ideological and political bias. Without intending to do so, we had implied that working in a union and protesting sweatshops were ideological prototypes of the kinds of political engagement that we were promoting. We should have used some other examples as well, and we should have explicitly addressed the issues involved in encouraging student political engagement without promoting particular ideologies or political positions.
We have come to see those issues as critical, and we are addressing them at length in a book on educating for political engagement, to be published by Jossey-Bass. In that book, we encourage colleges to make education for political development an explicit goal for undergraduate learning and suggest ways to accomplish that goal. We underscore that, in order for this agenda to be legitimate, it is crucial to create a harmonious relationship between the political development goals we are advocating and the special character and core values of higher education. These values include academic freedom, norms of faculty professionalism, standards of intellectual discourse, open-mindedness, and civility.
Academic freedom implies that, within the boundaries of departmental and institutional needs, it is up to professors to determine the specific goals and content of the courses they teach and to decide what material and assignments will best accomplish those goals. This includes making judgments about whether and how to address controversial issues in whatever domains are relevant to the course, including political and public policy issues.
But academic freedom is not unlimited. It is bounded by another central cluster of academic values, which establish standards for both scholarship and teaching. These standards represent a shared understanding of academic discourse as requiring reasoned justification of claims, presentation of evidence, and consideration of plausible alternative explanations of the evidence and of objections to proposed interpretations. When education for political development is introduced into academic coursework, it must conform to these standards -- just like any other subject matter is.
In this way, academically based education for political development contrasts sharply with political advertising and with much informal political discourse in everyday life. Often those non-academic forms of political “education” use all available means to achieve their goals, whereas education for political understanding in the academy has to be shaped by reasoned argument, warrant or evidence for one’s views, consideration of alternative points of view, and a knowledge base that is as free of ideological bias as possible. In good teaching, faculty members back up their claims and assertions and take seriously alternative points of view for which a credible case can be made. In a course on U.S. immigration policy, for example, a professor may offer evidence that undocumented workers in this country do not take jobs away from U.S. citizens and legal aliens, but he or she should also expose students to the views of economists who have a different view. The responsibility to teach in conformity with standards of academic discourse also means that students are free to put forward ideas that conflict with positions taken by the faculty member, and those ideas will be judged on their merits.
Open-mindedness and respect for multiple (credible) points of view are important in all teaching and are especially critical when teaching for political understanding and engagement. Faculty members ought to help their students develop a quality of openness to new ideas as well as the capacity to make and evaluate arguments and justifications for their own and others’ positions. These two goals are linked, since students need some basis on which to make judgments about the new ideas they are considering.
When courses involve serious engagement with provocative ideas and multiple perspectives on controversial topics, students’ views are likely to differ sharply from each other or from the teacher’s point of view. Maintaining a respectful and civil tone in this kind of discussion is another hallmark of the best academically based political communication, which unfortunately contrasts boldly with much political communication outside (and even sometimes inside) the academy.
Leaders at every university agree that educating students in the practice of open-minded inquiry is a key component of undergraduate education, and most recognize that political issues cannot and should not be excluded from the mix. But creating a classroom and wider campus climate that is truly open to multiple perspectives on contested political issues is not easy to accomplish. One strategy for achieving this that has received a great deal of media attention in the past year or two is a call for legislation that would require colleges and universities to adopt an "Academic Bill of Rights." We believe this legislative strategy is seriously misguided. Perhaps most importantly, this kind of legislation threatens the time-honored freedom of academic institutions from outside political interference. Furthermore, we do not believe that a legislative solution will work. The problem with a legislative approach to ensuring open inquiry is that it casts the issue in negative terms, as a matter of policing the faculty -- and the campus more broadly -- to stamp out “indoctrination.” Given the complexity and ambiguity of both political and academic discourse, this kind of policing would be impossible to implement objectively. And cast in negative terms, the effort itself would be destructive to the goal of civil discourse across ideological boundaries. By contrast, a positive approach, in which administration, faculty, and students from different political perspectives join together to develop strategies for the positive pursuit of open inquiry, can itself contribute to a climate of open mindedness, respect, and cooperation.
On the campus level, faculty and administrative leaders should be self-conscious in raising the values of open-mindedness, civility, diversity of perspective, and judgment grounded in intellectual standards, fostering conversation about what these values mean, why they are important, and what they imply for higher education both inside and outside the classroom. Conversations should address the implications of these values for political discourse on campus, as well as for academic discourse more broadly.
Campus life offers many opportunities to foster political understanding and engagement in ways that embody these key values of the academic enterprise. Materials sent to newly admitted students, for example, should set an expectation that the campus will be a community of discourse and that students will be exposed to diverse opinions about many issues, including political issues.
Another place for establishing a campus-wide respect for diversity of opinion is in the choice of campus speakers and in guidelines for their treatment. Depending upon the issues being addressed, it can be particularly useful to sponsor sessions in which participants engage in deliberation about important issues, addressing not “both sides” of the issues but multiple sides. It is often valuable for these events to draw attention to the fact that many issues, such as immigration policy generate many different perspectives within as well as across political parties. Invited guests should also include those who represent positions and accomplishments that are hard to classify on a simple left-right dimension. If campuses want to foster respect for diversity of perspective, speakers should also include respected exemplars of open-mindedness and civility who (despite their own convictions at one or another point on the political scale) truly believe that effective, engaged citizens need to be skilled at communicating and forming alliances with people whose perspectives are different from their own. This might include, for example, a conversation among Democratic and Republican elected officials about the importance of bipartisanship. In a recent radio interview, Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy talked eloquently about the productive collaborations he has pursued with Republicans such as Orrin Hatch and John McCain. He points out that “even though you differ one time, you try and find ways of working [together] at another. And I think unless you have that kind of temperament, if you’re just going to get upset with somebody that’s going to oppose you, you’re in the wrong business.” Surely Senators Hatch and McCain would agree.
As important as it is to strengthen norms of open mindedness, intellectual pluralism, and civility at the campus level, if faculty members who address political issues in their courses do not ground their teaching in those norms, the wider invocations will ring hollow. This is not easy to accomplish, and seldom happens without conscious effort. Even the best teachers can sometimes be unaware of ideological biases that limit the breadth and openness of discourse in their courses. Professors should plan ahead to ensure that students encounter a wide array of credible perspectives in assigned readings on the political and public policy issues addressed by their courses. Bringing invited speakers into the classroom is another engaging and vivid way to represent and stimulate discussion of diverse political perspectives that may not otherwise be represented.
In deciding the range of perspectives needed, much depends on the particular course and its context. We see nothing wrong with a course on the Marxist interpretation of history, but it should not be the only history course open to students. It is not surprising to find pro-business courses in business schools and pro-labor courses in labor-studies departments. But students should understand clearly what those courses are about and what perspectives are being offered, and faculty should root their analyses in reason and evidence not in unexamined political or ideological assumptions. Especially in general education courses, care should be taken to ensure multiple ideological lenses are used and that none are championed as having a monopoly on truth.
Of course, diversity of opinion can come from students as well, and professors need to be mindful to draw out and support students who express minority positions. Faculty members should also establish standards for civility, while acknowledging that some degree of conflict is unavoidable when talking about issues that evoke strong emotions. Establishing a sense of community in the group can be extremely valuable in allowing students to engage vigorously without causing or taking offense. In the process of engaging across differences of opinion, students can learn to overcome the polarization and demonization of the opposition that often seem to characterize contemporary electoral politics.
Faculty members who teach for political understanding and engagement often struggle with the question of whether concealing or revealing to students their own political beliefs would best uphold norms of professionalism, including the careful avoidance of even the appearance of proselytizing. Some feel that it is preferable for a number of reasons for them to tell students where they stand on the issues and why. This decision is based in a desire to model the process of taking and justifying a position and to be honest about their own beliefs and possible biases. Others prefer to keep their political opinions to themselves, believing that neutrality on their part will be more conducive to a climate that is open to multiple points of view. We believe that either choice is consistent with an open classroom climate as long as faculty members provide and encourage multiple perspectives, including those with which they personally disagree, and take care not to impose their views on students.
The key is to teach students to engage differences of opinion, to evaluate arguments, and to form their own opinions based on the best available evidence. To develop their own critical judgment -- and judgment is key -- students need the freedom to express their ideas publicly as well as repeated opportunities to explore a wide range of insights and perspectives. But students do not have a right to be free from troubling questions that may challenge the assumptions and beliefs they bring to the class. To the contrary, that tough questioning of unexamined assumptions is an essential part of a good undergraduate education in all domains.
These are difficult challenges. It is absolutely essential that we not take the easy road and eliminate or even dampen discussion of political issues on our campuses. To the contrary, we need to promote thoughtful inquiry about those issues. We need to prepare our students to grapple with complex public-policy concerns. They will be the stewards of our democracy.
