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.