Saturday, December 04, 2004

Academic neo-fascists
The Left Coaster is all over this story about the Cal State undergrad who created a firestorm with accusations against her left-wing English prof., namely that he tried to indoctrinate the students and then gave her a bad grade for not enjoying or understanding Fahrenheit 911. You can read the student's account here, and you can check out the prof.'s approved book list here. I'll return to this particular case later, which I think is more complex than either Horowitz or the Left Coaster argues.

I've had my own experience with "academic brownshirts." As the teaching assistant for an International Relations of the Middle East class, I wrangled all semester with a student from Campus Watch, the pet project of Dan Pipes, which once published a list of professors deemed anti-American or anti-Israeli, and which now publishes a "survey of institutions," which features pithy denunciations of professors for supporting the Oslo process and other such heresies. This student, during introductions on the first day of class, announced that he was taking the class "to see how the Middle East is taught." That should give you a fairly good idea of his attitude toward the course, which was taught by a well-known political scientist, someone who approved of the Oslo process and believed in the two-state solution to the conflict -- hardly radical views.

The student tried to dominate our weekly discussion sections, objecting to any course material, including the painstakingly even-handed text on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by Mark Tessler, that contained any criticism of Israel whatsoever. He maintained an obsessive focus on Israel's righteousness, and the wickedness and perfidy of the Arabs, even though less than a third of the class was devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He objected to the term "Palestinian" (because of course Yasir Arafat invented them), argued that Palestine was devoid of Arabs before Zionism, that every single war fought by Israel, including the illegal Suez War of 1956, was perfectly justified as a defense against Arab aggression, and that Jordan is really Palestine. If you're familiar with the conflict, you know the drill, and you can probably recite these arguments by heart. Without generally taking sides, I played the devil's advocate and tried to present other arguments than those he was making. I did the exact same thing when I felt students were being particularly unfair to Israel. I also didn't stop him from saying a single thing, even when I thought he was making racist remarks about Arabs ("the only thing they understand is force," and so forth). A university is a place of free inquiry and debate, and he was well within his rights. I also made it perfectly clear to everyone that I support Israel's right to a secure and normal existence without threat of intimidation or violence from its neighbors. This put me squarely in the American mainstream.

He was an insufferable nuisance, not because of the views he was presenting, but because of the loud, arrogant, and unreasonable posture he adopted throughout the semester. This included interrupting and sniping at the professor repeatedly during lectures. He clearly relished the role of playing the conservative victim of liberal academia, and he had a chip on his shoulder about Israel and the Arabs the size of Montana. He was up front about his affiliation with Campus Watch, and had clearly taken the course to document the professor's heresies and generally to piss everyone off.

At the end of the semester, he switched his term paper topic at the last minute without my approval, and turned in a paper that more or less cribbed Daniel Pipes' position on how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It used almost no academic sources whatsoever, and I gave it a B+, because it was well-written, and at least made a coherent argument. I docked him a bit for writing about something I didn't think would be productive, research-wise (he essentially ended up speculating about the different avenues for resolving the conflict), for not consulting very many academic sources, for not using any of the I.R. theories to which we had been introduced over the course of the semester, and for not making a remotely original argument. I actually thought at the time that I was being quite generous.

The next thing I know, he's in my office accusing me of grading him based on his political beliefs, which I can assure you, I bend way over backwards to avoid. I've given out countless A's to students arguing in favor of the Iraq War or defending unfettered free trade, or trashing the U.N. Anyway, I agreed to look back over the essay if he gave me a written appeal, which was my policy at the time. He did so, and I remained unconvinced, but I bumped him up to an A-, mostly because at this stage in my career I didn't feel like ending up on Campus Watch or undergoing a campaign of intimidation by the organization's crack email squad. I also didn't much feel like getting hauled before a dean or the department chair to defend the difference between a B+ and an A-. So I caved. He got his A- for the course, and I got him out of my hair forever. And keep in mind - this student had openly told me that he hadn't done a number of the readings because they "weren't his thing." He was the kind of person who had decided he already knew everything worth knowing.

