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An Academic Bill of Rights?

David Horowitz’s Odd Gripe


A few years back, when I was teaching at an American university in one of the more remote corners of the Midwest, David Horowitz came to give one of his usual talks to the campus Republicans castigating university faculties for their ‘liberal’ bias. A group of my students, likable-enough Adbusters types, told me they intended to descend upon the event dressed in monkey-suits and giant foam cowboy hats, sit in the front row, and pose questions, at the appropriate moment, such as ‘What’s the average surface temperature on Mercury?’ and ‘Give it to us straight, David: Thriller, or Off the Wall?’ Ordinarily, I would deem a Dadaist stunt like this ill-advised, but for this particular master of the non sequitur, it somehow seemed just the thing.

Horowitz is the former friend of the Black Panthers who has in recent decades been one of the most powerful motive forces behind the campus conservative movement. The biography offered on his website portrays him as consistent and resolute in his defense of that liberal political ideal, ‘freedom’. He believes that freedom of inquiry has been stifled on university campuses as faculty members have, since the 1970s, systematically excluded conservative job candidates and favored their radical own. He has amassed some rather solid empirical evidence that Americas with faculty positions at universities are much more likely to vote for Democrats than for Republicans.

Horowitz regularly raises alarms on his website (www.frontpagemag.org) over ‘the 100 most dangerous academics in America,’ and has helped Students for Academic Freedom to draft an ‘Academic Bill of Rights,’ in which it is proposed that ‘[a]ll faculty shall be hired, fired, promoted and granted tenure on the basis of their competence and appropriate knowledge in the field of their expertise,’ that ‘[n]o faculty shall be hired or fired or denied promotion or tenure on the basis of his or her political or religious beliefs,’ and that ‘[e]xposing students to the spectrum of significant scholarly viewpoints on the subjects examined in their courses is a major responsibility of faculty. Faculty will not use their courses for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination.’ An article in the Phyllis Schlafly Report on the effort to bring SAF’s bill of rights before state legislatures maintains that ‘there are literally tens of thousands of hard-line Marxists in academic sinecures. They have made universities a subsidiary of the political left and the Democratic Party’ (April, 2004). Horowitz has repeatedly claimed that the preponderance of leftists in academia is a result of unconstitutional discriminatory hiring practices.

Let me briefly describe what it’s like to be a left-wing humanities professor. In my spare time, I seek the abolition of the death penalty, and the conservation of mountain gorillas. These are good causes, I think, and I hope to see progress made on them in my lifetime.

In my classes, I drone on about Descartes’s cogito argument, Leibniz’s monads, etc. Students ask for extensions on their papers, go MIA for weeks at a time, eventually turn in essays on ‘Dick Hart’s cogito argument’ and ‘Liebniz’s nomads,’ and after it’s all over plead with me to bump their grades up an extra notch or two since, as they’re sure I understand, law school admissions are really competitive. I apply for federal grant money for my research on 17th-century theories of natural motion, and the agency asks me to explain the ‘relevance’ and ‘applicability’ of my work for ‘today’s society.’ I go to the library to look for books, and overhear snippets of conversations such as: ‘I was all sitting there going like oh my God no way you slept with who?’ And I long to jump in with a corrective ‘whom,’ but I know I will only be perceived as a grumpy old man of, like, at least 33, who has no business hanging around a university anyway, and so I restrain myself. I confess I fantasize about how nice it would be to find myself in some ultraconservative D.C. think-tank surrounded, at the very least, by adults.

And on occasion the overheard conversations turn from weekend debauches to academic matters. I recount here some recent, memorable fragments. On diplomacy: ‘Oh my God Courtney, I like totally haven’t even started my weapons-of-mass-destruction project yet! The teacher wants me to be Iran and stuff’; on the natural sciences: ‘The TA for my lab’s a total dick’; and finally, of course, on business: ‘Dude, you should take Anderson’s class. It’ll kick your ass. It’s like, he makes you do simulated corporate takeovers in front of the whole class and stuff, and it’s like your whole grade if you win. It’s totally cut-throat. It prepares you for the real world and stuff.’ To which the uninitiated lad replies: ‘No doubt, dude, no doubt.’

