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Meet the New McCarthyites

Return of the Academic Witch Hunts

by DAVE LINDORFF

McCarthy-style witch hunts are coming back, and the first place we’ll be seeing them is at Pennsylvania’s public colleges and universities.

Under the innocent-sounding name "Academic Bill of Rights," a gaggle of right-wing "culture warriors" in the Republican-led Pennsylvania House recently passed HR 177, a resolution authorizing them to invade public colleges and universities armed with subpoenas to grill faculty on curricula, reading lists, exams, homework assignments, grading and teaching styles, and to take testimony from students, allegedly to determine whether their professors are fair or "biased."

The underlying assumption of the resolution–part of a nationwide campaign spearheaded by one-time SDS lefty and now rabid right-wing activist David Horowitz–is that America’s colleges and universities have been overrun by leftist fanatics intent on banishing conservative ideas and punishing conservative or Christian students who dare to speak out.

The notion that leftists are in charge in academia, is as bogus as the notion that the media are dominated by liberals. The political mix on most campus faculties across the country is not much different from what you’d find in the broader community. Moreover, leftist teachers are no more likely to impose their ideas on students or to punish those who disagree than are rightists (maybe less), and in either case such behavior should and would likely be roundly condemned. (Any decent school has a mechanism for students to challenge political bias by a professor, and indeed Horowitz and his minions have been hard-pressed to show any hard evidence of such abuses.) Add to this the reality that at the higher you look in university administrations, through chairs to deans and provosts on up to presidents, the more conservative officials tend to be politically. At Pennsylvania’s Temple University, for example, the University Senate voted resoundingly to oppose HR177 as a threat to academic freedom and free speech, yet the university president, David Adamany-technically an ex-officio member of the Senate–was quoted publicly as not seeing anything troubling about the legislative intrusion into academic affairs.

In my own limited experience in academia (which has included teaching at Alfred University, a small liberal arts institution, Ithaca College, a rather mainstream private institution with an emphasis on the arts, and Ivy League Cornell University), being overtly on the left was seen as a bit edgy, and perhaps even dangerous to one’s tenure aspirations.

The Horowitzniks and Pennsylvania’s HR177 backers also misunderstand, or deliberately misrepresent, the role of a university professor, particularly in the liberal arts fields like literature, political science, philosophy, sociology, etc., which is where their attention is focused.

University teaching, unlike elementary and high school instruction, should not be so much a "covering of the field" as an introduction to the idea of self-instruction and independent thinking. At its best, a college course should teach students how to pursue knowledge on their own, how to research and express their own ideas, and how to defend and, as needed, amend or even reject those ideas on the basis of free intellectual debate.

There is nothing wrong with having a teacher who presents a point of view, as long as that teacher is honest about it, and open to challenge. My favorite teachers when I was an undergraduate in the late ’60s were precisely those professors who held strong views with which I disagreed vehemently, because they forced me to clarify my own thinking and to defend my own contrarian positions.

What Howoritz and the HR177 resolution backers seek is a bland, neutral academy where everyone keeps her or his ideas to her or himself. By bringing a legislative inquisition to campus, these people are really pursuing an agenda of intimidation and conformity, hoping to silence those in academe who may hold views out of synch with the national consensus. I taught once at a school that was like that: Fudan University in the People’s Republic of China.

Pennsylvania is the first state where they’ve succeeded in passing a version of Howoritz’s insidious redbaiting legislation. The anti-intellectual crew in Harrisburg was aided in its efforts by a state media that ignored their campaign until the measure had already passed. Pennsylvania’s main newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, ran no reports on House hearings on the resolution or even on the final vote. In fact, the Inquirer’s first mention of the resolution-run after the measure had already passed–was an op-ed rant by a right-wing Penn State education professor who claimed, with no supporting evidence, that the state’s public higher education institutions were under the tyrannical grip of minority and feminist professors.

In the 1950s, academics were attacked by Sen. Joe McCarthy and a gang of right-wing zealots who equated liberals and free thinkers with Communist fifth columnists and hounded many honorable teachers out of their jobs. Most Americans now recall that era in embarrassment. Horowitz and a bunch of right-wing legislative yahoos in Harrisburg, PA seem hell-bent on reviving that anti-intellectual witch-hunt.

DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled "This Can’t be Happening!" is published by Common Courage Press. Information about both books and other work by Lindorff can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net.

He can be reached at: dlindorff@yahoo.com