The University and the Specter of Horowitz

(x-posted to The Valve)

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J. H. Blair
-Florence Reese (lyrics), “Which Side Are You On?”

In an ongoing series of posts at Acephalous, Scott Kaufman has been linking to and collating instances of the ongoing war against progressive thought in the academy. First, as some of you probably know, Scott took up the subject of Until Proven Innocent, a book co-written by KC Johnson, who teaches at Brooklyn College and CUNY. Until Proven Innocent attempts to pin the scandal surrounding the Duke lacrosse rape case on the politically correct culture of liberal academia. While Scott was napping, Smurov linked to a piece by Mark Bauerlein, who is an English professor at Emory and who titled his essay “Indoctrination in the Classroom.” Finally, Scott and Smurov both linked to this reaction, via the National Review’s blog Phi Beta Cons, against those professors whose reading assignments make students feel “spoiled or privileged.”

I use the phrase “ongoing war” advisedly: this is a war, albeit one being conducted discursively through periodicals, campus organizations, and websites and blogs. At some point, the leader of the anti-intellectual, anti-academic crusade was David Horowitz, founder of Students for Academic Freedom, a “student” organization created with the express goal of sabotaging university teaching by mounting pressure campaigns against left-wing professors. The most affable representative of mainstream academic opposition to Horowitz was Michael Bérubé; with incredible patience and argumentative cunning, Bérubé defended academia and tore hole after hole in Horowitz’s shoddy research. He debated Horowitz live, and wrote a book (What’s Liberal About The Liberal Arts?) that was the subject of several vibrant conversations at the Valve (book event archive). Although Bérubé was incredibly successful at mimizing Horowitz’s efficacy, the movement against the liberal arts has taken on a life of its own, falling back on the same rhetorical tactics that the American right-wing employed against welfare and in support of the Iraq war.

It is time that we examined where the logic of these attacks on the academy leads, and how the right-wing doublespeak of “academic freedom” is structured.

The Agenda

Here is what right-wing critics of the academy would like to see implemented:

  1. Pay cuts for all scholars in the humanities, including reduced funding for research and travel.
  2. Elimination of tenure.
  3. Public access to all courses, particularly lecture courses.
  4. Public hearings for faculty hires and dismissals.
  5. Public or student-led selection of assigned texts.
  6. Guidelines for hiring based on candidates’ political beliefs; establishing a quota for conservative academics in all disciplines within the humanities. (Yes, this would be quota-based hiring for registered Republicans.)
  7. Replacing content-based courses with skills-based courses; in particular, replacing instruction in English with formalistic instruction in writing.

The underlying assumptions are as follows:

  1. There is no difference between a lay person and a tenured professor when it comes to evaluating the quality of a text.
  2. In the humanities, there is no difference between knowledge and belief, and all beliefs are equal. There is therefore no justification for challenging students to re-examine inherited beliefs.
  3. Skill is independent of belief; in expressive practice, this means that form (ability to write) is independent of content (statement of belief).
  4. Public interference in the process of education is justified by democratic and consumerist principles in a way that public interference in the private sector is not. For example, students are justified in suing professors, but consumers are not justified in suing corporations.
  5. The market value of writing skills should largely determine the salary of a humanities professor.

The rhetoric goes like this:

  1. Professors are out-of-touch with American values.
  2. Professors are hypocrites who criticize luxury while living in its lap.
  3. Professors are lazy.

Living in a Rhetorical World

Our thoughts are our own; our language is not. Whatever we say or write enters public discourse in the context of the assumptions and debates of its time, and, in the reader’s mind, it does not necessarily link up with our entire worldview or with our own private struggles and motives. I’m reminded of the moment in Philip Roth’s The Counterlife when Nathan Zuckerman tries to convince his brother to abandon an Israeli settlement in the occupied territories. Zuckerman tries to make his brother admit to Freudian motives, and the brother responds that his motives really aren’t important any longer, because he is now part of a movement, the historical meaning of which is greater than the sum of its parts. It is essential for us to see the rhetorical context of contemporary debates about the academy, and neither to exempt our own speech from its likely misuses, nor to treat disputants as rhetorically naive.

