David Horowitz vs. Women's Studies

When David Horowitz named the "101 most dangerous academics in America," in The Professors, a book in 2006, Bettina Aptheker was among those featured. A professor of feminist studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz, Aptheker was critiqued this way in the book:

February 25, 2009

When David Horowitz named the "101 most dangerous academics in America," in The Professors, a book in 2006, Bettina Aptheker was among those featured. A professor of feminist studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz, Aptheker was critiqued this way in the book:

"Aptheker describes her teaching philosophy as a 'revolutionary praxis.' The crux of this approach, she has said, is to subvert the traditional mission of the university by breaking down the distinction between subjective and objective truth, what Aptheker dubs 'breaking down dualisms.' This approach is especially relevant to women's studies, Aptheker notes, because it allows her to inject a 'women-centered perspective' into the curriculum. ..."

Next week, Horowitz's new book, One-Party Classroom, will be released, with a list of the 150 "worst courses" in American higher education. Aptheker teaches two of the courses and here's Horowitz's critique of Aptheker's course on "Feminist Methods of Teaching":

"Aptheker has described her teaching philosophy as a 'revolutionary praxis,' a Marxist term of art for political organizing. The crux of her approach, she says, is to break down the distinction between subjective and objective truth, what she refers to as 'breaking down dualisms.' This old-fashioned Marxism allows her to inject a 'women-centered perspective' into the curriculum. ..."

Sound familiar? In many ways, the new book is quite similar to Horowitz's previous work. Many of his critics see the book as a rehash of his book on dangerous professors (even if plenty of those cited are different). But the fact that Aptheker is in both reflects an increased focus by Horowitz on women's studies. As with the book on the most dangerous professors, the courses are largely selected by statements on syllabuses, public statements about teaching by professors, and past articles. Horowitz acknowledged in an interview Tuesday that he had not actually seen a single class in any of the 150 courses he has declared to be the worst in America.

One thing that is notably different from some of Horowitz's previous writings on academe is that women's studies appears to have eclipsed Middle Eastern studies as the greatest threat to American higher education (in Horowitz's view). Middle Eastern studies has long been a focus of Horowitz (and remains one), but women's studies is the primary focus of the new book.

Of the 150 worst courses in America, 59 are in women's studies. (This reporter's count may not be precise, as there are a fair number of courses in the book that combine women's studies and ethnic studies, or women's studies and black studies, or queer studies and women's studies, so some might count in different ways, but no other category comes close.)

As a result of this focus, women's studies scholars have been discussing in recent weeks how to respond to the book -- and even whether to respond. Some argue that Horowitz's time has passed and that it's best to just ignore the book. Others note that the book will get plenty of air time and cyberspace attention -- and that academics place themselves at risk by not engaging the debate (or at least lining up their arguments). Free Exchange on Campus, a group formed to combat Horowitz's past campaigns, is gearing up for another round. The group's blog noted Tuesday that the book is based on "poor research and baseless conclusions," adding that "it looks like we'll have to go through the whole fact-checking exercise again."

Many of the women's studies courses are criticized for things that -- to women's studies scholars -- aren't exceptional. For example, Horowitz's criticisms of the University of Missouri program note that its mission statement embraces the idea that gender and sexuality are "fundamental categories of analysis," which Horowitz does not consider to be true. One course in the department -- "The Female Experience: Body, Identity and Culture" -- has a course description that says classes will examine "institutions in U.S. society that exert social control over women's bodies, especially the media, the legal system, and the medical professions." Horowitz writes that this is an "extreme claim" and a "radical view," which shows that there is "little chance that students will be exposed to alternative perspectives."

Jacquelyn Litt, chair of the Missouri department, says it is difficult to know exactly how to deal with Horowitz's criticisms because "he does not accept that women's studies is a legitimate academic discipline." Since he "doesn't accept the basic premise that this is a serious area of research, we're working in parallel worlds," she said.

Some scholars whose courses are in the book make similar points. Aptheker said that Horowitz is "hardly a scholarly expert" in women's studies and so can't evaluate the courses he questions. She noted that people who make their careers teaching women's studies can't do so in isolation, but in fact undergo repeated, significant reviews of their work. "All faculty are subject to review by their peers and the administration in a rather elaborate process that requires review of scholarly publication, teaching and university service, and goes through the department, the dean, the committee on academic personnel of the academic senate, sometimes outside reviewers, and then to the executive vice chancellor and/or the chancellor," she said. "I have been granted tenure, then promoted -- I am now a full professor, and this hasn't been accomplished except through establishment of such achievement and record."

