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

I fear that I’ve been a disappointment to Jonathan in this series–I’m not any more convinced by Horowitz now than I was when I started reading. On the other hand, I do think that our interactions here illustrate that even if the formal division that Horowitz advocates turns out not to be worth its costs (I don’t think it is), we have other recourses for living together, even in colleges. Perhaps that’s just the optimism of an English teacher, but I figure I can have optimism–I sure ain’t gettin’ no money from it.

(That was a joke. Enjoy it–there might not be any more in this post.)

Freedom and Danger

I admit that Horowitz did not earn any admiration from me when he gave an account of how a recent book of his came to be titled The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. If his story is right, if he just caved in to the pressure of his publishers to put out something more inflammatory than he originally intended, then his complaints about the academic world’s cold reception of it really don’t hold much water. But enough of that.

If I were his publisher (I am not), I would have subtitled the fifth chapter of this volume “Watch What Happens.” The chapter consists mainly of an address at Duke University, and from the start to the finish, I must have checked back to chapter two (the one that looks better and better the deeper I get into the book) a dozen times. In all kinds of disturbing ways, his speech runs parallel to the Dean of Reed College’s in tone, in tactics, and in aims. If Jonathan would like to run a couple parallel sections of the transcripts and point out the strong differences, I’d be glad to consider them. But on a first and second reading, he seems to have set out to show what can happen when someone unchecked by academic expectations gets to talking about people from too various fields.

I admit that I chuckled when he took time out to confront Aaron Magruder, whose comic strip I hadn’t even thought of for years, and Harry Belafonte, whose career, as far as I was aware, had consisted exclusively of “The Banana Boat Song” until I started hearing about him from Sean Hannity on my commute home from teaching and now in this book. But more serious was the tactical approach that he took, failing over and over the Macintyre repetition test that I discussed in part one of this series. Some examples:

  • Speaking of other MLK Day speakers: “I wonder if it has occurred to anyone that the theme common to every one of these speakers [among them Magruder] is the denigration of the legacy of the man to be honored” (88).
  • Speaking of Larry Summers, former president of Harvard: “If you let a remark slip that is politically incorrect–say, that women might have different mathematical aptitudes than men–you can be accused of sexism and plotting to undermine the self-esteem of little girls. If you are the president of Harvard, such a speculation can get you censured and terminate your career” (89).
  • “But inside the university it is outmoded and fraudulent ideas like Marxism and its derivatives that are the reality; inside the university, intellectual reactionaries teach that America is an oppressor nation, the Third Reich incarnate” (93).

To reiterate my Macintyrean alternative, I would say that intellectual discourse ought to proceed thus: one can critique an opposing position if and only if one’s account of that position would gain the approval of adherents thereof. Horowitz never does articulate the vision of Dr. King’s legacy that Magruder and company claim to hold, never notes King’s turn towards socialism in the months before James Earl Ray shot him. He never attempts to present alternative accounts of King’s legacy. Further, having read close to four hundred pages on the tenure of Summers as Harvard’s president, the faculty’s vote of no confidence, at least according to their accounts, had to do with the fact that Summers did not understand academic discourse, not because of an offhand remark at a luncheon. Now an investigation into the actual motives might be rewarding, but to put such motives in their minds without any nod to their own rationale certainly fails to be friendly, in an Aristotelian sense.

I include the Marxist quote not only because no Marxist professor with whom I’ve had personal contact would say anything remotely that stupid but because it reveals another conceptual disconnect between chapter two and the rest of the volume. Horowitz told the folks at Duke a number of times that ideas have consequences, and therein lies the rub: not the text of the Academic Bill of Rights (I’ll discuss that in the next installment) but the text of this book repeatedly treats “Marxism” not as a philosophy but as an enemy army, a threat assembling outside the gates and, he fears, let in by professors. Such an impression is not original with Horowitz by any means, but it does not itself hold to the ideals of disinterested investigation that he sets out in chapter two.

To restate, and to set up the next part of my engagement, I think that Horowitz runs into the impossibility of his own ideal in these chapters: in chapter two he decries academics who, because they see a conservative, stop being intellectuals and start being polemical warriors. In chapters five and six Horowitz sees Marxists and stops being an intellectual, becoming instead a polemical warrior. To restate one more time, I do think that Christian intellectuals need to be able to engage and to offer alternatives to Marxism, but I think that Horowitz’s inconsistency reveals not a personal fault but the impossibility of sealing teaching off from propaganda. As an Aristotelian, I do not think that such polemics are inevitable, but neither to do I think that formal declarations can solve the problem; instead, I think that friendship, not the enforcement of rules, holds solutions.

Capitalism: Politics or Ideology?

In instance after instance, Horowitz seems to want the test of “whether” applied to humanities and social sciences classes only if they call capitalism into question. And when he finally addresses the question of formal complaints, he says that students are too afraid of reprisals to file them. The fear, I can assure our readers, is not limited to students. Because I am a TA, I have a fair bit to fear from Horowitz. As this volume has shown, he does not hesitate to parade forth teachers who slip on his website, in his books, and before state legislatures. And he is very active in Georgia. Therefore let me say that I am neither a Communist nor a Marxist. (There are differences.) I am a Thomist who considers both Communism and Capitalism inadequate theoretically for supporting a genuinely good common life.

