January 31, 2005

The fake academic freedom debate?

From A.G. Rud's blog comes a link to an online debate of sorts between California AAUP official Graham Larkin (from Stanford) and Front Page Magazine's David Horowitz about academic freedom and the proposed Academic Bill of Rights. The set of links is useful primarily for documenting the shrill nature of this "debate."


Here's the substantive part of the linked text, as far as I can tell:

I'll skip the rest of the tit-for-tat from Larkin and Horowitz, since they essentially repeat their basic arguments. In many ways, it's very sad that David Horowitz has taken it upon himself to be the point person for changing higher education. He is a sloppy writer, and it's hard to take seriously his claim that he doesn't want ideological affirmative action in higher-ed when one of the slogans of his book (which reappears on the web site of Students for Academic Freedom) is "You can't get a good education if they're only telling you half the story." The so-called studies of "liberal academe" are shamefully slipshod, as Larkin has pointed out as well.

Why sad? Because there are serious problems with universities as intellectual environments. Many of the causes are in proliferating adminstrative bureaucracies, some chunk from political grandstanding locally, and occasionally from some professors and students. When my liberal colleague Jonathan Zimmerman (at NYU) talks about the need for intellectual diversity in individual departments (emphasis added), I get the sense that he's not being brainwashed by Horowitz.

But analysis of universities is not advanced by Manichean claims by Horowitz or others. A good study of ideological propensities would probably show the liberal slant he claims in some disciplines and in some types of institutions, but not everywhere! I suspect that the greater cause of such slanting has to do with self-selection in disciplines and the disciplinary prejudices inherent in writing job announcements. The vast majority of academic jobs are in public state universities and colleges (not the Ivy Leagues or research flagships that Horowitz focusese his ire on), and there job ads are quasi-contractual in terms of requirements and fields. These are my seat-of-the-pants hypotheses, but I'll be happy to be shown evidence of different patterns. Any day I learn something is a good day.

The ABOR itself is generally a principled statement except for a few items that raise serious flags for me.

  • Faculty will not use their courses for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination. We shouldn't, but what constitutes sufficient evidence of indoctrination—counting the ideological leanings of readings in my syllabus? (Here we go back to the potential for ideological quotas, a la Lynn Cheney's ghostwriter who counted the appearances of Cheney's historical heroes in the first version of the national history standards guide.)
  • ...academic institutions and professional societies should maintain a posture of organizational neutrality with respect to the substantive disagreements that divide researchers on questions within, or outside, their fields of inquiry. This clearly violates the academic freedom of disciplinary organizations, who are free to make statements about anything in their collective area of expertise or to make professional standards. If this had been in sway when the American Psychological Association first created standards to prohibit sexual relationships between psychotherapists and clients, it would never have passed because a minority of lechers could have blocked it. Should the American Historical Association have been able to take the Bancroft Prize away from Michael Bellesiles, even though he still has a few defenders? I think it has that power.

Maybe the ABOR would be entirely innocent in practice. But I think it's reasonable to be skeptical here when the sponsors of such bills in state legislators are neither educators nor bipartisan. David Horowitz should go watch 1776, especially the first musical number. He might end up improving the odds of agreement just by sitting down.

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Posted in Academic freedom on January 31, 2005 12:35 AM |