Philissa Cramer

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The premiere last month at the Tribeca Film Center of Indoctrinate U, a movie underwritten by a handful of wealthy conservatives to expose higher education’s lack of “intellectual diversity,” drew a small group of fans–so small, in fact, that the start time was pushed back as organizers wondered aloud what happened to their audience. While they waited, a cadre of young men with their collars popped meandered through a predictable litany of right-wing hot topics, from gun control (“Guns are illegal in the city? We have one–whoops!”) to race relations (“The thing about Imus? No one’s actually investigating the possibility that they were hos!”).

But when the film began, the crowd fell silent, reverent as scenes unfolded from the trenches of what director Evan Coyne Maloney calls “the all-out political war” unfolding on college campuses. The war over campus culture has a long history, but Indoctrinate U is part of the right’s recent battle for the misnamed “Academic Bill of Rights“– a host of policies intended to squelch the free expression of ideas by making faculty members accountable for the political content of their speech and privileging conservative thought. Indoctrinate U–with a title nearly identical to that of notorious gadfly David Horowitz’s most recent screed (the stodgier-titled Indoctrination U)– is an audiovisual component of the movement’s propaganda.

Currently without commercial distribution, Indoctrinate U grew out of Maloney’s 2005 short documentary subtly titled “Brainwashing 101” Maloney, a graduate of Bucknell and several failed Republican campaigns in New York, has been called “a conservative answer to Michael Moore,” a mantle he appears to wear proudly, if not quite as adeptly in the director’s chair. (The film suffers from some amateurish direction, including overlong shots and intrusive voiceovers.) Producers include a millionaire crusader against single-payer health care and the founding director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The film is a product of On the Fence Films and the Moving Picture Institute, two companies that have recently birthed a handful of right-wing productions.

With such a pedigree, it’s not surprising that the film illustrates the fallacies of conservative nostalgia from its very first sequence, when Maloney extols “the good old days” of American universities over black-and-white footage of young men marching around a quadrangle in military uniforms.

Of course, these good old tensionless, no-backtalk days never really existed for the academy. It was tension within the academy that produced the Free Speech Movement, which began at Berkeley in 1964 and rapidly spread to campuses across the country as students called for changes to speech-limiting campus policies. Maloney and his colleagues say this movement inspired them; they’ve even trademarked the phrase “New Free Speech Movement” But the original Free Speech Movement was characterized by students’ forceful assertion that they could think for themselves. The contemporary incarnation, in contrast, depends on the “empty-vessel” theory of education, which holds that students know nothing and absorb unquestioningly whatever they are told. Lack of respect for young people and those who choose to teach them is a recurring theme in conservative rhetoric, and here the New Free Speech Movement fits right in.

Indoctrinate U is structured around a series of case studies of incidents in which conservative students claim to have been persecuted. We meet Steve Hinkle, who was hauled before the Cal Poly judicial board for offending African American students when he advertised a controversial lecture in their student center. And we meet a host of young people who describe the feeling of being victimized and marginalized when their professors criticized Republican leaders in courses unrelated to politics. We also hear from a parade of students who complain that they’ve been assigned to read Marx multiple times and Adam Smith “not once” Perhaps economics professors are trying to convert their students into communists, but based on the starting salaries for econ majors, among the highest for college graduates, it doesn’t seem to be working.

It’s not necessary to lay out the myriad flaws and logical lapses in these cases and the others portrayed in Indoctrinate U–there’s a whole web site that has debunked “Brainwashing 101,” and Campus Progress partner Free Exchange on Campus is dedicated to disproving Horowitz’s claims. It doesn’t take a logician to understand that Indoctrinate U is as guilty of telling only half the story at least as much as David Horowitz says many professors are.

That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t raise any points worth considering. In ridiculing the left’s protest tactics–which unfortunately sometimes include profanity, ad hominem attacks, and rude disruptions of right-wing speakers–Maloney reminds us to consider how we might appear to others who don’t agree with us. Finally, hearing about a University of Tennessee student being called “raghead” in an email by a lecture board officer, for complaining that most guest lectures on campus are given by liberals, one realizes there truly are some kinds of speech that none of us should tolerate.

But these lessons are obviously quite different from that which Maloney and the FIRE folks want us to learn. Unfortunately for them, the movie fails to present a comprehensive pattern of bias or oppression at American universities, a fact that is worsened by its disjointed case-study structure. It’s one thing to say that Steve Hinkle did not deserve to be hauled in front of a disciplinary committee, and quite another to say that because Hinkle was disciplined we can conclude that conservatives are systemically oppressed on American campuses.

And so, through all of the voiceovers, ambush-style interviews, and cuts to stock footage, I found myself asking: what’s the point? Even if the vast majority of professors are registered Democrats, even if syllabi nationwide require reading Marx and not always Smith, who cares?

That’s a question that the Council of Alumni and Trustees, the conservative higher education organization, is unable to answer. In “Politics in the Classroom,” a 2004 report highlighted in “Indoctrinate U,” the council reported that nearly half of students agreed that “some panel discussions and presentations on their campus are totally one-sided” and that “some professors use the classroom to present their personal political views” When it came to the effect in the classroom, the study found that about 30 percent of students agreed with the vague statement, “On my campus, there are courses in which students feel they have to agree with the professor’s political or social views in order to get a good grade” The survey didn’t ask whether students’ own grades had been penalized when they expressed unpopular opinions. And no one in Indoctrinate U said his grade had been affected because of his conservative views.

What the students did say was that their feelings were affected; they felt afraid to air their true opinions, so they kept them to themselves. But in adopting “nobody has a right not to be offended” as a rallying cry, the New Free Speech Movement has made clear that feelings aren’t just cause for speech-curtailing policies.

Indeed, even the leaders of the movement don’t think there’s much more to their crusade than feelings. “I don’t think that professors are very successful at brainwashing students,” Maloney told me after the film. A lot of apathetic young people hear the culture wars only as “background noise,” he said, and in fact, dogmatic professors are likely to turn off moderate students from politics. For students who do care, liberal students’ views “tend not to be challenged in class” while conservative students’ views are “battle-tested”

After the Indoctrinate U premiere, I talked to Stanley Kurtz, senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center (a title he shares with former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum), about what the anti-conservative climate on college campuses means for young people. He suggested I pick up a new book of essays titled Why I Turned Right, to read that, like Maloney, he believes that universities create conservative ideologues. “Today’s conservatives–this one included–are increasingly shaped by their years in the academy,” he writes. “By virtue of its one-sidedness and extremism, the academy serves as a key generator of our polarized and cultural battles”

So there you have it. “Indoctrinate U,” like the rest of the intellectual diversity crusade, is actually a beneficent gesture toward students, who aren’t smart enough to think for themselves. Students can return the favor by continuing to oppose the irrational New Free Speech Movement and preserving space at universities for right-wing reactionaries to emerge.

Philissa Cramer is a writer living in New York.