July 6, 2005

An illusory victory, and all the better for it

David Horowitz, our favorite critic of academia, has made a name for himself by going on a crusade to badger governments and private colleges until they start teaching the conservative side of everything along side the “liberal” ideas (i.e. those commonly-held to be true and effective) or something.

Horowitz has been pushing his Academic Bill of Rights around like a cart of rotten mangos for a good while now (Horowitz plagued—I mean—visited Dartmouth in April 2004 to present his opinions), but apparently now he’s getting somewhere. Or so he thinks.

The American Council of Education released a rather brief document designed to outline “some central, overarching principles that are widely shared within the academic community [and that] deserve to be stated affirmatively as a basis for discussion of these issues on campuses and elsewhere.”

Though Horowitz claims this is a “major victory,” he’s really gotten nowhere. The standards outlined in the ACE release simply reaffirm the individual institution’s right to establish curricula (and consequentially the rejection of government intervention/regulation), as well as the idea that disagreement isn’t a bad thing, the (well-understood) notion that profs should grade impartially, and the assumption that some ideas are better than others. Really, no ground has been given, and it shouldn’t be.

Horowitz is trying to turn the same logic that has led to policies like affirmative action and the creation of departments like African-American Studies and WGST against the liberal academics who support and perpetuate them. The truism he is co-opting is “Discrimination is bad.” Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights uses the (very American) philosophy that it is always wrong to exclude people that differ from the socially dominant position and twists it to extend to ideas—it is always wrong, he suggests, to exclude an idea that differs from the mainstream (i.e. liberal) academic position.

For Horowitz, it is wrong to fail to balance a panel discussion, even if that will lead to inviting intellectually discredited figures. It is wrong to select readings for a curriculum without regarding all the alternatives to the mainline academic understanding of the issues at hand. It is wrong to grade an argument based on its speaker’s political beliefs without regard to its academic merit.

Well, one of these three is right (the third in case you couldn't figure it out on your own), but then again, it is unlike the others. The reasons for this difference can be summed up in one sentence:

Unlike with people, equality of opportunity is not a good thing for ideas.

The third case is a case of discrimination against the person, not the idea. The idea's merit does not enter into the reasons for its rejection--therefore, it is not a subject of discrimination. In the other two cases, it is the ideas are not given an equal opportunity, not the people behind the ideas because the situations involved are focused around the exchange of ideas, not the evaluation of people.

Without even touching on the pedagogical problems such a doctrine would create, the simple fact is that Horowitz does not understand the academic mission, which is to identify and disseminate truths. It is not in the business of presenting all sides of the issue; it is in the business of teaching which side works (the best). If it can be shown that another method or idea functions more effectively in explaining, ordering, or fixing a problem, then it should replace the old method or opinion.

To bring in speakers solely to achieve an ideological balance will only corrupt the debate; to present opinions or methods that do nothing other than offer an alternative view (but don’t improve on the mainstream position) will only bog down the class and the discourse with junk. It is this commitment to identifying and disseminating truths that was affirmed in the ACE release, not some nebulous quest for balance.

The only victory for Horowitz is that he can now say that someone has actually taken the time to try to get him to shut up rather than just sitting quietly and hoping he’d go away.
Congratulations, Davy.

[Caveat: I am not under the impression that libs have all the right answers for all academic problems, but, like it or not, that’s the way it stands in a great many fields—-liberal ideas solve or answer the questions that are being asked. Until this changes, it is unreasonable to ask for the presentation of answers or solutions that do not resolve those questions. While it is not the case that the best ideas are always the mainstream academic positions, it is the case that the business of academia is to self-correct, not to balance itself ideologically. Those are not mutually exclusive, but can certainly be at odds, and are within Mr. Horowitz’s Bill of Rights.]

2 comments:

  1. I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss Horowitz's crusade as ineffective. Go read about his successful efforts to get the legislature involved in Georgia and Colorado if you haven't already. The lesson is that rabid lunatic cons can indeed win significant victories; in fact, they do it all the time.

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  2. "To bring in speakers solely to achieve an ideological balance will only corrupt the debate; to present opinions or methods that do nothing other than offer an alternative view (but don’t improve on the mainstream position) will only bog down the class and the discourse with junk."

    This is true. But most questions in academia (and in life) don't have a clear answer. I think all legitimate sides should be discussed, but certainly none should be included simply because it's different or unpopular.

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