When Academic Freedom Is Un-American
Pierre Tristam/Daytona Beach News-Journal, March 6, 2007
There was a time when members of Congress felt comfortable sitting around their committee counters judging how citizens should think. Those were the days of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, when people suspected of “subversion” or Communism would be impulsively investigated, summoned to committee hearings, sometimes publicly and infamously browbeaten by the likes of Sen. Joe McCarthy, and often irretrievably tarnished by the publicity. Those days are gone. The habit of attacking people for being “un-American” isn’t. Beginning in the late 1980s with the publication of Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” — which the late historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called “that murky and pretentious book … about the degradation of American culture” — conservatives have been complaining that American universities are failing students for being too subversive, too liberal, too un-American.
Remember the wars over “political correctness” in the early 1990s? “On one side,” the book critic Michiko Kakutani wrote in 1992, “are the radicals, who argue that traditional courses at American universities have been unjustly dominated by the culture of white males. They want the achievements of women, blacks and other minorities better represented in the curriculum, and some of them also argue that speech codes must be adopted to protect members of such groups from verbal abuse. On the other side are the traditionalists, who argue that the radicals have subordinated the teaching of the humanities to political imperatives, substituting ethnic cheerleading for objective standards of excellence. They warn that the radicals’ influence is leading to a Balkanization of culture and the curtailment of free intellectual exchange.” Oddly enough, this (I think fake and sensational) division of American values between the “radicals” (or “secularists”) and the “traditionalists” is at the heart of best-selling books like “Culture Warrior,” the latest of many screeds by Bill O’Reilly — the television shout-show host — and many others to decry the degradation of American culture. The groupthink machinery that produces the books, like the Fox News network or its radio mutants, could be dismissed as the entertaining bilge of any open society. Then again, the conservative alarmists have been screaming about the degradation of American culture for two decades even as Congress, the presidency, the Supreme Court, the media and even Hollywood have all shifted rightward. So they have a valid point: degradation indeed.
But what to do when the bilge becomes grist for the public intimidation, through the Internet, of “un-American” professors, or proposed legislation that would institutionalize ideological litmus-tests of professors and corrode academic freedom in the very name of academic freedom? That’s the push behind organizations like “Students for Academic Freedom,” a creation of David Horowitz, the right-wing ideologue and author of O’Reillyesque manifestos against the left and its “indoctrination” of American campuses (the rhetorical similarities between the language and methods of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the words and methods of Horowitz and the O’Reilly brigades are a study in mimicry.)
Horowitz has been peddling an “Academic Bill of Rights” from legislature to legislature across the country, trying to regulate by law what professors may teach and how, what proportion of “left” and “conservative” speakers may be invited on campus, what theories — such as the religiously based silliness of “intelligent design,” a sort of pseudo-intellectual version of creationism — should be taught as credibly as any other, under the clever banner of “a diversity of approaches to unsettled questions.” One such bill was introduced in the Florida Legislature in 2005; it thankfully went nowhere. In all, 21 “Academic Bill of Rights” bills and resolutions have been introduced in various legislatures and on Capitol Hill. The language at first seems admirable enough. The intent and the source are not, and the means even less so. “Students for Academic Freedom” and a place called noindoctrination.org have set up Web sites where dozens of professors from around the country are publicly excoriated for how and what they teach, usually for allegedly preventing the “conservative viewpoint” from being heard, or for insulting conservative beliefs.
That has nothing to do with academic freedom, of course. It’s just part of the ongoing attempt to destroy what Michael Bérubé, a professor of literature whom Horowitz declared one of the “101most dangerous academics in America,” calls “procedural liberalism,” or “the very existence of areas of political independence that do not answer directly and favorably to the state. Independent journalists, independent judges, independent filmmakers, independent professors — all are anathema to the radical right.” Or the authoritarian right, as the case may be. It’s gratifying to note that Bérubé is next Monday’s lecturer at Stetson University ’s Values Council series. More grist for noindoctrination.org’s authoritarians, perhaps, but proof, too, that authentic academic freedom doesn’t slouch easily.