Anne Colby and Thomas Ehrlich
Anne Colby and Thomas Ehrlich are senior scholars at the Carnegie Endowment for the Advancement of Teaching.Â
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a conservative advocacy group founded 10 years ago by the nation’s second lady, Lynn Cheney, recently released a report with the provocative title, “How Many Ward Churchills?” The answer, according to this unscientific “study” is offered early: “Ward Churchill in not only not alone -- he is quite common.” “Churchill” serves here as a metaphor for professors who allegedly use their classrooms for “push[ing] political agendas”; and also refers to the controversial activist professor of the University of Colorado who was found guilty by a faculty panel of egregious unprofessional behavior just days before the ACTA report was released. It is a safe guess that even if Churchill had been found innocent on all charges, ACTA’s report would have borne the same title. For ACTA, the professoriate is a beehive of swarming left-wing radicals.
ACTA says that the purpose behind its report is to “expose” professors. Hence it is an exercise in outing that, imitating David Horowitz’s recent book [sic] identifying “101[sic] dangerous [sic] professors,” tries to identify left-wing professors and attempts to shame their employers -- Vassar, Duke, Stanford, Swarthmore, and Yale among other privates, and Indiana, Minnesota, and Penn State among other publics -- into forcing faculty members to cease their “political advocacy and sensitivity training” and instead offer “objective and balanced presentations of scholarly research.”
The ACTA report lists no author(s) but Ann Neal, a lawyer, president of ACTA, and wife of influential conservative Congressman Tom Petri, is the author of record of the “Foreword.” For Neal academic freedom “is as much a responsibility as a right” and adds it “should end at the point where professors abuse the special trust they are given to respect students’ academic freedom to learn.”
But who should decide what the students learn and the criteria used to determine “learning”? By all customary standards of academic freedom, faculty professionals alone are qualified to determine curriculum and faculty alone are qualified to judge whether students have learned the material assigned.
The ACTA report avoids such issues. The report instead reads as a piece of political propaganda, built atop some anecdotes about courses bearing racy titles; and written by non-educators who object to college courses that deal with the issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, globalization, capitalism, American hegemony, oppression, and the destruction of the environment. For ACTA such courses betray an unacceptable “political stance” because they are taught by “scholar activists.” ACTA objects to courses that, in one example, stipulate that students “respect cultures and traditions that are not their own”; and it excoriates all courses dealing with “justice,” whether environmental, social, or racial. ACTA warns that “’Justice,’ in all these examples, is synonymous with a specific social agenda,” an agenda that clearly differs from ACTA’s own. The upshot, says the report, is that many students are “not receiving a sound education” and students “are being exploited by professors…” All Americans, says ACTA, “have a right to raise questions, demand answers, and compel action.” OK, but ACTA will not like what the public thinks about such calls for action.
The American Association of University Professors recently commissioned a public opinion survey with the support of the Spencer Foundation and Harvard University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. One thousand Americans aged 18 and older were chosen at random to participate; and the findings have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percent. The focus of the survey is on public perceptions of political bias in the academy, but we also ask about the public’s views on tenure, academic freedom, and on higher education more generally.
The survey shows that nearly 90 percent of the public -- across all age groups, party identification, gender, ideology, religion, ethnicity, and state location -- have a lot or some confidence in higher education, ahead of the public confidence levels in organized religion, the White House, and the press, trailing only the public’s confidence in the military. An equal percentage of the public highly ranks the occupation prestige of college or university professors, well ahead that of lawyers and stockbrokers, a bit ahead of elementary school teachers, and only behind physicians. Most Americans believe “political bias in the classroom” should be of less concern than the high cost of college, binge drinking, and low educational standards. Almost 77 percent of all Americans agree that tenure is a good way to reward accomplished professors and 70 percent agree that tenure is essential to the faculty’s freedom to teach, research, and write without concern. About 80 percent of the public is opposed to government control over what is taught in the classroom or what faculty research. And, 71.5 percent of those polled say that most professors are respectful when students voice political opinions different from the professor’s.
ACTA’s message, according to our survey results, will appeal primarily to the elderly, those with low levels of educational attainment, conservatives, and Republicans: these groups all have markedly less confidence in higher education and in the professional integrity of faculty. Although only 8 percent of all Americans say political bias in the classroom is the “biggest problem” of the academy, 37.5 percent nevertheless say that it is a “very serious” problem; broken down by party, 27 percent of Democrats think this, 39 percent of independents agree, and 48.5 percent of Republicans say political bias is a very serious problem. Moreover, the public’s support for tenure and academic freedom is soft. While a good-sized majority of the public does not favor government control of the classroom, 75.7 percent of all conservatives believe that professors who are communist or who support Islamic militants should not enjoy tenure and that taking such positions should be grounds for termination.
“Churchill,” as metaphor, resonates, then, with unreconstructed Cold Warriors, with conservatives, Republicans, and people who have not attended college or university. ACTA hopes this situation will change: “As public awareness of the problem mounts -- and as a movement for legislative intervention gains momentum -- it’s important to explore just how widespread the ‘Ward Churchill Phenomenon’ really is.” But if the AAUP public opinion survey is an accurate representation of public opinion, then ACTA’s campaign to force faculty to alter teaching and curriculum in a direction acceptable to cultural conservatives will fail. The public generally likes the professoriate as it is and believes that professors should be left alone to teach, and that “legislative intervention” into the classrooms is a very bad idea.
Roger W. Bowen
Roger W. Bowen is general secretary of the American Association of University Professors.
By all objective measures, the dawning of the 21st century should be a golden era for American higher education. A recent issue of The Economist described America’s system of higher education as “the best in the world” and provided convincing documentation for its claim. A recent review article by Jonathan Cole, provost at Columbia University, meticulously documents the preeminence of U.S. higher education in the world today as an established fact.
Perhaps sensing the current domestic political climate, however, Cole uses his analysis as the basis for sounding a strong cautionary note. “The United States paid a heavy price when the leaders of its research universities in the 1950’s failed to defend the leader of the Manhattan Project J. Robert Oppenheimer; the double Nobel Prize chemist Linus Pauling; and the China expert Owen Lattimore. But a wave of repression in American universities today is apt to have even more dramatic consequences for the nation than the repression of the Cold War.”
This broad-based and even global acclaim for higher education in the United States is strangely at odds with the concentrated political attacks that Cole warns us about and that the academy is currently experiencing. It is particularly out of step with the dark and dysfunctional picture of the academy painted by David Horowitz and his Center for the Study of Popular Culture. If Horowitz were simply a disaffected political crank, as many have hitherto regarded him, then his views on the academy could be easily dismissed. Such dismissal would seem to be all the more in order following his disastrous testimony before the legislative subcommittee in Pennsylvania in which he was forced to recant as unsubstantiated several of the cases that he had been widely circulating as documentation of alleged malfeasance in the academy.
Oddly, however, his campaign goes on. Horowitz, with assistance from Karl Rove and the former House majority whip, Tom DeLay, has briefed Republican members of Congress on his Academic Bill of Rights campaign and DeLay has even distributed copies of Horowitz’s political primer The Art of Political Warfare: How Republicans Can Fight to Win to all Republican members of Congress. Rove refers to Horowitz’s pamphlet as “a perfect pocket guide to winning on the political battlefield."
In a more recent development, last fall, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings appointed a Commission on Higher Education. Spellings, described as a protégé of Rove, gained considerable attention as the principal architect of President Bush’s controversial “No Child Left Behind” initiative. Among the proposals being discussed by Spellings’s new commission is one that calls for scrapping the current system of accreditation, which is done by independent regional bodies, in favor of a National Accreditation Foundation that would be created by Congress and the president.
The current system of institutional review through independent accreditation boards is one of the hallmarks of American higher education and is one of the most important structural safeguards of the academy’s ability to ensure academic quality and intellectual excellence. The introduction of oversight by an inherently partisan political body in lieu of the currently independent accreditation process is a peculiar remedy if the perceived ailment in the academy is political bias. Carol Geary Schneider, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, has said that “the commission is sending out firebolts, one after another." To chair this extraordinary committee Secretary Spellings chose Charles Miller, a former chairman of the University of Texas Board of Regents and, historically, a large contributor to the President’s election campaigns.
The question of why the academy is under such focused and persistent attack by individuals like David Horowitz and his political supporters despite the fact that it appears to be an extraordinarily successful enterprise and an unrivaled resource for the nation is a question that many Americans are asking. In understanding the origins, scope and staying power of this attack it is crucial to understand not only the political relationships that Horowitz enjoys, but the sources of funding that created and sustain his Center for the Study of Popular Culture and its Academic Bill of Rights campaign. It is also critical to understand that the same funding sources that brought Horowitz’s organization into being, also created and sustain a large and integrated network of ideologically defined think tanks and centers both outside of and within the higher education establishment.
When Michael S. Joyce died in February 24, his death received scant attention in the mainstream press. Although very few people in academic circles are familiar with his name, he was, nonetheless, one of the foundational pillars of the current ideological attacks on the academy. A tribute to him by Peter Collier was published in FrontPage, Horowitz’s Web site. Joyce and his intellectual muse -- the late University of Chicago political philosopher Leo Strauss -- would have been pleased by the level of anonymity that he maintained during his lifetime. Joyce's ability to maintain such anonymity despite the enormous influence that he wielded in shaping and developing the infrastructure of the neoconservative movement in this country is quite remarkable.
