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Misreading Horowitz By: David Swindle
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, April 10, 2009

It’s difficult to tell whether Chris Goff, a blogger at Free Exchange on Campus, an organization set up to combat Horowitz, misunderstands David Horowitz and Jacob Laksin’s critique of higher education in One-Party Classroom or is merely trying to throw up smoke in defense of the current status quo of which he’s a proud participant.

I’ll give Goff the benefit of the doubt for his response to my review of One-Party Classroom. He likely read the book with an overly-critical, antagonistic eye – as I used to do with Horowitz’s texts – and was unable to really understand just what the authors were critiquing. So, I have a thought experiment that might clarify the subject for him, and for critics of Horowitz's academic-freedom campaign more broadly.

Let’s suppose that in the mid ‘70s a group of anti-abortion activists decided to develop a new strategy for fighting legalized abortion. In an effort to reshape the way the educated elites of the United States thought about the issue they decided to create an “Abortion Studies” department at a university. On its face, such a department could appear scholarly – they’re going to study the subject of abortion and its myriad of political, biological, theological, philosophical, and sociological themes.

Reality would be different. One course description would intone that “The goal of this seminar is to learn how to organize a Pro-Life society.” Another course would be made up of texts written entirely by those who had bombed abortion clinics. It would argue that those who had committed such acts and were currently in jail were actually “political prisoners” instead of violent murderers. Another course would offer class credit for those who protested at abortion clinics and would feature a list of pro-life organizations students could join. Another would intone on its syllabus that critics of the pro-life movement would be read for the sole purpose of being refuted. All classes would take the controversial political position of abortion being “murder” as though it were scientific fact. Eventually the department would drop the pretense of “Abortion Studies” and just admit to being “Pro-Life Studies.” It would be activist training schools masked within the guise of scholarship.

I’m pro-choice and I’d be outraged that my tax dollars were going to fund the training of pro-life activists. I’d be disheartened that an important issue like abortion wasn’t receiving true academic scrutiny. And I imagine many of my pro-life friends would also see such a department as inappropriate and contrary to the mission of the university.

Would Goff defend such a department? Because in attacking One-Party Classroom, its authors, and myself, that is in effect what he’s doing. Every description of my imaginary “Pro-Life Studies” department is actually happening in the departments described in One-Party Classroom. Horowitz and Laksin are not opposed to courses that study feminism, African-American culture, and Marx, just as they wouldn’t challenge a scholarly course that examines abortion. They’re critiquing courses designed not to study but to indoctrinate. Goff doesn’t seem to grasp that.

This clarification being made clear, there are many arguments Goff has thrown out that need to be addressed. Goff’s first curve ball is this:

Conspicuously absent are courses from, say, economics, which only use theoretical and methodological approaches which emphasize neo-liberal free markets. If Horowitz's concern was "indoctrination" and not "teaching ideas with which I don't agree," surely we'd have a broader sampling of courses, right?

Courses in a business school are fundamentally different than liberal arts curricula. Students in a business school are being trained to run companies. Students in liberal arts courses are being trained how to think critically, how to form arguments, and how to write. They’re being instructed in how to grapple with ideas. And to impose a dogma, as many courses in One-Party Classroom do, is anathema to the spirit of a liberal arts education. Is Goff going to complain that students in medical school are getting a one-sided education because the germ theory is what’s taught exclusively? Would he argue that chemistry students aren’t getting the alchemy perspective? This argument is an obvious red herring.

In fact, there's no student input included in One Party Classroom. If these courses were so problematic and these teachers so one-sidedly awful, wouldn't we want some sort of firsthand account to that effect?

No. I think when a professor declares that their classroom intent is to indoctrinate, and that, if you take their course that’s likely what you’re going to get, that’s evidence enough. Moreover, what would be the point of getting student input in this instance? Their claims would just be dismissed by the professor as subjective. It’s more effective to use the professor’s own words – a far more objective standard – about what they intend to do with their course. Critics like Goff should be applauding Horowitz for dispensing with the student accusations, not demanding that he should bring them back as one of the prime planks in his campaign.

Further, Goff should understand that Horowitz has refocused his argument in an important way. He’s put aside the comparatively minor problem of wrongheaded professors abusing their conservative students and targeted the much more important issue: professors abusing all of their students by designing courses which fail to celebrate the spirit of the liberal arts.

They go straight for the professors own words that are most helpful to their argument, ignoring evidence in the same syllabi that completely disconfirm their case. See, for example, their distortions about this syllabus. It should also be noted that a syllabus is a very poor proxy for what goes on in a classroom. Seeing as how neither Horowitz nor Laksin actually attended any of these courses (or sought input from those who did), their claims that indoctrination is, in fact, occurring are highly suspect.

If the examples in One-Party Classroom do not constitute “indoctrination” then what does? It should also be noted that Goff’s link doesn’t go to any syllabus but another of his attack blog posts which in turn links to a course search engine. Where’s the distortion? If you’re going to accuse Horowitz of lying at least have ample evidence to back yourself up.

The simple fact of the matter is that Horowitz pitched ABOR as legislation, going so far as to show up in Pennsylvania to promote it. Likewise, he ignores that problems are already handled by faculty at the department level and that academic standards are policed by the academic community. To claim otherwise demonstrates a profound ignorance of what occurs in course development, faculty meetings, and professional associations around the country. That he doesn't like the plurality of epistemological and pedagogical choices available to professors isn't a reason to suggest that they don't meet standards.

This is wrong. The fact of the matter is that the ABOR was a resolution without an enforcement clause. If it passed in the state it was pitched in it would have done nothing except draw attention to the fact that the ideas of Academic Freedom were supported by the legislature that voted on it. This misunderstanding of the ABOR is one I once held, but it can be easily corrected by simply looking at the facts and understanding better who Horowitz is and what he’s about.

It’s this unwillingness to understand Horowitz’s case that most seriously undermines the arguments of his detractors. The critics of One-Party Classroom and the Academic Freedom Campaign all have one thing in common: they despise Horowitz personally and politically. They think he’s a pathological liar, a right-wing nut, and a generally rotten human being. (Nothing could be further from the truth.) And because of this, their critique primarily amounts to “Horowitz isn’t telling the truth about higher education.” They dodge the issue. I understand this perspective, because I’ve been there. But I’ve moved beyond it. I’m confident others can, as well.

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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