[Address to the Annual Convention of the Modern Languages Association, San Francisco, December 29, 2008.]
I want to thank Brian Kennelly, the MLA and its gracious president Jerry Graff for inviting me today. It has been five and a half years since I began my campaign for an Academic Bill of Rights and this is the first time any academic institution or professional association has invited me to discuss my agendas. It is not as though these agendas have not been a matter of academic interest. On the contrary, they have been the focus of faculty meetings, the subject of resolutions by professional associations like the MLA, and the inspiration for a statement on academic freedom by the American Council on Education, which represents 1800 colleges and universities.
But this is the first time the instigator of all this concern has been invited to appear before an academic body to defend his views and explain his proposal.
Before publishing the Academic Bill of Rights five years ago, I vetted an early version of the text with three prominent leftwing academics: Todd Gitlin, Michael Berube and Stanley Fish. The published version is the one that met with their approval. I also attempted to solicit the views of the American Association of University Professors but they did not return my emails or phone calls. Instead they launched a scorched earth attack accusing me of McCarthyism, Orwellianism, Stalinism and even Hitlerism. It was clear they did not like me or my bill.
In addition to being unproductive, this reaction was peculiar – first because three prominent leftwing academics had found nothing objectionable in my proposal, and second because the text was clearly, self-consciously, and explicitly drawn from the AAUP’s own classic “Declaration” on the principles of Academic Freedom, which has been the canonical statement for nearly 100 years.
Aside from attempting to codify these principles, I have attempted only one innovation, which is this: If a professor is obligated to behave professionally in a classroom then students have the right to expect their professor to behave professionally.
Teaching professionally means teaching according to scientific method rather than what Charles Pierce called the “method of authority.” The method of authority was employed by instructors when institutions of higher learning were administered by religious denominations. In those days teaching involved the instilling of doctrines and the imposition of orthodoxies, rather than the critical examination of both.
By contrast, the modern research university is based on the idea that orthodoxies need to be confronted by critical opinions and by a weighing of evidence. That is the task of the academic professional. Professionalism in the classroom also means teaching one’s expertise and not one’s uninformed prejudice. Professors of English literature should teach literature, not environmental science or political economy. Third, professionalism means deporting oneself in an academic manner when in a university setting. This means assuming a scholarly distance from religious and political passions.
A succinct summary of these prescriptions, with which I am in complete agreement, has been made in this statement by Stanley Fish: “Any idea can be brought into the classroom if the point is to inquire into its structure, history, influence and so forth. But no idea belongs in the classroom if the point of introducing it is to recruit your students for the political agenda it may be thought to imply.”
When the principles of academic freedom are codified as rights for students, an important and potentially contentious issue arises, which is whether such rights lend themselves to interpretation in a way that infringes on the authority of the instructor in the classroom. Clearly the teaching relationship is (and must be) an unequal one, since it involves the transmission of knowledge from one individual with superior information and acquired expertise to another whose position is that of a novice seeking to gain information and expertise.
Nothing in the Academic Bill of Rights is intended to change or challenge this unequal relationship between teacher and student. Nothing in it is intended to curtail the privilege of faculty to express views and draw conclusions based on their professional experience and expertise. If any language in the Academic Bill of Rights might be interpreted as undermining this relationship, I was -- and am -- prepared to change it.
Unfortunately, there has been no possibility of discussing or negotiating such changes, because the extreme and unprincipled nature of the attacks on me has made serious discussion of the issues impossible.
Thus, I have been attacked for proposing a bill that seeks to have politicians and legislatures control the curricula of American colleges and universities. This is false. My goal has always been to have the Academic Bill of Rights adopted by university faculties. I have never sponsored any law that would determine what teachers can or cannot teach in a classroom. Nor would I. My goal in approaching legislatures (something I have not done in the last three years by the way) was always, and solely, to get the attention of the academic community, which otherwise would have ignored me. I have succeeded in that.
I have never sponsored a single bill with an enforcement mechanism. Every piece of legislation – and there have only been a handful -- has been in the form of a resolution urging universities to observe principles already laid out in the classic statement on academic freedom. When university administrators have asked for the legislation to be withdrawn and expressed a willingness to implement its recommendations – as happened in Colorado and Ohio – we have gladly withdrawn it.
I have also been attacked by my opponents as someone seeking to purge university faculties of leftist professors. This is false. The first provision of the Academic Bill of Rights is that no professor should be hired or fired because of his or her political views. I have never myself called for the firing of any professor for his or her political views, nor would I. When the Governor of Colorado demanded Ward Churchill’s dismissal for an offensive article that appeared on the Internet, I publicly defended Churchill. When Erwin Chereminsky was removed as dean of the new law school at UC Irvine after conservative donors objected to his appointment, I defended him as well.
