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Wrong Target By: Bruce S. Thornton
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, September 27, 2002


One usually can depend on good sense coming from the Hoover Institution, but a recent commentary by John Bunzel, former college president, member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and Hoover fellow, could have been penned by the editorial staff of the Nation.

Bunzel's target is a report issued a few months after 9/11 by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an organization that promotes academic freedom and high curricular standards. The ACTA report documented some egregious examples of knee-jerk anti-Americanism, self-loathing guilt, bad history, and sheer stupidity culled from the public statements about 9/11 and the war on terror made by academics teaching at some of the most prestigious universities in the country.

Rather than attempt the impossible — explain how those silly comments offer anything useful to a legitimate discussion — instead Bunzel shifts the focus by conjuring up those fearsome bogeys "blacklists" and "McCarthy" and the left's old reliable demon, "Nixon." Such crude smear tactics — nothing in the ACTA report even remotely suggests these professors should be silenced or punished — are a tip-off that the real issues raised by the report will be ignored. Sure enough, Bunzel proceeds to lay down a smoke screen of "current threats to academic freedom" and "public sentiment that often dictates behavior." He advises ACTA that its responsibility should be "to protect the university from the intrusion of politics and the passions of an aroused off-campus public."

Bunzel's melodrama of a beleaguered "dissenting" faculty battling the intrusions of a rabid philistine "off-campus public" eager to shred the First Amendment and academic freedom is a complete fraud. The fact is those "politics and passions" Bunzel decries have already corrupted the academy — and they're all leftist-liberal politics and passions. The statements publicized by ACTA are completely unexceptional in today's universities, and indeed in the revised report, issued in February 2002, ACTA published over a hundred more of such sentiments, most of equally PC banal idiocy. Higher education indeed is dominated by a monolithic orthodoxy, but it's not even remotely conservative, certainly is not patriotic, and frequently isn't even liberal. Most of the comments ACTA recorded express the stalest of leftist clichés, sixties paranoid delusions, and anti-American bromides, of the sort spouted every day in a thousand classrooms, speeches, sit-ins, teach-ins, colloquia, seminars, symposia, and other fake "debates" where the PC rosary is endlessly chanted.

And this brings us to the real issues raised by the ACTA report. In addition to documenting those ridiculous statements, the report also talks about the way many students and faculty, particularly the more vulnerable untenured, are intimidated into keeping their own views quiet. In other words, there is a threat to academic freedom and free speech, but it originates from within the university and is enforced by faculty and administrators. This is not a revelation, of course. We've had Roger Kimball, Dinesh D'Souza, David Horowitz, Alan Kors and Harvey Silvergate, and many, many others over the years to document for us the stranglehold the PC ideology has on academic life. For Bunzel to ignore that reality and pretend that the real threat to academic freedom comes from the right rather than from the dominant left is at worst dishonest, at best sheer ignorance.

The fact is, the ACTA report is not about stifling anybody's voice or drawing up a "blacklist." It's about providing balance, about restoring the university to a space where all points of view, not just the PC-sanctioned ones, can be heard without fear of reprisal or calumny. Bunzel should be ashamed that he ignores this crucial paragraph from the report: "It is urgent that students and professors who support the war against terrorism, as well as those who are opposed, not be intimidated. If both sides are heard, students and all of us benefit [italics added]." ACTA's concern with academic freedom is exactly what the report is about: providing balance in an academic world currently limited to one monotonous ideology — the sort of balance, by the way, enjoyed by Bunzel at the Hoover Institution, where, despite its conservative reputation, roughly half the fellows are Democrats, including Bunzel himself.

Second, ACTA is concerned not just with seeking a balance of views in the university, but with restoring high curricular standards to schools that now require very little knowledge from their students. Indeed, most college students' ignorance of history — documented in another ACTA report — is what leaves them vulnerable to the claptrap of the PC professoriate. A free and open debate that is not informed by knowledge is ultimately neither free nor open, and thus degenerates into emotional venting and the mere repetition of simplistic slogans and trite clichés. Any judgment of American behavior internationally, for example, must be made in the context of what historically other societies of such power and influence have done, not in terms of some abstract utopian ideal. A knowledge of history will show that America is unique not for its crimes, but for its virtues and ideals; not for its excesses of power, but for its restraint.

Finally, the revised report engages explicitly Bunzel's charge that ACTA is somehow trying to stifle dissent: "This [report] is not an argument for limiting free speech on college campuses. The robust exchange of ideas is essential to a free society. But academic freedom does not mean freedom from criticism [italics in original]." Like many leftish liberals before him, Bunzel cries out for academic freedom and free speech, and then whines when that speech is subject to criticism, falling back on the lie that criticizing means silencing. By that logic, one could argue that Bunzel's piece is an attempt to silence ACTA!

But free speech and academic freedom entail accountability, and demanding that accounting is itself another exercise of free speech, and one critical to a genuine debate. The problem is that in the protected and subsidized halls of the university, tenured faculty with a captive audience of badly educated students face no accountability whatsoever, unless they happen to step on some chosen minority's toes. That's why ACTA's report is so valuable: it tears down the veil and forces those faculty to account for what they say when they exercise their academic freedom, to defend their views and argue for them in the marketplace of ideas where the listeners don't have a grade to worry about. The value of academic freedom is not just in the expression of views. It lies rather in the give-and-take, the parry and thrust of intellectual engagement.

But for that genuine debate to happen, you must have many views freely expressed, not just one. And that brings us again to the main point of ACTA's report: not that a predominantly leftist faculty do not have a right to say stupid things, but that in most universities, theirs is the only voice heard.


Bruce Thornton is the author of Greek Ways and Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide (Encounter Book}. He is 2009-2010 National Fellow at the Hoover Institution.


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