Ideologues at the Podium
Prof. Ward Churchill’s ugly characterization of the 9/11 victims of the Twin Towers attack as “little Eichmans” who richly deserved their fate made him perhaps the most notorious academic in America. Virtually unknown until his inflammatory words were reported in the media, Churchill quickly became the poster child for those who feared that America’s colleges and universities had become centers for leftist indoctrination. David Horowitz himself has made the Churchill incident his personal cause célèbre. Churchill, for him, is not only a worse case example of the smug, arrogant elitism of the professorial class, but illustrative of the growing politicization of the college classroom.
A tenured professor and former chair of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Churchill is no “marginal crank,” Horowitz notes, but was and remains “prominent at the University of Colorado and in the academic world at large.” His professional successes, despite his paltry academic credentials and lack of scholarly accomplishments, raise troubling questions about the role leftist politics now are playing in determining tenure and promotion decisions on college campuses.
The anti-war radicals of the sixties, Horowitz claims, presently occupy most college campuses. Protected by tenure and academic freedom, they impose their virulent anti-American and anti-middle-class views on captive student audiences. Out of the 617,000 faculty teaching at America’s universities and colleges, Horowitz estimates that five percent of them, or approximately 25,000–30,000, are radicals. Based on these calculations, he estimates that three million students would be annually attending their classes, although there is no way of telling how many of them are actually listening. Because academics on the left are typically intolerant of dissenting opinions, they drive American higher education ever leftward.
To provide a factual basis for the question of how pervasive radicalism is in college classrooms, Horowitz employs a method known as “prosopography,” which he defines as using the biographical details of the representative academics “who use their positions to promote political agendas” to better study them and “to establish patterns of conduct and patterns in careers.” As the President for the Center of the Study of Popular Center, he enlisted students to gather evidence by recording faculty lectures. Of course, this tactic provoked wails of protests from professors who accused Horowitz of McCarthyism.
The 101 professors profiled in this volume are, as Horowitz says, “but the top of an academic iceberg.” The results of his survey make for grim reading. Many of his subjects were clearly promoted beyond their qualifications while others appear to be unhinged. They range from obscure untenured junior professors teaching at small unknown colleges to senior professors from major universities. A dozen or so of them are prominent, widely published respected figures in their disciples such as Noam Chomsky, a professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was a famous anti-Vietnam War activist and most recently had his latest book reviewed favorably at the United Nations by the Venezuelan dictator, Hugo Chavez; Stanley Aronowitz, a professor of Sociology at the City University of New York, Paul Ehrlich, professor of population studies at Stanford University and author of the best-selling (and spectacularly wrong) The Population Bomb (1968); and Peter Falk, professor of International Law emeritus at Princeton University. But most are unimpressive nobodies such as Leighton Armitage, an adjunct professor of political science at Foothill College in California, who is convinced that the American government is controlled by “Jewish Nazis,” by which I guess she means neoconservatives; or Oneida Meranto, an associate professor of political science at Metropolitan State College, who calls upon “progressive” professors to “ferment social rebellion against capitalist, Anglo-Saxon America.” “Nonwhites are closer to nature,” she asserts, “Those that are closer to nature are more animalistic,” which evidently is a good thing. America, she believes, is inherently racist and sexist. Although she has no scholarly publications, she was hired and tenured, largely because she is Navajo. Another academic nonentity is Priya Parmar, assistant professor of education at Brooklyn College, whose offences include teaching rap music in her education classes and disparaging English as the language of the oppressors.
For my part, I would not dignify this group of academic ciphers by calling them “dangerous.” Mostly, they are time wasters. My guess is that students take their classes only because they know if they parrot the instructor’s opinions they will be rewarded with good grades. College teaching is the only profession, as most experienced professors will admit, where the customers (students) frequently do not want full value for their money. The end of education for the grade obsessed student is the grade, not instruction.
For the most part, Horowitz’s “most dangerous professors” are incompetent and professionally lazy. Political radicalism is a shield behind which they hide their lack of scholarship and ability. By claiming victimhood status as a homosexual, a feminist, minority rights activist, etc., their works and actions are not subject to close scrutiny. In today’s academic environment to be a radical is a good career move. Churchill himself is a good case in point. His paltry academic credentials should have prevented him from getting his foot into any respectable academic institution, instead he was not only hired by the University of Colorado, but tenured, promoted to professor and finally given the chairmanship of the Ethnic Studies Department. His story is all too typical of what is happening in today’s academic world. He was given favorable treatment because the university liked the idea of a Native American, of whom there are not many with apparent qualifications, chairing its ethnic studies program.
