Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Explain why David Horowitz is a fool
Someone has finally caught the bloviating right-wing ideologue David Horowitz and his gang of student bellyachers in a massive lie. Horowitz has relentlessly flogged the story of the Colorado student who was asked on an exam to "explain why George Bush is a war criminal." The student claimed that she, instead, explained why Saddam Hussein is a war criminal, and was given an F. This was always supposed to stand for the horror faced by poor, persecuted campus conservatives. And let me say, first of all, that even before this story was thoroughly debunked, and notwithstanding the actual content of the actual exam question (which Horowitz never bothered looking for), the student deserved to fail -- even taking her story at face value -- because she didn't answer the question.

But now an administrator has released the actual question, which reads:

"The American government campaign to attack Iraq was in part based on the assumptions that the Iraqi government has 'Weapons of Mass Destruction.' This was never proven prior to the U.S. police action/war and even President Bush, after the capture of Baghdad, stated, 'we may never find such weapons.' Cohen's research on deviance discussed this process of how the media and various moral entrepreneurs and government enforcers can conspire to create a panic. How does Cohen define this process? Explain it in-depth. Where does the social meaning of deviance come from? Argue that the attack on Iraq was deviance based on negotiable statuses. Make the argument that the military action of the U.S. attacking Iraq was criminal."

Now, I'll admit that this exam question kind of sucks, because it's overlong and confusing. But it certainly is much more complex than the student described it in her complaint to Horowitz's group, Students for Academic Freedom. It's also clear that the student is being asked to take a position, based on the reading, regardless of his or her opinion on the matter. This is a pedagogical technique that's used all the time, and doesn't mean the professor even agrees with the stance he's asking the student to take.

The University of Northern Colorado's spokesperson has also reported that the student didn't even receive an F for her response, as has been reported, and that her answer was shorter than the question demanded. So, in short, this student was completely full of it the whole time, and Horowitz and his minions swallowed it without even trying to contact the professor.

But of course, Horowitz can't just admit that he was wrong about something. In his response, he argues:

The way I parse this [the actual exam question that] is, the Bush administration lied about the presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq and manipulated the public into a state of panic in order to attack Iraq unjustifiably. Explain why the U.S. (and obviously its President) is guilty of criminal behavior.

In other words, the exam question is pretty much how the student remembered it without the text in front of her, and how we reported it. It doesn’t matter to me whether this professor is a Republican or a vegetarian. This is a loaded question that seeks to enforce a student conclusion about an extremely controversial issue, which by the way is pretty remote from the subject matter that one would expect in a criminology course.

Until I hear from the student I have no comment on the matter of the grade but it is conceivable to me that if this were an “A” student and she received a “D” or even a “C” on this exam, in her mind it might as well be an “F”. And, finally, it is quite plausible that since there were two required and two optional questions she might have been confused as to which were which, particularly since the answer to the question about the Iraq war was in fact a required answer: viz, that the United States was guilty of criminal behavior in its efforts to liberate that country.

So while we apologize for not having fully checked and corrected this story, we conclude that our complaint about the exam was justified. What happened in Professor Dunkley’s class at the University of Northern Colorado is not education, it is indoctrination. And that violates the academic freedom of the students who were subjected to it.

Notice that Horowitz has still not bothered to obtain a copy of the course syllabus, which might clarify this question and put it in context. He still has absolutely no proof that this student was indoctrinated in any way shape or form, or even that she's anything more than a run-of-the-mill grade-grubber who decided to make her crappy exam answer into a capital case. But notice how very small the right-wing mind is -- Horowitz just can't imagine how the issue of criminality and the Iraq War might intersect, as if there isn't an entire academic field of international law. And even if the course material isn't directly pertinent to the war, a common exam technique is to ask students to apply theories and concepts learned in class to related situations.

This case calls Horowitz's entire campaign into question. It is likely that just as in this case, SAF has not bothered to get both sides of the story in any of their other cases, choosing instead to impugn professors -- many of them untenured and in serious career jeopardy anyway -- without a shred of independent evidence or context.

Horowitz is the process of training an entire generation of grade-grubbing conservatives with chips on their shoulder -- students whose entire raison d'etre in some courses is to catch the professor being "biased." This case should illustrate the dangers of this technique, and it should also remind members of the academic community just how dishonest their detractors really are.


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