A Teacher’s Engagement with Horowitz’s Indoctrination U, part one

Like a Focus on the Family staffer sneaking a Jim Wallis book, I crept up to the University of Georgia’s main library’s circulation desk this morning, glancing over each shoulder as I checked out, at one J. Wizzle’s request, David Horowitz’s Indoctrination U. In the course of the next week or so, he and I will be giving a teacher’s view and a student’s of the book.

Plato Would not Approve; Milton Would Be Confused

I didn’t even get past the book’s preface before I started taking off my Cubs hat and scratching my head. (I dress down on the days when I’m not teaching.) In the opening pages, Horowitz holds up political transformation as somehow opposed to intellectual inquiry. Having spent a fair bit of this semester teaching Plato’s Republic to freshmen, I can’t think that some of the dead white dudes that universities supposedly no longer teach (one need only come to UGA’s English department to get a boatload of ’em) would understand the distinction.

Since I’m supposed to be interacting with the book, let me offer a couple brief quotations:

An academic movement for “social justice” has inserted its radical agenda into the very templates of collegiate institutions and academic programs… Far from being a consensus that supports the pluralistic community of the American social contract, the political correctness of the left is the orthodoxy of one social faction seeking to impose its agenda on all the others–a new and disturbing development in the educational culture. (xiv)

From the beginning of the Academy (that is to say, Plato’s), philosophical training has been geared away from the undisciplined pursuit of uncriticized desire that Plato calls democracy and what John Milton calls mercenary pursuit. Therefore the more apt question, historically speaking, is not whether or not institutionalized education is or is not political but what sort of politics that education embodies and points towards. As a trio examples, I offer Plato’s program of education, geared away from democratic dissipation and towards a military/contemplative discipline, medieval monastic schools, which rejected the ways of the court in favor of a communal sharing of resources, and Milton’s proposal from On Education, in which students do not choose their own way to exist in the world but become a part of the English and classical traditions at their best.

Too-Tight Compartments

Conceding for the rest of this piece that Horowitz is after a return to Enlightenment-era university ideals, problems still arise, some in the first full chapter. Horowitz cites two professors’ posts to an American Studies listserv (and lists their personal email addresses, a move that is nothing short of bullying) to illustrate what he sees as political activism in the classroom. I’ll leave it to Jonathan to explain how the contents of those posts represent activism; what interested me was the parenthetical note that follows the second:

(Note that Professor T. has no academic credential or background that would qualify her to teach about imperialism, slavery, or Zionism. According to her faculty website, her “expertise areas” are: [sic] “Cultural Theory, American Studies, Food Studies, 19th Century U.S. Literature, Critical Feminism.”) (4)

In the interest of disclosure, my own “expertise areas” might be Biblical literature, medieval literature, English Renaissance Drama, English Renaissance Poetry, and Theology and Literature. Even so, with my own very limited exposure to 19th century American literature (one graduate class and years of personal reading), I know full well that Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain all deal with questions of slavery; and Melville, Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Fennimore Cooper, and Washington Irving deal with imperialism. The Zionist movement, as far as I remember, didn’t yet exist formally in the nineteenth century (I could be wrong on that one), but if I were to plan even an introductory course on nineteenth century American lit (as I might have to do one day if I teach at a small college), I would be positively irresponsible if I did not teach about imperialism and slavery.

The point here is not that particular categorical oversight but that the beginning of Horowitz’s book seems to presuppose boundaries around academic disciplines that are far tighter and far more removed from politics than the character of human knowledge actually allows. Furthermore the arguments he advances lack a clear picture of what kind of politics ought to happen inside a college classroom. Politics, as I have written elsewhere on this blog, happens whenever people who live together (a broader category in the digital age) work together deliberatively towards a common good. Politics, then, ought to happen both at classroom and university levels. Because Horowitz names his own project as “an attempt to remove politics from the curriculum” (8; emphasis original), an Aristotelian like me is naturally going to get suspicious that his aim is actually to sneak a kind of politics into college life that would not garner the consent of teachers and students if he actually called them politics.

The chapter then moves on to the particulars of the controversy surrounding the initial 2002 issue of Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights. I was pleased to see that Horowitz does in fact know the origin of the phrase “political correctness,” but I was disappointed (but not, I admit, surprised) that he continued to use the phrase, originally referring to Mao Zedong’s policy of jailing anyone who deviated from the Cultural Revolution, to refer to American academics who do no such things. He also, after narrating his own celebrity, noted Stanley Fish’s famous statement about activism in the classroom, a principle that should influence this and any inquiry into the politics of the classroom. Because Fish is hard to paraphrase, I quote:

Any idea can be brought into the classroom if the point is to inquire into its structure, history, influence and so forth. But no idea belongs in the classroom if the point of introducing it is to recruit your students for the political agenda it may be thought to imply. (qtd. in Horowitz 12)

The question that remains, once one has these guidelines in place, is whether the teacher or whether government officials should decide how the inquiry into “structure, history, influence and so forth” can and cannot go. As a college teacher, I’m inclined to go with the former. The fact of the matter is that no real intellectual, neither professors nor pastors nor novelists nor pundits, has so clearly defined an “academic expertise” (Horowitz 17) that it never touches anything outside the syllabus, much less anything in the world that Horowitz calls “politics.”

