The True Story of the Academic Bill of Rights
Regnery has just published Reforming Our Universities: The Campaign for an Academic Bill of Rights (August 2010), in which David Horowitz describes the resistance he met when he promoted a few basic principles of academic responsibility. How bad is it to require that instructors “provide students with materials reflecting both [i.e., all academically reasonable] sides of controversial issues,” rather than pretend that only one side is reasonable? How bad to require that instructors “not present opinions as facts,” and that they “allow students to think for themselves” by not rewarding agreement with the instructor or punishing dissent? Very bad, if you ask the critics.
Aren’t these sine qua non principles of good teaching, with both an ancient history (including such disparate results as the educated Plato and the educated Aquinas) and modern liberal cachet (such as in Gerald Graff’s Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education)? But, say the professors, we don’t want to be held to these principles, and the Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR), in its various forms, has always been about more than that. We don’t want to give students and deans any more power to get us in trouble than they already have. Any such new tools against us will be used bluntly, unequally, and unfairly. Besides, we already police ourselves, thank you.
In The Professors, in Indoctrination U, and in One-Party Classroom, Horowitz has shown that this self-policing too often fails. Reforming Our Universities now describes the resistance he met among those who, at worst, had closed their ears to even the idea that there could be such a problem. Horowitz also shows that most of his critics invented all sorts of false scenarios, genetic fallacies, and ad hominem arguments that deeply misrepresented what the ABOR and related legislation actually said.
The legislation associated with the ABOR, as Horowitz describes it, was in part intended to pressure the universities to reform themselves on their own terms—just as, it would seem, legislators every so often nudge the film, music, or television industry to set forth its own new standards. Can the proposed remedy really cure the disease? Will the side effects really overwhelm the cure? A good place to make up your own mind is chapter 10, which describes the tortuous paths of two student complaints at Penn State. The lesson for critics is actually to read the words before you judge. Read this book and decide for yourself which of the critics are playing fair.
If you feel threatened by the ABOR, brace yourself for New Threats to Freedom (Templeton, 2010), edited by Adam Bellow, which contains thirty essays identifying dozens of additional perceived or actual threats to liberty in America and worldwide, including those at colleges and universities.
I have room to summarize only a few of the most relevant items here. Christopher Hitchens speaks out against multiculturalism on campus, where he finds antipathy toward any threat to self-esteem: “when I turn up to speak at a college, there is a panoply of groups ready to solicit the protection of the dean or even the campus police if anybody should hurt their tender feelings.” Claims to be offended, even in the classroom, are taken as arguments. Meanwhile, “the more ‘multi’ that things became, the greater the number of factions” insisting on censorship and prior restraint. Whatever happened to the positive meaning of “discrimination”? For her part, Anne Applebaum decries the censorship and self-censorship facilitated and committed by universities because of their international ties and their fears of terrorists, such as when Yale refused to print any images of Mohammed in a scholar’s book.
Greg Lukianoff draws on his experience as president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and confirms Hitchens’s experience: college students today often learn that forcibly silencing opinions that offend them “is a noble and appropriate act.” They learn these lessons in principle from the presence of speech codes and “free speech zones,” and in practice from administrators and sometimes even faculty members who crack down on political incorrectness and other perceived social evils. Too often, “heckler’s vetoes”—stealing newspapers or disrupting speeches—go unpunished or even applauded as noble exercises of “free speech.”
A few voices missing from New Threats to Freedom deserve mention. Harvey Silverglate alerts us in Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent (Encounter Books, 2009) that most of us—even professors—probably commit about three federal felonies every day, given the extremely broad and vague language of U.S. laws and regulations (estimates of their number go as high as 300,000).
Silverglate sees this problem as directly related to today’s bureaucratized and “corporatized” universities, where the number of administrators recently outstripped the number of faculty members. To justify their positions, administrators need regulations to enforce. Remember how easy it used to be to turn in your expense reports?
The problem of selective enforcement of vague laws and campus regulations, such as speech codes, is magnified when it is politically expedient to go after someone. Regular folks easily get caught in the nets. Doctors, lawyers, librarians, ACLU staff, journalists, merchants, website hosts, professors—Silverglate has stories about them all.
Silverglate points out that many U.S. professors are asked to consult for national security and defense agencies, which opens them to arrest overseas for espionage. Since the United States has already done the same to foreign professors here, U.S. academics must take their chances. At home, perhaps most disturbing for academics has been the attempted expansion of the Espionage Act to include receiving classified information, not just leaking it.
One Nation Under Arrest: How Crazy Laws, Rogue Prosecutors, and Activist Judges Threaten Your Liberty (The Heritage Foundation, 2010), edited by Paul Rosenzweig and Brian W. Walsh, similarly features “overcriminalization.” Any American importer can suffer severe criminal penalties if the shipper improperly messed with the flora of the home country. Just ask the man jailed for importing legal orchids because of an easily resolvable paperwork problem. If he had been a university biologist, it wouldn’t have helped.
The problem in many such cases is the disregard of a criminal intent (mens rea) requirement. Just ask the scientist in Alaska who was investigated and ultimately jailed after he properly checked the “ground” shipping box on a shipment of sodium, not knowing that in Alaska ground shipping often goes by air. If you’re a chemistry professor in Alaska, it could have been you.