Although The Atlantic Monthly, as early as 1986, was describing Joyce as "one of the three individuals most responsible for the triumph of the conservative political movement," he nevertheless adhered rigorously to the secretive and profoundly antidemocratic principles advocated by the enigmatic Strauss. As characterized by Jeet Heer in The Boston Globe, Strauss held that "the best regime is one in which the leaders govern moderately and prudently, curbing the passions of the mob while allowing a small philosophical elite to pursue the contemplative life of the mind. Such a philosophical elite may discover truths that are not fit for public consumption.... For Strauss the art of concealment and secrecy was among the greatest legacies of antiquity."
In 1979, Michael Joyce entered the world of large-scale philanthropy with assistance from his mentor Irving Kristol, when he assumed the reins of the John M. Olin Foundation from the retiring president, William Simon. At Olin, one of Joyce’s first projects was to organize support for the launching of the Federalist Society. Joyce’s work in creating and fostering the development of the Federalist Society is instructive and foreshadows the role that he has played in current efforts by neoconservatives to restructure American higher education. The Federalist Society, with Joyce’s ongoing support, not only fostered the development of ultra-conservative legal scholars and politicians such as Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Robert Bork, Samuel Alito, John Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzales and Kenneth Starr (all of whom are members) but organized them into a powerful force for reshaping American jurisprudence in support of a larger neoconservative agenda.
Also significant in this regard is a report by Jerome Shestack, former president of the American Bar Association, that the Federalist Society is being increasingly being used as a platform from which to launch ideological attacks on the mainstream legal community. Through the device of the Federalist Society publication, ABA Watch, the society has launched a vicious attack on the ABA. In a special edition of the Watch, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), co-chair of the society, announced that he would no longer invite the ABA to participate on a pro forma basis in the Senate judicial confirmation process. Employing rhetoric eerily parallel to that being used in the current attacks on the academy, Justice Clarence Thomas openly denounced the ABA, declaring “I am doubtful that the ABA can ever reform itself.”
In her testimony before Pennsylvania's Select Committee on Academic Freedom in Higher Education, which convened in Philadelphia, Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, expressed a similar sentiment as to the ability of the academy to reform itself. “Faced with growing legislative pressure on this issue, the higher education establishment issued the American Council on Education statement, figured it would pretend to have a quick conversion, endorse intellectual diversity, get those yahoo legislators off their backs and go back to business as usual. DO NOT LET THEM GET AWAY WITH THIS CHARADE.”
In 1985, Michael Joyce left the Olin Foundation to assume the presidency of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, in Milwaukee. During this time, he not only built the Bradley Foundation into the largest and most influential right-wing foundation in the country, he also forged a formidable alliance among a small group of the nation’s largest, far right-wing foundations so that their resources could be more strategically deployed in support of the developing neoconservative agenda. Included in this alliance are the Koch Foundation (either directly or through its subsidiary the Claude Lambe Foundation), the Castle Rock Foundation (Coors) and the Sarah Scaife Foundations (either directly or through its subsidiaries the Carthage Foundation and the Alleghany Foundation) which, together with Olin and Bradley, have collectively financed the rise of the neoconservative movement in this country and have done so with an impressive display tactical precision.
It is a telling marker of the ideological cohesiveness and extremism of this core group of philanthropies that three of the five founding members, Joseph Coors, David Koch and Harry Bradley, were members and financial supporters of the John Birch Society. The Scaife foundations, headed by Richard Mellon Scaife, are also involved, albeit in less direct ways.
The absence of formal organizational linkages between the entities within these networks creates an illusion of independent analytical voices reaching similar conclusions about strategic policy issues, a technique known in the public relations industry as “astroturfing.” This network has developed an enormous capacity to generate “data” consistent with the targeted political agenda and world views of its core group of funders to quickly and redundantly represent these issues in the mainstream press by what appear to be the voices of independent analysts and to translate these viewpoints into public policy that serves the focused ideological agenda of this core group of funders. The Bradley Foundation under Michael Joyce's leadership has even established a publishing house, Encounter Books, to ensure that grantees like Horowitz have a quasi-academic outlet for their viewpoints.
The degree of interconnectedness within this network of organizations is considerable but almost invisible to the casual observer. For example, when ACTA’s president, Anne Neal, introduced herself to the Select Committee on Academic Freedom in Higher Education in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, she presented ACTA as “a bipartisan network of college and university trustees and alumni across the country dedicated to academic freedom.”
Full disclosure should have required some mention of the fact that ACTA (see funding sources above), which changed its name from the National Alumni Forum in 1998, was established by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in 1994. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute in turn evolved from William Bennett’s Madison Center for Educational Affairs and the Institute for Educational Affairs founded by Irving Kristol, Michael Joyce’s mentor, and William Simon, the first president of the John M. Olin Foundation. Bennett and Kristol also sit on ACTA’s Board of Directors. The remarkably consistent record of funding across all of the incarnations of this organization and the high degree of redundancy with Horowitz’s own, highly partisan Center for the Study of Popular Culture is not consistent with Neal’s definition of ACTA as an independent, non-partisan organization.
Another example illustrative of the quietly incestuous nature of this network is presented by an article by the Boston Globe columnist Cathy Young. The article is entitled “Liberal bias in the ivory tower” and by all appearances is an independent opinion piece written by a regular Globe columnist. At the end of the article Young identifies herself as “a contributing editor at Reason Magazine.” What is undisclosed in the article is that Reason Magazine is the publication of the Reason Foundation, whose funding sources are virtually the same as those funding Horowitz’s "Academic Bill of Rights" project and Neal’s ACTA.
Young’s premise for the article is stated in her opening sentence: “Yet another study has come out documenting what most conservatives consider to be blindingly obvious: the leftwing tilt of the American professoriate.” The study that she references was conducted by Stanley Rothman, now emeritus professor at Smith College; S. Robert Lichter, emeritus professor at George Mason University; and Neil Nevitte of the University of Toronto, and was published in the online journal Forum. This study was also cited by Neal in her testimony in Pennsylvania. Young does not inform her readers that Rothman is director of the Center for the Study of Social and Political Change, a center with funding sources that are remarkably redundant with Horowitz’s Center for the Study of Popular Culture. Lichter is also president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which again has funding sources that are redundant with those referenced earlier.
In addition, a recent article in Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting is highly critical of Lichter’s research methodology. Another example of such conflicted interests is provided by Professor Thomas Reeves. When Reeves writes in strong support of Horowitz’s proposals on the History News Network, he fails to note that he is a spokesman for the California Association of Scholars, a branch of the National Association of Scholars (see funding sources above) and that he is director of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, which was, again, brought into being by the Olin and Bradley Foundations.
This manufactured drumbeat against “academic bias” is amplified by Stanley Kurtz of the Hoover Institution (see funding sources above), Heather MacDonald, a John M. Olin fellow at the Manhattan Institute (see funding sources above), and Brian C. Anderson, editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal and a former research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (see funding sources above).
The relentlessness with which columnists and experts with direct funding relationships with Olin, Scaife, Bradley, Koch and Coors level charges of academic bias and assert the need for legislative reform of higher education is remarkable. The goal of this narrowly focused and ideologically driven public relations campaign can only be understood in terms of its fostering of a political climate in which federal regulatory “reform” of what is universally recognized as the finest system of higher education in the world, will be tolerated.
Indeed, as has been discussed, such regulatory oversight may already be in the offing. The academy stands today as one of the last spaces in America where the democratic ideas that shape the social, economic and political fabric of the nation can be openly and independently debated on the basis of their merits and without coercion or distortion from vested economic and political interests. It is certainly in the national interest that it remain such.
Alan Jones is dean of the faculty and professor of psychology and neuroscience at Pitzer College.
One of the first things a graduate student in the humanities and “softer” social sciences learns is that communication is rarely simple. Words carry latent values and vestigial biases, they are told, and over time the consequences of a word’s usage exceed its ostensible meaning. Post-bac training begins with that distinction, and students advance by attuning themselves to the tacit and the subtextual. “Language is not transparent,” announces the favorite T-shirt of a colleague, and to interpret statements accordingly isn’t just common wisdom. It’s a professional duty.
I’ve felt its pull many times, once while watching a debate on television around 1991 when the campus had become a central theater of the culture wars. Catharine Stimpson, Stanley Fish, and two others took on John Silber, William Buckley, Dinesh D’Souza, and Glenn Loury, with the canon, speech codes, and political correctness the topics. At one point, when Silber asserted the silliness of substituting the title “chair” for “chairman” -- women “calling themselves furniture,” he put it -- Fish replied with a point about the “deep culture of the language.” Often, he argued, “linguistic assumptions can be so deeply assumed that the society that uses them is not aware of them,” and when scholars and teachers unveil them, people feel threatened and confused. It’s a common premise, and it makes it easy to cast the academics as tenured meddlers going against common sense. The academics, in turn, feel that the more figures such as D’Souza resist, the more they know they’re on to something. That some of these expressions carry discriminatory baggage sharpens the analytic radar and adds a moral imperative to the labor. Indeed, no mandate has granted literary scholars so strong sense of mission in the last 25 years.
