Thursday, September 27, 2007

Why O'Connor Is Wrong about the AAUP Statement

Erin O’Connor attacks the latest AAUP statement on Politics in the Classroom. In O’Connor’s view, the AAUP shouldn’t be defending cases where professors have been attacked for legitimate discussions of politics; instead, she thinks the AAUP should be denouncing the cases of alleged misuse of politics. O’Connor claims, “the statement falsely suggests that charges of classroom indoctrination are chimerical.” What, does that mean that every charge of classroom indoctrination has been true? Actually, the AAUP statement takes it for granted that professors can’t grade students based on politics, and instead focuses on the cases where there is a genuine debate. O’Connor claims that the issue is faculty “compelling them to adopt certain viewpoints in order to complete assignments.” If this were the main issue, the AAUP would have no argument with it. O’Connor and others who accuse the AAUP of creating “straw men” need to read carefully the views of Horowitz, the leader of their movement and the man they refuse to criticize. Horowitz is in fact even more extreme than this.

O’Connor cites the “non-example of the UNC controversy” where conservatives tried to stop the University of North Carolina from having students read Barbara Ehrenreich’s excellent book Nickel and Dimed over the summer. This is a “non-example” because O’Connor likes the book and (rather weakly) opposed the right-wing movement’s attempt to censor leftist views. Frankly, the case is an embarrassment to the right-wing, so she’d prefer not to have the AAUP discuss the most widely-publicized summer reading case, suggesting the AAUP instead analyze some minor case of dubious discussion questions at Baruch College.

O’Connor claims, “academics have shown a distressing tendency not to police themselves when it comes to classroom conduct.” They have, and for good reason. Should we be policing professors for the content of views expressed in the classroom? No, and that’s precisely what the right-wing movement of Horowitz and ACTA, and O’Connor seems to embrace this effort to ban criticism of the government from the classroom (I suspect she doesn’t fully agree, but must hold her tongue to keep her job running ACTA online). That’s what should alarm everyone, and if anything the AAUP statement is far too thoughtful and reasonable and fails to sharply condemn the Horowitz movement to ban politics from the classroom for the politicized attack that it is. What we need is not policing, but more criticism of faculty who fail in their responsibilities. If ACTA and Horowitz were only engaging in critiques, I might disagree with them sometimes, but I would respect their approach. Instead, the right-wing has sought restrictions of classroom speech using the power of government and administrators, and that is what I object to, as should anyone who cares about academic freedom.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Wilson says, in part:

"(I suspect she doesn’t fully agree, but must hold her tongue to keep her job running ACTA online)"

This is unworthy of you. It is a cheap, nasty ad hominem attack which poisons the well, whether that's the intent or not.

I could levy the same irrefutable charge against you:

"I suspect that Wilson doesn't fully agree with his own criticism of O'Connor's piece, but must hold fast to the far leftist academic line, lest he get mobbed by intolerant academic leftists. (Remember Duke? Larry Summers, times two?)"

But I won't, because however misguided I believe your position is, I believe you to be acting out of a sincere belief in your cause, that you are not toeing the far left party line out because you are a coward.

You should at least accord the same courtesy to those who disagree with you, and you owe O'Connor an apology.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's mean (and I hesitated before posting it), but your analogy is wrong. I'm not working for anyone who would fire me if I dissented from some party line. Erin O'Connor is. And it disturbs me a lot that ACTA apparently makes her post to their blog as "acta online" rather than under her own name. Why does Anne Neal do that? I take that to mean that she's forced to follow Anne Neal's party line. Before ACTA, I thought O'Connor was a conservative but maverick thinker, and now I see little willingness to criticize the Horowitz/Neal approach. Maybe that really reflects her true views today, but I'd like to think that instead she's toning down some criticisms she probably has of right-wing approaches. I was a big fan of O'Connor's Critical Mass, but now I think she's become a predictable ACTA acolyte. Now, maybe I'm just imagining that, or maybe it's a natural evolution in her thought, or maybe I'm right and it has something to do with her no longer being an independent thinker and instead is a result of working for ACTA. Is that insulting? Yes, it probably is. But I actually understand why someone would like to have a job doing that (I'd like to, if anyone would ever hire me), and why they might silence themselves a little when it comes to criticizing an employer and the employer's allies.

John K. Wilson

Anonymous said...

My point stands untouched.

The issue is simply this: you could be accused of saying what you do not out of conviction, but because you are fearful of telling the truth. (I don't believe this to be the case -- I think you are an honorable person.)

Unless you can falsify the facts of the Duke and Summers mobbing by the radical academic left, those events stand as ample incentive for you to toe the far left party line: if you were to cross the extreme left in the academy, you would be crucified, one way or another.

That is enough incentive for you to criticize O'Connor's piece: to comment on it without criticizing her post, and demonizing her in the bargain (by questioning her strength of character), would bring hellfire upon you.

I don't be believe that to be the case. I do not believe you are a coward. I take you at face value: that you are a man of principle who genuinely believes in his cause.

Why do you not accord O'Connor the same respect? Why do you accuse her of being cowardly ("(I suspect she doesn’t fully agree, but must hold her tongue to keep her job running ACTA online)")?

Is it impossible for you to believe that she argues from the same depth of conviction that you do, irrespective of who pays her what, or where she works?

Besides -- as I understand it, she is tenured at the University of Pennsylvania. So what if she's fired from ACTA? She still has her cushy U. Penn job.

You owe her an apology. If you are as honorable as I believe you to be, you will apologize for your ad hominem, poison-the-well attack.

John Wilson said...

Well, apologizing is nearly impossible for me, but I suppose I do owe Erin an apology. I really do think this (and could easily be wrong), but it's the kind of gossipy attack that normal people wouldn't write on a public blog. I really liked Critical Mass back when she was the first blogger writing about these issues, and I feel like she's lost her independence and cutting edge at ACTA. But you're right that it's a rude thing to say, and nothing at all to do with the arguments she's making, which deserve to be evaluated on their own merit.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your position. I, being forever perfect, have never had to apologize in my life, for anything. ;-)

Not to put too fine a point on it, but when you say " ...I feel like she's lost her independence and cutting edge at ACTA," that's simply a softer way of focussing on a person's motives and personal limitations rather on the substance of her argument.

It's fine to say her arguments work or don't work, for whatever reason (or no reason at all), but what does her dependence or independence have to do with the strength of the points she makes?

Again, one could level the same accusation at you: that your dependence on your academic position (for accolades, collegiality, selling books, acquiring influence, raises, office space, teaching assignments, etc.) colors your objectivity.

I appreciate your willingness to take my thoughts seriously. There are those who would not.

John Wilson said...

You're right, the comment about independence was meant to explain my wider concerns, not as part of arguing O'Connor's ideas in that essay. I think something could be said about me, and it is worth some concern. Since I don't have an academic position, I have the liberty of unemployment. But I would like to get a job, unfortunately I seem to be incapable of the kind of sucking up that might benefit me. My field is higher education, where departments mostly train administrators and most faculty are ex-administrators. Therefore, my harsh remarks about administrators are probably likely to hurt me in the job market. Also, I might try to get a letter of recommendation from Cary Nelson or other prominent figures in this debate who know me. Therefore, I have an incentive to defend Nelson. However, I think Nelson would say that I do a lousy job of sucking up to him, and the only reason I don't say harsher things about Nelson is because I agree with him. So I actually think that ad hominem critiques have some worth, and I deserve to be examined, too.