Book Review: David Horowitz’s Last Gasp on Higher Ed


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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11 thoughts on “Book Review: David Horowitz’s Last Gasp on Higher Ed

  1. This is interesting and I’m certainly no fan of Horowitz (I’ve published my own criticisms of his arguments against women’s studies), but I worry when you make statements like, “The act of teaching is political”. I think statements like that play right into the hands of Horowitz, the National Association of Scholars, and others who worry that we professors have gone rogue and use our power over students in the classroom as a place to push our political agenda, giving our students bad grades if they don’t “see the light”. I think this only fuels the tensions rather than, as you say you want to do, close the door on Horowitz. Why not say that we try to teach the scholarship in our field, and to get students to ask difficult questions, and teach how knowledge is related to real-world problems? Why not admit that we ought to have limits, ethically? We can and do limit ourselves. If you don’t clarify this, it seems that we run the risk of Horowitz and others perceiving us as twisting scholarship for our political purposes, rather than having a commitment to the pursuit of truth. Seeing what we do as political without putting any qualifiers on that also invites the censoring of each other– the way some gender studies scholars did when they called for the retraction of a peer-reviewed article published in Hypatia because they did not like what they thought were the political consequences of the scholarship. The AAUP fights for academic freedom, which as I see it is not the freedom to pursue a political project and call it scholarship. Academic freedom protects faculty from students, administrators, the government, special interest groups, and corporations from meddling with their scholarship or suppressing the results of their research. Such academic freedom is not politically qualified– to politically qualify it would miss the point of protecting it altogether. So while no scholarship or college course could be value-free or politically neutral, and admitting that is a good thing, we ought to take care not to go to the opposite extreme.

    • Update: Horowitz’s reply to Barlow, posted by John Wilson below, underscores my point. Horowitz states: “His argument that teaching should be political proselytizing is a confirmation of everything I say in my book, The Left in the University.”

      We are not convincing (or “closing the door on”) Horowitz when we write or act as if our academic freedom is really a freedom to use our classrooms or our scholarship as a front for a political agenda. Such an argument can actually invite far-right claims that flat-earthers and Holocaust deniers should get to teach and publish their work because, after all, it’s always political.

    • I appreciate your concern, but I think we can’t shy away from this fact but need to face it directly. Our disciplines, the natures of our classrooms and institutions, our accreditations, and much more are all founded on decisions of political nature. The very creation of our public schools and universities was a political act. When we try to remove scholarship from politics, we are allowing people like Horowitz the entire ground, and end up in a weaker position than before.

      Again, when we say that we will limit scholarship to our fields, we are ceding victory to Horowitz, allowing him to define just what our scholarly pursuits should be.

  2. I contacted David Horowitz to notify him about this review, and Horowitz asked me to post this response from him:

    “Aaron Barlow has spent a lot of time and energy avoiding the substantive arguments of my book, while presenting a caricature of its contents. His argument that teaching should be political proselytizing is a confirmation of everything I say in my book, The Left in the University. Barlow evades the fact that the liberal arts curriculum has become exclusively a curriculum in leftwing politics, and thus the central thesis of my book – that the left has reverted the university to its 19th Century origins when colleges were religious institutions whose purpose was to instill doctrines not conduct disinterested scholarly inquiries. Barlow and his colleagues are happy with colleges being religious institutions, so long as the religion is cultural Marxism. This is a sad commentary on our academic culture, but it is also a validation of everything I have written.”

    • It’s interesting that Horowitz doesn’t even understand the underlying nature of all teaching… or maybe not, given that he has never been a teacher. If you read even John Dewey, you’ll see that the point of education is to create a politically literate populace–itself a political act.

      When Horowitz says that the liberal arts are exclusively leftwing, he speaks from ignorance, which is one more reason why he is not worth responding to on that point. He has rarely, if ever, been in a contemporary classroom.

      My invitation to him to visit my own classroom still stands. Maybe he could learn something about what really goes on in contemporary colleges and universities.

      • I realize this is trivial, but I can’t help wondering why Horowitz couldn’t post that comment himself. It’s not difficult. Witness the fact that I’m doing it right now.

        And I’m not sure I agree that Horowitz is “speaking from ignorance” about the liberal arts. There’s just as much if not more chance that it’s a deliberate misrepresentation of something he knows is horsepoop.

        Finally–your point about inviting him to your class, Aaron, reminds me: I was in a flame war on my personal blog in 2007, 2008 (thereabouts) with a bunch of local activists who were convinced that I was the embodiment of Horowitz’s fever dream. After a few weeks of knocking heads about it, I finally offered access to my classes, as long as they were willing to tell me their real names and agree not to disrupt the proceedings in any way. I never heard from any of them ever again.

        Anecdotal, yes, but suggestive….

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        • Yes, I think many people have no interest in the actuality of the classroom, only in using misconceptions of the institutions in order to further their own political ends–Horowitz and, it sounds like, your activists, are among those.

          Horowitz, you are right, is not ignorant but deliberate. I should have indicated that.

  3. The problem isn’t, I don’t think, Barlow’s use of the word “political,” but the subsequent conflation of “political” with “partisan” or even “hyper-partisan.” Horowitz (in Wilson’s post) produces the act of “proselytizing” out of thin air, beating up a scarecrow he planted himself. Another anecdote for his next Volume of researches.

  4. Especially revealing is Horowitz’s claim that an institution’s board is responsible to “donors and consumers.” Not to the general public, which in the case of public colleges funds the enterprise through taxes (even with reduced funding, the land and buildings are publicly owned) or in the case of privates offers tax exemptions for non-profit status. This is at the core of the corporate university model.

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