Wednesday, March 11, 2009

One-Party Analysis: Reviewing David Horowitz

Reviewed by John K. Wilson
Illinois Academe, Spring 2009

David Horowitz’s new book, One-Party Classroom, represents a dramatic expansion of his war on academic freedom. In his earlier book, The Professors, Horowitz sought to banish left-wing speech he disagreed with that was irrelevant to course material. Now, Horowitz wants to go a step further and ban academic speech itself and entire courses, programs, and fields of study that he deems to be too left-wing, particularly the field of women’s studies.

Horowitz (with the help of his employee Jacob Laksin) has written a disturbing attack on politics in academia. He examines course syllabi at a dozen major university, and reports in excruciating and repetitive detail what he thinks about the course description and books being assigned. Horowitz never bothers to talk to any students (and in many cases, obviously hasn’t even read some of the books he attacks) or attend any classes, yet he evinces a magnificent psychic power to determine precisely that a long list of abuses are certain to occur.

It may be tempting to ignore Horowitz and hope that the vast repressive apparatus he proposes will never be enacted, that we will not have administrators and trustees scrutinizing reading lists and ordering professors to ban the books deemed to be too liberal. But Horowitz has tremendous political influence on the far right, and his attacks, even when unsuccessful, create an atmosphere of fear to raise political issues.

Horowitz’s definition of illegitimate, political stands by professors is breathtaking. Horowitz objects to geography classes dealing with social issues, apparently unaware that geography professors have gone beyond merely studying maps for many decades. He objects to women’s studies dealing with the “unproven” claim that gender is “socially constructed,” apparently unaware that this merely the uncontroversial fact that biology is not the sole determinant of gender differences. One-Party Classroom is a perfect example of why uneducated outsiders such as Horowitz and his allies on Boards of Trustees and legislative bodies should not be able to decide what courses qualify as academic.

Horowitz even objects to a conference entitled, “Africana Studies Against Criminal Injustice: Research-Education-Action” and writes, “an open academic inquiry would not be ‘for’ or ‘against’ anything.”(80) In Horowitz’s view, it is improper for any professor to be against the wrongful conviction of innocent people, and to hold a conference that seeks action against it. This is an ideal of “objectivity” taken to the absurd extremes of relativism.

Horowitz condemns a professor for assigning a textbook that argues whites are “dominant” in America, a claim that Horowitz disputes.(105) It may seem strange that anyone could look at a meeting of CEOs or the U.S. Senate and conclude that whites are not dominant in America, but it’s downright bizarre to write that a professor should ban a book from a class because it makes this obviously true assertion.
Horowitz complains in one case: “Professor Okonkwo, however, is not a historian, let alone a historian of colonialism. He brings no observable academic expertise to bear on the subject.”(226) This is a course on “The Colonial Encounter in African Fiction.” Horowitz is arguing that English professors should ignore the history of colonialism in teaching African novels about colonialism. It’s difficult to imagine a more mouth-dropping display of anti-intellectual sentiment. Horowitz would rather have students remain ignorant about the historical context of a novel than allow an English professor to mention a word about a topic beyond Horowitz’s narrow vision of academic specialization.

Horowitz similarly objects to an English professor teaching Studies in Gender: “This is another professor teaching her ignorance in the fields of sociology (‘race’), political science (‘nationalism’ and ‘militarism’), and economics and geopolitics (‘globalization’).”(235) By Horowitz’s logic, English professors should be banned from teaching anything about race, nationalism, militarism, and globalization—which would make it rather difficult to teach a number of great novels that focus on these topics.

Horowitz also is clear about his target: Left-wing professors. Horowitz reprints an exchange of letters with a Penn State dean who pointed out that business classes are biased toward capitalism, and Horowitz wrote: “The Business School is a professional school whose purpose is to train students in accepted business practices so they can pursue careers in the business world. Students enroll in business courses to learn these practices, not to examine the philosophical or sociological foundations of the business system....The purpose of a professional school is to train graduate students for a career in their chosen profession.”(111) But business is an undergraduate major (one of the biggest in the country, in fact), and not just a graduate specialization. Moreover, Horowitz’s view that balance or academic freedom applies only to the liberal arts is distinctly strange. Neither the AAUP nor any campus academic freedom provisions nor any major organization makes such an odd division. The problem for Horowitz is that a genuine commitment to his espoused ideals would require a similar intervention in business classes to ensure that the anti-capitalist viewpoint is fully presented.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Horowitz’s book is how little in the book is appalling. There are no stories of students punished for disagreeing with their professors, no stories of censorship at all. That’s because Horowitz knows that actual violations of student rights in the classroom are rare and grievance mechanisms are typically effective. Horowitz has a much more radical goal: He wants to revolutionize the idea of academic freedom and declare that students have a right to be free from “biased” comments or readings in class, and even a right to be free from “biased” departments such as Women’s Studies, and that professors have an enforceable obligation to be silent about “political issues,” which can encompass almost anything.

