In 1997, I made the cultural leap from the Bible belt to America's cultural and intellectual epicenter. In making the move from Baylor graduate school to CUNY's, I thought I was prepared for the cultural shock. The shock that came, however, was completely unexpected.
At Baylor, true to form, the professors professed their 60’s-era liberalism. But this never impinged on the class. The lessons emphasized were that history was argument, and one's side could only be proven by objective use of fact. Their reading list—E.H Carr, Dwight MacDonald, Murray Kempton, and Thucydides—reiterated this point. They even dared, with admittedly a condescending smirk, to bring conservative writers into the classroom, encouraging us to take their side. In Pat Wallace's Cold War class, we were taught how to take apart an argumentative essay in order to spot the assumptions and flaws in it. Stanley Campbell, a New Dealer and proud of it, was delighted when a conservative could best a liberal in class by resorting to provable evidence.
If I had any illusions upon graduation and on the eve of my move for further historical study in New York, it was that these lessons learned would be emphasized further by CUNY's more published faculty.
By the middle of the first semester, I stood corrected.
At CUNY, I saw demonstrations of edited or airbrushed history paralleling Soviet classes. In Sandi Cooper's postwar European class, which I co-taught, her only emphasis on the Cold War was stateside. If repression occurred in the 50’s, it was with U.S involvement in Greece, Cuba, and with McCarthy bullying someone in session. No mention of Erlich and Alter, the Soviet postwar anti-Semitic purges, the Berlin airlift, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Doctor's plot, the crackdown on Hungary and Poland—only a live demonstration of what Arthur Koestler correctly defined as the direction of the classic American leftist's sympathies: not leftward, but East. In the hands of someone other than Stalin, imperialism was an example of buying and selling peoples and countries so common to capitalism. But Stalin and Churchill, a Colonel Blimp in other contexts, percentaging off spheres was merely realistic peace-keeping.
The CUNY faculty edited their lectures according to prejudice. Shunning foreign policy, Judith Stein named as the most important and worthy of study moment in 1962, JFK's capital gains tax cut, not the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kathleen McCarthy did not allow any mention of Andrew Jackson—that "white patriarchal male"—in her Jacksonian era class. Ending the class with the Civil War, she informed students that all they needed to know about that conflict, which ended slavery and bolstered federalism, was contained in Northern women's voluntary associations.
Baylor had such moments to be sure. The response of my thesis defense committee on Alger Hiss revealed that all had read In the Court of Public Opinion, but not one had read Chambers' Witness. But the faculty would return to the idea of objectivity and argument with a guilty conscience. Not so with CUNY, whose faculty had given up or not even attempted objectivity a long time ago. Indeed, they had a theoretical excuse for shunning objectivity; supporting the idea of postmodernism, they saw objectivity and the use of facts as "fascist"? Those at CUNY who expressed disdain for postmodernism—John Patrick Diggins, James Oakes, Abraham Ascher—did so out either out of an Orwellian suspicion that any fact could be altered or dismissed with such an attitude, for example, Nixon not bombing Cambodia or the Holocaust not happening (Ascher was a refugee from Nazi Germany), or feared what shape this malleable theory of history might assume Ascher himself knew firsthand that fascism was not about verbs or facts, but about actual, provable, physical and political repression. Only those with time and money and security had the luxury of applying the fascist label so carelessly.
CUNY was not without its benefits for me though. Living in an environment where one could flunk a test by mentioning a verboten historian (usually that "conservative" Arthur Schlesinger Jr.) or get a ticket for running out of gas or having one's car searched without a warrant, reawakened the libertarian in me. Mentioning the Bill of Rights to either faculty or the police elicited the same response no matter how educated or, in the case of the police, uneducated the retort: you are not in the South anymore. Indeed. If there was one thing that united the class stratification of this society it was their boogeyman: that still-Confederacy loving, still-negro lynching, and still economically backward enemy.
Baylor was called the academic bubble because of its geographical distance from the town of Waco. But it was New York and CUNY that were in the bubble—a bubble of prejudice allowed and encouraged. In a sense though, both schools taught me a valuable lesson about history and experience; namely, that both are ironic and twist and turn, and what can appear to be a move to increase one's objective and argumentative skills can in reality be a lesson in contained and demonstrative living examples of Civil War prejudices and Soviet and Nazi era approaches to history.