Have Academic Radicals Lost Their Minds?
Mr. Horowitz is the founder of frontpagemag.com.
On the evidence it would seem so. At the very least they have lost their collective ability to conduct an intellectual argument. In my most ideological days on the left I never lost sight of what it meant to assemble evidence and answer an opponent. But the recent attack on my work (or what is alleged to be my work) by Robert Shaffer, a contributor to the Newsletter of the Organization of American Historians, is yet another indication that today’s academic “progressives” haven’t a clue as to what constitutes an intellectual argument, at least not when their prejudices and prerogatives are challenged.
It has been two years since I published The Professors, a collective profile of 101 faculty members who confused their academic mission with political advocacy. I argued that roughly ten percent of university liberal arts faculties were made up of professors who regarded political opinions as “integral” to their scholarship. I quoted such academic luminaries as Eric Foner and Joan Wallach Scott testifying that that was precisely their approach to their professional work (and proud of it). Foner even wrote the preface to a book, Taking Back the Academy: History of Activism, History as Activism, which consisted of papers read at a conference hosted by Columbia and dedicated to the point of view that historical scholarship was a form of “activism.” The basic thesis of The Professors was that such an attitude was at odds with the professional standards that academics had pledged to uphold, and violated the academic freedom provisions of the American Association of University Professors, which were based on the assumption that these standards – scientific standards – were to be observed.
In the two years since the publication of The Professors there have been numerous attacks on the book and the author, many of them reckless, many extreme (click here). The current president of the AAUP, Cary Nelson, for example, wrote a review warning others not to read the book, or mention it in public. Yet among all these attacks not a single one – not one – confronted or attempted to refute the book’s argument as summarized above. This argument was laid out in detail in a 17,000 word essay which constituted the introduction and last two chapters of the text, which none of its critics seem to have read. Not one of the attacks on The Professors so far has even mentioned the book’s argument. In that regard Professor Nelson’s advice has been heeded.
Robert Shaffer’s is just the latest in a series of mindless academic attempts to dismiss a book that will not go away. His attack begins with a reference to Alan Greenspan’s recent memoir, in which Greenspan offers his opinion that the Iraq war is largely about oil. It is from this un-anchored remark by a single individual unconnected to foreign policy that Shaffer launches his assault on my text: “In his 2006 book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, Horowitz unleashes a raft of criticisms against a wide range of scholars, but one of his recurring themes is that an attempt to ascribe economic motives to U.S. actions in Iraq, or to suggest an interpretation of history based on greed or the needs of capitalism, is simply out of bounds for a scholar.”
Invoking Greenspan to refute this theme might be a reasonable if tangential line of argument if Shaffer’s description of my text were true. As it happens it is demonstrably false. Nowhere do I say (or have I said) that an interpretation of history based on greed or on the “needs of capitalism” is out bounds for a scholar. In fact, in a passage from The Professors which I have cited many times in the face of similar attacks (and to no avail), I explicitly wrote that the book was not about “bias” and did not argue that a leftwing perspective was “out of bounds.” What I wrote was as follows: “This book is not intended as a text about leftwing bias in the university and does not propose that a leftwing perspective on academic faculties is a problem in itself. Every individual, whether conservative or liberal, has a perspective and therefore a bias. Professors have every right to interpret the subjects they teach according to their individual points of view. That is the essence of academic freedom.”
Shaffer claims that in writing about Middle Eastern Studies professor Joel Beinin and historian Howard Zinn I condemned their viewpoints. “Horowitz finds unacceptable Joel Beinin, a former president of the Middle East Studies Association, in part for insisting that the U.S. went to war in Iraq ‘to make and unmake regimes and guarantee access to oil.’ More broadly, Horowitz excoriates Howard Zinn for his widely circulated book, A People's History of the United States, in which ‘greed is the explanation for every major historical event.’” In fact, my text is entirely descriptive and makes no such judgments. These descriptions could be faulted if Beinin and Zinn did not make such arguments. But they do. The point of the profiles is not to identify opinions that should be banned, but to describe a type of professor-activist whose political advocacy is integral to their scholarship. Beinin and Zinn are two obvious examples. The advocacy singled out could be conservative and the problem would be the same. It is not Beinin’s view of the Iraq War or Zinn’s of the American experiment that it is the problem. It is their view towards scholarship and academic teaching. If the classroom becomes a political platform it ceases to be a classroom in the sense understood by the academic founders of the modern research university.
