Academic intolerance

Nov 222007

Slate has an article by William Saletan on the topic of racial differences in intelligence — the same topic that cost James Watson his job.  He argues that liberals are to this topic as Christians are (or were) to evolution.    That section is titled “Liberal Creationism.”

The comment section has some fascinating debate which demonstrates that Saletan has a point.    It was interesting how some debaters criticized Saletan saying there is no such thing as race, it’s all a social construct of some sort.  Someone on the other side responded that the same people who deny there is such a thing as race when this topic comes up will be the same ones to argue that one race is discriminated against in employment.

Oct 132007

Naomi Schaefer Riley has an article at the WSJ about how rich people have trouble giving money to universities. Well, the universities will gladly take the money, but they are not willing to use it to fund educational programs that the leftwing establishment types don’t like. Example:

The Robertson family at Princeton has not been so lucky. In 1961, Charles and Marie Robertson (an heiress to the A&P supermarket fortune), donated $35 million to the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University to prepare students for careers in government service. The Robertsons’ descendants now claim that the university has diverted the funds to projects completely unrelated to this mission. In 2002, they sued Princeton to reclaim the endowment, now estimated to be nearly $500 million. Five years later, they still haven’t gotten a refund.

Apparently there is now an organization called the Center for Excellence in Higher Education which will help donors get their funds used for reform:

Along with John M. Templeton Jr. and the John William Pope Foundation, Mr. Marcus has provided the seed money ($5 million) for the Center for Excellence in Higher Education (CEHE). The Indianapolis-based center, launched last month, aims to help donors “use philanthropy as a lever to reform higher education,” says Frederic Fransen, its executive director. Reform includes a greater emphasis on core curricula, a free-market understanding of economics, a more balanced approach to politics, affordable tuition, tenured faculty who spend more time in the classroom, greater transparency in university governance, and an end to grade inflation.

I suppose that might be the thing for some donors. But here is a better idea for all you millionaires and billionaires who rely on me for advice: Give your money to FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. It is working to protect free speech in academia. The academy was once a bulwark of free speech, but has now become one of its biggest threats. The way things are going, there soon won’t be any universities where one would be proud to have one’s name on a new research building. But a few major donations to FIRE or other such advocacy organizations could have a powerful effect in preserving our once-great university system.

Oct 112007

I hate being right so much of the time, like when I refer to Academic Intolerance, or when I say there are no more liberals (except for Nat Hentoff) because they’ve all become leftwing fascists. Or when I point out how I’ll end my days in one of Hillary’s internment camps. I hate it when she shows herself more and more to be the kind of person to prove me right. I’d rather be mistaken and be laughed at for being overly paranoid.

So it was rather spooky to read Daniel Henninger’s column in the WSJ in which he tells us that agents of federal authority are now talking about censuring a talk radio host. That was news to me. And he brings up a good question which ought to be brought before Senator Clinton and examined backwards and forwards, inside and out:

I would like to put a question to the senator: Would you defend Rush Limbaugh’s speech rights against the pressure that was brought upon him on the floor of the Senate by your colleagues Harry Reid and Ken Salazar? Colorado’s Sen. Salazar went so far last week as to say he’d support a Senate vote to “censure” Mr. Limbaugh. Rhymes with censor.

And then I thought he was pointing out how academics are now coming out of the closet with some repressive, anti-free speech moves, which is where things really got scary.

Who threw the first stone in these media-driven bloodlettings? Good question. But to my knowledge the right has no equivalent to “repressive tolerance,” the aggressive theory of scorched-earth political argument laid out in the hothouse years of the 1960s by the late left-wing political philosopher Herbert Marcuse. Just last November, in an admiring essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, the left polemicist Stanley Fish aptly summed up Marcuse’s assertion that “liberal” notions of tolerance for political speech should be overturned.

The rationale for this notion is that standard tolerance is rigged against the left. In practice, tolerance extends only to the ideas and beliefs of the powerful, while it shuts out ideas on behalf of the weak or “marginalized”–the poor, minorities, women and the rest. Mr. Fish says liberals fail to see “the dark side of their favorite virtue.”

Prof. Fish has an alternative to traditions of tolerance, and to anyone awash in American politics today it will sound familiar: “That is to say, and Marcuse says it, anything the right does is bad and should not be tolerated; anything the left does is good and should be welcomed.” This would explain the emotional intensity and animosity in politics now: The other side no longer deserves minimal respect.

Maybe I’m missing something, but I think Mr. Henninger is mistaken in saying (or at least implying) that Stanley Fish is speaking approvingly of Marcuse’s statement. I just finished reading that Chronicles of Higher Education article (in the November 10, 2006 issue). Fish may be a leftwing polemicist, but I didn’t find that article to be polemical. It raises a lot of good points about the nature of liberal tolerance which we had better understand if we think we are going to defend it.

I wish it was somewhere online that’s generally accessible, because it ought to be widely discussed.

Oh, and just to give a sample, Fish makes a point that C.S. Lewis had made on another topic. (Or was it the same topic?) Lewis had said you can’t derive conclusions in the imperative from premises in the indicative. Fish, points out that you can’t derive conclusions about what to do to promote and defend tolerance by analyzing its nature. (The article is basically an essay about Wendy Brown’s book, “Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire.”)

On balance, I think it is the latter; she wants a better universalism than liberalism’s, but her articulations of it are without content, as they will necessarily be if she thinks to derive it from her critique of liberalism and liberal tolerance. That critique, to repeat the point made earlier, tells you what liberal tolerance is made of; it doesn’t tell you whether it is bad or good, and it certainly doesn’t tell you what should be put in its place.

