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A Defense of Academic Freedom By: David Swindle
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, March 30, 2009

To those only marginally paying attention, One-Party Classroom: How Radical Professors At America’s Top Colleges Indoctrinate Students and Undermine Our Democracy, David Horowitz’s newest criticism of higher education co-written with Jacob Laksin, probably seems like a retread. Horowitz previously explored the subject in 2006’s The Professors and 2007’s Indoctrination U.

To those such as myself, though, who have paid careful attention to Horowitz’s activism and actually read his books, ­One-Party Classroom and his recent approach to the issue represent an important shift that should prompt his critics to take note and reconsider their positions.

I’ve kept a careful eye on Horowitz and his Academic Freedom Campaign since 2004. Back then I was an undergraduate at Ball State University and a leftist columnist for the school’s paper. A conservative friend of mine leveled accusations of indoctrination against peace studies professor George Wolfe, drawing Horowitz’s attention. Wolfe would eventually appear in both The Professors and Indoctrination U.

In the summer of 2006 I wrote my undergraduate political science senior thesis investigating the controversy. Having come to the conclusion that the charges against Wolfe were baseless and that an innocent man had been slandered I unloaded my anger on Horowitz when he visited Ball State that fall. I attacked him from the audience as a pathological liar and shortly thereafter we exchanged a few heated emails before going our separate ways.

Then in the spring of 2008, touched by his eulogy for his recently deceased daughter Sarah, I contacted Horowitz again to express sympathy instead of animosity. This led to an ongoing dialogue between he and I on subjects ranging from his Academic Freedom Campaign and the details of the Wolfe controversy to the themes that run throughout his books. Horowitz answered my questions and explained his ideas. Gradually he – and my own life experiences – would persuade me closer to many of his ideas as I began an in depth study of his books. Finally these intellectual exchanges would culminate in a debate I coordinated between Horowitz and Wolfe on my blog as I struggled to reconcile two men whose seemingly conflicting philosophies would influence me profoundly.

And so, with the March 10 publication of One-Party Classroom, Horowitz’s newest book on the subject that he and I had argued about so passionately, questions arose: Would he be able to more effectively communicate his diagnosis of the sickness that ails Higher Education? Would he be able to lay out his prescription to cure it? Would he improve on the approach of The Professors, Indoctrination U, and the organization he founded, Students for Academic Freedom? To all questions, the answer is a clear yes.

From my vantage point there are three important shifts in approach in One-Party Classroom that should prompt all professors, critics, and college administrators to reconsider Horowitz’s critique.

1. It’s taking a stand against ideas and behaviors, not individual people. The focus of One-Party Classroom is on courses, not the professors that teach them.

Horowitz didn’t make very many friends when he published The Professors, a book which claimed to name the “100 most dangerous academics in America.” The publisher’s blurb was not Horowitz’s idea and quickly brought the wrath of students like myself who protested that professors like my friend Wolfe could hardly qualify as “dangerous.”

­One-Party Classroom avoids this pitfall by aiming its criticism at courses, not people. Each of the book’s twelve chapters focuses on a specific school and analyzes an average of a dozen or so courses. The bulk of the classes that Laksin and Horowitz scrutinize are those in African-American Studies and Women’s Studies, though courses in journalism, political science, education, sociology, and English are also highlighted as examples in which professors frequently admit their intent to try and recruit their students to their political agendas. This approach avoids demonizing professors, angering their students, and amounts to a “love the sinner, hate the sin” method.

2. It’s not conservative students against leftist professors. No questionable student accusations of “abuse” are included in One-Party Classroom.

One of the central ideas of Horowitz’s previous campaigns on the issue was the claim that conservative students were being treated unfairly by their leftist professors. Horowitz promoted stories of students who were allegedly ridiculed, unfairly graded, and coerced to adopt extreme left-wing ideas.

That’s all gone.

Horowitz discovered that when one student makes accusations what’s likely to happen is he’ll get other students, professors, and administrators contesting the claims. It’s then easy to get drawn into an unproductive he-said-she-said while the more important issue of academic standards falls to the wayside.

In One-Party Classroom Horowitz and Laksin don’t need student allegations to make their case. They go straight from professors’ own words. Utilizing course descriptions, syllabi, and reading lists they demonstrate that some classes amount to indoctrination instead of education.

In analyzing these materials it’s important to understand just what Horowitz and Laksin are critiquing. The authors have absolutely zero problem with professors assigning radical texts or creating courses devoted to left-wing subjects. It’s acceptable to have a course that studies Marxism, which dispassionately subjects the ideology to academic scrutiny. What’s not OK is to create a course that trains students how to be Marxists. What’s unacceptable is to create a course that acts from the assumption that Das Kapital is scripture. And unfortunately that’s the exact situation that Horowitz and Laksin continually unearth.

In the book’s conclusion Horowitz offers an answer to a question he and I have gone over for almost a year: just what constitutes indoctrination? I support his answer and hope it can provide unity instead of more division:

Indoctrination takes place when professors teach a point of view that is contested within the spectrum of scholarly or intellectually responsible opinion as though it were scientific fact. Professors should make their students aware that such opinions are contested, and must not teach their point of view as though it were fact. Students should be provided with materials that would allow them to draw their own conclusions about contested positions.