It certainly touched me, and I recall judging Buckley et al as obtuse anti-intellectuals and cheap-shot artists pitiably ignorant of advanced arguments. With a fresh Ph.D. in hand, and infused with Heidegger and Derrida, I believed fervently in the interpretative calling, disdaining what phenomenologists called the “natural attitude,” the outlook that takes things at face value. Added to that, I claimed language and literature as a professional subject, which meant that my livelihood depended upon the under- or other side of words, and that it took a special acumen to access it.
Fifteen years later, though, after countless written and spoken readings that lifted the political sediment out of ordinary and extraordinary language, the practice sounds pedestrian and predictable. In some cases, the search for “linguistic assumptions” exposed sexist and racist attitudes underlying different discourses, invisible but operative -- for instance, Gilbert and Gubar’s analysis in The Madwoman in the Attic of patriarchal motifs in critical discussions of creativity -- and it also reflected handily upon the institutional circumstances of them. But when it ascended into a theoretical premise, and soon after settled into a professional habit, the conclusions it drew lapsed into routine. Indeed, much queer theory has involved the extraction of queer subtexts from canonical texts and popular culture, influentially enough that assertions such as that of a lesbian undercurrent in "Laverne and Shirley," as one book offered several years ago, produces the effect of either whimsical curiosity or a rolling of the eyes.
The theory provided no guidelines as to where it did and did not apply, and so it was stretched too thin. It provided no means for distinguishing between content that was invisible from content that actually wasn’t there. The professors saw implicit meaning everywhere, much of it political or identity-oriented. Persons outside the academy looked at the whole of their exchanges and found most of them uncomplicated and transitory. The surface was all. To that audience, conservatives such as Silber had a better grasp of the nature of “linguistic assumptions” than the professors did. And it didn’t help that so many professors shared Theodor Adorno’s belief in “the stupidity of common sense.” That, indeed, may explain why conservative intellectuals routed the professors in public settings over the years -- not because they lacked nuance, played on irrational fears, or traded in simplistic, but telegenic gibes. Rather, they understood better when to analyze and when to assert, when to dismantle and when to affirm.
Both camps would agree, however, that the disclosure of assumptions and biases in language does apply to certain contexts, especially those in which an institution weighs heavily upon the utterances. When the protocols of communication are strict, when a statement reflects a speaker’s knowledge and legitimacy, when misstatements violate a group’s sense of mission, when entry into the discourse requires a long and regulated preparation by the entrant -- such settings are “overdetermined,” and they need detailed analysis and thick description. The terms are loaded and the topics authorized. Statements impart norms as well as ideas, mores as well as referents. The expressions licensed there reinforce the institution and echo its rationale. The subtext is dynamic, and if we don’t analyze it, then we do, indeed, break our promise to critique.
For this reason, it has been astonishing to watch the professors respond to indictments leveled recently by conservative, libertarian, and First Amendment figures against academic practice and politics. These figures cited voter registrations, campaign contributions, and occasional acts of oppression, but most of the time the first exhibit of bias and illiberalism was a sample of institutional language. Scholarly articles such as a 2003 study of the “conservative personality” that found fear and aggression at the heart of conservatism (“Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,” Psychological Bulletin. May 2003); course descriptions such as those gathered by American Council of Alumni and Trustees in a report issued last month; speech codes targeted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education; paper titles culled by Frederick Hess and Laura LoGerfo from the last meeting of the American Educational Research Association ... these formed the evidence. They served well because of their patent absurdity, or because of their offense to public taste, or their adversarial dogma (anti-American, anti-capitalist, etc.).
But while the manifest content had an immediate impact, sometimes entering national circulation as a reviled token (e.g., “little Eichmanns”), many claimed a deeper meaning for them. In a word, they were offered as symptomatic expressions, an index of the values, norms, biases, and interests of academics. Conservatives and others presented them as precisely the kind of language packed with “linguistic assumptions,” performing subtextual feats, and ripe for socio-political analysis.
And yet, how have the professors responded? Not by taking up the critical challenge and carrying out the analysis. Not by bouncing the samples off of the institution in which they appeared. Instead, they shot the messenger. They declared the samples isolated and un-representative, or they denied to them the symptoms alleged by the critics. The course description wasn’t a fair stand-in for the course itself, they protested. Ward Churchill’s post-9/11 rant was an aberration. The conference paper title was just a way to garner an audience, so let’s not confuse it with the real substance of the paper. In sum, they put the most benign construction on the samples. That turned the allegations back upon the people who cited them, David Horowitz, Anne Neal, and the rest, who were cast as sinister crazies pushing a vile political agenda.
One can understand the professors’ defensiveness, but to let it squelch the exercise of a practice that they have at other times wielded so boldly is a breach of their own ideals. Have they lived so long and so closely to “social justice,” “social change,” “queer,” “whiteness,” and “gender equality” that they do not recognize them as loaded terms? Have they imbibed the political currents of the campus so thoroughly that they regard a polemical phrasing in a course description as merely a lively description? By their own instruction, we should regard the widespread attention to race, gender, and their social construction as emanating from a world view and signaling an ideological commitment. When Ward Churchill’s notorious speech made headlines, the professors were correct to cite his First Amendment rights and reprove those calling for his job. But as more information came to light, and his political attitudes seemed to bear a closer relation to his scholarship, academic doctrine demanded that the institution that rewarded him be reviewed. Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, has assured the Commission on the Future of Higher Education that “Faculty members are accountable for their work in many ways,” including peer review of scholarship and grant applications and annual departmental review for salary and promotion. What, then, is the relationship between Churchill’s high ascent in the profession and his discredited writings? Humanities and social science professors work backward from institutional statements to the culture of the institution itself all the time. Why exempt academic language from the process?
The academic defense comes down to this: conservatives and libertarians read too much into bits and pieces of language -- an ironic turnabout, given that they used to make the same charge against literary theorists 20 years ago. Tim Burke, responding to the ACTA report, chooses the term “Eurocentric” as a case in point. While ACTA’s report selected a course description containing the term as an instance of bias, Burke replied, “I’ll let them in on a little secret: it can also be just a plain-old technical term for historiographical models that argue that modern world history has primarily been determined by factors that are endogamous to Europe itself.” So it can, but even if we accept that as one meaning of Eurocentric, it doesn’t erase the occasions when, as Burke concedes, “the term is also used as a fairly dumb epithet by nitwitted activists.” That is precisely one of the dangers of loaded terms. They can function neutrally or tendentiously, and when pressed the users can always fall back upon claims of innocence.
The question rests upon the frequency of biased meanings, “the existence of telling linguistic patterns,” as Erin O’Connor puts it while commenting on the issue. When a call for papers foregrounds anti-union corporatist practices, is that a tendentious usage, or are the libertarian commentators who cite it being oversensitive? The answer largely depends upon one’s relation to the institutional setting. When a libertarian delivers a talk at a symposium sponsored by Reason Magazine, the mention of government will have over- and undertones different from those issuing from government at a meeting of social justice advocates. From my perspective in 1991, I regarded Eurocentric, theory, patriarchy, and even the blank terms race and gender as descriptive ones. Yes, they had a political thrust, but essentially they were justified because they were accurate names for real phenomena in history and society. Indeed, it was the other discourse that was politicized, the one from which race etc. were absent. Now, having watched those terms in action, I see them as more often tendentious than not. In the majority of cases, their “institutional meaning” overshadows their denotative meaning.
That’s my experience, and maybe it’s too partial to count. But we can’t know for certain so long as leading academics remain as quick to deny the possibility that a narrow political agenda underlies academic discourse. Apart from the wall it erects against further inquiry, the reflex draws them into a vulnerable position. First of all, it results in overt intellectual blunders. For example, in the article cited above on the conservative personality, the authors define “conservatism” as, at heart, “opposition to change,” a simplistic and sweeping characterization that allows them to conclude, “One is justified in referring to Hitler, Mussolini, Reagan, and Limbaugh as right-wing conservatives ... because they all preached a return to an idealized past.” (They also add Stalin, Khrushchev, and Castro to the list of political conservatives.)