You can already see, in Bérubé’s account of working with a student named John (cf. the book event), that it’s not merely a question of having the right to speak, or earning a sufficiently high grade, which are personal concerns — John feels a political concern for himself and the other students in the face of possible “indoctrination.” His personal concerns are understandable and admit discussion; his political concern does not, since it is necessarily based on a series of judgments about the relationship between politics and pedagogy that John isn’t qualified to make and which exceed his right to fair treatment.

Similarly, in the comment threads that followed Scott’s posts on KC Johnson, there were a series of individuals (particularly an anonymous commenter named “Professor Ethan”) who tried to inundate Acephalous with canned rhetoric about the failings of academia. Trying, as several commenters did, to get a personal account from Ethan of how he suffered in the classroom, and how such mistakes might be avoided in the future, is a mistake: Ethan is trying to create change, not come to terms. When Ethan quoted NPR, in the comment here, the point wasn’t just that he attributed to NPR something actually excerpted from Until Proven Innocent. He was quoting NPR in the first place because it’s “liberal media,” and he figured Scott’s readers would feel bound to respect it. This is all made possible by National Public Radio, which has been under siege from the Bush Administration for years, and so runs a piece on Until Proven Innocent as an easy way to seem balanced and not indefensibly liberal.

That’s how the feedback loop works when an issue gets pushed to the right: progressive intellectuals and media outlets are shamed into re-defining objectivity and balance as more centrist or rightist, and then skimmed for whatever admission can add fuel to the fire, without ever beating the charge of bias. Right now, any English professor who lends the credibility of a position and a doctorate to the conservative anti-academic agenda is guaranteed a lot of attention and readers.

Even the most well-meaning pieces can end up making odd syntheses, not out of impure motives, but simply because the rightist agenda is circulating everywhere. This is what happened, I think, with Tim Burke’s piece on academic freedom in the Minnesota Review. Burke is a great blogger and a thoughtful respondent (including on Acephalous with regard to Johnson’s book), and I think his article (mentioned by John Holbo here) was motivated by sincere concern for continued innovation in the humanities. Burke’s solution to over-cautiousness and paralysis in the humanities is, potentially, eliminating tenure, though he does not make an explicit demand.

From the standpoint of academic freedom, though, the demand doesn’t make any sense: expanding the population of professors without real job security is guaranteed to produce more cautiousness, not less. Whether or not the professors on a hiring committee have tenure, they will still want intellectual diversity, they will still desire to be fair, and they will still walk in to meetings and interviews with a set of firmly grounded attitudes and ideological allegiances. The real questions are whether the candidate can expect to get a tenure-track position or a year-to-year lectureship; whether that position will come as soon as graduate school is over, or after years of tutoring high school students preparing for the SAT; whether or not funding is available for summer research, and for dissertation research in lieu of teaching. That will determine how much capacity for innovation will be manifest in new generations of scholars. There is an analogy here to the situation with elementary and secondary public schools: first you starve them for funding, then you blame the teachers and the curriculum when students do poorly.

The Three Basic Criticisms of Academics

Professors are out-of-touch with American values.

I respect those authors, including Richard Rorty and Walter Benn Michaels, who have tried to define what “achieving our country” or “our America” might mean in progressive terms. That said, I believe that American scholars in the humanities might as well stand up for the truly international community that constitutes their field, as American scientists and businessmen have done. Nationalism has left a lot of scars, here and elsewhere, in the past few decades; the principles that found institutions of learning are universal. Otherwise, one sits in an IKEA chair, working on a computer made in China, trying to achieve our country.

Professors are hypocrites who criticize luxury while living in its lap.

This is really just a customized version of the argument about liberal hypocrisy: if you’re so idealistic, why aren’t you poor? It is pathetically literal to criticize professors for teaching about inequality. One may as well ask how able-bodied Congressmen could vote the ADA into existence. It is not necessary to believe that selfishness is the premise of all action.

Professors are lazy.

This is a groundless claim without a shred of hard evidence besides the existence of summer “vacation.” It is like calling apple growers lazy because the fruit appears in September. At UC Irvine, the summer is divided into Summer Session I and Summer Session II.


The fact that scholars like Johnson and Bauerlein are doing what they can to harm the reputation of the humanities does not make us unfree, and neither does the existence of an organized attack on the humanities. We remain free in the only meaningful sense of the word: free to determine our relationship to the humanistic traditions of scholarship and pedagogy, and free to determine our politics accordingly.