The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"We are willing enough to praise freedom when she is safely tucked away in the past and cannot be a nuisance.  In the present, amidst dangers whose outcome we cannot foresee, we get nervous about her, and admit censorship."... ...E. M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy (1951).

Commentary of the Day - December 4, 2001:  Lynne Cheney's Thought Police are in Action Again.

Unfortunately, many groups are using the current national crises to advance their own narrow political views.  An example of this is the recent screed from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an organization founded by Lynne V. Cheney ostensibly to encourage the study of American history and western civilization in American colleges and universities.  ACTA boasts a bipartisan leadership that includes  Democrats  Joe Lieberman and Richard Lamm as well as Republicans like Cheney.  ACTA claims as its mission:

.......working with alumni, donors, trustees and education leaders across the country to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives a philosophically-balanced, open-minded, high-quality education at an affordable price.
However, their recent pamphlet "Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It" is hardly philosophically-balanced, open-minded, or of high-quality.  This report attempts to make the case that American institutions of higher education are dominated by ultra-liberal, unpatriotic faculty members and students who oppose government efforts to respond to the terrorist attacks of September 11th; and, that the way to counter this "subversive" trend is to make sure that American college students get a healthy dose of American history and western civilization courses.

The ACTA folks make their case by citing 115 examples of statements or actions by faculty and students at campuses across the country that either opposed using armed force to respond to the terrorist acts or simply expressed some question or skepticism about our government's actions.  Some of the remarks quoted in the ACTA do represent hard-edged anti-American sentiments of people whose politics is on the fringe.  But many of the remarks and actions cited in the pamphlet simply represent skepticism or pacifist naiveté.  Comments such as "[We should] build bridges and relationships, not simply bombs and walls", "[B]reak the cycle of violence", or "An eye for an eye makes the world blind" might represent the wishful thinking of pacifists; but, they hardly qualify as rabid opposition.

If this is the best that ACTA can do to make the case that academia is overrun with loony lefties who want to give Osama Bin Laden a free pass, then they have failed miserably.  Academia indeed does have its share of people whose views are well outside the mainstream.  The IP has run into several on both the left and the right.  However, their numbers are far less than what ACTA would have you believe.  In fact, ACTA's own report quotes a November 1, 2001 poll by the Harvard Institute of Politics that shows that there is firm support among college students for the U.S. taking military action against the terrorists.  Indeed, even a majority of folks at that bastion of liberal thought, Harvard University, favored military action against Bin Laden.

The IP's recent article, which drew parallels between September 11, 2001 and December 7, 1941, supported strong action against terrorism.  It drew a number of responses from people both in and out of academia.  However, only a single response could be characterized as "blaming America first" for the attacks.  This certainly does not qualify as a scientific sampling, but it does suggest that ACTA's contentions are seriously overblown.

What then might be the "hidden agenda" of Cheney and ACTA?  Is it simply to encourage more study of American history and western civilization on American campuses, or is it an attempt to stifle debate and dissent?

The IP enjoys the study of history, including American history.  But he also realizes that history is written mostly by the winners, and the winners tend to leave out those parts of history that they might find embarrassing.  The American history books that the IP studied back in the 1950's said much about Bunker Hill and Valley Forge, but nothing about Wounded Knee or Manzanar.  They also said much about the unity of purpose that followed Pearl Harbor, but little about the isolationism that prevailed before December 7th, 1941 and even less about our government's refusal to admit more than a handful of refugees from Nazi Germany during World War II.  The IP agrees that the study of western civilization is important as the study of American history.  But, we should not be so foolish as to assume that we have nothing to learn from other civilizations.  Perhaps, what ACTA really is interested in is a return to the days when the majority of American history books were narrowly jingoistic.

However, the IP thinks that the real agenda of the folks at ACTA is to stifle criticism and debate over issues that our vital to our society.  Unfortunately, our democratic traditions frequently have suffered during periods of national crisis.  The Alien and Sedition Acts passed during John Adams presidency, abrogation of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the Palmer Raids during the Wilson administration, internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during FDR's administration, and the "loyalty" oaths imposed during the Cold War all are examples of excesses imposed in the name of security.  In the end, we have learned from history that our strength as a nation is embodied in its fundamental ideas of liberty and justice that are embodied in our Constitution and Bill of Rights.  Attempts to restrict free speech and dissent may seem appealing at the moment, but in the long run it exactly those freedoms that make democracy worth fighting for.  The IP may not agree with some of his colleagues in academia who oppose military action against terrorism, or who feel that U.S. middle eastern policy is at the root of the terrorists vengeance; but, he is more than willing to defend their right both to hold and to express those views.

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