The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"The aim of the university is not to make ideas safe for students, but to make students safe for ideas."....  ...Clark Kerr.

Commentary of the Day - March 15, 2006:  How Dangerous Are David Horowitz's 101 Most Dangerous American Academics?  A guest review by Sanford Pinsker.

If you happen to be an academic positioned somewhere on the Left, David Horowitz can be, well, a pain. He is, among other things, a relentless  scold, and an indefatigable self promoter.  During the early l970s Horowitz was not only a member of the New Left, but, he insists, one of its founders.  In any event, his tell-all memoir, Radical Son (l997), makes it clear that he once lived in the belly of the beast, and that his politics have moved l80 degrees from where it once was.

As president of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, Horowitz keeps his eye on Hollywood, the media, and not least of all, academia.  It is this last item that engages him in The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America.  Horowitz does his best to show how he chose his representative cases and how it is that they cover the territory between the Ivies and very small, small colleges, and why he purposefully excludes everybody from the Right, a group that is not nearly as large or as "dangerous" as those on the Left.  My hunch is that some critics will be happy to supply Horowitz with the names of professors at small religious colleges who have no more regard for liberal learning than do their ideological counterparts on the Hard Left.

Even Horowitz's enemies will admit that he is a slick marketer of his books, and that The Professors is no exception.  Because academics love lists at least as much as the general population and because there's something fatally attractive about the phase "dangerous academics", the promise of gossip mongering and mud-slinging is just too delicious to resist.  For example, what if Horowitz singles out somebody from your college or university, or somebody in your field who teaches down the road?  You'd want to know that, whether you agree with Horowitz or not.  But let me hasten to add that this knowledge is just not worth the book's $27.95 price tag.

Nonetheless, Horowitz's book, opportunistic and partisan though it might be, has a limited value.  I  feel that professors who misuse the lectern, who have long ago abandoned the pursuit of truth wherever it may lead  for visions of social change that begin in the classroom are probably just as "dangerous" as Horowitz argues they are.  Part of me would, had I written this book, sub-titled it the 101 "laziest," "silliest," "most irresponsible," or "just plan dumb" professors, but that imaginary book wouldn't fly off the book shelves nearly so fast as books about "dangerous" people do.

Alphabetically arranged, Horowitz's scoundrels go from Professor Lisa Anderson, a relentless critic of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to Professor George Wolfe who teaches music (he is an accomplished saxophonist), but who also teaches "Introduction to Peace Studies", a class that shows how and why a great sax man can also be a fierce critic of Israel.  Each profiled academic gets a quick, 2-3 page thumbnail sketch (Angela Davis, because her history goes back to the Black Panthers warrants slightly more space).  The result is a biographical fact here (where and what each professor teaches) and a provocative sound bite culled from their writing or speeches.  The result is slim pickings.

A healthy handful of the people Horowitz scours are probably familiar (Ward Churchill, for one; Cornel West for another), but I could be wrong about that.  Academic fame of the sort that made Churchill and West household names often fades after fifteen minutes.  Moreover, most academics are too busy preparing classes, grading papers, or working on their scholarship to worry about the few bad apples who give the entire barrel a rotten taste.

The problem, alas, is that the people Horowitz discusses are symptomatic of what happens when a generation of sixties radicals grew up to become professors, and, increasingly, deans.  They are now the folks in charge of hiring faculty members and granting them  tenure -- and they bring to these endeavors the same passion and ideological fervor that they first put on with their tie-dyed shirts and bell bottomed pants, granny glasses and Birkenstocks.

To imagine that a portion of every faculty, in the Ivy League or considerably down the food chain, are  aging hippies -- charmingly eccentric but hardly threatening -- is  to miss the alarm bells that Horowitz is trying to sound: “How many radical professors are there on American faculties of higher education?” he asks, and then goes on to surmise that if, according to the federal government, there are some 617,00 college and university professors in the United States: If we were to take Harvard . . . as a yardstick, and assume a figure of 10 percent per university faculty, and then cut that figure in half to control for the possibility that Harvard may be a relatively radical institution (as its president, Lawrence Summers, found out when the thought police eased him out the door), the total number of such professors at American universities with views similar to the spectrum represented in this volume would still be in the neighborhood of 25,000-30,000.

