The New PC
While some propositions of the academic bill of rights are unimpeachable (for example, students should not be graded "on the basis of their political or religious beliefs"), academic freedom extended to students easily turns it into the end of freedom for teachers. In a rights society students have the right to hear all sides of all subjects all the time. "Curricula and reading lists," says principle number four of Horowitz's academic bill of rights, "should reflect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge" and provide "students with dissenting sources and viewpoints where appropriate."
"Where appropriate" is the kicker, but the consequences for teachers are clear enough from perusing the "abuses" that Students for Academic Freedom lists or that Horowitz plays up in his columns. For instance, Horowitz lambastes a course called Modern Industrial Societies, which uses as its sole text a 500-page leftist anthology, Modernity: An Introduction to Modern Societies. This is a benign book published by a mainstream press, yet under the academic bill of rights the professor could be hauled before authorities to explain such a flagrant violation. If not fired, he or she could be commanded to assign a 500-page anthology published by the Free Enterprise Institute. Another "abuse" occurred in an introductory class, Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution, where military approaches were derided. A student complained that "the only studying of conflict resolution that we did was to enforce the idea that non-violent means were the only legitimate sources of self-defense." This was "indoctrination," not education. Presumably the professor of "peace studies" should be ordered to give equal time to "war studies." By this principle, should the United States Army War College be required to teach pacifism?
In the name of intellectual diversity and students' rights, many courses could be challenged. A course on Freud would have to include anti-Freudians; a course on religion, atheists; a course on mysticism, the rationalists. The academic bill of rights seeks to impose some limits by restricting diversity to "significant scholarly viewpoints." Yet this is a porous shield. Once the right to decide the content of courses is extended to students, the Holocaust deniers, creationists and conspiracy addicts will come knocking at the door--and indeed they already have.
The bill of rights for students and the allied conservative watchdog groups that monitor lectures and book assignments represent the reinvention of the old un-American activities committees in the age of diversity and rights. The witch hunt has become democratized. Students for Academic Freedom counsels its members that when they come across an "abuse" like "controversial material" in a course, they should "write down the date, class and name of the professor," "accumulate a list of incidents or quotes," obtain witnesses and lodge a complaint. Rights are supposed to preserve freedoms, but here the opposite would occur. Professors would become more claustrophobic and cautious. They would offer fewer "controversial" ideas. Assignments would become blander.
More leftists undoubtedly inhabit institutions of higher education than they do the FBI or the Pentagon or local police and fire departments, about which conservatives seem little concerned, but who or what says every corner of society should reflect the composition of the nation at large? Nothing has shown that higher education discriminates against conservatives, who probably apply in smaller numbers than liberals. Conservatives who pursue higher degrees may prefer to slog away as junior partners in law offices rather than as assistant professors in English departments. Does an "overrepresentation" of Democratic anthropologists mean Republican anthropologists have been shunted aside? Does an "overrepresentation" of Jewish lawyers and doctors mean non-Jews have been excluded?
Higher education in America is a vast enterprise boasting roughly a million professors. A certain portion of these teachers are incompetents and frauds; some are rabid patriots and fundamentalists--and some are ham-fisted leftists. All should be upbraided if they violate scholarly or teaching norms. At the same time, a certain portion of the 15 million students they teach are fanatics and crusaders. The effort, in the name of rights, to shift decisions about lectures and assignments from professors to students marks a backward step: the emergence of the thought police on skateboards. At its best, education is inherently controversial and tendentious. While this truth can serve as an excuse for gross violations, the remedy for unbalanced speech is not less speech but more. If college students can vote and go to war, they can also protest or drop courses without enlisting the new commissars of intellectual diversity.