A second and more damaging problem in neutralizing their own terminology is the double standard it represents. Academics recognize the tension in terms such as race and sexuality, but they attribute its source to the resistances of others, persons who can’t give up their own biases and anxieties. That tactic will only work behind the campus walls. Try it in an outside setting and the arrogance comes across immediately. The hypocrisy shows, too, as academics fail their own standard. They present themselves as hard-headed, clear-sighted analysts, but in this case they prove selective in their labor. People outside the campus recognize that academia is just the kind of Establishment that calls out for ideological and social criticism, and its language is one place to begin. Academics already have a credibility problem when discussing their own practices, and if they wish to face down their many critics, they need to start extending those criticisms by themselves. Public observers realize, however reluctantly, that the best people to conduct that examination are the professors themselves, if only they will stop acting so proprietary. If academics don’t assume the lead, then they will find their credibility falling still further, having revised one of their favorite dicta to their own advantage -- “a ruthless criticism of everything existing,” everything, that is, but their own.
Mark Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory University.
Conservatives regularly complain about the dominance of the political left on American college campuses. They are right that this is a serious problem -- for us, for our students, and for the country. But the most vocal critics are wrong about the cause of this liberal ascendancy, which is why their preferred solution, the enactment into law of an "Academic Bill of Rights" to forbid discrimination against conservatives in hiring and promotion, will not bring about any real improvement.
That professors as a group are to the left of the population as a whole cannot seriously be denied. Several recent studies employing a variety of different methodologies all reach essentially the same result: liberals outnumber conservatives on college faculties by at least five or six to one. The first reaction I usually get when I tell people I'm a Republican and a college professor is bewilderment, followed by such questions as: "How is that possible?" (usually from someone on the left who assumes that to be smart and well educated is to be liberal) and "Do they allow that these days?" (from someone on the right who assumes that academic conservatives invariably suffer discrimination).
Although some vocal conservatives complain that liberal faculty members use their classrooms to indoctrinate students and to punish dissenting students by giving them poor grades, my own experience suggests that such incidents are quite rare. In my 20-plus years as a conservative student and teacher at three strongly left-leaning institutions (Princeton, Harvard, and Colby), I have never felt discriminated against. I have only once witnessed an overtly propagandizing classroom presentation, and have I only once heard a student complain about being graded unfairly for not hewing to the professor's party line.
Overt discrimination against conservatives is not a widespread problem, I suspect, because the overwhelming majority of faculty and administrators at places like Colby are, in fact, deeply committed to the ideals of free inquiry and fair treatment for all. Like most other institutions of higher learning in the United States, Colby accepts the American Association of University Professors' Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. That statement explicitly affirms the freedom of researchers and teachers to seek the truth and of students freely to pursue the truth. That statement explicitly warns that classroom teachers "should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject."
The dominance of the political left on our campuses poses another danger, which should be much more troubling than the occasional incidents of overt discrimination or indoctrination that from time to time occur. That danger is the ever-increasing cultural marginalization of academe, which threatens intellectual impoverishment to all of us -- professors, students, and ordinary citizens alike. There was a time, not that long ago, when leading figures in higher education served as public intellectuals, addressing the vital issues of their day and receiving a respectful hearing from political leaders and the public at large. These days, if a professor from any field outside the hard sciences is being quoted in the media, odds are good that it's for the purpose of ridicule.
Academics are fond of lamenting the decline of the public intellectual, but we too often blame the public for having forsaken us without asking whether it is not we who have forsaken the public. The central problem with academe today is that we overwhelmingly speak professionally only to other academics, who share our sense of what questions are important and our wider range of values and commitments. Academe has continued to move ever further to the cultural and political left not through any overt discrimination against conservatives but through a decades-long process of self-selection.
Left-leaning professors tend to address questions that interest them, with the predictable though not intended consequence of inspiring their left-leaning students and leaving their more conservative students indifferent or disenchanted with academe. Is it any surprise that smart young liberals get Ph.D.'s and become liberal professors, while smart young conservatives tend to pursue careers in business or the other professions instead? I have no doubt that academe will never again become central to American cultural life as long as professors continue to represent such a narrow spectrum of political affiliations and religious beliefs. Nevertheless, our problems cannot be solved by party politics or by legislation and lawsuits.
Instead, those of us in the academy need to do a better job of remembering that the AAUP Statement on Academic Freedom also commits us to put the common good ahead of personal and institutional advancement. We should, therefore, strive always to speak to a wider audience beyond the inbred confines of academe. To those conservative and religious students who feel marginalized at college, I say: Stop complaining and start studying; become professors, and teach the classes you wish had been offered when you were in college.
Joseph Reisert is the Harriet S. Wiswell and George C. Wiswell Jr. Associate Professor of American Constitutional Law and chair of the Government department at Colby College. A version of this piece was originally published in Maine's Morning Sentinel.
One obstacle to reasonable public and scholarly dialogue on the alleged political biases of liberal or leftist professors has been the tendency of David Horowitz, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and many of their allies to fall into various versions of the ad populum fallacy, to the effect that there is something wrong with professors because they are out of step with the majority of the American people, who (at least in public institutions) pay their salary through taxes. Thus Larry Mumper, the Republican introducing Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights” in the Ohio legislature, asked in an interview with The Columbus Dispatch, “Why should we, as fairly moderate to conservative legislators, continue to support universities that turn out students who rail against the very policies that their parents voted us in for?” The implication is that professors and their students should tailor their political views to follow the latest public opinion polls or election results.
Politicians like Mumper, along with many media blowhards and members of the public who revile professors, appear to have little more familiarity with the nature of humanistic scholarship than they do with that of brain surgery -- though they would not presume to tell brain surgeons how they should operate, even in a tax-supported hospital. The former field is at the disadvantage that it addresses public issues on which everyone does and should have an opinion. There is a difference, however, between just any such opinions and those derived from standards of professional accreditation (upwards of 10 years graduate study for a Ph.D. and 7 more for tenure), systematic scholarship, and academic discourse. That discourse is based on the principles of reasoned argument, rules of evidence and research procedures, wide reading and experience, an historical perspective on current events, open-minded pursuit of complex, often-unpopular truths, and openness to diverse viewpoints. (For a fuller, excellent discussion of the differences between popular and academic discourse, see “From Ideology to Inquiry,” by Anne Colby and Thomas Ehrlich). This also means that academic discourse should stand independent from government pressure and public opinion, in a similar manner to the ideal of a free, independent press. That is why taxpayers should be willing to support the autonomy of the academy, within reasonable limits, whether or not it agrees with their personal views.
I have spent 30-some years in conservative communities and state universities, teaching lower-division English argumentative writing and literary history courses that are general education requirements for students in business or technological majors, many of whom would not have chosen to take any such courses and resent them as increasingly costly obstacles to the most direct path to a high-paying job. Most such students are conservative, not in any intellectual sense, but in the sense (which they admit) of fearfully conforming to the political and economic status quo, to the attitudes that will be expected of them as compliant employees, and to the necessity of looking out for number one in the “Survivor” sweepstakes of the global economy. Such students are not likely to welcome the cognitive dissonance forced on them by humanities courses demanding Socratic self-questioning of their sociopolitical or religious dogmas, and they are wont to express their resentment, if not in complaints to Horowitz, in the course evaluations that have been debased into consumer-satisfaction surveys in which the top-ranked teachers provide the fewest demands and the highest grades.
Now, we might expect both liberal and conservative scholars and other intellectuals to agree, at the least, in opposition to all of these forces that are detrimental to humanistic education. Conservative disciples of Plato, Matthew Arnold, Leo Strauss, and Allan Bloom decry the contamination of both elite education and enlightened government by the ignorant masses and “philistine” (in Arnold’s term) commercial interests. Conservative intellectuals from the early formulators of neoconservatism like Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer to recent figures like spokespersons for the National Association of Scholars, Lynne Cheney (when she ran the National Endowment for the Humanities), and even Horowitz have positioned themselves as champions of high academic standards, the humanistic traditions of Western Civilization, and Arnoldian disinterestedness -- against the alleged debasement of those principles by academic and cultural leftists. Shouldn’t they be equally outspoken against the debasement of higher education by turning it over to public opinion polls, partisan legislation, job training and other service to corporations or professions, and student-consumer popularity contests, as well as by ever-mounting tuition and declining financial aid restricting access to the wealthy and white (except for varsity athletes, of course)?
To the contrary of the facile equation, by some conservative and left intellectuals alike, of “the Western humanistic tradition,” with political conservatism, we liberal scholars have on our side the central role in that tradition of dissent and resistance to the authority of governments, churches, the wealthy, and majority opinion. We invoke Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightenment skepticism in urging his nephew Peter Carr, “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there is one, He must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.” And we cite Jefferson’s model of tax-funded, free, universal public education through the university level, which, if it had been adopted nationally, “would have raised the mass of people to the high ground of moral respectability necessary to their own safety, and to orderly government; and would have completed the great object of qualifying them to select the veritable aristoi, for the trusts of government, to the exclusion of the pseudalists.” (That is, the aristocracy of merit over that of wealth and hereditary power.)
We also invoke Ralph Waldo Emerson’s exhortations for scholars and other intellectuals to “defer never to the popular cry,” to stand up against majority opinion, unjust governmental power (specifically on issues of his time like support for slavery and the Mexican-American War), and corporate plutocracy; in “The American Scholar” he speaks of “the disgust which the principles on which business is managed inspire.” We follow Emerson up with his disciple Henry David Thoreau’s “Life Without Principle” (“There is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay to life itself, than this incessant business”), and “Civil Disobedience”: “Why does [government] not cherish its wise minority?.... Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?”
