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My Life With The Academic Left By: Professor Frances B. Cogan
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, January 15, 2004

One day in class at the University of Oregon, my Honors College students asked me innocently “what it had been like here” during the Sixties, suggesting by their tone that it was as remote as the French and Indian War. “Well,” I said, “It was hideous.” As they stared at me, I tried to explain what it was like during the late Sixties for someone who was trying to get a degree while on tight funds and not in the least interested in rallies or moratoria or sit-ins.

I told them, for example, about trying to take a comprehensive field exam in Medieval Literature for my Masters in English and being told, mid-exam, that I would have to leave the building because there was a bomb-threat. I didn’t doubt it for a minute. Several weeks earlier the ROTC building and part of the registrar’s office had been burned down and partially blown up.

While I didn’t doubt the danger, I couldn’t emotionally cope with taking the awful exam again even though my Master’s degree was hanging on the results. “I’m not leaving until I finish this test,” I snarled at the Public Safety person, “They’ll just have to blow me up. Now leave me alone.” As is obvious, the bomb didn’t go off, though there was a bomb, I was told.

My mind drifted back to 1968, 1969, 1970. I remembered radical students barring the doors of buildings to keep students from going to class during a “shut down.”  I also recall an altercation in the Student Union involving a cadre of Black Power students, some with guns, and all standing aggressively in a phalanx in front of the door into the rest of the Union, their black berets cocked and arms folded. I never did find out what it was all about, but it made me leery of going to study in the Union, one of my favorite places because I could drink coffee and smoke while I studied. (This was before the second-hand smoke controversy; socially, (if not legally) people were generally allowed to ruin their health without being hassled.           

The anti-war activists were not easy to ignore. In one of my classes (a big one of two or three hundred students) the activists burst in carrying a wooden coffin painted black, protesting the war and then throwing bags of animal blood over seats, students and the floor.

Even the faculty got in on the action. “Progressive” younger faculty who prided themselves on “taking the kids seriously” held teach-ins instead of class or rather than teaching the subject, ranted about politics even then demanding agreement. More subtle teachers tortured texts into anachronistic statements of Marxist principles. Shakespeare. Chaucer. Edmund Burke.

Even though I was a wet-blanket and refused comment or action supporting the anti-war position, to be fair, no faculty member did anything to me; rather, if I was threatened it was by students I didn’t know who tried to bar me from class. The atmosphere in many classrooms could easily be classified by that fashionable term, “a hostile environment” for anyone rejecting walk-outs, bombings, barricade-building, or other forms of recreational anarchy. For me at the time, I felt the omnipresent threat of being castigated for my views by the faculty, though this didn’t happen. The older faculty’s classes were usually a haven from such things. I can remember one professor telling a student icily that the course was Renaissance sonnets and not the war. “ If you want to talk about it, go somewhere else. This is a classroom.” This was, of course, before the university reoriented itself and saw its mission as one which acted as an agent for social change rather than an institution intended to teach nobility of spirit, a search for truth, or the works of great men and women.

At that time, the University administration at the University of Oregon did not completely concede to student demands; while they allowed a “city” of shacks to be build on the lawns in front of the Student Union (to protest poverty), they did not countenance burning buildings or blowing up departments. Eventually, the National Guard arrived to restore order after one particularly violent three day period in 1970.  I was caught in the middle of a mob of students as I tried vainly to go back to my apartment. Clouds of tear gas, helicopters going over, people taking pictures on both sides. It was a nightmare.

I know all the old arguments. I should have been more curious and much more ready to listen than I was. There was a reason for this beyond the obvious aggravations I have already mentioned:  I hated the way the activists made their points and the America-hate that went with it. They shouted slogans in people’s faces, as if the volume of noise made them more virtuous and correct than “apathetic” people like me; they shouted down if one dared to disagree; they name-called and slandered if one kept on objecting. They threatened violence.

How could I agree with such people? Since when had slogan-thinking acquired the patina of intellectual discourse? Was I supposed to believe that our soldiers in Vietnam (many of them from my small town) were truly vicious monsters and that the Vietcong were, if not non-violent, that sadly justified in their responses. Why did ordinary students fall in with the pack and agree to call dissenters “war-mongers?” Because of their over-reaching disruptive tactics and their extraordinary hyperbole, I refused to listen to the anti-war protesters and thereby made a mistake. As I found out (surprisingly, in the Navy, which I joined after my Masters), the war was a mess, the population was being lied to, and my friends were dying or being jailed.

Some of what the anti-war protesters said was true--but, on later reflection, not all of it, nor were the protests for the right reasons. They wanted us out of Vietnam not because it was proving to be a disaster socially, emotionally, and politically for the United States, but to allow the “real people” (aqua the North Vietnamese) to take over the government, the bloody results of which takeover we saw in 1975.

