The principles of American democracy and therefore of a democratic education were once as self-evident as they were universally accepted. They were summarized in classic form by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in its 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure. As it states: “It is not the function of a faculty member in a democracy to indoctrinate his/her students with ready-made conclusions on controversial subjects. The faculty member is expected to train students to think for themselves, and to provide them access to those materials, which they need if they are to think intelligently.”
These principles seem so obviously right as to be inarguable. Yet in many American classrooms these views are far from accepted.
At a recent conference of the Modern Language Association, the largest organization of academic professionals, Professor Norma Cantu, a former official in the Department of Education during the Clinton administration, said that she hoped her students were radicalized by her courses and trusted that other faculty shared the same aim. Ms. Cantu’s attitude is largely reflected in current teaching practice, particularly in fields such as Middle Eastern Studies, Global Studies, or Women’s Studies, where many professors propagate their opinions at the expense of their students’ education.
University as Political Platform
The roots of the present situation in American universities lie in the political history of the 1960s and its aftermath. The cultural upheavals of that era saw the accession to academic tenure of a generation of activists who regarded the university as a platform from which to advance their political mission. Drawing on the works of European Marxists such as Antonio Gramsci and Herbert Marcuse, and the educational theorist Paolo Freire, the radicals viewed universities as “means of cultural production” analogous to the “means of production” in Marx’s revolutionary schema.
To these professorial activists, the academic classroom offered a potential fulcrum for revolutionary change. Because the university trained journalists and editors, lawyers and judges, future political candidates and operatives, it provided a path to cultural “hegemony” and an opportunity to promote a radical transformation of the society at large.
The efforts of this radical generation soon led to a dramatic shift in educational attitudes that still exists today. A 2007 investigation by two liberal academics, Neil Gross and Solon Simmons, reported that liberal professors generally outnumber conservatives in the social sciences and humanities by a factor of 9-1. In fields such as anthropology and sociology, the ratio approaches 30-1. But the issue is not that professors tend to be liberal or “biased”—bias is just another term for “point of view,” which every professor naturally possesses and has a right to express. Professors whose courses follow traditional academic standards do not pose a problem regardless of their individual point of view.
The problem, however, is whether or not their courses adhere to the principles of scientific method and observe professional standards. Being a teacher comes with an important and long recognized caveat: Professors have an obligation to be professional in their instruction. The concern is with the growing number of activist instructors who routinely present their students with only one side of controversial issues in an effort to convert them to a sectarian perspective.
What is more worrisome, is that even as the abuses of university classrooms have reached epidemic proportions, faculty unions and professional associations have become increasingly averse to any accountability for the design of academic instruction. Roger Bowen, who until recently served as general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, has said in so many words that academics should not have to answer to anyone but themselves: “It should be evident that the sufficient condition for securing the academic freedom of our profession is the profession itself.”
When the modern research university was created a century ago, it signaled an end to the dominance of religious institutions in the field of higher education. Under the new dispensation, teachers were expected to refrain from imposing their religious or ideological prejudices on students in their charge, to teach according to the precepts of scientific method and not according to what the philosopher Charles Pierce referred to as the “method of authority.”
Academic freedom and intellectual diversity are values indispensable to the American university. The concept is premised on the idea that human knowledge is a never-ending pursuit of the truth, that there is no humanly accessible truth that is not in principle open to challenge, and that no party or intellectual faction has a monopoly on wisdom. Therefore, academic freedom is most likely to thrive in an environment of intellectual diversity that protects and fosters independence of thought and speech. And because free inquiry and its fruits are crucial to the democratic enterprise itself, academic freedom is a national value as well.
Academic freedom protects the intellectual independence of both professors and students in their pursuit of knowledge and the expression of ideas from interference by legislators or authorities within the institution itself. For professors, this means no political, ideological, or religious orthodoxy will be imposed throughout the hiring, tenure, or termination processes, or through any other administrative means by the academic institution. For students, this means no political, ideological, or religious orthodoxy will be imposed throughout the learning process by their professors or the school administration.
