University of New Hampshire professor William Woodward fancies himself a seeker of the truth. A member of Scholars for 9/11 Truth, the psychology professor doesn’t buy the official version of what transpired on September 11, 2001 because he believes the blame has been pinned on the wrong guys. Woodward contends that the Bush administration—not al-Qaeda—was guilty of orchestrating the worst terrorist attacks on American soil.
Woodward, who has admitted to mentioning his conspiracy theories in the classroom, became the subject of an investigation by the university’s trustees at the urging of New Hampshire’s Democrat Governor John Lynch, who wondered “why such a professor would be teaching at the university in the first place.” Andy Lietz, chairman of the university systems trustees, explained that “even though he has expressed some ideas that many find objectionable,” Woodward’s teaching was consistent with accepted standards. The very fact that some of Woodward’s own students are among the many who find his views objectionable is an indictment of the university standards on which the trustees based their findings. But Bruce Mallory, provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs, has said that his own investigation led him to the same conclusion that Woodward acted within the boundaries of academic freedom.
“I think it reflects very poorly on the university that they have no problems with this,” said Bill Hunt, chairman of the newly formed organization Students for Academic Integrity. “I really don’t think we can rely on the university to monitor these professors, so it’s up to the students.” The group has started a petition to remove Woodward for “pushing his personal agenda on…students.” Although Woodward denies such indoctrination, Hunt is less credulous than university administrators: “I’ve heard from several students that (Woodward is) indoctrinating them. He claims that he wants everyone to have an opinion. The fact is, he doesn’t.” Woodward’s decision to show the conspiracy-laced film “The Great Deception” in his political psychology class lends credence to Hunt’s claim.
There are many professors who aren’t as hesitant as Woodman is to admit that they promote their own views in the classroom. Consider the case of Professor Wm. Arctander O’Brien, who teaches humanities at the University of California at San Diego. In an interview appearing earlier this year in the UCSD Alumni magazine @ UCSD, O’Brien said: “I really don’t believe in objectivity or neutrality or presenting all sides of an argument. I present my side of an argument and I present it strongly. O’Brien also claimed that “presenting the ‘truth’ would be a myth.”
By all accounts, O’Brien is a talented professor who is able to engage his students. He was the recipient of this year’s UCSD Alumni Association Distinguished Teaching Award and he has received four Outstanding Teacher of the Year Awards. But Terrence Morrissey, who graduated from UC San Diego in 2002, reminded alumni of what really makes an outstanding teacher in a letter to @ UCSD: “The hallmark of great teachers, especially at the university level, is their ability to remain objective while carefully holding the tension between conflicting ideas, enabling young thinkers to engage those ideas without having to wade through someone else’s bias. Asserting that “truth” is just “myth” is exactly the kind of bias that distorts learning in the lecture hall.”
O’Brien’s response to Morrissey sounded a lot like Saint Xavier University’s Peter Kirstein, who once said: “Teaching is . . . NOT a dispassionate, neutral pursuit of the ‘truth.’ It is advocacy and interpretation.” O’Brien’s own passion for pushing his beliefs explains why his “goal is to deliver the most penetrating, scrupulous, and comprehensive interpretation I can.” In case there was any doubt about his “truth as myth” claim, O’Brien also repeated that “I make it clear that I pretend neither to objectivity nor to any final truth.”
So what exactly can a student expect to hear in one of Professor O’Brien’s classes? The professor offered some clues in his interview. On the work of the T.S. Eliot he said, “Students expect that you are going to do most of your reading in a great books class on your knees, and they don’t expect that you’re going to take an author and rip him apart.” This hostility for Eliot does not come from O’Brien’s opinion of the poet’s writing which he describes as “brilliant and extremely experimental,” but from the fact that he has “always hated him because he is such a reactionary.” Students are more likely to walk out of their great books class hating cultural reactionaries (translation: conservatives) than appreciating Eliot’s talent. As O’Brien admits: “In the end, I used him to teach the structure of cultural reaction. And it’s very interesting to see how a cultural reactionary thinks. Because there’s always plenty of cultural reactionaries around and you can’t find a better one anywhere than T.S. Eliot.”
One thinker O’Brien doesn’t hate is Karl Marx. Asked by the magazine why he teaches Marx when almost all communist societies have disappeared, O’Brien took offense to the question before proceeding to launch into a defense of Marxism worthy of Fidel Castro:
You must excuse me if I find your question a little bit provincially American for two reasons. First it’s a Cold War question. It ties Marx’s fortunes to that of the Soviet Bloc. Second, all of Europe, East and West, has long recognized the importance of Marx as a thinker, and his works have always been taught in the universities.
But in America, somehow, to admit the truth of anything Marx wrote means you’re a raving communist. It’s quite silly really, and with the Cold War over, I find that at least students are a lot more relaxed about reading his work.
And Marx is still relevant because of his history and criticism of capitalism. He was fascinated with capitalism—its past, its present and its future. For us Americans, Marx can remind us that capitalism is not a timeless phenomenon. It has an origin and it has passed through various stages. He can also remind us that it is not perfect. It has its downsides. Mind you, I’m not saying he was always right or that one should read him uncritically. It’s just that in a world, and especially a country dominated by capitalism, it is a very good thing to open yourself to thinking about capitalism’s often troubled history and its very real problems. They are not things that are given a fair hearing in our media.
While American professors have no problems arming their students with the necessary tools to criticize the United States, they aren’t preparing them to be engaged citizens. A study released last week by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute concluded that, “American’s colleges and universities fail to increase knowledge about America’s history and institutions.” Only 47.9 % of college seniors, for example, know that “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal” is from the Declaration of Independence. At some universities such as UC Berkley, freshmen know more than seniors who are about to graduate. In other words, four years of college can make you less knowledgeable about American history, government and politics.
But this suits some professors just fine, provided their students improve in other areas more dear to their hearts. Kenneth Long, a tenured professor and a Chair of History and Political Science at Connecticut’s Saint Joseph College, had a more important goal in mind than teaching history in his “History of Modern Wars” class: to criticize all American military interventions. As he explained at this year’s Historians Against the War conference: “Specifically, my goal was to design and teach a course that would help students learn that there have been no good American wars, that the country has never come at all close to living up to the values it professes, and, thus, that there is really little new about the current American aggressions in Afghanistan and Iraq.” He went on to boast that his “students reported more anti-war attitudes on the post-test than they had on the pre-test.”
Considering the effectiveness of such brainwashing, it can only be seen as a positive development that a small group of students in New Hampshire wants to make sure that a conspiracy theorist like William Woodward doesn’t have free reign in his classroom.