How has the university changed thirty years later, now that I am a professor and not a student?  The campus has few major rallies anymore, though the WTO has received its share of protests, and the war in Iraq predictably spawned a variety of teach-ins and campus “stands”—mostly led and attended by aging boomers who remember their glory days. Students still try to go to class and get their degrees at least where I teach, though the idealistic Honors College also produces its share of outraged protest leaders.

Unfortunately, since former 60s protesters have now become the associate and full professors of the University establishment, they perform as block captains for correct thinking. They keep a sharp ear out for any grumbles or dissent. Those whom Horowitz calls the “neo-communists” are pervasive within the university’s structure. Their brand of political philosophy is so all-encompassing that bringing up politics in class is a given. Though there is no official speech code, there is a silent but perceptible feeling in many University’s classrooms that only specific subjects deserve discussion that certain words should not be said nor a variety of well-known topics truly explored. These include unpleasant statistics about crime, primitive life-styles, standards of living among the U.S. poor as compared to the poor of other countries, the fact of black-on-black slavery in the Sudan, Soviet atrocities of the past. This can (and often does) preclude free discussion, or at least makes it staggeringly one-sided. 

In my own classes I see a real timidity and hesitation about interpreting a text in the fear that the evidence which emerges may be politically incorrect. These kids have been beaten into shape through the K-12 system and know better than to say anything untoward—or even to think it. The University, far from opening their minds and encouraging critical thinking, normally simply repeats the orthodoxies.    

Some experiences from my classroom may illuminate this. In a seminar I taught called “The Indian Captivity Narrative.” we read an account by Fr. Issac Jogues, a 17th century French Jesuit, about his tribulations among the Iroquois. They proceeded, after capturing him, to cut off his fingers and make him eat them, then jammed sharp stakes laterally into his arms to the elbows. A nervous female student suggested uneasily that we “shouldn’t criticize the Indians for their beliefs” and that imaginative torture was “just their way of doing things.” I agreed that it was—but that its Native American nature did not make it any less painful or barbaric. I then asked the class a broader question: were we never to criticize another’s beliefs? Was there a universal standard of human decency that should prevail irrespective of culture? After all, I pointed out, some could say that the Nazis were just “practicing their racial beliefs” about Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and Slavs as well.

The class was obviously profoundly disturbed by the question and what followed was first a tentative, then eventually a full-blown discussion which ended with basic agreement that some beliefs should be criticized. (But not those of Native Americans.)

I also remember several PhD and Honors BA oral exams over the years which shocked me. In one BA Honors College oral, I remember a thesis which stated bluntly that the Chinese in 19th century California were hanged simply because of white bigotry.  In the particular incident the thesis explored and used as evidence, a number of Chinese miners had inadvertently stumbled upon several white miners who were hiding their collective gold. The Chinese were chased and then caught and killed. According to the student and his politically correct advisor, there was no other reason—like fear of theft—which explained the hanging, even though only a week earlier, these same miserly miners had run off, then shot at white intruders, though they did not catch them to hang them. While I agree that hatred of the Chinese was certainly a fact of life in California, Occam’s Razor suggests fear of theft rather than just bigotry occasioned the brutal attack. This possibility was never explored; any attempt to discuss it was sharply curtailed by the head of the thesis committee. The thesis was riddled  with similar statements of political correctness—all without any qualification or discussion. It read more as a piece of outraged sensitivity than it did as a scholarly exploration. We did not, as teachers, seem to be doing our job allowing this.

In another part of campus, one of my Molecular Biologists friends, a woman, tried to “build bridges” with fellow female faculty members at a panel discussing “Women and Science.” She was rudely shocked when she was attacked verbally and even shoved once because she spoke up to say that she didn’t think “scientific facts” were either male or female! Further, she unwisely added that she didn’t think there was any “female way of knowing” in science, and what she had seen thus far looked like a blend of mythology and wishful thinking!  She told me afterward that she had discovered a great truth, “These women were not just confused about science. They were against it.” Needless to say these women were from the social sciences and the humanities, and even now probably teach about current science as an evil part of a patriarchal plan to quash women’s attempts at discovery. My friend by the way was called a “fascist” and a “tool of the Patriarchy” for her efforts, and will not soon be trying to build anymore bridges.

The University of Oregon does have a general university two-class requirement listed officially as “diverse”” or “multi-racial” before a student can graduate. The theory is that such a requirement will sufficiently sensitize students to a multi-racial society. While I believe it is intellectually sound to learn about other races and non-western civilizations, I continue to protest substituting one for the other. I do believe that the Western literary and philosophical canon is truly too important not only to us, but to any government which values individualism and freedom to ignore it to satisfy an educational or social fad; a foundation in one's own culture is imperative for a thinking citizen. Other cultures can and should be studied in addition to one's own, but not in its place.