And if anyone really wants to see what goes in her classroom, she added, some students in 2003 organized a project to record her popular "Introduction to Feminisms" course so people not at the university could benefit from the low-cost recording. She said she welcomes people watching her course.

In an interview, Horowitz said that women's studies today is "the most egregious example" of a discipline that attempts to indoctrinate students. Horowitz said that he does not rule out the possibility of academe having a women's studies program he would support. But while he cited the African-American studies programs at Harvard University and Washington University in St. Louis as "clearly scholarly departments" (praise he doesn't offer to many other programs in that field), he said he didn't know of any women's studies programs worthy of such respect.

He said that women's studies was flawed because of its views of gender as a means of analysis, and that programs in the field require students to embrace its values. He also noted that many women's studies scholars explicitly state that they hope to change society, and that this demonstrates an attitude that is inappropriate in the classroom. But he denied that he is just trying to bash women's studies. "Every women's studies course isn't in the book," he noted.

As to his research methods -- basing his analysis on course Web pages, syllabus reviews, and reading lists, and not actually sitting in on courses -- Horowitz said his approach is legitimate. "Who could attend 150 courses, unless they were on a Ford Foundation fellowship or something?" he asked. "Do I have to take a course on how to design a revolution to know that this course isn't going to look at books that refute the left wing?" He added that "despite what my enemies say," he does not have the resources to visit all of the potential courses for inclusion but that it is "self-evident" that they belong in the book.

Further, Horowitz said that the "claim that this is repackaged material is just another way to encourage people not to consider the argument." He said that there is "entirely new" material about Aptheker's work, some of which is from writing she did subsequent to the publication of the last book. Further, he noted that while there is overlap, he has departments and programs in the new book that weren't in the book on the most dangerous professors. "Yes there is an overlap with some of the professors I profiled in that book, but in The Professors I did not examine their courses. Here I do, which is entirely different. This claim is just a gimmick to dissuade people from confronting the critique we offer. What is the fear that these academics have of people actually reading what I write and dealing with it?"

Martha McCaughey, director of women's studies at Appalachian State University and president of the North Carolina division of the American Association of University Professors, said it was important for her colleagues in the field to answer Horowitz and not to ignore him. (McCaughey is not included in the book, but she has written about Horowitz's critiques of women's studies.)

She said that women's studies is "perceived as a program with a liberal or radical agenda," so it is important for scholars to show that there is "a diversity of thinking, of methodologies, of research in the field."

When Horowitz comes out with his books, she said, he doesn't kill the field, but he does have an impact. "I hate to give him too much credit, but realistically, when he or some of the people who support him choose to target individual faculty members, they can make that faculty member's life hell for a period of time," she said. The attention "distracts scholars from the book they are writing, from their teaching. This sucks resources and time."

McCaughey said it was particularly important for scholars in all disciplines to insist that professors not be judged by an outside reading of a syllabus. If a course on 20th century African-American history included readings by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X (as many do), it would be hard for a critic to insist that the professor necessarily endorsed all the views of either leader, since they disagreed on many issues.

But many critics of women's studies and members of the public don't know enough about thinkers in the field to recognize such diversity of thought on a syllabus, she said. For example, McCaughey said that in teaching feminist thought, she has assigned Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex, a book published in 1970 that is best known for its analysis of the impact of childbirth and childcare on women, and that argues for the use of technology to find ways to promote gender equity by changing the way children are conceived and raised. The book is an important one to read, McCaughey said, for what it says about a particular point in the evolution of modern feminist thought. "But we read it in class because it's historical," she said, and in fact McCaughey doesn't agree with it and critiques it -- while still seeing value in talking about its ideas.

If someone just analyzed a syllabus with the work on it, she said, and Googled Firestone, one could imply that McCaughey endorses her views, which would be false. "It surprises me that people actually fall for that, but I think he's preying on the naivete of his audience," McCaughey said.

"If you just look at a syllabus, you have no idea what one is going to do with readings," she said, and professors need to make that clear when critics attack. The question they need to ask the public, she said, is: "Are you going to fall for that?"

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