The vast majority of conversations among students about college classes are of this latter sort. They concern finance, corporate management, bookkeeping, and like mundane tasks. At my own university, the business school is named for a prominent Canadian beer company, which no doubt contributed a lot of money to its coffers. From the point of view of the administration, I suspect that my puny philosophy department, and even the entire humanities division, looks rather like some vestigial organ, some irrelevant hold-out from an era when the university had a very different role in society. And that is indeed what it is. The business school is the heart, the natural sciences are the brain, and we, who read Plato and Descartes, Homer and Montaigne, are the appendix, just waiting to be excised once and for all.

For this reason, I can’t help but feel that, in spite of Horowitz’s griping, the right has indeed won the battle for the university: it’s been overrun by market forces just like every other sector of North American society, and this is exactly what they claim to want. And if in some remote irrelevant corner of the university some ethics professor defends bestiality, or some English professor ‘queers’ Shakespeare, so what? Does this have anything to do with the place of the institution as a whole in society?

If David Horowitz were to linger in the halls of a university for a while, if he were to take leave for a time of his supplicating young hosts, he would admittedly not hear paeans to Gertrude Himmelfarb. But nor would he hear students, zombie-like, reciting postmodernist radical cant. He would be scowled at for being too old, and he would hear the tedious din of free-market capitalism at work, churning out new generations of blank-minded actuaries, vapid go-get-’em salesmen, and unreflective middle-managers, one finance midterm at a time.

Even within the humanities, it seems to me the threat of left-wing exclusivism is rather exaggerated. Horowitz claims that conservatives are systematically weeded out in the hiring process. I’ve just participated in a job search, one that I take to be typical of hiring practices throughout North American universities. We interviewed five candidates, and they spoke to us about the tripartite soul in Aristotle’s De Anima, the theory of the four elements and the nature of celestial motion in his Meteorologia, the three primary hypostases in Plotinus’s metaphysics, etc. I have absolutely no idea what any of these people thought about privatized health care or the war in Iraq, and I assure Mr. Horowitz that our hiring decisions had nothing to do with their views on such matters.

Of course, while it was none of my business and I certainly did not inquire, it is quite likely that they are all opposed to the war in Iraq, and that they think Bush is, as Philip Roth nicely put it, unfit to run a hardware store. But I’m strongly inclined to think that these convictions, if they have them, flow willy-nilly from years of reading books by smart people, which is what humanities professors do. Reading smart people, they tend thereby to be made smart, and, statistically speaking, tend not to vote Republican (or Tory). Where is the unconstitutional discrimination in that?

Of course, to paraphrase Richard Rorty, I am aware of the existence of right-wing intellectuals. Richard Posner, for example, presents himself for this role. But this phrase has always sounded to me as oxymoronic and strained as "creation scientist" or "Christian headbanger"– these are types that are hastily put forward as if to prove that they can do it just as well as their secular, libertine counterparts, whatever "it" happens to be. They can rock just as hard as Black Sabbath, do laboratory work just as solid as Theodosius Dobzhansky’s, and think thoughts just as profound as Pierre Bourdieu’s. But no one’s ever fully convinced, not even, I suspect, Judge Posner.

Again, none of this has anything to do with the question as to which side in the culture wars is winning the battle for the university, since outside of the tiny, vestigial humanities divisions there simply is no question at all of being an intellectual of any sort. This is no more prized a social role in engineering and business schools than it is in, say, the corrugated box industry, and from a provost’s-eye point-of-view these are the sectors of the university that matter.

This deplorable decline of universities into job-training centers is in large part a consequence of opening them up to market forces. It was never a battle of ideas –Irving Kristol vs. Jacques Derrida– but a battle of funding– irrelevant philosophy vs. lucrative business. And this again is, by the conservatives’ own lights, just how things should be.

Justin Smith teaches philosophy in Canada. He can be reached at: justismi@alcor.concordia.ca