[Editor's Note: A much shorter version of the article below appeared in the Weekly Standard this week].
Alarms about the political subversion of the academic curriculum were first sounded more than a quarter of a century ago with such books as The Closing of the American Mind, Illiberal Education and Tenured Radicals. Lesser known but more specifically documented texts followed, including Zealotry and Academic Freedom by Neil Hamilton (1995) and Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women’s Studies, by Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge (2003; originally published 1994). In addition, several websites, including noindoctrination.org and studentsforacademicfreedom.org have collected many student testimonies of academic abuses, stemming from the introduction of political agendas into the academic curriculum. Several organizations including the National Association of Scholars and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni have contributed to these efforts, and in 2003 I began a campaign for an “Academic Bill of Rights” to protect students from being proselytized in university classrooms. Partly under the pressure of that campaign hearings have been held in the Pennsylvania and Missouri legislatures and the accumulation of evidence that such practices are widespread has reached a critical mass.
These activities have been strongly resisted by the teacher unions who have conducted a campaign of reckless ad hominem attacks against their critics, stubbornly denying the facts while avoiding the issues they raise. (For documentation, see my recent book, Indoctrination U: The Left’s War Against Academic Freedom.) Now the American Association of University Professors has issued a report, called “Freedom in the Classroom,” to answer the critics. Not surprisingly, given its dismal record during these efforts, the AAUP report is not a defense of academic freedom as its title implies, but an attack on the academic rights of students and a defense of indoctrination in the classroom. It marks a return to principles that guided universities when they were instruments of religious sects, and when their curricula were governed by the authority of the church rather than the method of scientific inquiry.
My own views on indoctrination are set forth in both the aforementioned book and a previous one called The Professors, with which members of the AAUP committee responsible for this new report are quite familiar. With my colleagues, Jacob Laksin and Tom Ryan, I have also posted Internet analyses of the syllabuses of 200 courses that are designed to indoctrinate students and that violate existing university regulations. These analyses make up more than 100,000 words of text. Stephen Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars, has also written extensively on indoctrination in Schools of Education and Social Work programs, and published a report on the latter.
The AAUP report examines none of these studies or the issues they raise. Instead, its entire discussion of indoctrination is focused on a four-year-old complaint by a group called the “Committee for a Better North Carolina,” about the assignment of a single text by the University of North Carolina as part of its freshman summer reading program. The University had required all incoming freshman to read the socialist writer Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickled and Dimed, a journalistic tract on poverty and the evils of the capitalist system. The Committee for a Better North Carolina did not argue that the Ehrenreich text should not have been assigned. It argued that if college freshmen were going to be required to read a partisan text on a contested issue, they ought to be provided with another point of view for comparison. According to the AAUP’s own statements on academic freedom, the assignment of two or three texts in this context would have been the appropriate educational practice, although the AAUP refused to concede even this point. The complaint lodged by the Committee for a Better North Carolina, not only objected to the assignment of one extremely partisan text but argued that it was a case of “indoctrination.”
Obviously the assignment of any one book is not a prima facie case for indoctrination, and the AAUP was right to point this out in its report. But it was not right to make this its sole point in rejecting the North Carolina complaint as a prelude to setting its new guidelines on indoctrination. Why belabor a point that its principal critics would so readily agree with, moreover, unless its real purpose was to distract attention from the more serious issues its critics have raised?
The Committee for North Carolina was not constructing a formal argument about the nature of indoctrination in university courses. It was addressing a specific case which it found problematic. Was there a basis for the Committee’s concern? As professors Neil Gross and Solon Simmons have shown in a recent Harvard study, 95% of the professors on liberal arts faculties are likely to share liberal or left-wing approaches to social issues -- such as the causes of poverty and its remedies. In these circumstances, concern that the assignment of a single polemic by a socialist author might be an attempt to enforce an existing faculty prejudice is not unreasonable. But the AAUP report never gets to the level of such specifics. Instead it uses the Committee for a Better North Carolina’s complaint as an opportunity to disparage its critics as philistines with no appreciation for the fine points of an academic discourse or the freedoms that make it possible.
In fact, as noted, the AAUP’s own academic freedom principles strongly support the Committee for a Better North Carolina’s concerns. The AAUP’s well-known statements on academic freedom instruct professors -- and in so many words -- to provide students with “divergent opinions” on “controversial matters,” and to be fair-minded in doing so. Here is the AAUP’s classic guideline, as set forth in its famous 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure: “The university teacher, in giving instructions upon controversial matters, while he is under no obligation to hide his own opinion under a mountain of equivocal verbiage, should, if he is fit in dealing with such subjects, set forth justly, without suppression or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators;… and he should, above all, remember that his business is not to provide his students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves, and to provide them access to those materials which they need if they are to think intelligently.”
