Over the weekend I attended a presentation about the status of Academic Freedom in United States universities. Loosely defined, Academic Freedom refers to the right of professors in academic institutions to research and teach their beliefs without their livelihood being placed in jeopardy by those who disagree. At my weekend event, the speaker and audience did a great deal of hand wringing about the rising, and increasingly hysterical, attacks on humanities in the university. Something feels amiss, though, about how the left has decided to grapple with the newest threats to Academic Freedom.
For those who don’t know, the more recent salvos against Academic Freedom started in the early nineties with a former-liberal-turned-neoconservative named David Horowitz. In essence, Horowitz claimed that university-level humanities departments had become secret havens for Democrats. He further put forward (without any real evidence) the outlandish claim that these same faculty keep conservatives out, deprive them of funding, and openly indoctrinate their students to blindly vote Democrat. In an unexpected twist, Horowitz and crew claim their own Academic Freedom is being impinged.
I grow tired of those on the political right whining about their imaginary persecution. If we lefty faculty have the power to convert students’ political ideologies, we are doing a terrible job of it. Just look at the state of the nation – Do you really think that we would allow that to occur if we ruled the current generation of university students? Instead, university campuses are hot-beds of political indifference.
A faithful reader recently sent me a link to an editorial featured in the Chronicle of Education. A pale-knock-off of Horowitz, this author uses a dancing metaphor to discuss teaching. Dripping with condescension, he claims that academics on the left dance “an abomination: mimes pretending to defy gravity, tearing holes through figurative walls without even breaking a sweat, or collapsing in the middle of a performance into ironic 'metagiggles.'"
Meanwhile, he claimed that neoconservatives, like himself, “were enchanted by the unapologetically proud and earnest grands battements (big kicks) of old-school ballet. Here, indeed, was a physical form of expression that could do justice to the ideological elegance of the Ol' Gipper and 'trickle down' economics.”
Yet,he claimed that he had to “hide” this political/jiggy inclination as a junior professor. “What cruel institution,” you ask, “kept this man so terrified? Where did he suffer the yoke of liberalism? Where does this academic reside?” The answer: Brigham Young University.
Yes, that bastian of liberal thinking, BYU, allegedly kept this poor helpless neo-con in the political closet. I am sorry, but where could he have possibly been more comfortable? Bob Jones University? This silly editorial just suggests how conservatives have come to believe in their own imaginary persecution no matter their actual reality. They have mistaken being challenged in their beliefs with being silenced.
Don’t get me wrong. Many people of the left have a hard time letting the right speak. There have been some (though few) incidents in which the left has taken a low road and wrongly tried to silence the right on university campuses. These are not frequent, but do undermine the goals of universities as places of intellectual exchange.
In truth, however, I don’t think that neo-cons really care about the mission of universities. They use a thin veneer of academic lingo to mask their actual intent: to control knowledge. Neo-conservative academics are not interested in “leveling the academic playing field.” Rather, they want to bulldoze that field and build a gas station.
The left has not come up with good responses to these attacks. Either the left tries to “prove” their lack of bias (an always losing strategy) or they cave into the neo-conservative demands (usually as a way to prove their lack of bias).
In many ways, my history classes probably would be the right-wing’s worst nightmares. I eschew standard text books. Instead, I ask students to read histories about groups of Americans often omitted or given cursory attention in traditional U.S. histories. We read texts on Latinos, African Americans, gays and lesbians, Asians, and so forth. Contrary to neoconservatives’ fantasies, race, gender, and sexuality all influenced the way historical individuals came to understand the meaning of their life in the United States.
On more than one occasion, I have had complaints filed against me in the dean’s office accusing me of “indoctrinating.” The right’s vision of “not indoctrinating” seems to really mean that we should never hear or learn from people different from themselves. To my university’s credit, they have always supported me.
I think that we need to move discussions about Academic Freedom away from the defensive posture given to us by the right. Every new class has me start by explicitly outlining my background, sexuality, and historical perspective. I am as candid as possible with the students because, after all, my goal is to get them to engage and think about the materials in the class themselves. All of my cards are on the table. They can make their own decisions about my perspective. Contrary to popular belief, I am not looking to brainwash them into being mini-GayProfs (they usually become mini-GayProfs of their own accord).
Reading different historians' perspectives on race, gender, and sexuality offers students a particular set of tools. I don't claim that this tool box is an absolute guide to TRUTH. Our current methodologies will become outdated one day. Still, that tool box allows students to question social relations of power, government authority, imperialism, and resistance. Students have a chance to find out what that vision of the past looks like and for us to talk about it as a group. If it ultimately doesn’t appeal to some of them, that’s cool.
Our dancing editorialist, however, reveals something about his own teaching strategy as well. From his own words, it seems quite clear that he envisions the classroom as a place where he gets to indoctrinate students to his right-wing beliefs. He masks his intent with flowery language, but his mission is clear. With the freedom of tenure (“barely” earned, according to the author himself, suggesting a shaky research agenda (but that’s another issue), he felt at liberty to perform “an athletic, 15-minute-long, tightly choreographed celebration of the war on terrorism.” If we wash away the fanciful imagery, what he is really saying is that he used his classroom as a pulpit to announce his support of the current administration’s policies. Would Horowitz cry foul? Probably not.
You know what? I am okay with that, but not because I agree with him (obviously I think the man is delusional and probably belongs at BYU). Unlike those on the right, however, my own political ideology is not threatened knowing that he is expressing his viewpoint in the classroom.
My politics inform my research and my research informs my politics. It would be impossible for me, as a Latino historian, to disentangle those two components. Unlike the BYU Baryshinkov, though, I am not trying to dazzle or trick students into my political ideas. Instead, I think all of us on the left need to own our political perspective and be open about how it influences our teaching. Students are smart enough to decide what to do with that information.
Finally, there are many reasons why conservatives might not be in the humanities in great numbers that are less conspiratorial than Horowitz’s notions. One of the primary reasons could be that those attracted to right-wing politics are also inclined to want to make lots of money. Trust me – a career as a historian is not the fast-track to owning your own island. If I am lucky, I might be able to make a down payment on a Vespa – in ten years.
Another reason that conservatives find themselves outnumbered could also be related to the transformative power of learning itself. More education in the humanities means learning more about different people’s experiences and perspectives. At a certain point, that knowledge makes holding onto narrow, xenophobic, triumphalistic visions of the U.S. untenable.
Perhaps, though, the right-wing knows this to be true. That is why they want to stop universities from offering such knowledge.