Even if we accepted Horowitz’s argument that these 150 courses (out of more than one million faculty teaching millions of college courses every year) are the “worst” in America (and many of these classes seem intellectually exciting and valuable), why should we believe that a regime restricting academic freedom and banning “politicized” classes would be any better? Freedom is an imperfect system. It allows some professors to occasionally teach goofy courses with goofy books from a goofy perspective. But academic freedom is far better than some kind of centralized “Big Professor” who will tell faculty what books are allowed and banish alleged “bias” from the classroom.

It doesn’t really matter whether it’s legislators or trustees or administrators or other faculty who do the job of banning books that are too “left-wing” and imposing balance in the classroom. No matter who does it, it’s a form of censorship, and it’s destructive to the entire enterprise of education.

Horowitz, like many conservatives, relies on selectively using a paragraph about indoctrination from the 1915 AAUP Statement of Principles, and claims: “This statement, issued in 1915, has provided the template for the academic freedom policies of most American universities ever since.”(7) This is not true. The 1915 AAUP Statement was not the foundation of university policies. That’s why the AAUP issued its 1940 Statement, which goes unmentioned by Horowitz because it removes the flawed section on indoctrination. That 1940 AAUP Statement, unlike the 1915 one, really is the foundation of university policies.

Horowitz’s love for the 1915 AAUP Statement is highly selective. For example, he ignores a provision of it that says the classroom should be regarded as a private space and what happens there should be confidential. So Horowitz’s entire book is a massive violation of the 1915 AAUP principles that he thinks should be imposed.
Of course, the 1915 statement was flawed, both in its attempts to limit undefined “indoctrination” and its efforts to keep the classroom private. The AAUP’s later staements helped to create the modern conception of academic freedom, while Horowitz wants to drag academia back into an ugly past of political repression.

If anyone has ever believed Horowitz’s occasional claims that he is not calling for administrators and trustees to step in and infringe academic freedom, this book makes the facts crystal clear. In his chapter on Columbia University (which he calls “Uptown Madrassa”), Horowitz writes, “faculty activists have had to violate (and administrators have had to ignore) explicit Columbia regulations that obligate professors to observe an academic discipline in the classroom.”(63)

Repeatedly, over and over again, Horowitz declares that these courses violate the university’s policies on academic freedom and demands that administrators and faculty step in to stop them: “It is disturbing that the university has allowed them to proceed for so long.”(231) He writes about “the abdication of university authorities and the shirking of their legal obligations to students and the public.”(253)

He concludes, “Most disturbing of all is the unwillingness of administrators and trustees to defend their institutions and enforce the professional standards of a modern research university.”(278)

Even though Horowitz would love to see faculty impose the kind of censorship he wants, it’s explicit that he wants administrators and trustees to step in if the faculty fail to act. And it’s clear that he wants legislators to step in with his “Academic Bill of Rights” legislation if administrators and trustees fail to suppress the kind of academic speech and courses he dislikes.

By almost any standard, One-Party Classroom is the worst book David Horowitz has ever written. Not only does it have the usual intellectual dishonesty and superficial analysis, but it commits the most appalling crime of all: It’s boring. Wading through a twisted set of course descriptions, watching Horowitz condemn the social construction of gender twenty times without ever getting a clue, reading about the books Horowitz doesn’t like–all of it is mind-numbing in its dullness. The only thing exciting about this book is waiting for some classic Horowitzian expression of academic ignorance and knowing that behind this rambling, pathetic, anti-intellectual tirade is a vast political crusade to crush academic freedom. Horowitz proves with this book only the tedium of totalitarian ideologies.

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