Reforming Our Universities: The Campaign For An Academic Bill of Rights

At FrontPage Magazine, David Horowitz has some background on his new book, Reforming Our Universities:


The campaign we launched can only be understood in the context of previous developments in higher education. The modern research university was created in the second half of the 19th Century during the era of America’s great industrial expansion, its curriculum shaped by two innovations: the adoption of scientific method as the professional standard for knowledge, and the extension of educational opportunity to a democratic public. Before these developments, America’s institutions of higher learning were “primarily religious and moral” schools of instruction. In the words of James Duderstadt, president of the University of Michigan, “colleges trained the ministers of each generation, passing on ‘high culture’ to a very small elite.” The avowed mission of these early collegiate institutions was to instill the doctrines of a particular religious denomination. It was not to foster the analytic skepticism associated with modern science but to pass on the literary and philosophical culture that supported a specific faith.

By contrast, “the core mission of the research university,” as recently summarized by one of its leaders, “is … expanding and deepening what we know.” In pursuit of this goal, “the research university relies on various attributes, the most important of which are the processes of rigorous inquiry and reasoned skepticism, which in turn are based on articulated norms that are not fixed and given, but are themselves subject to re-examination and revision. In the best of our universities faculty characteristically subject their own claims and the norms that govern their research to this process of critical reflection.” This has been the credo of American higher education throughout the modern era and is still the norm in the physical and biological sciences and most professional schools throughout the contemporary university.

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Liberal arts colleges within the university are the divisions through which all undergraduates pass, and have been traditionally viewed as cornerstones of a democratic society, where students are taught how to think rather than told what to think. The curriculum of the modern research university supported these objectives. It was designed to inculcate pragmatic respect for the pluralism of ideas and the test of empirical evidence, and thus to support a society dependent on an informed citizenry.

All this began to change when a radical generation of university instructors matriculated onto liberal arts faculties in the 1970s and began altering curricula by creating new inter-disciplinary fields whose inspirations were ideological, and closely linked to political activism. Women’s Studies was one of the earliest of these new fields and remains the most influential, providing an academic model emulated by others. The curricula of Women’s Studies programs are not governed by the principles of disinterested inquiry about a subject but rather by a political mission: to teach students to be radical feminists. The formal Constitution of the Women’s Studies Association makes this political agenda clear:

Women’s Studies owes its existence to the movement for the liberation of women; the feminist movement exists because women are oppressed. Women’s studies, diverse as its components are, has at its best shared a vision of a world free not only from sexism but also from racism, class-bias, ageism, heterosexual bias—from all the ideologies and institutions that have consciously or unconsciously oppressed and exploited some for the advantage of others….Women’s Studies, then, is equipping women not only to enter the society as whole, as productive human beings, but to transform the world to one that will be free of all oppression.

Thirty years later, the academic landscape had undergone a sea change as a result of the political pressures from feminists, ethnic nationalists, and “anti-war” activists, and the curricular innovations they were able to institute. In 2006, state legislators in Pennsylvania gathered at Philadelphia’s Temple University to hold hearings on academic freedom. Among the witnesses was Stephen Zelnick, a former Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies and a member of the Temple faculty for 36 years. Zelnick told the legislators of his concern that Temple faculty had grown increasingly monolithic and politically partisan in the years he had been there: “The one-sidedness of the faculty in their ideological commitments and a growing intolerance of competing views [has] resulted in abuse of students, occasionally overt and reported, but most often hidden and normalized, and the degrading of the strong traditions of intellectual inquiry and free expression.”

Zelnick then spelled out what this meant in terms of the instruction he had personally reviewed: “As director of two undergraduate programs, I have had many opportunities to sit in and watch instructors. I have sat in on more than a hundred different teachers’ classes and seen excellent, indifferent, and miserable teaching… In these visits, I have rarely heard a kind word for the United States, for the riches of our marketplace, for the vast economic and creative opportunities made available for energetic and creative people (that is, for our students); for family life, for marriage, for love, or for religion.”

I think I was lucky, especially as an undergraduate, but in graduate school as well, to have taken courses with very few of the radical, anti-Americanists that Horowitz’s discusses. In fact, I’d be perfectly willing to confess that I wasn’t much affected by hard-left activism in college, only inasmuch as I was a registered Democrat myself, sympathetic to civil rights, anti-poverty and other issues often central to the progressive agenda. It’s when I became a professor, and especially my experience at my college since the Iraq war in 2003, that I’ve come to fully appreciate how institutionalized is the radical left’s program of anti-Americanism and indoctrination. As some readers might recall, I’ve recently adopted a new textbook, American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy, and Citizenship, and I’m thrilled that the text offers an uncommonly robust cultural approach while remaining objectively respectful of other nations and their unique historical and political trajectories. And in shifting my approach along with the book, I’m more frequently having students attempt to defend their more anti-American positions during discussions, and there’s been a couple of highly critical students who’ve been unable to acquit themselves when faced with some Socratic questioning. (And that’s interesting from a learning perspective, if it’s the case that ideology is crowding out critical thinking, which sounds obvious upon reflection.) And I know that my college has some hardline historians and sociologists pushing basically a neo-communist, post-materialist curriculum — heavy on the antiwar and racist/sexist oppression junk — although my political science colleagues are pretty balanced overall. I’ve had my run-ins with leftists over a lot of these issues, for example when I covered the campus screening of Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story,” which excoriated the U.S. market system as “evil.” My experience — and my recommendations — at the institutional level is to stand firm against the leftist backlash, which will include allegations of “hate speech” and so forth, while upholding values of rigorous engagement with the facts over ideology; and of course professionalism in interactions with others. And I’m happy to report that I’ve beat back attempts at censorship, and of course outside attacks — from folks like E.D. Kain and The Swashzone communists — that have been dismissed as gratuitous attempts at harassment.

In any case, I encourage folks to read Restoring Our Universities, and also check in regularly at FrontPage Magazine and NewsReal Blog, where I’m now a contributing writer.

Cross-posted from American Power.

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