Monday, October 15, 2007

Downs on the AAUP

Donald Downs wrote an essay last week on the NAS forum about the AAUP report on politics in the classroom, and it needs close examination.

Downs contends that liberal views deserve criticism: “who could say that such a choice is beyond criticism, and that it should not be the subject of discussion and analysis?”

Yes, who could? In fact, who does? The AAUP has certainly never said that the choices of professors should be “beyond criticism.” I’ve never heard of even a straw man taking the stand Downs claims is being defended.

Downs writes, “we hear nothing about the notorious flare-ups in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Culture Department at Columbia University a couple of years ago that prominently displayed the tension between student and faculty academic freedom. Even the noted civil liberty columnist Nat Hentoff -- who has been unyielding in his defense of professors charged with the sin of being politically incorrect -- concluded in The Village Voice that the students’ academic freedom rights were violated in that case.”

No violations of student academic freedom were shown at Columbia. There have been some pretty egregious actions by faculty against students, but not at Columbia, as far as I can tell. And no department has ever been as thoroughly scrutinized as MEALAC. Yet as a result of this “flare-up”, Columbia has had imposed one of the worst speech codes against faculty in the country. The fact that normally strong defenders of freedom like Hentoff and Downs failed to do so with regard to Columbia is an example of their failings, not the AAUP’s.

Downs claimed, “Individual discretion is important, but what if the ideological orientation of teachers in a macro sense tilts decidedly toward the left or the right? The cumulative effect of individual discretion would be ideological one-sidedness, would it not?”

No, it would not. First of all, individual discretion doesn’t mean that every teacher offers only ideas that he or she agrees with. Since only unethical teachers do this, I find it hard to believe that an entire department would fail to teach opposing viewpoints. And outside the classroom, people of all viewpoints are free to invite speakers. Of course, not all ideas would get equal treatment, but what exactly does Downs propose to the solution to this? Ideological one-sidedness, like democracy, is a terrible situation, except in comparison to all of the alternatives.

Downs claims, “Conservative speakers consistently find themselves besieged when they come to campus to speak, and conservative newspapers often find themselves under improper (and sometime illegal) attack.”

This simply isn’t true. Conservatives, in very rare cases, face protests at liberal colleges. Liberals are somewhat less likely to be shouted down, albeit more likely to be disinvited and banned altogether from conservative colleges. Conservatives newspapers sometimes get attacked, but so do liberal newspapers. We need to oppose both kinds of censorship, and not pretend that only side faces repression on campus.

Downs noted, “Last year representatives of the Minutemen anti-illegal-immigration movement were physically removed from a stage at an event at Columbia University by angry students who could not brook the idea of this group’s presence on the progressive campus.”

In reality, students temporarily disrupted the speech (from the other end of the stage), and never physically removed the speaker. For reasons that are mysterious to me, Columbia never tried to have the speech continue, and has to its eternal shame failed to bring the Minutemen back to campus to speak their views. But I can cite many more anecdotes of liberal speakers shouted down or banned from campuses.

Downs cites the case of Nickel and Dimed being assigned to incoming students at the University of North Carolina, and asks, “It would be instructive to do a survey of such assignments among the leading research universities and colleges in the United States. What might we find?” We’d probably find a lot of colleges that don’t have students read books (for fear of the controversy) or select bland books. Since no one is actually forced to read a book, I cannot fathom why anyone would object to this at all. The best approach would be for liberal and conservative groups to get together, recommend pairs of excellent books on a subject (for example, Diane Ravitch's The Language Police and James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me, which I taught together in an education class). Instead, what we get our conservative groups filing lawsuits and threatening state budgets to try to banish books they don't like.

Downs adds, “the Regents of the University of California (home of the putative Free Speech Movement) declined to bring former Harvard president Larry Summers in to address them because his presence might offend feminists. (Summers’ fate at Harvard is itself a telling example of campus orthodoxy having its way.)”

Of course, it was the students at Berkeley who started the Free Speech Movement; the regents were the ones consistently trying to suppress free speech, then and now, so we shouldn’t be surprised that they still like to avoid controversy in their after-dinner speakers (but they obviously deserve condemnation for it). Summers resigned for a lot of reasons (most of all because he offended conservatives by apologizing for his remarks, and therefore alienated the only group who liked a lousy president such as Summers). And what about the presidents forced out for failing to enforce right-wing demands (such as Elizabeth Hoffman, the [lifelong Republican] president of the University of Colorado, who properly refused to fire Ward Churchill and then had a top Republican in the state senate demand her resignation merely because she warned of a “new McCarthyism” on campus)?

Downs claims, “In 1994, the organization published a statement that essentially discounted the negative effects of speech codes and related measures on academic and intellectual freedom. Many life-long supporters of the AAUP were stupefied by this position.”

Downs is absolutely wrong here. If he were to re-read the AAUP’s statement on speech codes here, he would surely realize how wrong he is. The AAUP statement is a clear-cut and excellent rejection of speech codes. Now, the position he describes is held by some people, notably me. In my 1995 book, The Myth of Political Correctness, I argued that the threat of speech codes was overblown, since colleges have always given themselves the power to censor students, and these new codes (although often badly written) were little more than rhetorical re-arranging of the furniture of censorship. I was right, and I’m still right, but the AAUP said nothing like that.

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