These ideas are simply over Robert Shaffer’s head: “Aside from attacking professors for specific arguments in their research, public statements, and, in some cases, their classes, Horowitz asserts that left-wing professors have taken over the universities and use their positions to indoctrinate students and to prevent moderate or conservative scholars from being hired.” Well, to reiterate, I do not in my book or in my academic campaigns attack professors for specific arguments. If they are indoctrinating students in ideological agendas, that is another matter entirely. Indoctrination in my view takes place when a professor teaches opinion as fact. Unfortunately, this is a widespread practice in today’s academy.
To go on: “Horowitz further argues that these leftwing ideas are not based on legitimate scholarly research, so such professors do not deserve ‘academic freedom.’ ” Well, no, I don’t make such an argument. To begin with, I don’t argue that leftwing ideas in general are not based on scholarly research. I have praised such leftwing scholars as Orlando Patterson, Richard Hofstadter, Henry Louis Gates, Randall Kennedy, Simon Schama and Joseph Ellis to name a few. What I have argued is that professors of social work, for example, who teach curricula on the Vietnam War are violating professional standards and students’ academic freedom. I have argued that Women’s Studies programs that assume that gender is “socially constructed” are courses in indoctrination which also violate the fundamental precepts of academic freedom. This is a very different argument from the one Shaffer refers to, and which he is evidently unable or unwilling to understand.
These distortions of what I have said and advocated are marshaled to justify Shaffer’s warning that I am a threat to the academy itself. According to him (and every other leftwing critic of my work) I am seeking to enlist state legislatures in a campaign against the academy (and academic freedom). These claims are as false as every other that Shaffer makes. The sole evidence he manages to muster to support his charge is this: “For example, in my state of Pennsylvania, a legislator who provided a dust jacket blurb for Horowitz’s book was the driving force behind a committee which held hearings around the state for almost a year, searching for professors who abused their classrooms for political purposes.”
It is true that Representative Gib Armstrong wrote a blurb for The Professors. But it is a malicious falsehood that the Pennsylvania hearings were “searching for professors who abused their classrooms for political purposes.” Here is the statement made by the chairman of the Pennsylvania committee on the opening day of the hearings defining what they were and were not to be about: “[t]his Committee’s focus will be on the [academic] institutions and their policies, not on professors, not on students.” And that was what the committee discussed and researched: whether there were policies in place that protected students’ academic freedom, and whether they were enforced. The answer to both questions – though ultimately subverted by the Democrats on the committee – was no. No protections for the academic freedom rights of students existed when the committee began its efforts.
Shaffer repeats dozens of false attacks on me that I have already answered including the completely unfounded accusation that The Professors “is a book filled with inconsistencies, falsehoods, unverifiable claims, and innuendo.” There are replies to every single specific charge made against the book, including the complaints of Eric Foner, on my website under “Replies to Critics of The Professors,” which can be found here. It is tedious arguing with someone who willfully misunderstands the plain meaning of texts and ignores the discussion which has already taken place and is readily available to anyone interested. Shaffer claims that I “provide no basis whatsoever” for the hypothesis that 10% of the Harvard faculty are political ideologues, which just shows what a cursory read he gave to those pages in my book. The 10% figure is the portion of the Harvard faculty that voted to censure Larry Summers for uttering an opinion that they deemed politically incorrect. I cannot imagine a more anti-intellectual, unscholarly stance for professors to take. That was the basis for my suggestion that probably 10% of liberal professors are ideologues who put politics before scholarship.
Shaffer closes by citing the recent AAUP report “Freedom in the Classroom” as an antidote to me. Bad choice. The AAUP report endorses indoctrination in the classroom by asserting that whatever an academic discipline says is true can be taught as though it were true even if, like socially constructed gender, it is contested by other (in this case scientific) disciplines. The AAUP report is a disgrace and should be disowned by anyone who cares about the integrity of university. I analyzed the report in a column in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and in a longer version called “The End of the University As We Know It,”which appeared on my website and can be accessed here. (An earlier version appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.) On the other hand, it is not surprising that -- as his footnotes show -- he is familiar with an impressive range of books I wrote as a leftist.