Or ask the professor who was criminally charged with breaking the terms of a private agreement. His artwork included harmless bacteria but seemed scary, so the government apparently wanted to get him on something. Show me the professor, and I’ll show you the crime.
Revitalizing Literary Vitals
Bellow’s job is only half done—where are the solutions? How about this one: more academic conferences? Günter Grass’s The Meeting at Telgte (1979) wisely parodies such assemblies.
As the story goes, peace is finally breaking out in Germany in 1647, so the literary elite assemble to revitalize German letters (not, surely, belles lettres—those are too French). They spend much time eating, inebriating themselves, and reciting bawdy poetry. They occasionally debate literary theory—such as the nature of irony—or read manuscripts aloud and critique one another’s work. Reading too many pages in a row gives listeners ants in the pants, but fortunately there are many breaks.
Into their midst comes the great composer Heinrich Schütz, late and uninvited, “a man whom no group could endure.” Schütz, sober, “strict with words,” both “raised the tone” and reduced the importance of the gathering. Finally, impatient, he bows out, hoping he hasn’t interfered too much with their great undertaking to “benefit the language and help their unfortunate fatherland.” Vaguely understanding that they have squandered their time, they redeem themselves by crafting a statement—not too bold, though!—crying out for peace.
For comparison: in 2007, members of the American Historical Association ratified a “Resolution on United States Government Practices Inimical to the Values of the Historical Profession,” crying out for peace.
How bad would literary culture have to get before participants in academic conferences felt enough sense of urgency to plan a recovery? If a “rescue” conference were held, who would be invited?
Grass participated in the analogous Gruppe 47 after the Second World War, and he respectfully waited until the Gruppe 47 had officially disbanded before publishing his book with, one might infer, its many inside jokes. His satire evokes Jonathan Swift’s in “The Battle of the Books” and A Tale of a Tub (both 1704).
In the battle, many will recall, the Ancients and the Moderns fight for supremacy, and Swift expresses his own views as the books act out the literary virtues and vices of their authors—including Swift’s contemporaries. After two contemporary would-be saviors of the Moderns are downed in a single stroke, the battle continues perfectly well without them. Among other things, it’s a lesson for us moderns: If you want your work to survive you, think of the people you’re entrusting with it.
When Swift began work on “The Battle of the Books” (written in 1697), the Licensing Order of 1643, requiring prior review of publications, had recently expired. Already, Swift suggests, far too much drivel is being published. In A Tale of a Tub, Swift goes further: “those whose teeth are too rotten to bite, are best of all others qualified to revenge that defect with their breath.” Thus he addresses the problem of keeping critics and censors distracted enough that they won’t interfere with serious work.
As the metaphor goes, just as sailors distract a whale by giving it something amusing to play with—an empty tub—something is needed to distract critics. The long-term solution, Swift suggests, is to herd them into a new Academy where they will have a lot to criticize from a safe remove (and maybe will hold a lot of conferences).
Another Way to Reform Tenure
John Milton similarly intends to overwhelm critics and censors in “Areopagitica” (1644). Milton’s defense of a free press is filled with literary and historical references so abundant that censors with merely everyday learning will hardly know where to begin. If the censors really want to license every single book and essay before publication, Milton argues, they will have an incredible amount of work to do. Who is erudite enough, wise enough, and patient enough to be a proper judge of Milton’s piety? Such a person would hardly want the job of censor, which also would mean having to read acre after acre of second-rate and third-rate writings.
Mark Bauerlein has addressed such issues in “The Future of Humanities Labor” (Academe, 2008), focusing on the avalanche of relatively poor academic work in today’s publish-or-perish milieu. Everyone’s a critic because there’s so much to read and assess. Or consider tenure: how much of a faculty member’s work can a university president or even one’s departmental colleagues really be expected to read?
Bauerlein suggests changing the incentives so that professors choose to write fewer but more thoughtful words: A new tenure threshold should be erected, one that insists on a lower, not a higher, level of productivity. Tell junior faculty that the department will consider only so many titles and pages for tenure review. Reduce the requirement to only two substantive, high-quality essays—and reward conscientious teaching alongside them. Young people will respond accordingly, spending years ensuring that their fifty pages meet higher standards. Those pages will be better researched, argued, and composed than would be the 350 pages they would otherwise have submitted. (www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/academe/2008/SO/Feat/baue.htm)
A new tenure threshold should be erected, one that insists on a lower, not a higher, level of productivity. Tell junior faculty that the department will consider only so many titles and pages for tenure review. Reduce the requirement to only two substantive, high-quality essays—and reward conscientious teaching alongside them. Young people will respond accordingly, spending years ensuring that their fifty pages meet higher standards. Those pages will be better researched, argued, and composed than would be the 350 pages they would otherwise have submitted. (www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/academe/2008/SO/Feat/baue.htm)
In the online version of the article, so far there is just one comment: “Can someone please put Mark Bauerlein in charge.”
A final word for those of us involved in education reform. The bookseller in A Tale of a Tub relates that he noticed the words “DETUR DIGNISSIMO” on the manuscript and had it translated: “Let it be given to the worthiest.” The bookseller thus went around to different “wits” he knew, asking them to whom these words could refer. They all said the line seemed directed at themselves.