BY AARON BARLOW
A few days before Christmas, I posted about Wisconsin lawmaker Dave Murphy’s attempted meddling in University of Wisconsin course offerings. I asked why he, a gym owner as well as a legislator, was in a position to determine what classes should or should not be offered. In the comments, someone tried to call me out similarly, assuming I am a journalist and not an educator. That person went on to complain about the particular class Murphy objected to, stating that “It allows moronic ‘professors’ who apparently have nothing better to do because they are unable to do anything more than dress up their bizarre thinking with lexiconical blazons in order to convince the gullible and credulous and ingenuous that there is something worth learning when in actual fact the truth is the exact opposite.”
This is thinking stemming from David Horowitz and his book The Professors, thinking that has very little to do with the classes we teach or the students who learn through them. Or, for that matter, with the ‘thinking’ we do. Yet it reflects a narrative that is unquestioned, today, in a large segment of American society.
In The New York Times today, Donald P. Moynihan, a Public Affairs professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, presents a measured and intelligent response to Murphy (and even the person who made that comment). He argues that, by pretending to be protecting free speech on campus through their meddling in course offerings (and more), legislators are, instead, threatening that very freedom. He writes:
Steve Nass, a state senator from Whitewater, has urged university leaders not to give way to “the political correctness crowd demanding safe spaces, safe words, universal apologies for hurt feelings, and speech/thought police.” But last July, Senator Nass also sent a letter to university leaders to complain about an “offensive” essay assignment on gay men’s sexual preferences. A few days ago he said that a university program that explored masculinity “declares war on men” after asking, “Will we have the courage to reform the U.W. system in the 2017-19 biennial budget?”
Senator Nass is not alone. A state representative heading a committee that oversees higher education asked for the cancellation of a course that examined white identity called “The Problem of Whiteness” and the dismissal of its instructor. The representative, Dave Murphy, said the course was “adding to the polarization of the races in our state.” If the university “stands with this professor, I don’t know how the university can expect the taxpayers to stand with U.W.-Madison.” Mr. Murphy also promised to direct his staff to screen courses in the humanities “to make sure there’s legitimate education going on.”
Moynihan argues that the narrative behind such meddling is that “an insistence on recognizing micro-aggressions, safe spaces and trigger warnings” threatens free speech. He argues that, in the first place, advocacy of such things occurs almost exclusively on elite campuses. His experience (and, I believe, that of most of us who teach in American colleges and universities) is that a greater threat comes from “the ideological agendas of elected officials and politically appointed governing boards.”
As we move toward what may become the most repressive era in the United States since the early 1950s, it is important that we see more articles such as Moynihan’s. We cannot simply sit and stew as the concocted narrative of Horowitz and his inheritors constricts our educational institutions.
Yet simply bringing this to our attention isn’t enough. We have to act, too. If you haven’t already done so, join the AAUP, make sure you are active in your local union (or organize one), and start reaching out to students and other constituencies that are going to be affected by the increasing onslaught.
This isn’t simply a matter of politics, but is one of acting to protect American traditions that are, in some cases, as old as the country.