It is not very challenging intellectual work to shoot down arguments that are based on invention, but that has been my task since I began the effort to get liberal arts institutions to honor their standards and live up to their pretensions nearly five years ago. Will it ever be different? Will someday an academic radical – say Michael Berube or Robert Shaffer – actually read the work they are criticizing and write an intelligent response? Should that day come, my website at Frontpagemag.com will be open to receive them, and I’m sure the History News Network’s will as well.
comments powered by Disqus
Elliott Aron Green - 12/4/2007
speaking of academic freedom, how come nobody talks about Francisco Gil-White, a professor at the Univ of Pennsylvania who was denied tenure because he supported Israel rather than attacked Israel?? It seems that one self-styled "leftist," one Ian Lustick, also with connections in Washington, was one of those instrumental in having Gil-White removed from the U of Penn.
Jonathan Pine - 12/1/2007
Not only do we have government telling academia its work is not good enough but we also have to put up with these silly pamphlets. It’s the real agenda behind Horowitz’s academic bill of rights.
Read Horowitz’s, "Campus Support for Terrorism" which blames the Left for WWII and the rise of Hitler, and claims that campus Leftists are an "imminent threat…to the nation." All Lefties are evil appeasers and friends of Adolf, plotting to destroy the country. He makes it pretty clear in his pamphlets they ought to be locked up so we’re supposed to believe his brainchild about academic freedom. Then there is Horowitz’s other pamphlet "The Shadow Party" that demonizes the Democrats and their rampant atheistic liberalism.
His proposal for an academic bill of rights which in other words is saying he is dedicated to pursuing what he conceives of as the truth, is nothing more than an attempt for ideological driven changes.
The entire logic and thrust of the Academic Bill of Rights is to authorize, valorize, and celebrate precisely what they claim to be the problem, namely, the politicization of the classroom.
Frank Halsey - 12/1/2007
An inconsistency or a hoax?. For instance, Robert Spencer and Mohammed Bin Laden and the connection to Horowitz’s Front Page magazine and his Freedom Center kind of puts a shadow on his credibility as a pundit on academic “freedom”. He would have been happier as a Left Wing nut. Now he is a Right Wing nut.
Are these two really one?
Mohammed Bin Laden
Carl Becker - 12/1/2007
Yes yet again, o great professor of shabby mediocrity. You actually bothered to react to my devoid and rudely slung comment? I'm honored. Then let me continue. Coming from a "reputable" soldier of the Christian Right, as well as a defender of the AIPAC machine, I'm sure I should take your comment as seriously on this HNN news-rag as I would on FrontPage mag.
Jason Blake Keuter - 11/30/2007
There is no argument to refute: they openly advocate an overt, activist "scholarship" - which means that they have already figured contemporary society out and have history figured out. They are right and seek to prove it. They rely conveniently on the old Marxist liine that capitalists control consciousness through the superstructure (essentially all agents of socialization) and it is therefore acceptable to SUPPRESS truths supportive of it because mentioning those truths reinforces the larger structure of false consciousness. Neither can rightfully be called scholars - although Foner has produced some good work. Politicized though it may be, his work on Reconstruction has a great deal of actual history that is interesting and Free Soil, Free Men...is a great work of history.
Zinn is a joke and his legions of blind followers fools. His work is quite simply awful, so overt in its bias that it could make an editor of Pravda wince.
Tim R. Furnish - 11/28/2007
Yet again, Mr. (Dr.?) Becker--an ad hominem attack, devoid of any specific, let alone reputable, critiques.
Tim R. Furnish - 11/28/2007
Ah, another worthy contribution from the DH detractors. Any chance you might try to pull out an intellectual objection to DH's fine book?
Carl Becker - 11/28/2007
Horowitz lost his mind long ago.
Wayne Coyne - 11/28/2007
Say anything to make a dollar.
Does this guy have any marketable skills?
Work is a four letter word.
DH GO AWAY!
- Cultural historian who helped end censorship of "Lady Chatterley's Lover," dies
- Thomas Slaughter interviewed about his new book on the American Revolution
- Historian Michael Ignatieff writes a memoir explaining why he failed in politics
- Olivia Remie Constable, director of the Medieval Institute at Notre Dame since 2009, passes away
- Arizona Historical Society soon could be history