The AAUP’s long-standing (but now abandoned) position is quite clear. If a professor is “fit to deal with such matters” (e.g., the nature and causes of poverty), that professor should present students with the divergent positions of others and “provide them access to those materials which they need if they are to think intelligently.” It is not outlandish to think this would mean providing an alternative text. In fact, this has been the core principle for distinguishing education from indoctrination in the modern research university. Until now. For the 2007 AAUP report simply ignores the principle.
Not surprisingly, the report also fails to look at the ideologically one-sided nature of the North Carolina faculty, along with the fact that the text assigned was written by an ideological radical. Instead it lectures the plaintiffs: “The Committee for a Better North Carolina could not possibly have known whether the assignment of Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, which explores the economic difficulties facing low-wage workers in America, was an example of indoctrination or education. It is a fundamental error to assume that the assignment of teaching materials constitutes their endorsement. An instructor who assigns a book no more endorses what it has to say than does the university library that acquires it.”
But is this really the case? The text was assigned not by an individual teacher, but by the University – and to incoming freshmen. This is quite different from the decision of a faceless librarian to stock a book on a library shelf. In addition, the Ehrenreich text was only one of a series. The previous year’s required selection – a book on the Koran – had also provoked a public reaction because of what were perceived as its one-sided (liberal) views on the nature of Islam, coming on the heels of the 9/11 attacks. The fact that the university faculty ignored the complaints and assigned a radical text – again without providing critical materials -- can hardly be regarded as unimportant. The report committee was aware of these facts, but refused to consider them.
In sum, the AAUP’s suggestion that a teacher might assign a text in order to disagree with its conclusions may be unobjectionable in the abstract; but in the specific case presented it is an evasion. While the Committee for a Better North Carolina could not prove its claim that there was indoctrination on the basis of this assignment, the AAUP could not prove there was none. To do so it would have had to produce the class lessons of the North Carolina faculty demonstrating that they did not endorse the contentious theses of Ehrenreich’s tract. This was not something the AAUP was prepared to do.
In focusing on this complaint (without really dealing with it), the AAUP report is able to ignore entirely the hundreds analyses that have been posted on the Internet, which are clearly designed to indoctrinate students. Instead of joining the debate, the AAUP report avoids it by reiterating principles over which there is no disagreement. For example: “Indoctrination occurs whenever an instructor insists that students accept as truth propositions that are in fact professionally contestable.” Agreed. And: “Instructors indoctrinate when they teach particular propositions [which are controversial] as dogmatically true.” Agreed. (In fact, the corrective parenthesis I added provides even more latitude to instructors than the AAUP allows.) Another sound principle in the report is this: “It is not indoctrination when, as a result of their research and study, instructors assert to their students that in their view particular propositions are true, even if these propositions are controversial within a discipline.” Agreed.
Just to be clear, here is the way I would formulate the principle that distinguishes education from indoctrination: When professors teach a point of view that is contested within the spectrum of scholarly or intellectually responsible opinion, they should make their students aware that it is contested, and must not teach their point of view as though it were scientifically established fact.
This definition is not without problems, as is necessarily the case with all attempts to establish a principle in this area. Outside the hard sciences, where contested issues can be resolved by experiment, and authorities certified by objective measures, the question of what constitutes “scholarly” or “intellectually responsible” opinion is obviously vexed, and cannot be resolved at the margins. In the circumstances, it is probably better to err on the side of acknowledging challenges to an orthodoxy in the humanities and social sciences, even if those challenges are marginal, than to make absolute claims to truth that these disciplines cannot sustain. The process of making such acknowledgements is a way of teaching students about democratic ways of thinking, and teaching them to respect the pluralism of ideas.
Because respect for the contested nature of non-scientific opinions is the foundation of an educational discourse (and a democratic culture), it is disturbing when the AAUP report states that it is not necessary for liberal arts professors to observe this principle, if they can enforce a consensus among their faculty peers: “It is not indoctrination for professors to expect students to comprehend ideas and apply knowledge that is accepted as true within a relevant discipline.” Note that the AAUP statement does not say “within the spectrum of scholarly and intellectually responsible opinion” or even “within the spectrum of scientific opinion.” Instead, the AAUP report says a dogma can be taught as truth if it is accepted as true “within a relevant discipline.”
This is a striking departure from the past and a very troubling doctrine. In the humanities and the liberal arts no doctrine, no ideology should be taught as “truth.” Teaching an orthodoxy as truth is the mission of authoritarian institutions, and the antithesis of a liberal education. More worrying still is the fact that this is an attempt to ratify a transformation of the university that is already well advanced.