This conception of liberal education as a minimal counter-force to the political and economic status quo, as well as to majority opinion, is fraught with difficulties and possible abuses, to be sure. Can we, or should we, avoid revealing our own moral or political sympathies in class? Should we, for example, teach Plato, Jefferson, Emerson, and Thoreau (or Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King) as inspirations for existential moral choices, or simply as subjects of neutral study, perhaps as representatives of a particular viewpoint or “bias,” always to be balanced against sources on “the other side,” including equal time for defenses of slavery and segregation? Moral judgments are of course less disputable in reference to such past conflicts than to present ones like the war in Iraq or affirmative action; neither conservative nor liberal polemicists have provided a clear road map for how teachers should deal with current moral disputes and public opinion about them.
In broader terms, both conservative and liberal educators have long lamented the political illiteracy of the American public in general and college students in particular. However, amid all the mutual recriminations about this and related issues in academic politics, there has been sadly little constructive discussion of the appropriate time, place, and manner for the fostering of civic literacy in either secondary or college education. My impression is that the exhortations of NAS, ACTA, and other conservative educators for core liberal arts curriculum and more requirements in history -- with which I happen to agree -- fall short of outlining a coherent curriculum and pedagogy for critical citizenship. (On the flip side, many liberal advocates of multiculturalism and diversity have failed to delineate what kind of studies American students of all ethnic, gender, and social-class groups need for minimal common knowledge as citizens.) In such a curriculum and pedagogy, students would not merely be indoctrinated into American chauvinism and simplistic “virtues,” as some on the right advocate, but would be encouraged to think critically about competing ideological or moral viewpoints (in party politics, journalistic and entertainment media, as well as scholarly sources) about American and world history, as well as about the present world.
The pedagogical approach that I personally have developed over the years applies Gerald Graff’s principle of “teaching the conflicts,” in presenting students out front with the current debates on such issues and disclosing my own left-of-liberal viewpoint on them, as exactly that -- one perhaps biased viewpoint among other possible ones, to be understood in relation to opposing ones and studied through the best conservative vs. liberal or leftist research sources that students can find, leaving it up to them to evaluate the opposing arguments, and grading them on their skill in researching and analyzing sources. I do not claim that mine is a foolproof approach, but most of my students have found it a fair one throughout the years, and I have heard few alternatives, especially from conservative educators.
There are daunting problems here in persuading the public, politicians, and students to respect academic expertise, autonomy, and the role of higher education as a Socratic gadfly to the body politic. At the same time, scholars have a responsibility to show consideration and discretion toward public opinion, and toward students who dissent from our opinions. But cannot conservative and liberal scholars at least join in endorsing these general principles, while scrupulously addressing the difficulties in implementing them, through civil dialogue? And shouldn’t some of the foundations, professional organizations, or government agencies that have channeled their resources into partisan battles in the culture wars be willing to sponsor a bipartisan task force pursuing such a dialogue in quest of resolutions to these problems?
Donald Lazere is professor emeritus of English at California Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo and currently teaches at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He is the author of Reading and Writing for Civic Literacy: The Critical Citizen’s Guide to Argumentative Rhetoric (Paradigm Publishers).
Submitted by John Sexton on September 18, 2006 - 4:00am
It is alarming that, in our age of information, the number of utterly uninformed voters is astonishingly high. We are witnessing a palpable decline in the public’s appetite for nuance, complexity and critical thinking, which in turn has spawned a virulent secular dogmatism and an alarming devolution in both the substance and style of public discourse.
Viewed superficially, we could celebrate our time as a halcyon era of information and discourse. The Internet is a revolutionary tool, which provides the newest basis for such a belief; however, it works not only for but also (and less obviously) against the ideal of an informed and intellectually curious public. It does enable the previously passive and powerless to become actors and interactors in the unfolding drama of public discourse and politics; but, even as it empowers and informs vast numbers of citizens, it also is a tool for misinformation and false attacks, polluting the dialogue with an apparent “knowledge” base undisciplined by traditional standards of accuracy in public communication. Bloggers are their own editors and many make little effort to verify what they post.
As an information surplus develops, the absence of accountability combines with an absence of formal checks to make it possible for pseudofacts to spread like wildfire. This presents even the intelligent and the rigorous with a serious sorting problem. One unsurprising response to this barrage of undifferentiated information is a kind of nihilism about knowledge which leads almost inexorably to an equation of fact and opinion and the reduction of argumentation to assertion. Paradoxically, this trend breeds and feeds a version of unreflective dogmatism.
The signs are everywhere. The guru of Apple Computer, Steve Jobs, introduced his latest product, the iPod Shuffle, a machine designed to free the music listener from deciding what song he or she wants to hear, by proclaiming the slogan: “Life is random.” And, to the same effect, Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, reviewed on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, intellectualizes this call to randomness, advising people to Blink - to “think without thinking” by relying on intuition rather than analysis and reflection. True to his provocative thesis, Gladwell offers it without taking account of the clear experimental data showing, in the words of New York Times columnist, David Brooks, that “formal statistical analysis is a much, much better way of predicting everything from the outcome of a football game to the course of liver cancer than the intuition even of experts.”
Even the SAT exam, for decades a symbol of American meritocracy, displays this disturbing trend. Much was made of the inclusion, beginning this year, of a writing component in the basic test: this, we were told, would test critical thinking. Yet, as it turns out, success on the test is best produced by accepting one or the other of the dichotomous positions presented in the test essay question -- and arguing strongly for it, offering no weight to the adverse point of view, no waffling. Clarity of view is the key -- no penalty even for preposterously incorrect facts -- and, this, in service of critical thinking?
The general tendencies are reflected in the increasingly impoverished quality of what is said by our political leaders in the public forum. Candidates for public office now relentlessly employ slogans, talking points, simplistic messages and attack ads. Ninety percent of political conversation amounts to dueling “talking points.” Best-selling books reinforce what folks thought when they bought them. Talk radio and opinion journals preach to the converted. Let’s face it: the purpose of most political speech is not to persuade but to win, be it power, ratings, celebrity or even cash.
By contrast, marshaling a case to persuade those who start from a different position is a lost art. Honoring what’s right in the other side’s argument seems a superfluous thing that can only cause trouble, like an appendix. Politicos huddle with like-minded souls in opinion cocoons that seem impervious to facts.
Certainty must not replace truth as the goal of inquiry. The issues we face today must be viewed from multiple perspectives and do not have one single definition, let alone a single resolution. How do we provide quality health care at low cost to all citizens? What does it take to reduce the achievement gap in education? What needs to be done to overcome racism, sexism, homophobia? How should we treat new immigrants? We must have more than information to address such problems; we must have the humility to understand that we may arrive at wise conclusions, but never at certainty.
The “DIKW” hierarchy -- data, information, knowledge, wisdom -- is relevant here. An overwhelming amount of information is available today -- too much, really, for any individual to absorb easily. There are, unfortunately, too few people who have the knowledge, insight and skills to put together information in useful ways and too few venues where those attributes are valued and rewarded. T.S. Eliot famously wrote: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we lost in information?”
The University Itself in Danger
Our great universities can and must be in the forefront of reversing the trends I have described. But this is not a simple tale with an ending in which universities play the hero. Make no mistake about it: precisely at this moment when research universities are needed as an antidote to public dogmatism and what I call a “coliseum culture,” in which audiences are fed spectacle over substance, they themselves are increasingly threatened. As complex arguments and reasoned nuance are devalued in favor of the simplistic and the dogmatic, the very basis of research universities is devalued and subverted.
The threat initially comes from a broad societal trend: just as the attention span of our people has shrunk, so also our society has elevated the importance of short-term results – whether manifest in value placed on corporate quarterly reports or the evident appetite for quick and painless solutions to society’s problems. Such developments do not bode well for the university’s commitment to free and open inquiry, to patient and rigorous experimentation, all in pursuit not of a pre-determined purpose, but of the advancement of knowledge wherever it leads.
At some level, we know that the myopic focus on immediate and predictable returns is foolish. We understand the simple wisdom caught in the African parable praising those who plant trees under which others will sit; we instinctively grasp the importance of the basic research done in our universities. Thus, the late Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale recalled that the 11th edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica on which he was weaned contained nine columns on the Delian League, but only two on the topic of uranium, which the Britannica authors described as “useless.” The lesson: Seeking knowledge for its own sake has great rewards, even in utilitarian terms; but they often are unanticipated, or even immeasurable.
