BY AARON BARLOW
The act of teaching is political. Yet Americans like to pretend that its schools are removed from the public sphere, that they focus on knowledge and skills, nothing more. Rightwing firebrand (though his spark has dimmed against the bright flames of newer agitators like Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos) David Horowitz has long used this gap as an opening for attacking higher education. Educators, who have also long understood the political nature of their task, have never quite taken Horowitz’s ideas seriously, further inflaming his anger. Unfortunately (and as a result), they have never managed to effectively explain to the general public that education is always a political act–and so have never managed to close the door on Horowitz.
Nor have they managed to convince the public that the politics don’t matter when professionalism is observed—another of the truisms that Horowitz tries to warp (he defines “professionalism” as adherence to protocol in the classroom not as a demand to follow the threads of research wherever they may lead).
Claiming to be an expert on higher education (he says that he has written six books “on the subject of the transformation [of higher education] and its destructive consequences”), Horowitz has collected a number of his writings over past decades into Volume VIII: The Left in the University of his The Black Book of the American Left series. There’s nothing really new in the book, for Horowitz never conducts research (unless collecting anecdotes counts) and he has not changed his views on education since switching to the right in the seventies (probably since even earlier). At the end of the book, he does provide a modest call for reform, admitting, however, that it will never happen: “The faculty opposition is too devious and too strong.”
He blames the AAUP for that.
The five parts of the book reproduce pieces going back even farther than his 2005 attack The Professors (the focus of Part I). Part II presents some of his writings stemming from speeches on campuses or by people like Ann Coulter. Somehow, he sees these visits as research, as he claims in an included 2003 essay, “This spring I have spoken at more than a dozen universities, conducting my own inquiries into this problem [a supposed campus blacklist against conservatives].” Part III reprises his quest for what he calls his “Academic Bill of Rights” that would constrict faculty professional activities. Part IV recounts the defeat of that “Bill of Rights” by “the American Association of University Professors, the American Federation of Teachers, and faculty senates like the one at Penn State.” Part V takes us back to The Professors and his “failed attempt to persuade the academic community of their obligation to present contested issues as controversial and to observe a professional decorum in the classroom.”
It’s a bit difficult to work up much emotion about this book, for it does little but recap Horowitz’s failure to move higher education in a direction where professors would need approval by the right in order to teach. This is rather ironic because, as he writes in his Epilogue, “When universities allow their faculties to enter the political fray by becoming opinionated partisans in the academic classroom, they expose themselves and their institutions to the laws of the political arena and its judgements and penalties as well.” Horowitz does not seem to understand that this was happening long before the myth of leftwing ascendance arose. Because they always were involved in the public sphere (the myth of the ivory tower notwithstanding), colleges and universities have always been affected by politics—as they continue to be and would, even had Horowitz succeeded.
The legacy of Horowitz, though his particular campaigns failed, is a political vision of higher education out of keeping with its reality It is only this that makes this new Horowitz volume worth examining, for the people attacking American higher education today in his wake take advantage of attitudes Horowitz helped create. That their attacks, just like his, have nothing to do with the reality of our colleges and universities is beside the point behind them: attacks on higher education are a convenient way for people on the right to attract attention and, ultimately, financial resources.
A decade or so ago, seeing that Horowitz’s understanding of American higher education was highly limited and blindered by his politics, I invited Horowitz to visit my classroom. Though we corresponded and tried to work together to find common ground, he never responded to my invitation. He could have: Brooklyn, NY isn’t far from the beaten path. Thing is, it’s not the reality of the classroom that Horowitz cares about (any more than his successors do). The only concern, in both cases, is the drumbeat that marshals rightwing forces toward increasing control of the faculty, one of the few aspects of American society not yet firmly under the sway of the financial powers behind the contemporary right.
As might be predicted, Horowitz ends his book with a proposal that would shift college and university power to boards of trustees, writing:
The Board can establish quality control over the university product which will allow it to fulfill its fiduciary responsibilities to its donors and consumers. It will protect the university from adverse reactions to irresponsible statements and actions by its members. It will ensure a decent, professional education for its students.
In other words, in Horowitz’s vision, education can be turned from the freewheeling and tempestuous home of real learning and innovation into a place for training neoliberal minions who always do what they are told by the holders of the purse strings. Somehow, he thinks this would be a good thing–and he seems to believe that it hasn’t happened already.
Though other engines seem to be powering up for new fights against higher education, Horowitz himself seems to have run out of steam. Controversy concerning campuses today centers more on free speech than on protecting students from out-of-control faculty. As a result, this book will be of little interest to anyone outside of researchers looking into American culture and politics of the 1990s and 2000s. It offers nothing useful, certainly, for moving forward. Not for anyone of any political persuasion.
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