Fire the wonton professors: PC past and present

From an article last year in the Nation by Russell Jacoby, one of my favorite writers.

The New PC
By Russell Jacoby,
The Yale student did not like what he heard. Sociologists derided religion and economists damned corporations. One professor pre-emptively rejected the suggestion that "workers on public relief be denied the franchise." "I propose, simply, to expose," wrote the young author in a booklong denunciation, one of "the most extraordinary incongruities of our time. Under the "protective label 'academic freedom,'" the institution that derives its "moral and financial support from Christian individualists then addresses itself to the task of persuading the sons of these supporters to be atheistic socialists."

For William F. Buckley Jr., author of the 1951 polemic God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of "Academic Freedom" and a founder of modern American conservatism, the solution to this scandal was straightforward: Fire the wanton professors. No freedom would be abridged. The socialist professor could "seek employment at a college that was interested in propagating socialism." None around? No problem. The market has spoken. The good professor can retool or move on.

Buckley's book can be situated as a salvo in the McCarthyite attack on the universities. Indeed, even as a Yale student, Buckley maintained cordial relationships with New Haven FBI agents, and at the time of the book's publication he worked for the CIA. Buckley was neither the first nor the last to charge that teachers were misleading or corrupting students. At the birth of Western culture, a teacher called Socrates was executed for filling "young people's heads with the wrong ideas." In the twentieth century, clamor about subversive American professors has come in waves, cresting around World War I, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and today. The earlier assaults can be partially explained by the political situation. Authorities descended upon professors who questioned America's entry into World War I, sympathized with the new Russian Revolution or inclined toward communism during the cold war.


Tom Philpott said...

Here's more of the Jacoby article:

Today the situation is different. The fear during the cold war, however trumped up, that professors served America's enemies could claim a patina of plausibility insofar as some teachers identified themselves as communists or socialists. With communism dead, leftism moribund and liberalism wounded, the fear of international subversion no longer threatens. Even the most rabid critics do not accuse professors of being on the payroll of Al Qaeda or other Islamist extremists. Moreover, conservatives command the presidency, Congress, the courts, major news outlets and the majority of corporations; they appear to have the country comfortably in their pocket. What fuels their rage, then? What fuels the persistent charges that professors are misleading the young?

A few factors might be adduced, but none are completely convincing. One is the age-old anti-intellectualism of conservatives. Conservatives distrust unregulated intellectuals. Forty years ago McCarthyism spurred Richard Hofstadter to write his classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. In addition, a basic insecurity plagues conservatives today, a fear that their reign will be short or a gnawing doubt about their legitimacy. Dissenting voices cannot be tolerated, because they imply that a conservative future may not last forever. One Noam Chomsky is one too many. Angst besets the triumphant conservatives. Those who purge Darwin from America's schools must yell in order to drown out their own misgivings, the inchoate realization that they are barking at the moon.

Today's accusations against subversive professors differ from those of the past in several respects. In a sign of the times, the test for disloyalty has shifted far toward the center. Once an unreliable professor meant an anarchist or communist; now it includes Democrats. Soon it will be anyone to the left of Attila the Hun. Second, the charges do not (so far) come from government committees investigating un-American activities but from conservative commentators and their student minions. A series of groups such as Campus Watch, Academic Bias and Students for Academic Freedom enlist students to monitor and publicize professorial conduct. Third, the new charges are advanced not against but in the name of academic freedom or a variant of it; and, in the final twist, the new conservative critics seem driven by an ethos that they have adopted from liberalism: affirmative action and a sense of victimhood, which they officially detest.

Paul Hue said...

Tom: How many times are you going to defend socialist, blame-the-US-for-everything professors from getting fired, when NOBODY IS TRYING TO FIRE THEM? The best you can do is ressurrect young Bill Buckley's 30-year-old book? Why not fight a real effort, such as the failed efffort to fire Ward Churchill? Oh, I forgot: I've already posted numerous times defending that guy.

Tom Philpott said...

David Horowitz, as the Jacoby article shows, would like to sanitize the universities.

sixstringslinger said...

"David Horowitz, as the Jacoby article shows, would like to sanitize the universities."

That is absolute bullsh*t Tom and you know it. No one, Horowitz included, wants colleges and universities "sanitized", they simply want some balance in how students are being taught, and want them "taught" and not "indoctrinated". They want both sides presented objectively, in a non-partisan way. Is that really so much to ask?

No one wants teachers and professors fired either. But they do want them to cease with the lop-sided political rants, ESPECIALLY when they have nothing to do with class content.

You, of all people, should understand this, having come from that background.

McCarthyism my ass. Please.

Tom Philpott said...

"One Noam Chomsky is one too many. Angst besets the triumphant conservatives. Those who purge Darwin from America's schools must yell in order to drown out their own misgivings, the inchoate realization that they are barking at the moon."

Paul Hue said...

Tom: That's the best evidence that you can come up with for an effort to fire US professors for holding leftist views? For one thing, as we know, whereas US voters split about evenly between the demo and repo party, in the humanity fields professors vote about 90% demo. That's some fight that Horowitz is supposedly raging!

What Horowitz wants is the hummanity programs to start hiring professors that have a diversity of opinion, and -- as Six notes -- forcing them to spend class time addressing their assigned subjects. There is no call to fire professors for holding leftist views.

The only point you have, but oddly haven't made, is the calls to fire Ward Connerly.

Where are the history and literature professors who have my perspective? Can I take any classes anywhere in these subjects who thinks that the US for 200 years has led the world in moving forward towards improved civilization, from abolishing racial and sexual descrimination, to tollerating dissent? Do *NO* proffessors of literature and history believe this?

How about professors opposing affirmative action? Is it OK to have any professors who oppose that?

Tom Philpott said...

So what do you want--affirmative action? Hire token conservatives? Where are the hoards of right wingers who want to make the long march through the humanities academy--and are being denied? Are not careers on Wall Street and the law snapping up the best conservative minds? And why are there no Marxists in economics departments--or Freudians in psychology? Shall I launch a Horowitz-like crusade to even out the situation? Picket the Hayek boys over at GWU?

Paul Hue said...

Tom: Yes, I advocate affirmative action to get marxists into economics departments, and neocons into history departments. I have read about conservative faculty candidates who have either been denied opportunities, or who believe that they have to keep their traps shut. But I don't have ready references for these claims. Thomas Sowell documents some in some of his books.