Examples abound to demonstrate that often the greatest advances come haltingly, over time, and from unexpected directions; I offer just one, provided by my friend, Sam Thier. Three or four decades ago, a child diagnosed with cystic fibrosis would die in the first decade of life. Over time, with improved antibiotics, the child could live into the second decade of life. More recently, by combining antibiotics with muculytic agents and respiratory therapy, the child could live into the third decade of life. Now, because the progressive destruction of the lung or injury to the heart and lung can be rectified by transplantation, the child can live into the fourth or fifth decades of life -- but only with continuous anti-rejection medication. For the last 10 years or more, we have known the genetic defect that causes cystic fibrosis, and, through understanding that defect, today we know how it produces the clinical disease. It is almost certain that with another round or two of basic research, we can learn to correct the gene defect, prevent or cure the condition, and obviate all the expensive and uncomfortable therapeutic maneuvers that have extended the life of cystic fibrosis patients. We are not yet at that point, but it is only active research that can take us there, producing immense social and economic benefits.
As I said, we realize, at least at some level, the wisdom of Pelikan’s story or Thier’s account of the fight against cystic fibrosis. Still, given society’s quest for simple answers and immediate outcomes, there are signs that our leaders’ interest in supporting the research enterprise is waning. For the first time in memory, funding for the National Science Foundation has been cut. Funding for the National Institutes of Health has been held constant, thereby reducing it in real terms. The research medical university in America is in jeopardy as falling government funding combines with the emphasis on cost reduction, HMOs and managed care to make it difficult, if not impossible, to sustain simultaneously the basic, translational and clinical research that has been the pride of academic medical centers.
We have seen the close to total evaporation of funding for research in the humanities and social sciences -- work which has less measurable outcomes than scientific research, even as it expands the boundaries of understanding and insight. Though John Maeda could write in Science Magazine that he believed “the biggest breakthrough will be the realization that the arts, which are conventionally considered useless, will be recognized as the whole reason why we ever try to live longer or live more prosperously.” He could embrace the notion that “the arts are the science of enjoying life,” while our leaders (reflecting as they do society’s increasing impatience with soft values and subtle tones) have come close to abandoning the arts. This portends the dominance of a value system which fails to recognize the importance of the research university itself.
Ironically, as society places more and more importance on short-term metrics, also at stake is the quality of the concrete preparation for life we offer our students. Even as greater emphasis is being placed upon the assessment of higher education in terms of job placement (the recent emphasis of our political leaders on community colleges is just one symptom of this phenomenon), and even as there are signs that such a metric will be applied broadly to assess the higher education enterprise, it is increasingly clear that an overemphasis on vocational training is wrong and potentially disastrous in a world where the generations we are training will go through several careers in a lifetime – and as the world economy changes, it will be more and more essential for Americans to understand and embrace the importance of a good life as well as a good income. The strange truth is that just as we enter a time when it is fundamental to train people for life rather than simply for jobs, our universities -- long expert in elevating our capacity to live a full, meaningful, and useful life -- are being pressured to narrow their focus to job placement.
There are other threats to our research universities, often emanating from self-appointed "guardians" who would restrict free inquiry on campus or impose regulations requiring that the composition of the faculty conform to their notions of "balance." To the extent the trends represent an attempt to silence or truncate discussion -- or even simply to reduce dialogue to sloganeering, they gravely jeopardize the essence of our universities.
For example, recent years have seen a startling increase in the number of “watchdog groups” who would exclude or punish certain views by silencing members of the university’s faculty or other members of the community. A group like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) assaults, targets, and intimidates faculty and students engaged in research. In a different cause, groups like Campus Watch keep comprehensive lists of professors they deem biased and organize parental and student campaigns, both against specific faculty members and entire institutions based upon an asserted failure to meet a political litmus test.
The substance and shadow of intimidation too often succeed in repressing free inquiry, even in cases where a professor’s statements are well within the mainstream of a university’s dialogue. And, of course, the farther the professor moves from the mainstream, the more intense the reaction: A report of a special committee of the American Association of University Professors recounts repeated attempts after the September 11th terrorist attack to censure or dismiss scholars who argued that we ought to reexamine American foreign policy as a source of alienation or provocation. One does not have to agree with this view to disagree with a Congressman, who, in one well-reported case, actually said that the issue was not whether the professor in question had the right to make what he called “idiotic comments,” but whether after making them he had the right to remain in his position at a distinguished university.
Another Congressman, spurred by a group called the Traditional Values Coalition, sent the National Institutes of Health a list of some 250 research projects he denounced as unfit for taxpayer support. The projects, all of which had survived the rigorous peer review process at NIH, involved research on such issues as drug abuse, women’s health, and dangerous behavior associated with the AIDS virus. An NYU scholar who was a principal investigator on one of the projects is doing research on primary and secondary HIV prevention, and on the interaction between substance abuse, risk-taking, and the maintenance of health. Placing him and others like him on a “watch list,” an obvious attempt to chill both the willingness of scholars to undertake work in certain areas and the willingness of NIH to fund them, is a grave threat to the role of the research university as intellectual incubator.
The Congressman in the first case, of course, insisted that he was speaking not as an agent of government, but as an individual, so his intervention was indistinguishable from that of a notable alumnus or columnist. The Congressman in the second case would insist that he was simply acting in an oversight capacity. It is troubling, however, that increasingly government itself is exercising its enormous power to exert pressure on the nature and content of the dialogue on campus -- and of the research that is the predicate to that dialogue.
Similar threats to the university already have been enshrined in law. One of the most pernicious is the Solomon Amendment, an attempt through law -- unfortunately, in my view, recently upheld by the Supreme Court -- to force universities to ignore their written policies against discrimination on the basis of race, religion, nationality, gender or sexual orientation – a policy that reflects the university’s commitment to openness and different points of view. Put more concretely, because of present government policy, military recruiters refuse to sign the standard pledge required as a condition of interviewing on most campuses -- a pledge foreswearing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Solomon Amendment (named not for the wise king, but for its sponsor, the late New York Representative Gerald Solomon) withdraws all federal funding from a university in which even just one department denies interviewing privileges to the military. Faced with the draconian prospect of losing tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars for everything from scholarship students to medical research, universities have been forced to betray their own fundamental values. Now, in addition, homeland security laws like the artfully named USA PATRIOT Act threaten the autonomy of academic libraries, forcing librarians to provide FBI agents with personal reader information, or even to hand over library computers. Moreover, the act simultaneously prevents libraries from protecting their borrowers against government surveillance and bars them from informing students, teachers, or researchers if their choice of reading is being watched and recorded.
Certainly, sensible standards are justified to address the threat of terrorism. But the blunderbuss inefficiency and obtrusiveness of the present regulation of foreign nationals risks endangering the long tradition of American universities opening their gates to the world’s most gifted professors and students -- a tradition that has served this nation well, that has advanced the national interest in spreading values of liberty, tolerance, and justice across the globe, and that has been a rich component of the intellectual exchange on our campuses.
The threats to the sanctuary are not just external. Indeed, in discussions about American universities in the media and in popular culture, what concern there is about genuine dialogue on our campuses typically focuses on the fear of internal forces loosely and sometimes inaccurately associated with the phrases like “political correctness.” In my view, much of the political correctness debate reflects a lack of understanding or information about what actually happens in academe. Indeed, the stereotypical charges issued by public figures like William Bennett, Camille Paglia, and Ramesh Ponnuru, among others, function as a silencing device of their own -- and may be intended as such.
Nevertheless, that having been said, there is a kernel of important truth captured in the popular political correctness debate -- one that transcends political categories like left and right. Those who enjoy, in the civil sphere, a certitude of viewpoint that is not open to change by reasoned argument are incapable of contributing or even participating in meaningful dialogue. They cannot contribute because they treat their conclusions as matters of dogma and, therefore, expound their positions in declaratory form; they live in an Alice in Wonderland world -- first the conclusion, then the conversation. They can incite responses; they even can create an intellectual adrenaline rush; but they cannot produce insight. So also they cannot participate meaningfully in the dialogue because they will not engage it; for them, the exercise is a serial monologue in which they state, restate, and refute but never revisit or rethink their positions. Thus, the kernel of truth in the political correctness debate: ideological conversation is of little or no value.
If we are to resist successfully external forces that would impose theological politics and dogmatism on campus, we must take care to resist any tendency toward dogmatism within the walls of our universities. So we must insist on a pervasive, genuine, rigorous, civil dialogue. Silencing of viewpoints cannot be tolerated, and disciplinary dogmatism must be challenged. Even if the political correctness attack is largely baseless (surely, the claim that political correctness rules our universities is undermined by the fact that most major donors and board members at major universities hold views contrary to those allegedly infecting the organizations they control or influence), it is undeniably true that dogmatism is not confined to people of faith. The commentator John Horgan offers one charming example:
Opposing self-righteousness is easier said than done. How do you denounce dogmatism in others without succumbing to it yourself? No one embodied this pitfall more than the philosopher Karl Popper, who railed against certainty in science, philosophy, religion and politics and yet was notoriously dogmatic. I once asked Popper, who called his stance critical rationalism, about charges that he would not brook criticism of his ideas in his classroom. He replied indignantly that he welcomed students’ criticism; only if they persisted after he pointed out their errors would he banish them from class.