Since the 1960s, many newly minted academic disciplines have appeared that are not the result of new scholarship or scientific developments but of political pressures brought to bear by ideological sects. The discipline of Women’s Studies, which is academically the most important of these new fields freely acknowledges its origins in a political movement and defines its educational mission in political terms. Thus, the preamble to the Constitution of the National Women’s Studies Association proclaims:
Women’s Studies owes its existence to the movement for the liberation of women; the feminist movement exists because women are oppressed. Women's studies, diverse as its components are, has at its best shared a vision of a world free not only from sexism but also from racism, class-bias, ageism, heterosexual bias--from all the ideologies and institutions that have consciously or unconsciously oppressed and exploited some for the advantage of others….Women’s Studies, then, is equipping women not only to enter the society as whole, as productive human beings, but to transform the world to one that will be free of all oppression.
This is the statement of a political cause not a program of scholarly inquiry.
In the face of such attitudes, now firmly entrenched in the university culture, when the professors’ guild says that it is not indoctrination “to expect students to comprehend ideas and apply knowledge that is accepted as true within a relevant discipline,” what it is really saying is that the training of students in sectarian ideologies, such as feminism, is an acceptable function of modern research universities. This is an abrogation of academic freedom, a severing of the link between scientific method and academic professionalism. It undermines the very concept of a university education as it has been understood for the last hundred years, ever since American institutions of higher learning declared their independence from religious denominations.
The American Association of University Professors has issued its defense of indoctrination is fully cognizant of the fact that numerous academic disciplines have incorporated sectarian ideologies as “scholarly truths” and view their academic mission as instilling these doctrines in their classrooms. These ideological programs include Women’s Studies, African American Studies, Peace Studies, Cultural Studies, Chicano Studies, Gay Lesbian Studies, Post-Colonial Studies, Whiteness Studies, Communications Studies, Community Studies, and recently politicized disciplines such as Cultural Anthropology and Sociology. At the University of California Santa Cruz, the Women’s Studies Department has dropped all pretense of being a scholarly discipline and has renamed itself the “Department of Feminist Studies” to signify that it is a political training facility, and has done so without a word of complaint or caution from university administrators or the AAUP.
The AAUP’s new doctrine is a transparent attempt to justify the transformation of the university into a home for these sectarian creeds by shielding them from the scrutiny of scientific method. In the new dispensation, political control of a discipline is the sole basis for establishing “truth,” and closing off critical debate. The idea that political power can establish “truth” is a conception so incompatible with the intellectual foundations of the modern research university that the AAUP committee could not state it so baldly. Hence the disingenuous compromise of “truth within a relevant discipline.”
The architect of this compromise is unknown but one can suppose Professor Robert Post, as one of the nation’s leading experts on academic freedom and a member of the AAUP committee played a key role in its final formulation. Some years ago, Post wrote a first-rate summary of the principles that have informed university governance since 1915. The essay was called “The Structure of Academic Freedom,” and appeared in Academic Freedom After September 11, a collection of articles by liberal scholars. “[A] key premise of the ‘1915 Declaration’” Post wrote, “is that faculty should be regarded as professional experts in the production of knowledge.” Post explains: “The mission of the university defended by the ‘Declaration,’ depends on a particular theory of knowledge. The ‘Declaration’ presupposes not only that knowledge exists and can be articulated by scholars, but also that it is advanced through the free application of highly disciplined forms of inquiry, which correspond roughly to what [philosopher] Charles Pierce once called ‘the method of science’ as opposed to the ‘method of authority.’”
The method of authority, of course, is precisely the method now recommended by the AAUP committee – the authority of the discipline. This is precisely the method employed in Women’s Studies departments throughout the university system. Thus virtually every Women’s Studies curriculum is premised on the controversial thesis that gender is “socially constructed.” Women’s Studies’ curricula are designed to present and explore this doctrinal claim as though it were an established truth, and students in Women’s Studies are expected to apply it as knowledge and accept it as “truth.”
The social construction of gender, which is an academic nomenclature for asserting the primacy of nurture over nature, is an idea that is important to an ideological movement – radical feminism – which proposes the use of political means to reshape social relations. But the claim itself is contested by the findings of modern neuro-science, and also evolutionary psychology, and also biology (as any reader of Stephen Pinker’s The Blank Slate would know). To force students to accept as true a doctrine which is controversial within the community of biological scientists is precisely what is meant by indoctrination. Yet the AAUP has found a way to redefine indoctrination so that it no longer is. Under the principle of “truth within a relevant discipline,” it is not indoctrination for Women’s Studies professors to assert a dogma as truth, because it is a feminist “truth” and all Women’s Studies professors are required through the hiring process to be feminists (since the discipline defines itself as feminist), and therefore to believe it.