The impression I get from the book as a whole (Jonathan, I’d be glad to read a rebuttal) is that Horowitz does not include Marxism in the category “academic theories” just as the academics he opposes do not seem to include conservatism in the same category. Instead, over and over, he treats Marxists as anti-intellectual by definition because they are Marxists, just as the dean of Reed treated him as anti-intellectual because he is a conservative. The problem with this is not that I am a Marxist (I’ve gotten paranoid just reading these last chapters) but that Marxism and Capitalism, from where I stand as a Thomist, are both intellectual theories, both rooted in modern separations between desire and ethics, both worth consideration but both ultimately inadequate. Because I stand there, I do find Horowitz’s uneven treatment of them as alarming as I find his anecdotes which reverse the roles but do not throw out the script. He attributes the atrocities of the Stalinist regime to “Marxism” in the abstract; they do the same for “capitalism” in the abstract and the American slave trade. He notes the misery that “Marxism” has caused for millions; they insist that “capitalism” was doing the same in the same world. He equates Mao with “Communism;” they write that Mussolini was a staunch advocate of “capitalism.”

Again, such is not to say that Communism is any better than my actual text makes it out to be. (Read carefully. Read carefully.) Rather it is to note that for all of his text about removing “politics” from the classroom, I do not think that he considers capitalism itself to be “politics.” And whatever else one says about that oversight, it is an oversight. He insists that he wants to remove politics from the classroom, but if capitalism is itself a politics (it is), then his proposal does not extend to nearly enough departments, and moreover the very book in which he calls for such a separation does not itself maintain it. The theory is not a bad attempt at theory, but even within the volume it seems impossible to sustain, if capitalism is itself a politics. (It is.)

The Book in Review

I plan to read the text of the Academic Bill of Rights carefully in the next few days and devote a substantial post to commenting on it alone. Speaking only of the book’s preface, six chapters, and coda (I do dig the concept of a book’s having a coda and might use that some day), I see an appeal for a certain kind of politics to be evacuated from a certain range of academic disciplines, not a call for all programs to self-refute. As one of the professors he quoted (don’t have the page marked) notes, the big question is what counts for controversy. To suggest that the ROTC include in its curriculum more than a passing mention of theories that oppose wartime violence would be quite ignorant. I would suggest that analogous suggestions for women’s studies departments are equally ignorant.

Such is not to say that matters of oppression, economics, the hypertextuality of human reality, and even politics are simply matters of “opinion.” (That’s what my freshman always want to do when their first attempt to reason through something doesn’t turn out the way they expected–they say it’s all “opinion.”) All of them are important enough to engage intellectually, but I think this book is itself an exhibit in favor of the case that removing politics from knowledge, even if possible, might not be advisable. One more time I will appeal to Alasdair Macintyre’s After Virtue and his criterion of repetition. If you, O reader, will take as given just for a moment that politics and human knowledge are inextricably bound up and that people of different political persuasions approach intellectual questions with different presuppositions, even then the day is not lost for good academic community. If, instead of seeking to use rules to make bad children behave, I call on all within academic communities to start their inquiries into at-first odious theories with the principle of repetition, laying out the positions they do not hold in terms that holders of those positions would agree with. If all parties do this, I do not see some kind of harmony between sides; I’m not that naive. Instead, I hope that such a move will bring students and teachers both into a tradition of seeing reality not in terms of fixed, immutable camps but instead in terms of dialectic inquiry, a series of friendly (in the Aristotelian sense) assertions and negations that seek not to win for one “side” but to see whether the truth is actually too complex for either “side,” calling instead for all involved to articulate new ways to think. This means not only that “conservative” and “liberal” might not be adequate to the question but that those involved might need to conceive of entirely new fields of knowledge, not currently imagined by departmental structures, to engage the valid questions. That’s what Plato and Aristotle seem to be after in their best moments, and I think one could do worse than Plato and Aristotle.

I hope that this final appeal does not mark me as a closet Capitalist, much less a closet Marxist, but I end my review with an call for students to make things happen not by means of government intervention but by their roles as students in voluntary-enrollment universities with majors to choose or not to choose and electives to take or not to take. In Horowitz’s closing chapter he cites a survey that says that students fear faculty reprisals should they file formal complaints. If they fear their schools that much, I appeal to students to find schools that do not live by fear. If indeed there are schools that inculcate a culture of faculty bullying, then I call on the students to transfer out, to move to better schools, to call on the unemployed academics and non-teaching think-tanks of the world to start new schools. Or, better yet, start a life of principled resistance now. Make that formal complaint, and if you suffer for doing right, know that you’re in the company of Socrates, of Jeremiah, of Cato and Boethius and Francis. I suppose that might be my final argument against the hermetic seal between politics and education: all the great educational reforms have been political, be they Plato’s academy for philosopher-kings, the medieval university’s declaration of independence from Europe’s kings, or indeed the Englightenment school, Horowitz’s model. What he does not say explicitly is that a kind of politics, exemplified in the French and American republics, is the context within which such schools make sense. To take politics away from educational is simply ahistorical; let’s talk about what kind of politics best suits it, and moreover, let’s attend those schools whose political visions best resonate with our vision of the Good.

(That last capital letter comes courtesy of English translations of Plato. See? Two jokes!)


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.


2 thoughts on “A Teacher’s Engagement with Horowitz’s Indoctrination U, part three

  1. >Not a problem. And I think it’s valuable for us to see and write different things; it brings to light that David Horowitz’s take and Ward Churchill’s aren’t the only two when it comes to thinking about the university.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | November 26, 2007, 1:08 am
  2. >We have totally different thoughts on this. 🙂 You do make very good points though…we just ultimately come to different conclusions. I’ll write more when I get some more time.

    Posted by J.Wizzle | November 26, 2007, 12:19 am

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