Name-Calling, Again

I fully expect and even hope that Jonathan will give an account for some of the vocabulary that Horowitz deploys in the second chapter. In the opening paragraphs he deplores faculty who call his proposed political practices “controversial” (20) and “racist” (21) while referring without any scare-quotes to “campus hate” (20) and “trendy politicized departments” (23). Again, my concern is not with political activists’ vocabularies (when I stopped worrying about such things and started instead trying to write my own theories, my own soul became much more peaceful–that’s why I took this request from Jonathan against my better judgment but joyfully because he is my friend) but with Horowitz’s decrying the offensiveness and ad hominem character of his opponents’ words while he argues that being-offended should not come into consideration when one discusses academic matters.

Such is not to say that I approve of Horowitz’s opponent’s tactics in the debate he narrates for the bulk of the second chapter. I do think that intellectual exchanges (such as the one I initiate with Jonathan with this post) should focus on the questions at hand rather than questions of guilt-by-association or accusations of mental disorder, treason, or godlessness. However, I do think that Horowitz slides a little too easily into mass-psychoanalysis (and away from particular policy points) when he offers an account in the close of chapter two of the soul of the liberal:

The fact that [the dean of Reed College] is not a political activist or a radical illustrates an important point about progressive politics generally. The rudeness towards others, the disrespect for opponents, the disposition to ad hominem attacks that are all hallmarks of progressive discourse are not quirks of individual character among people attracted to its agendas. They flow, rather, from the fundamental belief of leftists in a transformed future, a humanity can be redeemed. If one’s opponents stand in the way of this future–a future that will establish equality, compassion, peace, social justice–then why respect them? They are reactionary and malevolent. It is one’s progressive responsibility, therefore, not to let one’s instincts for civility obstruct the righteousness of one’s cause. (31-32)

The disconnect seems obvious enough: one who believes in neutrality should both decry and refrain from moving the question at hand from system to proponent, and people (like myself) who think that systems and proponents are too tightly bound together should not cry foul every time the kind of analysis that Fish proposes moves into questions of influence. To offer my own alternative to Horowitz’s categories, I tend to appeal to Alasdair Macintyre’s principle of repetition: one can move from idea to influence if and only if one can reasonably expect one’s interlocutor, upon hearing one’s account, to say “Yes, that’s basically how I think of it.” Since I do not imagine most college liberals to give such assent to the quoted paragraph above, I do question its place in a genuinely ethical inquiry into politics and university life. I prefer this mode of evaluating dialogue because Horowitz’s strong formal distinction between content and one-professing (the etymology of “professor”, after all), as I said above, is not adequate to the complex relationships between knowledge, teachers, and students. Moving the controlling question out of the realm of form and into ethics allows, I think, more flexibility.

Such an ethical critique would still not approve of what the dean of Reed did, but neither would it allow an account of one’s opponents that turns them into heartless zealots.

Since this post has become lengthy already, I’ll cut off here and allow Jonathan some time to respond and post his own account of the first two chapters. As a concluding remark, I will say that the opening chapters of the book seem to beg more questions than they answer. I’m not sure what Horowitz considers political and what he does not, and I’m not sure what he considers appropriate for the classroom and what he does not. As I progress, I hope that Horowitz will offer a positive (philosophically speaking) account of how colleges should operate beyond “how it used to be in the fifties.” I hope that he will give an account of the relationship between pundits’ language and professors’. I hope that he will offer an account of what colleges should be doing, since he does not seem to think that they should be trying to transform students. But there are six chapters still left; I’m sure he’ll get to some of that.

About Nathan Gilmour

Nathan P. Gilmour is a Christian, a husband, a father, and a college English teacher. He tries to do all of that and write something worthwhile on occasion.


8 thoughts on “A Teacher’s Engagement with Horowitz’s Indoctrination U, part one

  1. >Big Brother is watching. Fixed.

    Posted by Jeff Wright | November 17, 2007, 12:07 am
  2. >I fixed it but now it shows the entire post instead of intro thing. Not sure what I did.

    Posted by J.Wizzle | November 17, 2007, 12:01 am
  3. >I posted it but it looks like I didn’t format it correctly though. I can’t seem to figure out what the problem is. The last few paragraphs got all scrunched. Any help?

    Posted by J.Wizzle | November 16, 2007, 11:46 pm
  4. >Post it all, post it all!

    Posted by Jeff Wright | November 16, 2007, 10:46 pm
  5. >I’ve never been one to let my own windiness slow me down. šŸ™‚

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | November 16, 2007, 10:39 pm
  6. >I’ve started working on a draft but am getting a little burnt out by it at the moment. I’ll come back to it later though. I feel like I am writing too much so I will try to condense what I have written.

    Posted by J.Wizzle | November 16, 2007, 9:58 pm
  7. >That’s what ought to make this little exchange interesting. I look forward to your post. If you see a draft of my next section developing on our dashboard, don’t panic–I am waiting for your turn, but I prefer to compose on blogger’s on-board post editor rather than trying to remember where I’ve saved my OpenOffice.org file. šŸ™‚

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | November 16, 2007, 8:40 pm
  8. >Good stuff, Nate. I can tell already that the two of us are going to be coming at this from different perspectives…and therefore have different conclusions. I’ll try to make some time soon to give some of my thoughts on the first two chapters.

    Posted by J.Wizzle | November 16, 2007, 7:10 pm

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