Monday, November 13, 2006

David Horowitz

[posted by Callimachus]

David Horowitz is the bête noire of faculty lounges across American academe. He's the leftie-turned-rightie who has made campus bias his pet cause.

It's undeniably true that campus faculties swing far to the left of the rest of America. It's also certainly true that in some few cases, in humanities classes, those professors will abuse their power and grade students based on their politics or ideology, not on their academic work. Or that the majority mentality will, intentionally or not, reinforce itself by withholding tenure from worthy dissenters.

This ought not to happen. But overall, I'm not concerned the universities are churning out armies of ideological myrmidions. College ought to be a time for testing ideologies like the Wright brothers tested gliders. You learn what doesn't work by trying it out. And any man who never changes the views he had as an undergraduate is an idiot. Campus Democrats, matured and sobered by a few years of real-world, make the best Republicans.

My trouble with Horowitz, however, is the same problem I have with ACLU, or Americans United for Separation of Church and State or SLPC. While I generally agree with their broadly stated goals, I find their actual work too much devoted to pumping up lurid cases of abuse, without much fact-checking.

Worse, they tend to pounce on little local disputes or disagreements and, rather than gently urging the small town to work out its manger scene flap quietly and amicably, insert lawyers and Klieg lights and restraining orders and walk away six months later with another showcase story for their next fund-raising newsletter. But they leave behind a community that will be split for a generation and a half by bitterness, felt persecution, and throbbing civic wounds that could have been avoided. I've watched that happen.

I understand the need to keep raising money. But too often it seems that's become the point of the organization. I understand that, too, but I don't condone it. Horowitz also is too quick, in my view, to flourish the heavy club of conservative-dominated state legislatures against the liberal eggheads of academe. And I'm not sure a line can safely be drawn between protecting an ideological minority of students and restricting the speech of the majority.

But here Horowitz makes some intriguing points about his cause, which centers on his "academic bill of rights," a toothless but well-meaning document "aimed at extending traditional academic-freedom protections to students and restoring objectivity and fairness to classrooms." He wanted universities to adopt it as a show of good faith.

What separated him from any random crank out there was not access to media. It wasn't a big staff or a war chest of millions or special-interest logrolling. Horowitz says part of what has made him a hot topic on campuses and helped give him at least one success (Temple University adopted a student bill of rights) was "my opponents' tactics."

Rather than ignoring him or engaging him, professional academic groups denounced him as a worse-than-McCarthy, a Hitler, a Stalin, a Big Brother. "Although unintended, the extravagance of such claims ensured that my campaign would get national attention."

Suppose my opponents had focused the argument instead on modifying points in my bill to suit the distinct needs of academic institutions. If universities had stepped forward to accept those modified reforms, what legislator would have been willing to propose redundant legislation? Who would have cared about my campaign?

The second problem that my opponents created for themselves lay in the extreme nature of their claims. My assertion — hardly mine alone — that the university environment is heavily skewed to the political left should have been uncontroversial. If it had been received as such by my opponents, the discussion would then have focused on whether the disparity mattered, and what, if anything, should be done.

Instead, my opponents forced me to prove the obvious. My study — which I admitted was a crude survey of the party registration of faculty members at 32 elite universities — was challenged. The challenge inspired more studies, this time conducted by social scientists like Daniel B. Klein, associate professor of economics at Santa Clara University, that were methodologically sophisticated and took in much larger samples. The result? We now have an empirically sound picture of just how one-sided university faculties have become.

My opponents' third problem has been the absurdity of their charges. I have never called for the firing of liberal professors; I am not seeking political control over personnel decisions or the curriculum; I am not concerned about protecting students from exposure to the liberal biases of professors; and I have not invented faculty abuses of students so as to make a nonexistent case. (There is a difference, need I point out, between repeating a student's claim, which when challenged could not be substantiated, as happened in one incident in Pennsylvania, and attempting to deliberately deceive people that such problems exist.)

In short, my critics' attacks, instead of killing my campaign, have lent it credibility — at least among those serious enough to weigh the facts and arguments for themselves.

Well, I have a problem with the case he elides over in that third point: Being the underdog is no excuse for repeating claims before you make the effort to substantiate them.

But the larger picture he paints does raise an interesting dilemma for anyone -- right, left, or center. When the conflict is between an establishment and a crank, and both sides cry wolf, the crank wins. Because while the public may perceive both as hysterical, the obviously weaker side now has validation that the establishment is loony and vindictive.

Horowitz, meanwhile, is taking his lance and mount off to tilt at an even bigger windmill: "Academic standards in fields where political agendas instead of scholarly values have come to shape curricula."

Politically corrupted academic standards are an issue, and everybody knows it. How else, for example, could Ward Churchill be elevated to a position of prominence as a full professor and chairman of the ethnic-studies department at a major research university like the University of Colorado at Boulder?

This is no small problem. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a lecturer whose expertise is African languages and literature is teaching conspiracy theories in an introductory course on Islam about September 11, when a scientific understanding of what happened that day must rely on expertise in metals and fuels. Public outcry in Wisconsin over the appointment, which administrators are defending on the grounds of free speech, has already damaged the university. What about professional speech? What about the scholarly expertise that is supposed to underlie academic privilege and tenure?

Good cause. But good luck. The problem isn't just an ideological or political one. Professors of all stripes, and their students, have a tendency to forget that the title "professor" has an "of" attached to it. And that a professor of French history might be brilliant and authoritative within his discipline and be stump-ignorant of the discipline that has its offices one floor down. He might know less about it than the janitor does.

In my work on etymology, I can't count the number of e-mails I've gotten from people pouncing on me for being "wrong" because "my sociology professor" told him or her that the origin of some word or expression was something other than what I discovered by reading the works of the professional linguists.

Usually the professor's version is some sort of linguistic urban legend easily exploded by the most basic academic inquiry (Is there any textual evidence for that term used in that way? Do the dates match up? Are the proposed sound changes consistent with any historical pattern of the language?) But it has to be right, because a professor said so!

Again, I'll count on enduring human common sense to weave scar tissue over whatever damage is done in colleges.

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