The New Repression of the Postmodern Right

February 11, 2005

Last week, Ohio became the latest state where legislators introduced an "Academic Bill of Rights for Higher Education."

The bill seeks to impose on all private and public colleges and universities an administrative code allegedly designed to prohibit political and religious discrimination. It calls on the institutions to guarantee student access "to a broad range of serious scholarly opinion" and expose them to "a plurality of serious scholarly methodologies and perspectives." It insists that students "be graded solely on the basis of their reasoned answers" and prohibits discrimination on the basis of "political, ideological, or religious beliefs." Faculty members would be forbidden from using their classrooms "for the purpose of political, ideological, religious, or antireligious indoctrination"; and they would be barred from "persistently introducing controversial matter into the classroom ... that has no relation to their subject of study and that serves no legitimate pedagogical purpose." The bill extends its dubious protections to all student organizations, to the hiring and promotion process, and even to "professional societies formed to advance knowledge within an area of research."

I have to guess that the vast majority of college faculty and administrators find this legislation baffling. Surely most honor the ideals of impartiality in dealing with students as part of the air we breath; it goes without saying that these principles are the foundation of the university. So, at least here in Ohio, we're scratching our heads and wondering why the State Senate should be wasting its time considering legislation to fix something that isn't broken and correct a problem that doesn't exist.

But, of course, the oh-so-neutral language of the bill only hides its profoundly ideological purpose. The Ohio bill is just a knock off from David Horowitz's war against higher education. Here, at least, there is no doubting the motives behind the bill. One of its main sponsors, his quotes crying out for placement in a Sinclair Lewis novel, told the Columbus Dispatch that the bill was necessary because "80% or so of [college faculty] are Democrats, liberals, or socialists or card-carrying Communists." When asked for evidence that these radicals were corrupting "young minds that haven't had a chance to form their own opinions," as he described college students, the senator contended that, after months of investigation, he heard of a student who claimed to have been discriminated against because she supported Bush. One second-hand rumor is all he had after three months? His standards of evidence wouldn't get him through one of my introductory American Civ classes.

Given the intellectual dishonesty behind the bill, it is only reasonable to wonder what political forces are lurking behind it and whose agenda it is fulfilling. Horowitz long has found his calling in attacking the academic left, and he was prodded to obsession several years ago when some of his attempts to place ads opposing slavery reparations in various college newspapers were rebuffed. These incidents led to the establishment of the Students for Academic Freedom, a remake of the '60s-era Young Americans for Freedom that now claims 135 chapters. Spurred on through the heated atmosphere of the presidential election, Horowitz's now-organized obsession is finding sympathetic support among right-wing radicals in the various state wings of the Republican Party. Apparently, now that they can't attack John Kerry or gay marriage, the right-wing media machine and its followers in state governments have trained their sights on a next-most favored whipping boy, the university professor.

As parts of a larger ideological war, the Ohio bill is the political equivalent of a frat boy prank. It can do no good. It can do considerable harm, but only in the unlikely possibility that responsible people take it seriously. Any amateur can look at the bill as it stands and see what a sloppy piece of work it is. Nowhere does it define what constitutes "a plurality of serious scholarly methodologies," how "indoctrination" is to be measured, or how discrimination is to be detected.

When a Dispatch reporter asked the bill's sponsor what constituted "controversial matter" to be barred from the classroom, he didn't exactly narrow things down: "Religion and politics, those are the main things." There goes any discussion of Thomas Jefferson in my history classes, or Martin Luther King or -- well, pretty much any discussion of anything. The bill discriminates because it applies only to "humanities, the social sciences, and the arts," and leaves, thereby, those card-carrying Communists in business departments free to continue denouncing the evils of compound interest. And yet it is simultaneously so broad that the state's Bible colleges would have to shut down entirely. If this bill passed, we would either have to ignore it completely or stop teaching.

The sloppiness may well be intentional, since the goal isn't good law but political intimidation. The most plausible outcome is that the bill will die a quick but noisy death: After hearings in which radical right-wingers get headlines by blasting academics, college presidents pledge to promote fairness and the bill dies. Meanwhile, red-baiting students will get the not-surprising impression that they can level charges against any professor who makes the slightest polemical point, or, more important, who utters a disconcerting truth. Students who aren't satisfied with an administrative response are likely to sue. The university will waste precious money in either administrative or legal costs, and any atmosphere of robust and critical thought that now exists will dissipate as many instructors take the line of least resistance.

Not the least curiosity here is that the very same people who, 10 years ago, ridiculed the campus speech codes as "political correctness" now want to impose the most extreme sorts of speech codes through force of law and outrageous intimidation. The very people who howled about the debunking of the great Western traditions of free speech and critical reason are now engaged in a frontal action that can only squelch free speech and establish a radical subjectivity as the rule of the day.

After all, anything any student wishes to find discriminatory, under the law, could indeed be removed from the classroom; education would devolve into whatever pandered to the individual bias of every student. Truth, that noble thing conservatives always say they seek, will become the same degraded thing that it has become with the likes of Limbaugh, Fox News, and Horowitz: mere "spin." The radical right, it seems, has learned well from the postmodern left.


David Steigerwald is associate professor of history at Ohio State University and director of the history program at Ohio State's Marion campus. His latest book, Culture's Vanities ( Rowman & Littlefield ), is, incidentally, a critique of much that passes for academic leftwing thought today.

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