I think in looking for threats to the values represented by the 1st Amendment, Mr. Henninger caught the wrong Fish. At least I hope so.

Edit: Fixed the spelling of Mr. Henninger’s name.

Sep 192007

From the History News Network:

Tony Judt: Notes the downside to multicultural studies

The historian Tony Judt, a self-described “old leftist” and the director of the Remarque Institute at N.Y.U., which examines Europe and European-American relations, said undergraduates often arrive unprepared from high school and seeking courses “in what we might have thought of as the old-fashioned approach” — broad surveys. But many young professors aren’t interested in teaching outside their narrow specialties, nor are they generally prepared to do so. And colleges are loath to reinstate the core curriculums they abandoned in the ’60s. “Because we lack cultural self-confidence, we’ve lacked the ability to say, ‘This is a good book and should be taught, this isn’t and shouldn’t,’ ” said Judt, who was dean of the humanities at N.Y.U. in the early ’90s.

Judt also denounces the balkanization created by interdisciplinary ethnic studies programs. Multiculturalism “created lots and lots of microconstituencies, which universities didn’t have the courage to oppose,” he said. “It’s much more like a supermarket — kids can take pretty much any courses they like: Jewish kids take Jewish studies, gay students gay studies, black students African-American studies. You no longer have a university, but a series of identity constituencies all studying themselves.”

If he’s an “old leftist,” maybe it isn’t my imagination that there once was a time when the left was not intellectually bankrupt.

It’s bad enough that premature specialization takes place at the college level, but you see high schools trying to play college and do the same thing. That’s a subject for another day, though, because there is something else to mention — something that the HNN article didn’t say. The article is excerpted from a NYT article, “Revisiting the Canon Wars,” by Rachel Donadio. Here’s an item that caught my attention:

But Fish thinks humanities professors bear some blame for their diminished standing. He’s at work on a new book, “Save the World on Your Own Time,” which argues that academics should teach, not proselytize. In his view, “the invasion of political agendas” into the classroom in the ’60s and ’70s was “extremely dangerous,” since it meant classrooms could become battlegrounds for political demagoguery.

So on the one hand you have the National Association of Social Work saying you can’t become a professional unless you proselytize, and this Fish guy saying not while the kids are still in college, at least. I know which side of the argument I’m cheering for.

Sep 132007

I had thought it would come to this eventually. I didn’t realize it was already here as a matter of official policy, and has been here for ten years already.

Here is John Leo in a column at

In 1997, the National Association of Social Work (NASW) altered its ethics code, ruling that all social workers must promote social justice “from local to global level.” This call for mandatory advocacy raised the question: what kind of political action did the highly liberal field of social work have in mind? The answer wasn’t long in coming. The Council on Social Work Education, the national accreditor of social work education programs, says candidates must fight “oppression,” and sees American society as pervaded by the “global interconnections of oppression.” Now aspiring social workers must commit themselves, usually in writing, to a culturally left agenda, often including diversity programs, state-sponsored redistribution of income, and a readiness to combat heterosexism, ableism, and classism.

I’m somewhat sensitive to this issue, because I’ve occasionally had people of the left ask me why a person of my political views is working for a public university, on the public payroll.  (I have a support staff position.)    My standard response is that it’s a damning indictment of the system if giving me a paycheck is supposed to buy my political views as well.

But that’s the direction in which things are headed.  A personal observation is that young students and even faculty members are having increasing difficulty separating ecological science from environmental activism.     I wonder how many can still articulate the reasons for separating the two.   They seem to understand the difference between science and non-science when the topic of creationism comes up — but they don’t seem to be able to apply the principles generally.

Well, I don’t know if this National Association of Scholars (apparently the source of much of Leo’s information) is going to make much headway in protecting science and scholarship.

How about this:  NASW should add an amendment to its code of ethics, explaining that whenever its members engage in public discussion of political affairs, that they should add the disclaimer that their political views are bought and paid for.    Newspapers when printing letters to the editor from such persons, should point out that the political views of the writer have been bought and paid for, and are not the result of independent thought any more than those of a corporate PR flack are.

Jun 162007

Back in the very early 1980s I started a newspaper clipping file under the subject line “Academic Intolerance.” At the time it seemed ironic to find occasional examples of intolerance in institutions that were supposedly devoted to freedom of speech and inquiry. Since then the quantity and ferocity of the intolerance have increased to the point where the term no longer sounds oxymoronic.

I hadn’t known about this one, though, until I read Fred Thompson’s column today:

The head of Marquette’s philosophy department apparently didn’t get it. He took down Barry’s words and issued a statement that included the words, “while I am a strong supporter of academic freedom. I’m afraid that hallways and office doors are not free-speech zones.” Since then, the Marquette philosophy department has stuck to its stance that Barry’s words are “patently offensive,” despite the fact that lots of other doors had slogans pasted on them.

You have to wonder just how oblivious that department chair is. The hallways and office doors of academia have long been free-speech zones. For decades I have been reading offensive and objectionable political statements on the doors of academic offices. I can point to a whole bunch of objectionable statements on the doors of the offices and labs where I work now. But while I usually disagree with what’s posted, I think it’s a great tradition. I think of how Martin Luther got the Reformation started by posting controversial statements on a door where they could be seen by passers by.

I see that this particular example has already been blogged to death. But it reminds me that this blog for some reason did not yet have an “Academic intolerance” category. It now does.

And whether or not Fred Thompson would make a good president, it’s great that he is bringing up issues like this. It will be good for the campaign if he can keep it up.

I long ago threw out my old clipping files. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that, now that governments and other institutions are learning how to censor the internet. I still have my old clipping indexes, and some of them are in a form that would allow me to track down the articles, at least until the newspaper archives get censored, too.