Saturday, April 7, 2007

The Meaning of a Philosophical LIfe

Open Letter to David Horowitz, February 24th 2007

David Horowitz’s assault on academic freedom is, among other things, about as well documented as anyone could hope. Spanning websites like The Network, FrontPageMag, and the ridiculously misleading Students for Academic Freedom, Horowitz continues his all-but-honorable pursuit of names to add to his list of “Dangerous Professors.” Indeed, perhaps this essay will be my ticket; I could only be so lucky. I can even make it easy for him: Google me, David. I published a book entitled On Marx, and I’m a feminist environmentalist vegetarian who fiercely opposes the war. Oh, and I’m queer. Think you’ve got something? It gets even better: I have never had a single student complaint about anything—including indoctrination—in nearly fifteen years, tenure, and two promotions. I’ll bet I represent practically everything you’ve rejected from your Rampart days, but the truth is that what I really represent is a crucial distinction you need to learn to make: An academic’s political life outside her or his classroom, no matter what commitments inform it, has nothing necessarily to do with in-class pedagogy. Indeed, scrounging about for desiderata like party affiliation shows even less. What your “logic” assumes is that we in the professoriate can’t tell the difference between our lives outside the classroom and inside it. How insulting. I assure you that the number of years it takes to earn a Ph.D. makes the meaning of excellent pedagogy quite clear to us. This is not to say, of course, that the academy doesn’t include some errant ideologues—much like the ones I feel sure you’d substitute for good professors. Thank goodness, then, that virtually every university, college, and junior college has policies to effectively deal with such folks, policies that don’t require self-appointed crusaders to point them out.
A case of “Horowitz-think” might be in order here: A successful graduate of the Karl Rove school of spin, Horowitz offers a supremely distorted view of the Pennsylvania Hearings on Academic Freedom topped with stories about indoctrination and student abuse at Bloomsburg University—my institution—that, if they contained a shred of truth would horrify every decent academic I know. The trouble is that he’s lying—and not just your average run-of-the-mill stretching-the-truth lying. Nope. Horowitz is more than willing to resort to total fabrication in order to advance his claim that the academy is writhing with “leftists” whose sole aim is to convert naïve students into minions of the revolution. Such is the upshot of his allegation against a Bloomsburg professor concerning an exam question about the Iraq War—except that there was no such exam question; there wasn’t even one a little bit like it. Perhaps it’s beside the point that there is no well-organized Left in the United States (again, I could only be so lucky), but isn’t it just obvious that Horowitz is making all this up in order to convince us (a) that “leftists” form a well-organized danger to democracy, and (b) that their aim is to dominate the academy, our crucibles of the future? Note that I’m not suggesting that professors don’t tend to the “left,” but let’s get real here: what good professors exemplify is that ennobling inherently liberal idea of open and progressive inquiry to whatever ends a sincere desire for the truth leads. This aspiration characterizes my entire career. In this sense, every academic whose first concern is with truth—and not just the preservation of any particular view of the world—is at least a “liberal.” And thank goodness again, for without this commitment, there’s no such thing as scholarship, inquiry, or education.
One wonders in reading his rants whether Horowitz has any real grasp of what academia is about. He talks as if education is simply the communication of static information—as if good internet skills could replace the lot of us. But what he misses—or deliberately ignores—is that university education is so much more. His motto, “teach students how to think, not what to think,” is precisely what we in fact do—without self-anointed zealots to remind us. And of course we teach our students what to think. Why? Because not only do we know more than they do, but because classrooms are not chat rooms. It is no conceit on my part to expect my students to regard me as a legitimate authority on my subject—philosophy. In fact, to doubt this without good grounds serves nothing but to disrupt their opportunity to learn. I am also not interested in making my students comfortable; indeed, discomfort with our assumptions and convictions is the very stuff of critical thinking. In fully Socratic fashion, I routinely challenge my students to examine what they believe. There are no claims that are worth our allegiance that don’t hold up under scrutiny. I don’t, moreover, waste my precious in-class time having my students cut their critical thinking teeth on claims that stand no chance of being true. Indeed, in my particular fields of expertise—philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, philosophy of ecology, and feminist theory—I know what counts as a poorly structured argument and what counts as a good one; I know what credible evidence looks like. What additional assurances do you need, David? I publish in my fields, prepare students successfully for graduate school, and am respected by my peers. You bet I’m dangerous—just as are all genuine invitations to think. This, however, deserves to be applauded, not vilified.
The truth, however, is that critical thinking isn’t what Horowitz’s crusade is about at all. As his demand for the hire of “conservative” professors makes abundantly clear, his goal is to teach students a “what to think” which includes precisely the content that adorns his websites, for example, that global climate change is a myth, that women’s and gender studies programs are nothing but feminist recruitment centers, that the war in Iraq is about the spread of democracy—talk about indoctrination! The point, of course, is that maybe all of these claims are true, but at Horowitz University students wouldn’t have anything like the opportunity to critically consider whether they were true. The only critical thinking skills likely to be taught at HU are the political combat skills Horowitz himself employs, neoconservative ideological spin, propaganda, ad hominem, slippery slope, and fear-mongering. The Horowitz vision for higher education does make for an okay game of “hunt for the fallacy.” Anything else, say, the HU vision becoming a reality, should make our skin crawl.
Only one thing actually frightens me more than Horowitz’s war on higher education, and that’s faculty apathy. Horowitz has made it abundantly clear that he’s not going away. In fact, he’s counting on us to just keep taking the polite path of the intellectual who doesn’t want to get dirty trying to defend something that shouldn’t need defending. Ironic, isn’t it? Horowitz has fabricated a problem—“leftist indoctrination”—in search of a solution, and thinks that if he repeats this mantra, “the lefties are out to get you!” that after a while even we stalwart and taciturn academics will start to believe it. Surely we have better things to do than take on such idiocy. I know I do. Be that as it may, nothing less is at stake here in this made up “culture war” than the future of genuinely free and open inquiry uncompromised by the threat of McCarthy-style repression. Let’s not mince words: Horowitz is on a witch-hunt, and what’s going on is chilling. We may have won in Montana—but the vote was way too close. We certainly won in Pennsylvania, but not until after thousands of tax dollars were wasted on hearings that should never have seen the light of day. The very idea that any one of us could stand in “need” of monitoring, or that our syllabi should be subject to inspection, or that our party affiliations should make us suspicious, or that Boards of Trustees should have a say in what courses we teach or which professors deserve tenure, or that a student looking to execute a vendetta for a wholly earned failing grade is a credible witness to indoctrination, is enough to make us start surveiling ourselves. And that’s all Horowitz really needs—just enough intimidation to get us to second guess ourselves about whether to assign that text, watch that film, discuss that topic, consider that argument. At the end of this road is the death of education. Hence it’s high time we take a stand for the principle that we have earned the right to represent, academic freedom, without which there are no professors, no students, and no universities.

Wendy Lynne Lee, Professor
Department of Philosophy
Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania
Bloomsburg, PA, USA 17815
1,140 words.

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