The third line of attack against me is that I am someone seeking to purge the curriculum of leftwing views. This is false. Here is what I said on the subject in my book The Professors: “Professors have every right to interpret the subjects they teach according to their individual points of view. That is the essence of academic freedom.” And that is exactly what I think.
Fourthly, I have been attacked as someone who would in the name of diversity compel professors to represent all views in their curricula, including Intelligent Design and Holocaust denial. This is false. I have never said that all views must be considered in a classroom setting. Moreover, the Academic Bill of Rights says – and in so many words – that only scholarly viewpoints need be considered. For the record I have said – and said many times – that neither Holocaust Denial or Intelligent Design can be considered scholarly viewpoints.
What I am opposed to is the imposition of an orthodoxy – any orthodoxy – in liberal arts classrooms. An instructor who presents an opinion or an ideology as scientific fact is, in effect, indoctrinating students – is instilling a doctrine, is teaching by the method of authority rather than by the method of science. In my view there is a great deal of such instilling of doctrines going on in universities today.
Indoctrination can be a matter of failing to distinguish between opinion and fact; of asserting opinion as truth; or of failing to provide students with critical materials that would allow them to draw their own distinctions and conclusions.
This is not a definition of indoctrination that I invented. Here is what the 1915 AAUP Declaration actually says on the subject: “It is not the function of a faculty member in a democracy to indoctrinate his/her students with ready-made conclusions on controversial subjects…. In giving instruction upon controversial matters the faculty member is expected to be of a fair and judicial mind, and to set forth justly, without super-cession or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators.”
These words are taken directly from the academic freedom regulation at Penn State University, which thanks to the efforts of my organization has recently been formulated as a student right. Penn State is only one of two universities in the entire United States, which, as a result of my efforts, protect students’ academic freedom rights. My mission is to see that students at all academic institutions get these rights.
Presently, entire academic departments and disciplines violate students’ academic freedom. The social construction of gender, to take one example, is a radical feminist doctrine that is taught as a scientific datum and is the basis of departmental curricula at many universities today. The theory that gender is socially constructed has every right to a place in a university curriculum. But if instructors are to observe academic standards and respect students’ academic freedom they cannot teach the social construction of gender as a scientific fact, rather than as an opinion held by radical feminists, which is what it is.
Unfortunately this is precisely what is taking place in an alarming number of courses taught throughout the university, including English literature courses. In these courses, the social construction of gender is taught as though it were a scientific truth and made the guiding assumption of the curriculum.
Here, for example, is the catalogue description of a political science course taught at the University of Arizona: “Because gender is socially constructed, it is instructive to study how gender ideologies … have been articulated in the form of political theory.” This is a flat statement that a sectarian ideology is true. The very premise of the course, and of Women’s Studies generally, is a controversial claim that is disputed by modern biology and neuro-science. This is indoctrination, not education.
One obvious reason for the opposition to the Academic Bill of Rights is that the observance of academic principles would require social constructionists to defend their theories, which is far more challenging than presenting them as unarguable fact. But submitting theory to the tests of criticism and evidence is the only way to teach professionally and in accord with the principles of academic freedom.
In closing, let me thank you again for allowing me to present my views directly. I am confident that in the long run these ideas, or something close to them, will prevail. That is because they are the ideas of modernity and the overwhelming majority of professors already observe them. I have waited patiently for this still silent majority to speak, and am confident they eventually will. A great deal is at stake. I note that there has been a 20% decline in jobs in English literature in the past year. Do you think this might have something to do with the perception that English has become a politicized field where students will probably be instructed in global warming and American imperialism by academic amateurs, instead of literary values and the elements of style by academic professionals? If you want to teach about global warming and imperialism become climatologists or political economists. Don’t spoil the teaching of literature for those who still want to teach literature and those who want to learn about it.
Bad accountants at Enron gave a bad name to accountants in general and caused a giant of American industry to go bankrupt, hurting untold innocents in the process. I don’t think anyone would question that the public image of the liberal arts has taken a beating over the past quarter century as a result of incidents like the Ward Churchill scandal and others of lesser renown.
The remedy for the Enron crisis was the institution of more vigorous accounting standards, more vigorously enforced. The remedy for the crisis in the academy is the articulation and enforcement of academic standards; and that is exactly what the Academic Bill of Rights intends. It is a way to restore solvency to a beleaguered institution and a tarnished profession by reviving the traditions that earned them respect. I hope you will see to it that this discussion continues, not for my sake but for the sake of your profession and the academic future.