Truths R Us

The AAUP's new statement on "Freedom in the Classroom" redefines reality, writes Peter Wood.

September 21, 2007

The American Association of University Professors last week issued "Freedom in the Classroom," a report evidently intended as a landmark answer to an increasingly common class of criticisms about the behavior of college professors. The report takes issue with critics who complain about professors who use their classrooms to indoctrinate students, present imbalanced perspectives on contentious issues, demean students who disagree, or intrude irrelevant political opinions. According to the AAUP, these abuses are fictitious; or if they are not fictitious, they are not really abuses; or if they are abuses, they are rare; and anyway, the critics are acting in bad faith because their real motive is to silence professors by exciting public opinion to support a crack-down on academic freedom using “the coercive power of the state.”

The AAUP sent the report (which you can read here) electronically to 350,000 U.S. faculty members and is issuing it in French as well, for faculty members in Quebec. It has already stirred sympathetic interest in the press and I expect it will be cited in court cases and legislative hearings as “proof” that conservative critics have grossly overstated their case.

Speaking as one of those critics, I don’t think we have. For a point by point rebuttal of the AAUP report, see the reply on the National Association of Scholars’ Web site, here.

Whose Report?

The report, however, is a somewhat strange document. Contrary to the AAUP's long-standing practice, it appears to have been issued without having first been broadly vetted among members and outside experts. The report was announced with fanfare, including a press release that firmly declares it as a report that speaks for the AAUP. The preface of the report, however, mentions only the approval of a committee and, when I and others questioned this, one of the report’s authors offered an eyebrow-raising explanation: "It has been approved for publication, which is to say for public comments. After public comments, AAUP might consider whether to endorse it as an organization. It is endorsed by Committee A at the moment."

As far as I can tell, the AAUP never publicly said the report was a trial balloon, so which is it, the official opinion of the AAUP or the ruminations of a special committee? The answer is of interest for several reasons. A handful of people appear to have assumed the right to speak authoritatively for the whole organization. If this is so, it suggests that the authors, “Committee A,” and the drafters of the AAUP’s press release, despite their self-assured tone, lacked confidence that the report would indeed be supported by the larger organization. It would also represent a serious act of intellectual dishonesty toward both the public and the membership of the AAUP.

In any event, on purely intellectual grounds, “Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure” would have been better advised to seek a broader preliminary review. That's because, regardless of one's views about the propriety of bringing political opinions to the college classroom, the report is ill-executed. It takes aim at arguments that the critics haven’t made; it caricatures other criticisms; and it insists on strange premises -- the most singular of which is the idea that “truth” is whatever the members of a discipline say it is.

Besides enunciating the AAUP's dismal view of conservative scholars, the report makes one other theme abundantly clear. If we take the corporate authorship of the report at face value, the nation’s largest association of faculty members cares far more about the freedom of professors than it does the education of students. In the AAUP's view, the freedom of faculty members is as broad and open-ended as a circus tent. The freedom of students to be taught in classes that focus on the subject at hand, unadorned by their instructors’ opinings on President Bush, global warming, or immigration -- that freedom -- hardly exists.

The AAUP Then -- and Now

It wasn’t always so. The AAUP was founded in 1915 by Arthur Lovejoy and John Dewey, who had been moved by the firing of a Stanford University faculty member because of his political views. The AAUP made its first mark with its publication of a “Statement of Principles” that laid out a compelling account of what academic freedom should be. First sentence: “The term ‘academic freedom’ has traditionally had two applications -- to the freedom of the teacher and to that of the student.” The AAUP’s founding document is primarily concerned with the freedom of the teacher, but it includes a powerful set of caveats. As this paragraph does not appear in more recent AAUP statements or as far as I can tell elsewhere on the Internet, I offer it here in its entirety:
Since there are no rights without corresponding duties, the considerations heretofore set down with respect to the freedom of the academic teacher entail certain correlative obligations. The claim to freedom of teaching is made in the interest in the integrity and of the progress of scientific inquiry; it is, therefore, only those who carry on their work in the temper of the scientific inquirer who may justly assert this claim. The liberty of the scholar within the university to set forth his conclusions, be they what they may, is conditional by their being conclusions gained by a scholar’s method and held in a scholar’s spirit; that is to say, they must be the fruits of competent and patient and sincere inquiry, and they should be set forth with dignity, courtesy, and temperateness of language. The university teacher, in giving instruction upon controversial matters, while he is under no obligation to hide his own opinion under a mountain of equivocal verbiage, should, if he is fit for his position, be a person of fair and judicial mind; he should, in dealing with such subjects, set forth justly, without suppression or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators; he should cause his students to become familiar with the best published expressions of the great historic types of doctrine upon the questions at issue; and he should, above all, remember that his business is not to provide his students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves, and to provide them access to those materials which they need if they are to think intelligently.