The AAUP’s 1915 General Report admonished faculty to avoid “taking unfair advantage of the student’s immaturity by indoctrinating him with the teacher’s own opinions before the student has had an opportunity fairly to examine other opinions upon the matters in question, and before he has sufficient knowledge and ripeness of judgment to be entitled to form any definitive opinion of his own.”
Equally explicit on these matters was a 1934 statement by Robert Gordon Sproul, the president of the University of California and the architect of its rise to academic prominence as an exemplar of the values to which a research university should aspire. In the 1934 statement Sproul defined the mission of the university as incompatible with the agendas of sectarian political movements: “The function of the university is to seek and to transmit knowledge and to train students in the processes whereby truth is to be made known. To convert, or to make converts, is alien and hostile to this dispassionate duty. Where it becomes necessary in performing this function of a university, to consider political, social, or sectarian movements, they are dissected and examined, not taught, and the conclusion left, with no tipping of the scales, to the logic of the facts.”
Sproul’s statement was integral to the academic freedom policies of the University of California until 2003, when academic radicals succeeded in suppressing it. In that year, the academic senate voted to remove the statement from its academic freedom template by a majority of 43–3.
Bringing Standards Back
Since introducing party politics into the classroom, academia in the United States has been stuck at a crossroads in which professors’ rights to free speech are on trial against students’ rights to a fair education. Far from being solved, this educational battle has only intensified over the years.
Contrary to popular belief, however, academic freedom for professors and students are not mutually exclusive. Upholding one does not necessarily mean disregarding the other. In fact, finding a balance between the two is a large component of successfully bringing standards back into the American classroom.
American classes worked in such a balance for hundreds of years. Simply put, when a professor speaks on controversial topics in the classroom, he or she is free to offer his/her opinions and personal conclusions (freedom for teachers), as long as the views of other scholars who do not share the instructor’s opinions are offered in tandem (freedom for students). Furthermore, the instructor must present these dissenting views in a fair-minded and respectful manner, and not dismiss them through ridicule or derision thereby prejudicing his or her students against them.
While it is important that professors challenge students with thought-provoking ideas and concepts—which understandably includes bringing opinions, and books that reflect their opinions, into the mix—requiring texts such as Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid is acceptable as long as critical texts that dispute Carter’s thoughts are assigned as well. It is important to stress that this is not to say professors or administrators must remove any books from their reading lists, but to balance the material with the goal of increased intellectual diversity.
The result is that no orthodoxy is imposed on students in controversial subject areas in the classroom. Students are taught how to think critically and analytically by their teachers rather than simply told what to think.
It is not outlandish to think providing an alternative text is correct behavior in a classroom. In fact, this has been the core principle for distinguishing education from indoctrination in the modern research university. What is taking place today in the liberal arts programs of American universities is the collapse of standards on an alarming scale.
Indoctrination—as opposed to education—takes place when opinion is taught as scientific fact; when syllabi provide no room for alternative views that might actually be correct; and when assigned readings contain no texts that challenge the instructor’s point of view. Indoctrination is the attempt to impose an orthodoxy on students. Such instruction is alien to the core principles of the modern research university and the democracy that supports it. It is also unprofessional under existing university standards.
The central purposes of universities in the United States are the pursuit of truth, the discovery of new knowledge through scholarship and research, the study and reasoned criticism of intellectual and cultural traditions, the teaching and general development of students to help them become creative individuals and productive citizens of a pluralistic democracy, and the transmission of knowledge and learning to a society at large. Free inquiry and free speech within the academic community are indispensable to the achievement of these goals. The freedom to teach and learn depends upon the creation of appropriate conditions and opportunities on the campus as a whole as well as in the classrooms and lecture halls. These purposes reflect the values—pluralism, diversity, opportunity, critical intelligence, openness and fairness—that are the cornerstones of American society.
David Horowitz is the founder and CEO of the David Horowitz Freedom Center.