The Modern Language Association holds its annual convention each year during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Washington, D.C. was the venue for 2005 as thousands of English and Humanities professors descended on the nation’s capitol to hold forth not only on literature and pedagogy but also on politics, globalization, and the war on Islamic terrorism. Hijinks, therefore, ensue. Where else but an MLA Convention can you sleep in fancy hotel, order a continental breakfast, then head downstairs and hear a well-dressed, highly credentialed academic seriously insist–as happened last week–that the term “Stalinism” has gotten a bad rap and needs to be reclaimed by the intellectual Left?
I attend these gatherings nowadays for their sheer entertainment value, for three days of comic relief. So, for example, I poked my head into a panel discussion called “Poets in Debate: Poetry and Politics” just in time to hear a tenured professor from Bard College–a senior fellow at the college’s Institute for Writing and Thinking–declare that “America’s primary need as a national entity is to exploit the planet’s natural resources.”
I’m guessing her duties at the Institute focus more heavily on writing than on thinking.
To my mind, however, the most memorable panel this year was called “Academic Work and the New McCarthyism”–a talk arranged by the reliably dimwitted Radical Caucus in English and Modern Languages. Of course the McCarthyism to which the title refers is not the intellectually bullying knee-jerk leftism that permeates college campuses but the recent movement, sparked by conservative commentator David Horowitz, to address that ideological imbalance–a movement that has coalesced around Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights.
I should confess, at this juncture, I have significant qualms about the Academic Bill of Rights. Though it contains much commendable language about intellectual freedom and diversity, the bill also insists that faculty should be “hired, fired, promoted and granted tenure” not only “on the basis of their competence and appropriate knowledge in the field of their expertise” but, in the case of the humanities, social sciences, and arts, “with a view toward fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives.” In practical terms, given the current ideological makeup of the American professoriate, this last stipulation would seem to require a kind of affirmative action for conservative scholars. Like all affirmative-action programs, it’s sure to produce a disproportionate share of incompetents–and thereby further stigmatize conservatism on campus. Then, too, there’s the question of whether a scholar hired for his conservative outlook would be compelled to maintain that perspective, regardless of where his research and conscience led him. Finally, there’s the problem of whether insisting on “a plurality of methodologies and perspectives” paves the way for Holocaust deniers, alien abductees, and, come to think of it, Noam Chomsky.
So, again, I’m no fan of the Academic Bill of Rights. Still, after sitting through 90 minutes of “Academic Work and the New McCarthyism,” it’s hard not to sympathize with Horowitz’s efforts. The panel began with a talk by a youngish assistant professor from Kingsborough Community College. She announced that she’d “adopted an antiwar curriculum” for her freshman English class, then recounted how she’d designed her syllabus around readings meant to expose the lies and treachery of the Bush administration. Though she couldn’t be sure how many minds she’d actually changed, she added, with a trace of pride, that she “might have helped to stop some of my students from joining the military.”
Next up was another young-looking (or am I just getting old?) professor from the University of Cincinnati who bragged that she’d done graduate research on the expansion of American imperialism and therefore understood full well that the prisoner-abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib “exists within a continuum of racial violence” perpetrated by the U.S.. She had organized an entire English course around a close linguistic analysis of the U.S. Patriot Act. She conceded that her students had struggled with the legalistic text throughout the semester, but in the end she felt confident that several students who’d favored the legislation at the start had had their consciousness raised by the experience.
She was followed to the podium by a professor of women’s studies, also rather young, from Penn State University who passed around a sheet of cherry-picked quotations by conservative commentators on the leftist bias in academia. As she read them out loud, without analysis, the response from the audience alternated between horrified gasps and loud snickering. Afterwards, she called the Academic Bill of Rights an “assault on critical thinking” and decried “the political tyranny and proto-fascism of the government.”
Once the panelists had said their piece, the floor was opened for questions and comments from the audience. I was the first person the moderator called on, and I directed my question to the first speaker, the assistant professor from Kingsborough Community College. I asked her whether she’d have a problem if a colleague of hers suddenly decided to adopt a pro-war curriculum, and whether, more broadly, she’d have a problem hiring a new teacher who seemed likely to take such an approach.
She replied that she did not currently serve on hiring committees, so she had no control over who joined the faculty at KCC . . . but she would indeed have a major problem if a colleague of hers were to adopt a pro-war curriculum.
She left it at that.
Someone then asked a question about Derrida, whom one of the panelists had faulted for his lack of commitment to radical causes, and I thought, for a moment, my point would be lost. Apparently, however, the KCC prof’s response did not sit well with several members of the audience–who felt compelled to answer me themselves. An older man was the next person called on; he turned in my direction and said that he’d served on many hiring committees and that he would never hire a teacher who seemed likely to adopt a pro-war curriculum . . . for the same reason he wouldn’t hire a teacher who seemed likely to espouse creationism or intelligent design. The issue isn’t political, he explained. It’s that the theory is simply wrong. A pro-war curriculum would, by necessity, be rooted in falsehoods and false logic. The classroom, he insisted, is a place for truth.
The next comment was also addressed to me, by a young man sitting in the back. He said that, in theory, he would not be opposed to hiring a teacher who supported the war in Iraq . . . but that situation was unlikely to come up because people who teach in the humanities are trained in critical thinking, and no one who thinks critically could support the war in Iraq.
Several audience members nodded vigorously. Their reactions indicated that the matter was now settled.
I smiled and sank back in my chair; I’d gotten my laugh.
Except it’s not really funny. In retrospect, the panelists and audience members for “Academic Work and the New McCarthyism” inadvertently made the strongest possible case for the Academic Bill of Rights. If you’ve come to equate support for the war in Iraq with creationism, then you’re no longer capable of critical thinking on the subject; you’ve surrounded yourself with too many like-minded people. If the ideological bias of academia turns faculty minds into mush, imagine its effect on students.
Still, there is a kind of morbid punch line for the episode. It came in the form of a resolution to oppose the Academic Bill of Rights submitted by the Radical Caucus in English and Modern Languages–the same folks who sponsored the panel discussion–for approval by the MLA’s delegate assembly.
The resolution passed overwhelmingly.
–Mark Goldblatt is a tenured professor at Fashion Institute of Technology of the State University of New York.