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15. Conservative Plan to Override Academic Freedom in the Classroom

Source: The Nation, Title: “The New PC,” Author: Russell Jacoby, Date of Publication: April 4, 2005

Student Researchers: Vanessa Dern, Theodora Ruhs

For centuries, the higher education classroom has been a haven for honest debate and protected academic freedom. The college professor, one of the last “rugged individualists,” had the freedom to teach a given subject in his or her own manner, as he or she saw it. The interpretation of the subject matter was the professors own, not a representation of a “liberal” or “conservative” dogma.

The halls of academia have included a wide variety of perspectives, from Newt Gingrich and William F. Buckley Jr. to Noam Chomsky and Albert Einstein.

In his article “The New PC,” Russell Jacoby addresses a new extremist conservative movement to bring what they say is “political balance” to higher education. These conservatives see academia as a hotbed of liberal activity that is working to indoctrinate America’s youth with leftwing ideology, citing studies that conclude that faculty of most universities are overwhelmingly liberal. They fear that these liberal faculty members are abusing students who profess conservative belief systems, and to remedy this they are pushing for regulation of the academic world to monitor professors’ _expression of theory and opinion.

At the forefront of this movement is David Horowitz and his academic watchdog organization, Students for Academic Freedom (SAF). SAF counsels its student members that, when they come across an ‘abuse’ like controversial material in a course, they are to write down the date, class and name of the professor. They are advised to accumulate a list of incidents or quotes, obtain witnesses, and lodge a complaint. Many in the academic world see these actions as a new McCarthy-ism-an effort to sniff out those who do not subscribe to the ‘dominant’ belief structure of the nation.

Beyond his student watch group, Horowitz is also championing a “Student Bill of Rights.” Ironically, this bill claims to protect academic freedom. It proposes some ideas that are commonsense, such as, “students will be graded solely on the basis of their reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge of the subjects and disciplines they study, not on the basis of their political or religious beliefs.”1 But Jacoby warns that academic freedoms extended to students easily turn into the end of freedom for teachers. In Horowitz’s society of rights, students would have the right to hear all sides of all subjects all the time. Principle #4 of Horowitz’s academic bill of rights states that curricula and reading lists “should reflect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge,” and provide “students with dissenting sources and viewpoints where appropriate.” The bill does not, however, distinguish when or where dissenting viewpoints are, or are not, appropriate.

The SAF website has a section for students to post ‘abuses’ and complaints about their academic experiences. Perusing these postings, Jacoby found one student reporting an ‘abuse’ in an introductory Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution class, “where military approaches were derided. The student complained that ‘the only studying of conflict resolution that we did was to enforce the idea that non-violent means were the only legitimate sources of self-defense.” Jacoby points out the irony, “presumably the professor of ‘peace studies’ should be ordered to give equal time to ‘war studies.’ By this principle, should the United States Army War College be required to teach pacifism?” From this point the movement seems to be rendered ridiculous.

Several authors, including Jacoby, point out the hypocrisy of Horowitz’s focus on the humanities and education in general. The conservatives who feel such an urgency to protect the freedoms of conservative students in the humanities and to balance out the ratio of liberal to conservative faculty are in no rush to sort out the inequalities in business schools where the trend often appears to be the opposite, with the liberals in the minority. And as Jacoby points out, “of course, they do not address such imbalances in the police force, Pentagon, FBI, CIA, and other government outfits where the stakes seem far higher and where, presumably, followers of Michael Moore are short in supply.”

Despite the apparent circus, this movement poses a real threat to the academic world. Whether or not the Student Bill of Rights passes in any of the state legislatures, where it stands as of Spring 2005, is not as important as how it influences public opinion. Already this movement has led to attacks and firings of a number of professors for their left leaning viewpoints. Ward Churchill, from the University of Colorado, was threatened with termination for using the term “little Eichmanns” to describe World Trade Center workers.2 Oneida Mernato, a political science professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver, was also harassed for her liberal bias in class.3 And more recently, self-proclaimed anarchist David Graeber was fired, he believes, for his personal political activity, and for standing up for a student organizer who he felt was being treated unfairly.4,5

Horowitz also aims to affect other areas of government involvement in academia, specifically funding. Proclaiming that academics are “a privileged elite that work between six to nine hours a week, eight months a year for an annual salary of about $150,000 a year,”6 Horowitz further claims that he is “dedicated to exposing the cowards who run our universities to the alumni and taxpayers who pay their salaries. State Senator Larry Mumper argues, “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?”7

NOTES

  1. Students for Academic Freedom. “The Student Bill of Rights.”http://www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org/essays/sbor.html.
    2. ibid.
    3. ibid.
    4. http://www.villagevoice.com/people/0523,interview,64691,24.html.
    5. “Early Exit” http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2005/05/18/yale.
    6. Mattson, Kevin.
    7. Mattson. Kevin.
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