‘Academic freedom’ stifles free exchange of ideas

The year is 1968. The United States is embroiled in a war in Southeast Asia, and former colonized nations are struggling with independence. Student rebellions are rocking cities and universities around the globe. The new generation of student activists largely rejects parental conceptions of politics, religion, morality and sexuality.

The United States is not exempt from this campus turmoil. Students are occupying administration buildings on Columbia University’s campus, including President Grayson Kirk’s office. They protest the newly built Morningside Heights gymnasium in Harlem (that denies residents access privileges), the University’s support for the destructive war industry and the Victorian doctrine of “in loco parentis.”

The campus uproar reflects students’ frustrations with the stifling, conservative atmosphere at colleges and universities. Tom Hayden, a journalist and New Leftist, calls for “two, three, many Columbias,” in emulation of Che Guevara’s call to action for America’s students.

Also in this year, David Horowitz, an acquaintance of Hayden’s, begins editing a California-based newspaper called Ramparts. The paper features pieces on Fidel Castro, Marxism-Leninism and the Black Panther Party. Many people consider Ramparts the definitive voice of this new American Leftist movement.

Chances are few people have heard of Horowitz these days. He committed apostasy some years later and joined the growing neo-conservative movement as a “Leftist For Reagan.” But you may have seen a manifestation of his leftist-turned-rightist pathology on the College’s very own campus.

In the last couple of weeks, flyers have appeared advertising a group called Students For Academic Freedom (SAF). Horowitz, under the guise of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture (a conservative front group backed by powerful right-wingers) has sponsored SAF as a vehicle for his particular brand of politics.

He has proposed a so-called “Academic Bill of Rights,” which seeks to secure students’ freedom from political indoctrination at the hands of faculty and an end to what Horowitz implies are rampant incidences of discrimination against conservative faculty.

This statement reminds me of the old tautology, “When did you stop beating your wife (or husband)?”

The assertion of egregious academic violations should be predicated on actual incidences, rather than those concocted in Horowitz’s fertile imagination.

Rather than providing actual evidence of this discrimination, Horowitz and his followers offer shoddily researched surveys to demonstrate that many more college professors vote Democrat than Republican.

Bravo, neo-cons. As if we needed a social science survey to determine that. Sarcasm aside, it is somewhat frightening that this group is using political affiliation as a barometer for professorial suitability.

Furthermore, it is particularly interesting that the campus conservatives have now painted themselves, appropriating the rhetoric of progressives, as an oppressed minority in academia.

I have yet to shed a tear for our poor, downtrodden neo-conservatives, who hold the reigns to most other positions of power.

As Russell Jacoby quipped in this week’s edition of The Nation, “If life were a big game of Monopoly, one might suggest a trade to these conservatives: You give us one Pentagon, one Department of State, Justice and Education, plus throw in the Supreme Court, and we will give you every damned English department you want.”

SAF misinterprets the purpose for higher education. In the humanities, scholars don’t strive to “objectively” provide all sides of an issue with no purported “bias.” Rather, we should learn to create and defend arguments, using a variety of evidence.

Objectivity is an impossible goal. Right-wingers throw the derogatory term “bias” at any argument with which they emphatically disagree.

The humanities departments that Horowitz targets have no obligation to cover all intellectual positions in a suitably “objective” fashion.

In addition to being impossible, it does a disservice to us as students.

The bland, antiseptic atmosphere that SAF proposes, with its purported commitment to “free inquiry,” lacks the intellectual rigor and passionate engagement with the material that a liberal arts education can provide.

As students, we should be learning how to formulate arguments and to provide evidence for our opinions. This can only occur in an atmosphere with no pretenses about objectivity and in which everybody should be encouraged to profess their opinions, including the instructor.

Conversely, SAF completely ignores the economics and business departments.

Where is my academic freedom to demand Marxist instruction from a heterodox capitalist economist?

SAF seems unconcerned about its purported aim of presenting all sides of an issue if an opinion does not fall within its overly narrow range of acceptable opinions.

Horowitz and SAF perpetuate a similarly flagrant double standard when dealing with campus groups. The Progressive Student Alliance’s antiwar events frequently receive the ire of these campus neo-conservatives. They accuse us of presenting “biased” information and neglecting other viewpoints.

Has anyone ever asked the College Republicans to feature other parties’ candidates at their events?

What about pro-lifers? Their upcoming event is nondescriptly titled “Stem Cell Research Lecture: Adult vs. Embryonic – What’s an Educated Person to Think?” It features a lecturer from the New Jersey Right To Life group imparting “all the REAL information about this issue.”

Where is the self-righteous outrage at this obviously “biased” and one-sided lecture masquerading right-wing ideology as factual truth?

If SAF feels that conservatives are being penalized for expressing dissenting views, this should be addressed within our academic community.

However, their drive for objectivity, led by their puppeteer, Horowitz, transcends mere desires for intellectual fair play and belies their true intentions – to label any opinion with which they disagree as biased and attack academic free speech using McCarthyist intimidation tactics.