It takes a special sort of training to view the following statement as controversial: “While teachers are privileged with the freedom to express ideas that result from their expertise, they are required to limit their instruction to the areas of that expertise and not to inflict their prejudices — political or otherwise — on students in their classes.” Yet, as David Horowitz explains in Indoctrination U: The Left’s War Against Academic Freedom, plenty of people manage it.
First in 1915, and on through the 1960s, the American Association of University Professors elaborated this volume’s titular value in the very ways Horowitz imagines it. Now the AAUP regards Horowitz as nothing less than a harbinger of modern-day McCarthyism, and this seemingly innocuous notion — which is the meat and potatoes of a document, the “Academic Bill of Rights,” that Horowitz has been touting for the past four years — has caused a fuss.
Considering this reversal, Horowitz feigns surprise, though an astute man like him cannot really be. Pedagogy has suffered a shocking reorientation in the past 40 years — emphasis has been taken off of a canon of common knowledge, and specialties have flourished in curricular offerings. An undergraduate who might’ve once had to make a decision between 15 rather general offerings must now pick from literally hundreds. The academy keeps a less watchful eye over what faculty are offering, but bristles reflexively at outside impositions, no matter how facially sensible.
Universities are funded largely by parents and legislators, and neither group spends much time examining what the students are actually being taught. Horowitz’s modus operandi has been to make up for this deficit–by exposing some of the academy’s zaniest enclaves. In his ever-growing website, Horowitz has compiled a veritable encyclopedia of anecdotes revealing betrayal upon betrayal of the notion of the disinterested, scholarly classroom setting.
Many of those are retold in this well-sourced book, which reads as a blend of political tract and personal memoir. Its personal aspect can be distracting — but Horowitz has figured so prominently in the debate over “academic freedom” that his indulgence in self-reference might be forgiven.
Part of this personal retelling is helpful, too, because it shows the growing ugliness of most discussions on “academic freedom.” Too often, writes Horowitz, his critics will “disparag[e] the accuser rather than addressing the question.” The professorial archetype is cerebral and deliberate — but the professors exposed here are venomous and petty.
But neither is Horowitz a saint: Coursing through his book’s pages is a steady current of invective. Name-calling abounds, and various professors are tagged with the following: “political operatives,” “crude ideologue,” “lifelong communist and devoted servant of totalitarian police states,” “academic imposter,” “academic dilettante,” and (at least a dozen times) “radical.” All of this may well be true, but it’s not always helpful.
Already, many professors believe Horowitz’s attempt to remove political bias from the academy is, in fact, an insinuation of politics into it. This impression gained traction because of the unfortunate subtitle of his last book — The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. (He explains it away as the publisher’s decision.)
Indoctrination U. reveals a further way Horowitz has infuriated those whose behavior he seeks to change. At first content to target universities’ governing bodies, Horowitz has since given up this tactic as ineffective and preferred to turn allegations of academic bias into political issues. At key moments — when ethnic-studies professor Ward Churchill labeled 9/11 victims “little Eichmanns,” for example — state legislatures have taken the bait. But this new tactic has backfired: By enticing politicians to become involved, Horowitz has made it easy for his critics to accuse him — however unjustly — of “McCarthyism.” And this has worked for the critics: Even in the legislatures where the “Academic Bill of Rights” seemed like a winning cause, it has quickly lost momentum.
Which is a great shame, because a reasonable reader of this book will not come away thinking that the Academic Bill of Rights is merely “a solution searching for a problem” — as a talking point of the AAUP and the American Federation of Teachers stubbornly insists. There may be little strictly scientific evidence of bias. (Horowitz cites the 9-to-1 ratio of Democrats to Republicans in a typical faculty, but this statistic doesn’t prove that politics is intruding into the classroom.) Yet the many individual narratives Horowitz and others have compiled make for a remarkable preponderance of evidence that must be answered — but mostly has not been.
In some of these cases, academics engaged in obvious lapses of professionalism — e.g., the Pennsylvania physics professor who routinely digressed into anti-military harangues. Yet a doctrine of “professionalism” — that professors should confine their teaching to their expertise — provides insufficient redress for many of the incidents Horowitz relates. Courses in the hard sciences may have obvious boundaries; but what of the social sciences or the humanities? The traditional canon has been eviscerated, and it is hard to identify where subjects like sociology or English, history or women’s studies, begin and end. These are fields with a wide and still widening purview. The notion undergirding women’s studies, to take one example, is that issues of gender pervade nearly every aspect of society. (Memorably, a classmate of mine at Harvard wrote her senior thesis on “a feminist epistemology of geometry.”) Legitimate or not, these new or remade departments are the status quo, and they make the boundaries of subject matter harder to police.
Horowitz’s tapestry of anecdotes nonetheless paint a convincing picture of campus silliness: The peace-studies department at Ball State is chaired by a saxophonist whose only professional qualification is membership in a Zen Buddhist pacifist cult; UC-Davis plays home to a women’s-studies professor who bemoans the “bad reputation” Mao has been saddled with; Temple’s African-American studies department spews ahistorical, Afrocentric theories that were discredited long ago.
Horowitz warns us that those who ignore such instances “obviously don’t think ideas have consequences.” To this, allow me to enter a guilty plea: Ideas like these really don’t have consequences. They are nutty, self-evidently partisan views, and Horowitz underestimates undergraduates when he objects that “no indication is provided to the uninformed student that these might be extreme views.”
To be sure, explicitly value-oriented departments bastardize higher education — but who really are the victims? Serious students tend to avoid them, apart for humor value. (The Harvard Salient, which I edited, republishes their course descriptions verbatim on its “parody” page.) And such courses’ enrollees are mainly those looking to be indoctrinated. Indeed, conservatism’s allure on campuses today owes something to the classroom absurdity on the Left, and the contrast offered by the largely disinterested and respectable offerings of the handful of conservative professors. (I noticed this at my own school; and similar observations crop up again and again in the recent volume, Why I Turned Right, in which prominent conservative baby boomers relate their college conversion stories.)
“Academic freedom” is not a synonym for “liberal education”– whose absence is the real problem in today’s academy. Here and there, Horowitz hints that reinvigorating liberal education is his real agenda, and this is probably what has alarmed so many professors enamored of new and worse ways of thinking. Horowitz admirably excoriates the creation of the special-interest studies; and he relates a telling incident at Reed College where out of 12 undergraduates he chatted with over lunch, students unanimously recognized the name Noam Chomsky, while only two of their number recognized Hayek. Surely many such examples could be provided — the student familiar with the poetry of Maya Angelou but not of Yeats, or the one who studies American society through Howard Zinn but not Tocqueville.
But reinstituting serious curricula is not a task in which politicians are likely to be helpful. It is a duty chiefly for the university itself, even though it currently shows little interest in doing so. There are some grounds for hope, as Horowitz points out in the final pages of the book — most of all, in places like Princeton’s James Madison Center and Yale’s 50-year-old Directed Studies program, which serious professors everywhere should seek to emulate. For their part, undergraduates’ remedy is to seek out good advising, and scrupulously to avoid the self-evidently biased courses and departments that Horowitz has long had his eyes on.
– Travis Kavulla is an associate editor of National Review.