McCarthyism Redux


he politics of fear-mongering
have been given yet another target: education. Conservative activists
who have long bemoaned the changing face of the university in U.S.
society have mounted a campaign for education “reform”
in college classrooms. Unfortunately for college students, this
campaign is not driven by a concern over the quality of education
in this country, but rather by nostalgia for a bygone era when the
university was the exclusive domain of wealthy white men. As the
demographic makeup of the student population has steadily become
more diverse over the past several decades, so too has the content
of college curricula. This move away from the canon of dead white
men has prompted many conservatives to charge that institutions
of higher learning are afflicted with a “liberal” bias
so deep-seated as to undermine academic freedom and alienate conservative-minded

Indeed, it seems as if history is gearing up to repeat itself. In
the days of the “red scare,” the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC)—and similar investigations by the infamous Joseph
McCarthy—selectively targeted the country’s colleges and
universities. The ivory tower was thought to be overflowing with
Marxist professors and Soviet sympathizers. 

To many in America after World War II, the thought of communist
agents masquerading within sectors of U.S. society was terrifying.
The government used this paranoia to broaden its definition of communism
and, by extension, the communist threat. The public’s perception
of the red menace gradually evolved from initial tolerance for dissent
and hesitations about violating people’s basic civil liberties
to the conviction that communists were so uniquely dangerous that
their rights could be ignored. The weight of public opinion, along
with considerable pressure from the government, forced the academic
community to purge itself. In the name of national security, many
left-leaning teachers were driven out of the school system amid
charges that they were unfit to teach. University of Washington
president Raymond B. Allen expressed the views of many in 1948 when
he insisted that communists, by virtue of their party membership,
were “incompetent, intellectually dishonest, and derelict in
their duty to find and teach the truth.” 

In a stunning display of hypocrisy, many of the nation’s leading
educators completely ignored the research and teaching of supposed
communist professors on their campuses. They claimed that because
party members were, by definition, unable to speak and think independently,
they could not be objective scholars and were thus, in the words
of Harvard president James Bryant Conant, “out of bounds as
members of the teaching profession.” In other words, they fell
victim to the very same intellectual conformity that was the basis
of their charge against communists in the first place. 

Today, U.S. colleges and universities are once again the subject
of an ideological witch-hunt. Under the guise of protecting academic
freedom, conservative groups are pushing state governments to adopt
what is being disingenuously referred to as the Academic Bill of
Rights. The bill—which has also been introduced in the House
of Representatives—is the brainchild of ultraconservative ideologue
David Horowitz and his group, Students for Academic Freedom. Despite
its seemingly democratic handle, the Academic Bill of Rights is
nothing more than a transparent political attempt to silence the
opinions of those with whom Horowitz and other conservatives disagree.
Also outrageous is that this bill attempts to solve a problem that
doesn’t exist. 

mission, according to his website, is “to end the political
abuse of the university and to restore integrity to the academic
mission as a disinterested pursuit of knowledge.” This goal
presupposes that there are two limitations on academic freedom—first,
that universities discriminate against conservative professors in
the hiring process; second, that liberal professors indoctrinate
their students to the point where “conservative-minded students
are intimidated into silence.” Neither of these claims is true
and the “evidence” that supports them is so superficial
that one must wonder how this bill continues to be debated at the
highest levels of government.  

In order to “prove” that conservative professors are treated
unfairly in the hiring process, Horowitz surveyed professors’
political party affiliation. Because the number of registered Democrats
was significantly higher than the number of registered Republicans,
he made the dubious inference that liberal professors receive undue
preference when being hired. But the only thing proved by a head
count of Democrats and Republicans is that there are more Democrats
than Republicans. This is hardly evidence of a massive liberal bias. 

As for the second charge—that professors are brainwashing their
students with radical liberal ideas like evolution and the minimum
wage—Horowitz has compiled a list of anecdotes by students
who have been upset by the conduct of their professors. These complaints
indicate that some students aren’t too happy about hearing
different viewpoints, but they do little to suggest indoctrination.
However, the nature of this claim makes it harder to disprove. There
is no objective standard for classifying non-offensive material
and thus the only way to assess the validity of these allegations
is by a case-bycase investigation. I have no doubt that the student’s
interviewed by Horowitz were outraged by the conduct of their professors,
but that does not mean that we must automatically recognize their
complaints as legitimate. 

This last point is especially important given Horowitz’s tendency
to distort the truth in order to buoy his political crusade. This
past March a well publicized complaint from a student at the University
of Northern Colorado was found to be patently false. The circumstances
surrounding this complaint are particularly important, as it formed
the basis for a great many of Horowitz’s speeches promoting
his bill. In his version, the student (who remains nameless) was
asked on a test to “explain why George Bush is a war criminal”
and when she submitted an essay on why Saddam Hussein was a war
criminal, she received an F. In reality, the test question was not
the one Horowitz described and the grade was not an F. The professor
who was held up as an example of out-of-control liberal academics
is a registered Republican. 

