Perhaps the most striking thing about Dennis Prager’s “Questions to Ask Before You Send Your Child to College” (FrontPageMag) is how little it has to do with education and how much it has to do with the ideological control of curricula, scholarship, academic freedom, and ultimately the sort of citizen the academy can produce. There are, of course, the obvious howlers of Prager’s distorted logic. For example, electing not to allow military recruitment on a campus in no way implies “hostility” to the armed services; rather, it recognizes that policies like “don’t ask, don’t tell” are inconsistent with the academy’s commitment to human equality.
The comparison between university professors and soldiers is, moreover, odious in that (a) the contribution to knowledge made by scholars does contribute to the preservation and advance of liberty, and (b) such a comparison presupposes that only war—or at least the threat of war—can accomplish this objective. This latter is, of course, manifestly false, and merely betrays the contempt with which Prager obviously holds the professoriate. In fact, it’s pretty hard to come away from Prager’s “Questions” without wondering when the last time it was that he spent any time on a college campus.
Prager asks (question seven): “[w]ould a typical graduate of your university be able to say anything intelligent about Josef Stalin, Louis Armstrong, Pope John XXIII or Pope John Paul II, differences between Protestantism and Catholicism, Cain and Abel, the Gulag Archipelago, Franz Josef Haydn, Pol Pot, Martin Luther, Darfur, how interest rates affect the dollar, dark matter, and "Crime and Punishment"; explain what the Korean War was about and when it was fought; identify India on a map; and know the difference between the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council?”
Now what’s bizarre about this list is not that students where I teach—Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania—wouldn’t be able to hold forth on many of these topics; they would. No, what’s bizarre is that (a) Cain and Abel are treated as historical figures as opposed to literary ones—as if they’re real people like Louis Armstrong—thus betraying Prager’s not-so-thinly-concealed religious agenda, (b) there are no women on the list—a stunning omission in 2008, and a clear indication of what and whose histories, ideas, discoveries, and scholarship count for him, and (c) what governs who should teach these topics (and no doubt how) is already answered in question three where Prager implies that political party affiliation determines course content.
It’s not just insulting that Prager paints professors as so dumb and blinded by our so-called left-leaning preoccupations that we can’t tell the difference between our professional responsibilities and our private lives—its false. In other words, he can’t be so daft as to really think this; hence the only reason I can fathom that he trots out the “your kids are in danger of indoctrination because there’s more Democrats than Republicans in the social sciences and the humanities” line is because he thinks parents are so dumb that they’ll be suckered by this fear-mongering. Were I a parent of college age children (and I am), I’d be doubly insulted. But it gets worse. Howard Zinn’s A People's History of the United States is certainly a classic of historical literature. Be that as it may, Zinn’s is not the only text that even the casual student of history would read. Does Prager just not get it that one of our primary missions in the academy is to expose our students to a wide variety of possible views, interpretations, and arguments? Does he really think that there’s only one way of understanding the history of the United States? Does he really think that any interpretation that does not support his “manifest destiny” view is one that amounts to “hating America”?
Now, of course, there are views that aren’t taught because they’re either incoherent, false on the evidence, or both. Bending spoons with your thoughts is not a good use of instructional time in a psychology course; creationism is an equal waste of time and resources in biology. Let me offer an example. I teach a course in philosophy of mind where we read classics like Descartes’ Meditations and a variety of criticisms—many of which implicitly or explicitly challenge the very possibility of the existence of the soul implied by cogito ergo sum. We read a dizzying array of arguments purporting to explain the phenomena of consciousness—some consistent with a Cartesian view of the world—others not. We don’t read tracks purporting the existence of ghosts; we don’t read material devoted to reading the thoughts of the dead. The notion, moreover, that there’s a “left-wing” interpretation of mentality and a “right-wing” interpretation is silly—yet, on Prager’s logic, my party affiliation as a democrat makes my course content suspect. Such courses do challenge students’ assumptions about what they think consciousness, perception, cognition, imagination, and emotion is. But this is what a good course is supposed to do—and if students are made productively uncomfortable by this, so be it.
I also teach feminist philosophy, and indeed it involves an invigorating critique of the Western tradition along with probing questions about the nature and beneficiaries of institutions like the family, marriage, government, and capitalism—from a wide variety of feminist points of view. The course title’s a clue to its content; if you’re uninterested, afraid, or unwilling to be exposed to the critique of these institutions, take something else. But surely the college experience is intended to accomplish more than the reaffirmation of the ideas one comes in with. Thinking is the objective of my courses. Such, however, is apparently too risky for Prager whose insistence on the parental role of colleges is clearly intended to insure against any such opportunity. Being able to recite Shakespeare, I would hasten to point out, is not the same thing as understanding the fraught, sexually charged, politically volatile, and morally messy meaning of his prose.
Taking a page from FOX “news” Bill O’Reilly, Prager insists that what he’s arguing for is a “fair and balanced” college curricula, speakers list, and professoriate. Unfortunately, his obviously religious agenda, his glaring omission of women, his distorted depiction of academics, and his woefully dated notion that men and women cannot share dorm space respectfully, betray his real objectives, namely, that education should be devoted to the creation of the next generation’s loyal and unquestioning subjects—the ones who can spout off the location of India, but who have no idea of its history under British colonialism, the ones who can name Pol Pot, but have no idea of the many and competing views one might take towards the United State’s role in Cambodia, the ones who can name Louis Armstrong, but who have no idea the obstacles he had to confront in American-style racism and its relevance to the present.
Fortunately, few parents would be suckered by Prager’s fear mongering—and perhaps even fewer students. Prager’s isn’t a college; it’s an ideological training station. The parent who really wants the best for her or his child, however, that is, an education, will see right through this.
Wendy Lynne Lee