The setting, Glendora, California, in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, is picturesque, the name of the school, Citrus College, is downright cheerful, and the title of the course, Speech 106, seems innocuous enough, but Rosalyn Kahn, the professor, found herself at the center of a political firestorm last week after she told her students that they could earn extra credit by writing letters to President Bush protesting the war with Iraq; when several students requested they be allowed to write letters to Bush supporting the war, Kahn informed them that such letters wouldn’t be acceptable for extra credit.
One of the dissenting students, Chris Stevens, contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
(FIRE), a campus watchdog group, which brought the matter to the attention of the college’s president, Louis Zellers; President Zellers immediately ordered Professor Kahn to cancel the assignment, apologized on behalf of the school to the students and then dashed off a personal letter of apology to President Bush.
The intriguing question, especially in light of the quick an honorable response of Citrus College to the episode, is whether disciplinary action will now be taken against Kahn. She is, to be sure, an intellectual fascist. But if that were the criterion for punishing humanities professors, half the membership of the Modern Language Association would currently be on suspension. What the issue boils down to is this: Did Kahn know she was doing something wrong?
Since I’ve never met the woman, I cannot be certain, but — as counterintuitive as this will sound to non-academics — I suspect the answer is no. In coercing letters of protest against Bush’s Iraqi policy, Kahn likely believed she was enlisting her students not in the cause of left-wing politics but in the cause of Enlightenment. Tragically, this is the dominant mindset at campuses nationwide . . . as a casual stroll down the corridors of virtually any liberal-arts college will confirm, with their walls lined with antiwar posters, rally announcements and activist petitions.
I’ve taught college English for two decades, and I’ve known many Professor Kahns; I teach with several of them now. They are fine people, generous with their time, solicitous of their students needs; their failures, in other words, are not moral but conceptual. In the case of Professor Kahn, she could not conceive that an educated person might favor the Bush’s policies, and since her job was to educate, she had no qualms about ruling out letters of support; crediting a letter that supported Bush, in her mind, would be like crediting an ungrammatical essay, or a math problem with the wrong answer.
The Kahns of the world are not thinkers; they are true believers.
Or, as a colleague said to me recently, “I consider myself a good judge of character. So I know you’re not stupid. And I like you. Yet you actually support Bush. It makes no sense.”
That’s the problem in a nutshell. It’s not that a majority of humanities professors oppose Bush’s policies. It’s that, in their minds, the possibility that an intelligent, well-meaning person might judge his policies sound doesn’t compute. At colleges across the country, support of Bush’s policies equates directly with evil, with right wing extremism. You might just as well wear a swastika to class.
On the one hand, it’s tempting to shrug at the situation: Who really cares what a bunch of academics think? Bush, to his credit, clearly does not. (It’s yet another mark that distinguishes him from his predecessor.) Even students will soon outgrow their teachers’ influence; once they leave college, they’ll encounter opposing points of view and recognize their former mentors for the narrow-minded ideologues they were.
On the other hand, and this returns us to Professor Kahn’s case, it’s easy enough for such ideologues, given the intellectual imprimatur of a college faculty position, to recruit students into activities — like letter writing campaigns — designed to inflate the numbers for their cause-of-the-moment. Credited courses and school-sponsored clubs provide a steady stream of bodies for professors who see indoctrination into leftist thought as a natural function of a good education — and thus don’t see that they’re doing anything wrong.
If you doubt this is happening, take a good look at the crowd at the next peace rally on C-SPAN.
— Mark Goldblatt is author of the novel, Africa Speaks, now available in paperback.