At the time its report was finalized, the AAUP issued a new edition of its official journal, Academe, featuring two articles defending feminist indoctrination of university students. The first article, titled “Impassioned Teaching,” was written by one of its regional presidents, Pamela Caughie, head of the Women’s Studies Department at Loyola University in Chicago. Caughie wrote: “I feel I am doing my job well when students become practitioners of feminist analysis and committed to feminist politics.” This is the attitude of a professor seeking to indoctrinate her students in feminist dogmas not educate them about women. In the same issue of Academe, Professor Julie Kilmer describes how it is necessary to publicly expose and intimidate students who “resist” such indoctrination, while providing suggestions as to how to do it. The publication of two such articles can hardly be regarded as coincidental. They identify the slope on which the AAUP now finds itself.
It is a slope slippery in more ways than one. The doctrine of “truth within a relevant discipline” may work in one direction when the discipline is controlled by ideological leftists, but in quite another should a discipline come under the aegis of different political factions. Suppose, for example, antagonists of Darwin’s theory of evolution were to establish a new academic field of Intelligent Design Studies. What academic principle would then prevent them from teaching their contested theories as truth? The same would apply to conservatives or Republicans, or 9/11 conspiracy theorists, or animal rights activists, or racists – in fact to any political movement that was able to take control of a university department and structure its curriculum as a new academic “discipline.”
Far from setting off alarm bells for the current AAUP leadership, this prospect is apparently acceptable (although one suspects that behind this acceptance is a smug confidence that the prospect is hopelessly remote). Thus, Professor Michael Berube, a member of the AAUP’s National Council, has already endorsed such an idea and in so many words: “I don’t see that there’s anything wrong with a situation in which students learn to practice feminist analysis and become committed to feminism….I don’t see that there’s anything wrong with a situation in which students learn to practice conservative analysis and become committed to conservatism.”
Like many of his colleagues, Berube argues that indoctrination is not really indoctrination if students are “free not to do those things without penalty” -- that is, if they can object to a professor’s classroom advocacy without fear of reprisal. But how would students know in advance that there was no penalty for refusing to embrace a professor’s political assumptions? How would they deal with Professor Kilmer’s threats to “expose” them and break down their “resistance?” How would a Women’s Studies major be able to resist the feminist assumptions of the Women’s Studies curriculum and still be judged a good student by its ideologically committed and monolithic faculty? Especially if its professors are advocating one and only one point of view in their classrooms, and are doing so utilizing a mode of discourse, which Pamela Caughie has described (and promoted) as “impassioned teaching”?
Caughie’s article with that title is subtitled: “Don’t be afraid of classroom advocacy; it’s not the same as indoctrination.” In it she explains: “I can hardly teach feminism as if it were simply an object of analysis and not a vital force in my life.” But what student realizing that feminist dogmas are a vital force in the life of their professor would take the risk of challenging them in class, considering that their grade is dependent on the professor’s approval? If Caughie cannot teach without proselytizing, she should seek employment with a feminist advocacy organization, not a modern research university, which claims to operate under guidelines instituted to separate it from the religious institutions of the past.
Even the term “impassioned teaching” is a significant departure from previous AAUP statements on academic freedom, which drew a clear line between political advocacy and scholarly discourse. For example, the AAUP’s 1940 statement on academic freedom, which is part of the template of most modern research universities, states that scholars and educators should be “restrained” rather than impassioned, and should show appropriate respect for divergent views: “As scholars and educational officers,…[professors] should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint [and] should show respect for the opinions of others,…”
Under these guidelines, professors are obligated to hold back their ardor, to teach students to be skeptical, to assess the evidence, to respect the divergent opinions of others and to support the pluralism of ideas on which democratic culture is based. It is their obligation to provide students with materials that would allow them to weigh more than one side of controversial issues, and thus to learn to think intelligently and to think for themselves. That is why the AAUP’s new position is so shocking a departure, and so disturbing a betrayal of academic freedom. The current AAUP leadership has laid down a challenge that everyone concerned about the future of the academy must answer. For if the attitudes enshrined in the new report become an academic standard it will spell the end of the modern research university as we know it.
 Beshara Doumani, ed. Academic Freedom After September 11, New York 2006, p. 69
 Post is referring to the AAUP’s 1915 “Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure.”
 Pamela Caughie, “Impassioned Teaching,” Academe, July-August, 2007
 Julie Kilmer, “Retain Your Rights As A Liberal Educator,” Academe, July-August, 2007