By contrast, conservatives contemplating academic careers face daunting obstacles. At every point in their career, the deck is stacked against them. Though claiming to be committed to academic freedom, most liberal faculty could not imagine applying its principles to conservatives. They are not being hypocritical. Since conservatism is believed to be inherently hostile to women, gays and lesbians, racial minorities, and the poor, in their eyes, it does not qualify as respectable inquiry. Especially among those radical faculty who see their primary mission as the promotion of social activism and social justice, conservative arguments are considered to be unhelpful toward furthering society’s progress toward greater equality and social justice. They sincerely believe that anyone who does not subscribe to their political agendas is unqualified to teach. Hence, faculties have become all too often self-perpetuating oligarchies where only liberal groupthink is tolerated.
Many colleges and universities have, in addition, instituted programs such as Black Studies, Women’s Studies, Peace Studies, Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered Studies and Peace Studies which have as their mission leftist political goals. It would be difficult to imagine any of these programs hiring anyone who could be labeled as a conservative. Many college and university administrators are implementing as well outcome assessment studies in which faculty are required to write annual self-evaluations detailing how their courses further multiculturalism, an appreciation of diversity, globalism, peace, group learning, or social justice. Such values as an appreciation of Western Civilization, individualism, or academic excellence are rarely, if ever, included among the objectives.
One remedy, proposed by David Horowitz, to the intellectual conformity on American campuses is an “academic bill of rights” that would guarantee that grades would be based on academic performance rather than the political or religious views of a student. Horowitz has campaigned for this proposal nationally and so far fifteen states have introduced legislation modeled on his idea, though none has enacted it into law. Earlier this year, my own state (Pennsylvania), held a series of State House Committee hearings throughout the state in which academics and students were invited to testify on whether diversity of opinion was a serious problem on college campuses in need of a legislative remedy.
A legislative solution to the problem of intolerance toward conservative opinion at academic institutions creates, though, additional problems. First, it opens up the possibility of heavy handed meddling in the academic affairs of colleges by government regulatory agencies and judges. Leftist professors would undoubtedly complain that such laws unfairly single them out. In practice, the enforcement of such laws will always contain a certain subjective element. Some views are just more offensive to some than others. Even Horowitz betrays his own biases in his criticism of leftist professors. He is obviously more offended by those who express strong anti-Israeli views than he by those who besmirch Christian or traditional moral beliefs. No where does he complain that members of the Old Right or paleoconservatives have been virtually excluded from the nation’s major college campuses.
Horowitz imagines that the current problems with America’s institutions of higher learning began when the New Leftists of the Vietnam Era began taking over in the 1970s. In fact, as many perceptive observers of American education such as Irving Babbitt, T. S. Eliot, and Russell Kirk have noted, the degradation of academic standards began around the turn of the twentieth century when colleges and universities began to replace education for wisdom and virtue with training for power and service.
This book is a powerful indictment of the profession of college teaching. Given the breadth of the problem described here, Horowitz has convincingly proven that there has been a general decline in standards in nearly all disciplines and nearly at all types of institutions. Yet, even if the 101 offending professors described in this book (or, for matter, 1001 equally offensive professors) were removed little would have been done to address the real difficulties described here. They are a symptom of the problem, not its cause. Turn them out today and they will be replaced tomorrow with others of a similar ilk. Having long since abandoned their traditional purposes and standards, academic institutions have created fertile grounds for the nurturing of radical politics. No one should be surprised when bored instructors find meaning and purpose in raging against the system. Advocacy and activism gives them at least the illusion that they are making a difference.
Despite all these afflictions besetting America’s campuses, parents of prospective students appear to be relatively unconcerned. Tuition increases outpace inflation, yet student enrollment continues to climb. Until parents become just as concerned with the content of what is being taught as they are about the physical appearance of the college, the quality of its food services, and the social prestige attached to a college degree, nothing will be done. Boards of trustees must recognize also that their fiduciary responsibilities extend beyond bricks and mortar and balancing the budget to what is taught in the classroom. Serious reform will occur only when parents and taxpayers protest the decline of academic standards by withholding their tuition money, donations or tax dollars.
W. Wesley McDonald is a professor of political science at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and is the author of Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology (University of Missouri Press, 2004).
Posted: September 8, 2007
Propping Up Pretensions