If the University is not mired in student protests, it is probably because the majority of the faculty is already marching to that familiar (and temporally distant) drum. As I have noted, the students are constantly being asked to believe that the United States is the font of all political evil in the world and that 9-11 was something we brought on ourselves because of our bigotry about “others ways of thinking” and our supposedly limitless and knee-jerk hatred of any nationality or race other than our own. I find this appalling, but I am somewhat soothed by the fact that many students seem to give such information a sleepy nod and go about their business. Occasionally, one will object privately to me as an advisor that she hates hearing her major in Business Administration referred to by the correct thinkers as a major in “Pre-Wealth”; another will object to being tricked into expressing a dissenting opinion, only to be pounced upon self-righteously by the professor.

I must admit that my life has proceeded in academia despite my views which, if not fully known, are deeply suspected. When I first returned, for example, I was having lunch with several former professors of mine and they asked me about my decision to join the Navy in 1971. I explained how I felt and then one of my erstwhile teachers looked coldly at me and announced, “We had a name for people like you—war criminal.”

I not only found this rude, but hard to understand. I had been a WAVE officer in charge of the Enlisted Women’s Barracks, the Child Care Center and the Family Services Office. I looked him straight in the eye and asked him if he had served during the war. He snorted that he hadn’t. I then said waspishly that we had a name for people like him too: coward. Surprisingly, we did not end as friends.

I am not quick to publicize my views which are not so much Republican as Libertarian (that’s whom I vote for in presidential elections), but I have become a curmudgeon. I sigh at the number of left-leaning professors on campus, but I tell myself the majority are not committed haters of the country, but rather as many students in the Sixties were, anxious to be accepted and therefore agreeing to the unstated required beliefs in order to avoid being excluded, marked or attacked socially.  Too many face tenure or promotion decisions which use subjective criteria for them to stand up and argue against the current orthodoxy, after all. I have heard people being labeled “Republican” or “Conservative” in the same tones that one is labeled “Child-Molester.” I don’t hold it against these junior members of the faculty that they stay quiet.

I do hold it against others who continue to believe it all—the wickedness and malevolent intentions of Business, the need for a steady-state, untouched environment, or the need to destroy capitalism, property, wealth. This, I have observed, has not stopped them from buying houses and lots, wrangling for more salary, or enjoying big screen TVs or expensive computers and cars when they can afford them.  Indeed, this is a reflection of the affectations of the Sixties right-thinkers who, at University of Oregon at least, wore very expensive knee-length moccasins, went to “gatherings” by plane and had absolutely first-rate sound systems.

If anything has remained truly the same, it is the Romantic hypocrisy of saying one thing then undercutting it by personal action, all the while pretending it isn’t happening or that it somehow doesn’t count—and what is Marxism or the current philosophy of the Left but a form of Romanticism. As I have pointed out in class, the assumptions of utopian thinkers, social planners, and neo-Romantics are arrogant ones:  that the Romantic thinker can and should speak for people who can’t speak for themselves—whether they actually can speak for themselves or not. That the social engineer is able to see The Big Picture much more clearly than selfish individuals and so builds a “community space” or a downtown mall that is unusable except by the homeless, the druggies, and an occasional pure-hearted leftist. Leftist philosophers, social engineers, and Romantic poets, we learn, believe themselves to have special insights and sensitivities--not to mention intellects--which see much deeper and ponder more cogently than do ordinary people. That is why they should be listened to—even put in charge.

While Romanticism gave us much that was wonderful—the value of individuality, freedom of thought, the absolute necessity of beauty and nature – it also gave us the Sierra Club and other ecological totalitarianism.

It has encouraged both the old and the young to self-hatred, resting as it does on an assumption that people basically are unworthy to breathe because they “destroy” nature no matter what they do.  Unlike tent-moths and sucker fish, people seem not to be a part of nature at all; our existence to such minds remains a cosmic offense. We build houses and disturb snail-darters; we actually walk on the beach and leave tracks (which should be brushed out); we are cruel, ignorant, arrogant, unfeeling, out-of-joint with nature and want, not universal ecological balance, but a job. Much of this hatred of our species unfortunately makes its way into class. It goes hand and hand with the automatic shame and condemnation students seem to feel for their country, and guiltiness about being white, middle-class, or of more than average intelligence. All in all, the New Left teachers have trained the majority of students to despise who and what they are.

Has the university changed? Yes and no. It is less morally honest than it used to be; it is less self-critical; it is more professionally intolerant of other views, and more accommodating of intellectual nonsense; it also continues relentlessly to teach its students self-loathing. In this, I guess, it unfortunately reflects the terrible trends in the rest of the country.

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