The AAUP in 1915 saw the potential for faculty members to abuse academic freedom, and it warned that for the profession to protect itself it would have to “purge its ranks of the incompetent and the unworthy” who included those who engage in “uncritical and intemperate partisanship.”

In 1915, the AAUP regarded college students as vulnerable to those who would take “unfair advantage of the students’ immaturity by indoctrinating him with the teacher’s own opinions before the student has had an opportunity fairly to examine other opinions upon the matters of question, and before he has sufficient knowledge and ripeness of judgment to be entitled to form any definitive opinion of his own.” The AAUP recommended that colleges teach students to look “patiently [and] methodically on both sides” of controversial issues.

That was then. The AAUP has long since attempted to distance itself from the 1915 statement. It adopted a new “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure” in 1940; issued “Interpretive Comments” in 1970; and in recent years has leaned exclusively on these later declarations that quietly retired the strong caution of 1915. Even the more diluted 1940 statement, however, stipulated that, in the classroom, teachers “should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.”

Why stir these ashes? The AAUP remains arguably the most authoritative voice in the United States on what academic freedom is and what it should be. It derives that authority not from anything it has done in recent decades -- some of which has been quite embarrassing, such as its 1991 issue and quick retraction of a report attacking critics of political correctness as having “animosity toward equal opportunity.” Rather, its authority derives from Arthur Lovejoy, John Dewey, the 1915 “Statement of Principles,” and the decades of strenuously principled struggle for academic freedom that followed.

Thus when the AAUP speaks on academic freedom today, it is in the awkward spot of invoking the authority of documents and traditions that it has, in substance, repudiated. The new report, “Freedom in the Classroom” is a marvel of this disingenuousness. It refers repeatedly to the 1915 Declaration but in a manner that completely disguises the original points. The whole long paragraph quoted above, which was meant to safeguard students from their professors’ excesses of ideological zeal, is instead turned against students and reduced to this:

Students must remain free to question generally accepted beliefs if they can do so, in the words of the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, using "a scholar's method and . . . in a scholar's spirit."

That comes in the midst of an argument that critics who complain about professors engaging in “indoctrination” are quite mistaken. The professors are engaged “in instruction, not indoctrination,” and the AAUP asks us to think about the need for “professors of logic [to] insist that students accept the logical validity of the syllogism.”

An Army of Straw Men

Of course, critics are not complaining when logic professors uphold the validity of the syllogism. They are complaining when professors use their classrooms gratuitously to pronounce political views. Far from the world of syllogisms, the contemporary student often finds himself in a land of scare tactics. Here is an example I’ve gleaned from the useful Web site, On March 30, 2007, a student posted an exchange he had with a management professor whose required course on the contest of contemporary management he had taken. (The case is documented here.) The student alleged that the course had a pro-immigration “liberal” bias. He wrote (entire text) to his professor on November 1, 2006:

here is are a few articles that present the detriment of immigration to the United States
first one is a complete anti-immigration
and the 2nd one is something i would really like you to consider adding to give a conservative view to immigration
thanks for reading
“Tony” received this response two hours later (exact text):
Subject: Re: takes from the 'other side' to consider on illegal immigration
I get really tired of right wing stuff. Surely you get enough of it. Do you ask for additional readings in your right wing classes. Obviously not. I resent your insulting assumption that you have the right to teach my class or that students are not familiar with right wing racist crap on immigration. Of course they are. My course is not being taught to reinforce right wing ideology. Don't you get enough of this in other classes, or do you need EVERY class to be consistent with extremist views.

I quote this exchange to give a little touch of reality to the discussion. Examples of what the critics are actually complaining about are mostly absent from the AAUP report. The few that are offered are selected in the spirit of finding clay pigeons. For instance, the AAUP’s sole example of someone complaining about a “hostile learning environment” is a crank Web site claiming that the earth is the unmoving center of the universe and decrying the pernicious influence of Copernicus.

The critics who warn that professors are misusing the classroom have an intellectually serious case, but the AAUP has chosen to ignore that case in favor of rebutting a purely imaginary set of critics. Hence the report features a stunning defense of the right of an English teacher to choose whether or not to teach George Eliot’s 1876 novel, Daniel Deronda, as a way of enhancing the study of her 1872 novel, Middlemarch. We might think of the AAUP report as an army of straw men slumping across American higher ed.

