A Student Bill of Fights | The Nation


A Student Bill of Fights

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The campaign is making headway. In addition to Ohio, so-called academic bills of rights have now been introduced in Florida, Indiana, Tennessee, Rhode Island, Maryland and New York. After protests emerged from some savvy faculty in Colorado, the legislature yanked its version of the bill and accepted a less binding agreement. Something similar happened in Georgia. And in California the bill has been reintroduced after being killed earlier.

About the Author

Kevin Mattson
Kevin Mattson's Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century came out in April from Wiley.

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As Upton Sinclair's novel turns 100, it reminds us that the best way to
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The impact has even reached the national level. In late 2003 Congress introduced legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA). Georgia Representative Jack Kingston--a congressman who wants the Ten Commandments posted in the House and Senate chambers--tried to attach an academic bill of rights to the reauthorization. This resolution would have prevented professors "from using their courses or their positions for the purpose of political, ideological, religious, or antireligious indoctrination." The resolution died in committee, but its language has since appeared in the College Opportunity and Access Act of 2004, another legislative attempt to reauthorize the HEA.

It's not clear how many actual laws will emerge from this maneuvering. But in the realm of symbolic politics, passing legislation might not matter so much as influencing public opinion. Horowitz himself explained, "The only reason for these laws is to stimulate an attack of conscience." This fits his overall strategy. As he wrote in his manifesto The Art of Political War, "In political warfare, the weapons are words and symbols because there is no time to reach the electorate with lengthy arguments--or even short ones." So get ready for a war over the popular perception of academia. It's fueled by a long legacy of anti-intellectualism and right-wing populism that focuses anger on liberal eggheads.

Unfortunately, America's professoriate is in a weakened state, and is ill prepared to fight back--notwithstanding the false stereotypes Horowitz promulgates in doing battle. For instance, during an exchange, Horowitz labeled Graham Larkin, an art professor at Stanford University, a "reactionary" defending "an entrenched class of privileged academics with lifetime tenure." When Horowitz spoke at the University of Colorado, a newspaper reported his characterization of professors as "a privileged elite that work between six to nine hours a week, eight months a year for an annual salary of about $150,000." Obviously, Horowitz should visit a few more universities--especially the growing number of for-profit and on-line institutions, community colleges and state schools in urban settings. Here most of the teaching is off the tenure track, performed by underpaid adjuncts with as much job security as employees at McDonald's. As future state cuts are made by the very same GOP legislatures considering passage of academic bills of rights, this trend only promises to become worse.

The battle against the academic bill of rights--and the even more important struggle to insure more funding for education in the future--will be an uphill one. The right is hungry for war; it might not have "lengthy arguments," but it has a well-honed arsenal of ideas and infrastructure ready for action. It has zeal and couldn't care less about the fragility of higher-education institutions it attacks. That's why it's important for liberals to wage a counterbattle. If they don't, we might find politicians visiting college classrooms, sniffing out card-carrying communists, euphemistic or otherwise. Nothing could be worse for higher education or democracy.

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