People like this claim that all they ask for is "balance," but what they can't countenance is people in positions of academic authority who disagree with them or who refuse to toe the conservative line. They particularly dislike people who take government funding and then have the temerity to criticize government policy. I suppose this professor's syllabus might have leaned slightly to the left, but it included Kenneth Pollack's The Threatening Storm, as well as the aforementioned and even-handed text by Mark Tessler, who spends 800 pages being exceedingly fair to both sides, and a number of hawkish Foreign Affairs articles, including one by a member of the Likud party. Did the professor ever take a position during lecture? Certainly. Was that position ever hostile to the settler wing of Israeli politics? Certainly. This hardly constitutes indoctrination. Besides, a political science class is not supposed to consist solely of the professor standing in front of the class and presenting "he said-she said" arguments about the issue in question. That would be insufferably dull.

What Campus Watch wants is for professors of Middle East politics to assign discredited propaganda like From Time Immemorial along with the Tessler. They want junior professors who dare to assign Rashid Khalidi to their students fired, and they seek to intimidate and "expose" tenured professors. They also wish to train a cadre of young ideologues with closed and narrow minds, students who can't stand being challenged and who build a cult of victimhood and persecution, to the point where any liberal professor making any liberal argument in front of a class is being "biased." They also seek to strip professors of autonomy in grading, and to protect the right of students to say any silly thing they like in exams and papers. Finally, they seek a kind of "affirmative action" for conservatives, which would legally mandate "ideological balance" in hiring or some other such nonsense. The ultimate end is to transform the university from a place of freewheeling debate and inquiry into a place where students are blandly presented with both "sides" of any controversial issue.

Now, I don't deny that there are lots of liberals in humanities and social science departments in the United States, or that some of them conduct their classes in less than agreeable ways. But as Juan Cole points out in this satisfying rant, there aren't any lefties in economics departments or business schools either, and no one raises much of a stink about "indoctrination" there. There's a huge element of self-selection going on here, and I think that cases of conservative students or faculty being actively discriminated against are few and far between. They may not be the most popular figures, socially speaking, in their departments, but no one has a right to be loved by one's colleagues. I, for one, get along well with the conservative students in my department, and I regularly listen attentively to fawning lectures about American hegemony and the benefits of unrestricted neoliberalism.

About this Snider fellow, the booklist seems pretty innocuous to me. It leans left, but if you're a conservative who just can't stomach reading something with which you disagree, there are certainly options for you (including a selection from Barry Goldwater). That said, he could have avoided a lot of trouble by including some trash from Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity or simply doing away with the Michael Moore component of the class. But the student could also have dropped the class after seeing and disliking the syllabus. Did Snider conduct the class in an ideological manner? It certainly sounds like he did. Should he receive death threats from proto-fascists in the young Republican movement? I hardly think so, but that's what happened, and it's the natural end-point of the whole "expose the liberal academics" movement.

They don't want balance -- they want control and they want professors marching in ideological lockstep with the foreign policy establishment. Ironic, isn't it?


At 10:34 PM, Blogger jdeadzone said...

Hey. These arrogant know-it-alls with an ideological agenda are in charge of the country. And they are dangerous.

At 11:06 PM, Blogger David Faris said...

Indeed they are in charge. My guess is they'll come after the whole tenure system at some point.

At 11:04 PM, Blogger jdeadzone said...

I fear the American dark ages are close behind. First the government, then the media, then the universities. Not to be a chicken little, but it sure seems the sky is about to fall. God's people are in charge while we wait for the rapture!

At 1:26 AM, Blogger RNDMSFREE said...

To start - I'm a new reader, and I like your penchant for reasonable argument, regardless of how our personal philosophies might be at odds.

In any case, the Juan Cole rant you posted doesn't really address conservative teachers pushing their ideology on students. Hey, I agree that if you align with the currently powerful political agenda you start getting paid and tend to remove yourself from acedamia, but I certainly never noticed any right-wing attempt at influincing my opinion while in college (although I often got the opposite).


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