Disciplinary Infallibility

Notwithstanding the parade of irrelevancies, “Freedom in the Classroom” does have a consistent theme. The core idea is that “truth” is defined by the prevailing view within an academic discipline. Therefore, if a faculty member asserts something in class that strikes ordinary people as preposterous but which is held to be “true” according to the prevailing view of the faculty member’s discipline, the faculty member has engaged in a perfectly worthy example of academic freedom.

This view has some merits when it comes to the more challenging frontiers of science. The consensus of experts really does count for something in quantum physics. But the chasm between the natural and applied sciences and most everything else is wide and deep. The prevailing view of “experts” in women’s studies, post-colonial theory, queer studies, and even fields like political science, history, anthropology, and English doesn’t reveal “truth” in any dispositive manner that most of us would accept. We know that these fields trade in approximation, hypothesis, and -- increasingly -- in mere opinion. We also know that many of the professors who hold positions in these fields have granted themselves the privilege to pronounce on all sorts of topics in which they hold no expertise at all.

Back in 1915, the AAUP warned professors that academic freedom pertained to their areas of expertise, not to their opinions on random topics. But in 2007, many of our academic disciplines are so distended that it impossible to identify any actual area of expertise. In that context, faculty members often claim a license to connect their political views to whatever happens to be on the syllabus that day.

Does anyone really believe the AAUP's new doctrine of disciplinary infallibility? Perhaps somewhere we could find an intellectual who is so theory-besotted as to believe such a pretense, but disciplinary infallibility is really just a flag of convenience for the AAUP. What the doctrine actually represents is an attempt by the postmodern academy to hide illiberal practices behind fake version of liberalism. The liberal tradition to which Lovejoy and Dewey belonged, celebrated differences of opinion. In 1919, when Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. spoke his famous dissent in Abrams v. United States that “the best test of truth is the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market,” he crystallized the liberal conception of fostering free expression as a path toward truth-finding.

But liberalism has been jettisoned by postmodernists, who rejecting the assumption that the best ideas win out over time, espouse the view that the ideas that typically win are those that are backed by political and economic power. The world in this view is made of up of interest groups that use all sorts of tricks -- advertising, mass media, state propaganda, and the like -- to lull people into believing whatever the powerful find convenient. In that light, why should the post-modernists themselves agree to play by the old rules? The demand for rational arguments and evidence, as they see it, is just a device to intimidate the intellectuals, lest they start spilling the beans about how things really work. What is truth? “Truth” is just a “construction” meant by the powerful to hide the reality, and reality, of course, is the relentless exploitation of people by race, class, gender, etc.

Get into a really candid conversation with a good many liberal arts professor these days and you will hear something much like this. But obviously if you believe this is how the world works, you’re best strategy is to obfuscate what you are really doing. Using your classroom to spread political views is a good way to liberate students, who might otherwise fall for the prevailing “lies.” At the same time, it is important to fend off the critics who might interrupt these wholesome attempts to disrupt the stale orthodoxies of liberal thought.

What better way to do than hijack liberalism itself? The AAUP report is an exercise in this vein. Instead of seeking one big Truth, in which the results of rigorous research in many fields and theories that have withstood hard and critical interrogation contribute to a better overall understanding of reality, the AAUP offers us a university in which fluidly defined “disciplines” posit their own “truths.” Instead of Holmes’ marketplace of ideas, we have an oligarchy of ideologues, each with his own do-not-compete zone.

Plain Facts

If this sounds like too bleak an assessment of what the AAUP is up to, we at the NAS would be glad to hear a better explanation. My colleagues and I examined the report in detail and have posted on the National Association of Scholars’ Web site an extensively annotated version of it, taking issue with matters large and small. We didn’t write our reply thinking that a large percentage of the report’s original audience would “patiently and methodically” want to follow such a line-by-line analysis. That would be nice, but our real aim is to be sure that when the AAUP report re-surfaces as “evidence” that the conservatives critics got it “all wrong,” a thorough and detailed answer will be on record. Someone will be able to say, “That report? It’s unreliable. Look at the errors that have been found in it.”

In other words, we still have confidence in the marketplace of ideas. The “powerful” in this case are represented by the AAUP, an organization many times the size of the NAS, and by the substantial number of faculty members who are indeed politicizing their classrooms. But contrary to the postmodernists, the powerful don’t define the truth, and their armies of straw men don’t really stand a chance against the plain facts.


Peter Wood is executive director of the National Association of Scholars. His books include A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now and Diversity: The Invention of a Concept.


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