As I tried to make sense of Horowitz's numbers (25,000 strikes me as awfully high, although that would mean that a much larger number, 592,000, have passed his muster), the only explanation that presented itself is that the small number of academic radicals have been able to so bully and intimidate their colleagues that, as the old song would have it, "anything goes."

What follows are a few quick tests to see if Horowitz's five percent loony factor is correct.  How many faculty members, in classrooms or campus events, single out "unprotected groups" (Jews or Christians, for example) and lambaste them with impunity but who would be outraged if a colleague did the same to, say, blacks, women,  or homosexuals?  How many faculty members wear (sometimes literally) their politics on their sleeves, making it perfectly clear that they are environmental zealots, that  they  oppose the war in Iraq, or that there was never a  'liberation movement ' they failed to support.  For such people, self-righteousness must be an exhausting business.  I am told, moreover, that there are always younger, ever more pure-of-heart folks ready to speak at the next faculty meeting.   My point is that faculty members in very large numbers have learned to bite their tongues and to sit on their hands, lest they provoke the politically correct.  Much better, the silenced whisper to themselves, to let the radicals go off to teach whatever it is that they want to teach.  Their foolishness won't affect me, that is, until the day comes when somebody proposes a course in "feminist physics" or in "the queering of American lit."  As Horowitz  patiently explains, it is easier to give away the farm in small chunks than it is to get it back.

Academic life has always had more than its fair share of the lazy, incompetent, and just plain dumb, but most of the people who choose life in the academy have the same passion for learning and teaching that long ago energized Chaucer's clerk.  The rub, of course, is that the rules of scholarly engagement have changed, and that those who continue to believe in  hard evidence and harder logic are being shouted down by those who wrap themselves in the cloak of academic freedom as they set about to radicalize  higher education itself.  Even Stanley Fish, a man on the left, has had enough of  apologizing for professors who confuse a classroom with a political rally.  In an article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education,  Fish -- in Horowitz's summary -- "cautioned academics about getting involved as academics in moral and political issues such as the war on terror."  The article concludes in a typically Fishian way: "It is immoral (Fish insists)  for academics or academic institutions to proclaim moral views."  That a staunch conservative such as  David Horowitz and an equally committed liberal such Stanley Fish can agree gives me a reason, admittedly small, to cheer.  But it also reinforces the point of The Professors: that there are at least 101 radical professors ready and willing to replace the ones Horowitz collected.

© 2006 Sanford Pinsker.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College.  He currently resides in south Florida where he has time to lie in the sun and get wrinkle lines reading books like The Professors.

The Irascible Professor responds:  By and large the IP agrees with Sanford's analysis of Horowitz's latest screed.  One point that needs more emphasis is that Horowitz's screed often relies on secondhand hearsay provided by other observers.  Several of the people that Horowitz skewers in the book have challenged the accuracy of his quotations and descriptions.  Others, have complained because they did not make the list.  In any event, academia always has attracted a lunatic fringe.  The IP has known a few professors on the left who fit the description as well as few on the right.  What should not be overlooked is that as much as these folks would like to be Pied Pipers they are remarkably unsuccessful at it.  The reason, of course, is that students are remarkably difficult to brainwash.  They have this nasty habit of thinking for themselves.

The IP also would take issue with much of Sandy's last paragraph.  "Hard evidence and harder logic" may have been out of vogue for awhile in academia, but much of postmodernism seems to have collapsed of its own weight, and folks seem to be thinking for themselves again even in some of the trendier disciplines.  However, both Horowitz and Fish are dead wrong when they advocate that academics should not hold or discuss moral views (and the IP doubts that Horowitz who is as far to the right as some of those who he excoriates are to the left actually believes what he wrote).   If that were the case most political science departments and law schools would be out of business, not to mention departments of philosophy.  Colleges and universities don't exist just to transmit the accepted wisdom of past generations.  They also exist to provide places where even the most revered assumptions can be questioned.  What is needed are safeguards to ensure that the debates are civil, and that students are not penalized for holding views that might differ from those of their professors.

Printer friendly version.

[home | web rings | links | archives | about | freelance contributions | donate | mailing list ]

The Irascible Professor invites your  .

©2006 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
Technorati tag(s):