3. The solution is more clearly articulated. And it’s not one professors should fear.

The problem clearly defined and backed with almost 300 pages of research across 12 universities and 150 courses, the final question is perhaps the most challenging: What’s to be done to correct the situation?

In the past Horowitz’s answer has seemed cloudy to many in academia. Five years ago Horowitz began taking his Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR) to state legislatures to raise awareness to the issue. This was a double-edged sword. The ABOR legislation didn’t have an enforcement clause and wouldn’t have actually “done” anything if passed. They were toothless resolutions that would have just affirmed the Academic Freedom principles that have governed university life since 1914. This confused a lot of people, myself included. Adding to the misunderstanding was the fact that Horowitz actually did support various state bills that would have required schools to set up grievance mechanisms for wronged students.

The combination of these two political ventures allowed Horowitz’s opponents to claim that the campaign’s objective was to have state legislatures policing classrooms to stamp out indoctrination.

As a noted libertarian-conservative, why would Horowitz advocate for such totalitarian, big government policies? He didn’t then and he doesn’t today. In a recent interview with John K Wilson, a critic of his campaign, Horowitz made his position clear:

Contrary to the misrepresentations of my efforts by many of my opponents I have never suggested that universities be governed by outside authorities whether governmental or otherwise. The best remedy in my view would be for these problems to be handled by faculty at the departmental level… I do not advocate and would be adamantly opposed to governance of the university by legislatures or any other outside agency, people like you refuse to believe me. But that’s my position and that’s what I think. As to how academic standards are enforced by the academic community, that is properly a question for the academic community to answer.

It should be clear to anyone that’s studied Horowitz’s political philosophy just why he would advocate a solution of this kind and why his critics would misunderstand it. As a conservative Horowitz is at a disadvantage in his activism. He’s burdened with the perspective that government is an ineffective tool for solving society’s problems. To him college indoctrination has the same source as all cultural problems: human nature. Give professors the freedom to teach their classes and some of them – Horowitz estimates 10% -- will abuse it. It’s difficult for new laws or government actions to stop that. An academic utopia – schools free of indoctrination – could only be achieved through totalitarian means.

His former colleagues on the left don’t have this problem. For a left-wing activist all problems are solvable. All you need to do is change the laws, change the system, and get different people in charge and the world can be perfected. Thus radical activists are left scratching their heads in confusion when Horowitz comes along and his answer is not to radically change laws but instead to promote a gradual shift in academic culture through repeated arguments against indoctrination. How does a conservative activist work to correct society’s problems? Not through more laws and bigger government, but through gradual persuasion of the population.

Is One-Party Classroom better than Horowitz’s previous books on higher education? It’s only an easy question if we can agree on which books constitute Horowitz’s exploration of the subject. If judged against The Professors and Indoctrination U then One-Party Classroom is the clear winner. The depth of its research (the hallmark of the writing of co-author Laksin) clearly towers over the previous two books and builds upon the experiences of writing and debating them.

The question finds a different answer if one throws in 2001’s Uncivil Wars, Horowitz’s narrative of his campus campaign to challenge the Reparation-for-Slavery Movement. (Horowitz’s experiences described in that book led to the Academic Freedom Campaign and the following three books on Higher Education.) One-Party Classroom cannot compete with Uncivil Wars and really shouldn’t be compared to it. In addition to critiquing reparations and the university, Uncivil Wars presents Horowitz’s clearest and most exciting description of the American Idea. It’s one of his most consequential texts, only surpassed in quality and importance by Radical Son and The Politics of Bad Faith.

I imagine many people involved with higher education are likely to be upset by Horowitz and Laksin’s book. To such individuals intent on answer the authors’ charges I encourage you to avoid the mistake I made: misjudging Horowitz as a malevolent, unreasonable political demon. Despite his occasional use of aggressive rhetoric and his undeserved public persona, Horowitz is actually a thoughtful thinker, eager for intellectual exchange and discussion. The same could be said for Laksin.

There are three basic ways a professor included in One-Party Classroom could approach the book’s authors. The first is to say, “I don’t indoctrinate and I share your concern for professors that do. Let me explain to you how I teach my students how to think, not what to think. If you have suggestions for how to improve my course I’d love to talk with you about them.” This is what Wolfe did in the dialogue with Horowitz.

The second is to say, “You know, you’re right, what I’ve done in the past is an unacceptable use of the classroom. Here’s what I’m going to do to make my class more academic.”

The third response, which I suspect a good number of professors in One-Party Classroom would offer is, “Yes, I ‘indoctrinate’ my students and I’m proud of it. The quest to liberate humanity from racism, sexism, capitalism, and imperialism is more important than archaic ideas of Academic Freedom.”

My optimistic, progressive spirit likes to hope for Horowitz and Laksin to receive many responses that fall into the first two categories. My realistic, conservative mind knows that the bulk of reactions – if they even bothered to respond to the authors’ book – would likely fall into the third. Alas, one can’t save the whole world.

David Swindle is Associte Editor of FrontPage Magazine and Assistant Managing Editor of NewsReal. He can be contacted at DavidSwindle@gmail.com.

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