Aside from being completely baseless, the Academic Bill of Rights
undermines what it supposedly aims to protect: academic freedom.
Although Horowitz would have us believe that pluralism is needed
to enforce the American Association of University Professor’s
neutrality principle—which states that “no political,
ideological, or religious orthodoxy should be imposed on professors
and researchers”—in truth, it’s  a Trojan horse
for his right-wing agenda. Under the cover of pluralism, the Academic
Bill of Rights would force teachers by law to adopt political instead
of scholarly standards when evaluating what does and doesn’t
belong in the classroom. 

to the AAUP, “a fundamental premise of academic freedom is
that decisions concerning the quality of scholarship and teaching
are to be made by reference to the standards of the academic profession,
as interpreted and applied by the community of scholars who are
qualified…to establish such standards.” The Academic Bill
of Rights on the other hand requires colleges and universities to
appoint faculty “with a view toward fostering a plurality of
methodologies and perspectives” in order to ensure a diversity
of ideas in the classroom. 

The danger here is that diversity will be measured by the political
standards of mainstream conservatism and not by the criteria of
academia. For example, no department of political science should
be obligated to establish a “plurality of methodologies and
perspectives” by hiring a professor of Nazi political philosophy
if that philosophy is not considered to be a reasonable option within
the discipline of political theory. The only measure of diversity
should be academic judgment guided by the relevant disciplinary
standards of the day. The reason this wasn’t written into the
bill (aside from the fact that it is already the established policy
of the AAUP) is because Horowitz isn’t really interested in
balance and even-handedness, he’s interested in silencing liberal
professors. In order to do this, the Academic Bill of Rights would
literally prevent faculty members from exercising their own judgment. 

Currently, the line between pedagogy and indoctrination is determined
by reference to scholarly and professional standards as interpreted
by the professors themselves. In other words, we leave it up to
a biology professor to decide whether or not, as President Bush
has said, “the jury is still out on evolution.” By contrast,
the Academic Bill of Rights proposes that such distinctions be made
by the college and university administrations or by the courts. 

The difference is fundamental. At its most basic level, the purpose
of higher education is to teach students to exercise responsible
judgment. This objective can only be fulfilled if the faculty has
the authority to freely and independently guide and instruct students.
Horowitz would deny professors this authority and thus prevent colleges
and universities from achieving their fundamental purpose. When
coupled with the skepticism of professional knowledge that is the
central theme of the bill, we find ourselves in a situation where
decisions that should be grounded in professional competence and
expertise are being based on political criteria—like the number
of Republicans on the faculty. 

There is an ugly irony to all this. The problem, according to Students
for Academic Freedom, is that “You can’t get an education
if you’re only hearing half the story.” The solution,
it seems, is to sacrifice the quality of everyone’s education
in the name of an illegitimate and artificial diversity. Consider
this passage from the bill: “Curricula and reading lists in
the humanities and social sciences should reflect the uncertainty
and unsettled character of all human knowledge in these areas by
providing students with dissenting sources and viewpoints….
Academic disciplines should welcome a variety of approaches to unsettled

many, evolution is an “unsettled question.” Should we
then have biology professors teach creationism in a scientific setting?
Some people no doubt believe that the Holocaust never occurred.
Should we then teach Holocaust revisionism in our history classes
out of allegiance to “the uncertainty and unsettled character
of all human knowledge?” Balance is not the same as academic
freedom. The best way to ensure academic freedom is not to restrict
it. But the Academic Bill of Rights does just that. It introduces
content-based restrictions that regulate what books professors can
teach and what subjects they can discuss. 

All this begs the question: if the Academic Bill of Rights undermines
academic freedom, what is the real motive behind Horowitz’s
campaign? Unfortunately, the answer is not as simple as many of
the bill’s opponents may think. The Academic Bill of Rights
is not just the work of one person, but is the mantelpiece of a
much broader conservative crusade to “reclaim” the university. 

The social transformations of the last half-century—civil rights,
women’s liberation, and the rise of multiculturalism—have
legitimatized new disciplines of study and college curriculum has
been reformed accordingly. As with most progressive cultural shifts,
it was only a matter of time before a backlash developed. Horowitz
is currently riding the wave of this reactionary movement, a movement
that marks another battle in the seemingly endless culture wars.
What remains certain is that the Academic Bill of Rights is this
decade’s blacklist. Like Joseph McCarthy before him, Horowitz
is prosecuting a witch-hunt. This time around, let’s make sure
that history does not repeat itself. The education of America’s
youth hangs in the balance.

Cohen is a student at Dartmouth College.