Dogmatism on campus must be fought if universities are to be a model for society. Silencing any view -- in class, on campus, or in civil discourse -- must be shamed when it occurs, and those who seek to silence others should be forced to defend their views in forums convened, if necessary, especially for that purpose. Above all, we must not let our universities be transformed into instruments of an imposed ideology. There is instead an urgent agenda to pursue: the genuine incubation, preservation, and creation of knowledge, the nurturing of a respect for complexity, nuance, and genuine dialogue -- not only on university campuses, but beyond the campus gates.
The Research University as Counterforce My colleague Richard Foley, a significant scholar in philosophy who now is NYU’s dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science, some years ago noted a trend deep in the history of epistemology that suggests that if one is rational enough, one can be assured of not falling into error. Descartes held such a view, and others have followed him in it. He notes that in some ways this is a natural view: One might ask, what is the point of having rational opinions if it does not assure you of the truth? But the big conceptual point of Dick’s book, Working Without a Net, is that however natural, this is a mistake, because there is no way to construct an intellectual system that provides one with non-question begging assurances of its own truth. So, we are, as it were, always working without an intellectual net. As he says:
Since we can never have non-question begging assurances that our way of viewing things is correct, we can never have assurances that there is no point to further inquiry. The absolute knowledge of the Hegelian system, which requires the knowing mind to be wholly adequate to its objects and to know it is thus, is not a possibility for us. It cannot be our goal, a human goal. For us there can be no such final resting place.
The last point seems especially significant for universities -- for universities have to be places where there is no final intellectual resting place. A "final intellectual resting place" is one that is regarded as so secure and so comprehensive that there is no longer any point to acquiring further evidence or to reevaluating the methods that led to the view. The dogmatic in effect believe that they already have arrived at their final intellectual resting place, which is why they are so at odds with the nature of the university.
Research universities, by their nature, deal in complexity; it is their stock and trade. Their essence is the testing of existing knowledge and the emergence of new knowledge through a constant, often vigorous but respectful clash of a range of viewpoints, sometimes differentiated from each other only by degrees. In nurturing this process, research universities require an embrace of pluralism, true civility in discourse, a honed cultivation of listening skills, and a genuine willingness to change one’s mind.
In this way, research universities can offer a powerful reproach to the culture of simplistic dogmatism and caricatured thought in a model of nuanced conversation. Our universities must extend their characteristic internal feature, the meaningful testing of ideas, so that it becomes an “output” that can reach into and reshape a wider civic dialogue. And, they must invite the public into the process of understanding, examining and advancing the most complex and nuanced of issues with an evident commitment to take seriously the iterative and evolutionary encounter of a stated proposition with commentary and criticism about it.
Of course, in this process, so familiar on our campuses, views are held strongly and defended vigorously. The embrace of the contest of ideas and tolerance of criticism does not mean a surrender of conviction. Informed belief is fundamentally different from dogmatism, just as the search for truth is very different from the quest for certitude. Dogmatism is deeply rooted in its dualistic view of the world as saved/damned, right/wrong, or red/blue -- and it claims certainty in defining the borders of these dualistic frames. But, within the university, conviction is tempered: the discovery and development of knowledge require boldness and humility -- boldness in thinking the new thought, and humility in subjecting it to review by others. Dialogue within the university is characterized by a commitment to engage and even invite, through reasoned discourse, the most powerful challenges to one’s point of view. This requires attentiveness and mutual respect, accepting what is well founded in the criticisms offered by others, and defending one’s own position, where appropriate, against them; it is both the offer of and the demand for argument and evidence.
The very notion of the research university presupposes the possibility of creating a hierarchy of ideas, and it goes beyond the simple goal of facilitating an understanding of the positions of others, to achieve genuine progress in thought, the validation of some ideas and the rejection of others. It is a given that, at the heart of the process of ongoing testing which characterizes the university as a sanctuary of thought, is the notion that no humanly conceived “truth” is invulnerable to challenge; still, this axiom need not -- and does not -- mean that the pursuit of truth requires that all questions must be kept open at all times. In the university, we can and do reach certainty on some propositions, subject of course to the emergence of new evidence. And even the certitudes of faith are subject to new understanding: My Church once condemned Galileo, but now applauds him; it once carried out capital punishment, but now condemns it.
While the dialogue within our universities is not an expression of agnosticism about truth itself, its very being embodies the realization that a fuller truth is attained only when a proposition is examined and reexamined, debated and reformulated from a range of viewpoints, through a variety of lenses, in differing lights and against opposing ideas or insights. Whether through scholarly research or creative work, conventional knowledge is questioned, reaffirmed, revised, or rejected; new knowledge is generated and articulated, prevailing notions of reality are extended and challenged and insight is expanded. Jonathan Cole described the process in Daedalus:
The American research university pushes and pulls at the walls of orthodoxy and rejects politically correct thinking. In this process, students and professors may sometimes feel intimidated, overwhelmed, and confused. But it is by working through this process that they learn to think better and more clearly for themselves. Unsettling by nature, the university culture is also highly conservative. It demands evidence before accepting novel challenges to existing theories and methods. The university ought to be viewed in terms of a fundamental interdependence between the liberality of its intellectual life and the conservatism of its methodological demands. Because the university encourages discussion of even the most radical ideas, it must set its standards at a high level. We permit almost any idea to be put forward – but only because we demand arguments and evidence to back up the ideas we debate and because we set the bar of proof at such a high level. These two components -- tolerance for unsettling ideas and insistence on rigorous skepticism about all ideas -- create an essential tension at the heart of the American research university. It will not thrive without both components operating effectively and simultaneously.
In short, to a large degree the university embodies the ideal in discourse -- commitment to scrutiny and the examination of research in the marketplace of ideas. Now it can and must offer even more as the counterforce and the counterexample to the simpleminded certainty of dogmatism and the depleted dialogue of the coliseum culture. It is, of course, conceivable (even plausible) that instead our universities will assume a defensive posture and withdraw into their sheltered walls; such a tendency always exists in the life of the mind, evoking from the cynical the constant reminder that one of the dictionary’s entries for the word “academic” is “beside the point.” In the face of forces around it hostile to the search for knowledge, the temptation for higher education to insulate itself is greater than normal, and perhaps more understandable; but withdrawal, however tempting, would be irresponsible and ultimately destructive for both society and the university. In these times, society cannot cure itself; the university must do its part.
The core reasons the university can provide an antidote to the malaise that’s afflicting civil discourse arise from some essential features of higher education on the one hand and contemporary politics on the other.
First, whereas the political domain is now characterized by bipolar interests or, worse yet, disaggregated special interests, which are not even bipolar, in principle the commitment of a university and its citizens is to the common enterprise of advancing understanding; inherently those involved in research and creativity build on the work of others and expand knowledge for all. The university sometimes falls short of this ideal; but now more than ever, it is vital for universities to live it. Internal attention to the university’s defining mission and vigilant adherence to its best attributes must be paramount if it is to function as a force for renewing civil discourse within our society.
The second feature of the university that differentiates it from the prevailing trend in politics is that the advancement of knowledge and ideas on campus is a fully transparent, absolutely testable process in which all can participate. And today the search for knowledge which is at the core of the university can be uncabined and sometimes even unlocated physically in a particular institution of higher education; in the era of the communications revolution and an internet that spans the globe, participation in the pursuit of knowledge operates on a worldwide network. The advancement of knowledge is of the university, but not always or necessarily on the campus. You cannot bar anyone from the process. If a mathematician in Bombay can disprove a theory conceived in New York, no amount of misplaced elitism or nationalism can change that reality. Or, if a clerk in the patent office in Bern, Switzerland, develops breakthrough theories in physics, it does not matter that there is not yet a “Professor” in front of his name. By contrast, in politics, gerrymandering makes it possible to insulate officeholders from ever having seriously to confront competing ideas, ideologies, and candidates.
The third feature that distinguishes the university is that the ultimate test for scholars is time. The ultimate reward comes in the long-term durability of one’s work, being remembered by future generations as the father or the mother of an idea. Indeed, those in the research university know that their contributions may be understood only in the very long term. The advancement of knowledge is the driving purpose; it is inherently collegial and intergenerational, even for the solo thinker or artist because each person stands on the foundation of someone else’s work, and successive scholars provide new or higher platforms for the next chapter in the unfolding story of knowledge. By contrast, in the politics of the coliseum culture, politicians view short-term losses as almost apocalyptic.
Given these distinguishing features, the research university can and must become a place from which we press back against the accelerating trend toward dogmatism I see developing. The university has a dual role in the civic dialogue, as both a rebuke to simplemindedness and as a model of how things can be done differently. And, in preventing the collapse of civil discourse, the university simultaneously will safeguard itself from the concomitant effects of a society that disregards the reflected thought, reduces the interchange of ideas to the exchange of sound bytes or insults, and often shrinks the arena for discussion to a constricted, two dimensional space.
John Sexton is president of New York University. This essay is adapted from a speech he gave at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.