Monday, May 2

Why David Horowitz is Wrong about "Balance" in the Academy

I did not know about David Horowitz's "academic bill of rights" when I began teaching my courses last fall, but even if I had, I would not have thought that I had anything to fear from it.

I teach religious studies at a public university in a conservative part of the nation -- not too different from the traditionally Republican state where I grew up. When I arrived here 16 years ago, I had no trouble adapting to the conservative religious background of many of my students. In graduate school I was more religiously and socially conservative than most of my fellow students. But although I have had my differences with liberals, I never felt that they forbade me to express an informed professional opinion. The chilling effect of today's conservative watchdogs is a much more serious matter.

Last semester I had my first significant falling-out with students, inspired -- I have no doubt -- by David Horowitz and his crusade against liberal bias in academe. Some of the students in my course on "Religion in American Culture" were upset that George M. Marsden's Religion and American Culture (2nd ed., Harcourt, 2001) and Randall Balmer's Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey Into the Evangelical Subculture in America (3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2000) were on the reading list. They felt that those two books were biased against evangelicals.

Marsden is a highly respected evangelical scholar, and Balmer's work on evangelicals has also been highly acclaimed. Although his religious affiliation is not as clear as Marsden's, I had never before heard complaints that he has been unfair to the evangelicals about whom he writes. I would have thought that the two scholars had impeccable credentials for inclusion in my course, but I now suspect that the objective, scholarly tone of the books upset my students.

I had also assigned some online readings about Christian Identity, a white-supremacist movement that considers Jews and anyone who is not white to belong to inferior races; believes that anything -- e.g., feminism and homosexuality -- not in accordance with traditional gender roles is sinful; and claims to be based on the Bible. Those readings were part of a series of items about Protestant, Catholic, Nation of Islam, American Indian, and other visions of America.

In the session that I had set aside for discussion of the Christian Identity readings, a student asked me if I would have included them had I known how many students believed in the movement. I had not expected many, if any, of my students to be affiliated with Christian Identity, so I had not prepared a response to that question. I think I said something to the effect that I did not fear for my life from the group because I was a white person who was neither a feminist nor a lesbian. (There have been reports of violence associated with Christian Identity.)

About two-thirds of my students did not return to class after that day, which was around the midpoint of the semester, except to take exams. Because I never had an opportunity to discuss the matter with the students who left, I don't know if they were members of Christian Identity, or if they simply believed that a movement that claimed to be based on the Bible could not be wrong. I had never had a large-scale problem with attendance before.

I had another problem with my course on the New Testament in the fall, also unprecedented in my teaching career. I had not included any discussion of homosexuality and the Bible in the syllabus, which was already crowded thanks to the requirements placed on general-education courses by the state Board of Regents, piled on top of the disciplinary imperative of explaining academic methods of studying the Bible and applying them to the New Testament. But when students requested that we take up homosexuality, I did what I normally do when students show a particular interest in something: I modified the syllabus to include it.

We read a Jewish scholar's interpretation of several passages in the Bible for a Jewish view on the subject. I invited a Reformed Church minister to speak to the students, and he explained why there is plenty of room for debate on the question of how Christians should respond to their homosexual brethren. It turned out, however, that at least one student had a specific book in mind for us to discuss: The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Abingdon Press, 2001), by Robert A.J. Gagnon.

Although the students realized they were not academically advanced enough to read the book on their own, they wanted to know what I thought about it. The semester was rapidly drawing to a close. Not having time to read the entire book, I promised to take a look at Gagnon's discussion of Romans 1:24-27, the most explicit and substantial discussion of homosexual behavior in the New Testament.

After I read that part of the book, I told the students that I thought the linguistic work was excellent, and that the linkage of Paul's views on homosexual behavior to his remarks on idolatry was brilliant. However, I did not think that Gagnon's argument would stand up for long.

I was about to explain why when I saw anger flash across several of the students' faces, and I realized that they thought my explanation was going to echo the beliefs of the minister they had already heard, whom they considered a liberal. So I simply said that anyone who wanted to know what flaws I saw in Gagnon's argument would have to come talk to me about that outside of class. No one did.

For the first time in my life, I felt as if I had to leave my commitment to the truth (which is what scholarship is all about!) at the door of the classroom. I didn't feel that I could tell my students they were wrong to avoid hearing my explanation -- in the current political climate, that would have been considered both anti-Republican and insulting to their conservative religious beliefs.

I have to believe that my students' behavior is a direct result of the new political climate on the campus that has been nurtured by the Horowitz "academic bill of rights," in cooperation with conservative media. I do not think that Horowitz intended those results. The problem is that students do not have the academic maturity to know how to use his document.

Nor do I see how they could have that maturity before completing a liberal-arts program of studies. Taking a smattering of liberal-arts courses, which is all that most students are required to do, does not give students the ability to detect bias in their professors or in what they read. Furthermore, many students take their definition of bias from conservative talk-radio shows and Fox News -- even people considered to be moderates from a liberal viewpoint seem biased from such conservative perspectives.

It seems that I must now bow to political or popular pressure because the ultimate judges of my professional expertise will not be my scholarly peers, but the public. And while members of the public and students may be able to judge many aspects of my teaching (that is why we have student evaluations of professors), they cannot judge whether I am teaching according to the best standards of the discipline.

Politics has always played a role on our campuses, but we are now experiencing a new form of political intrusion in academic life, and it is extremely dangerous. It has a direct impact on academic freedom because it threatens professors -- with the loss of the usual presumption that they are experts in their subject matter, or even with the loss of employment, if they do not agree with popular opinions.

That is too high a price for me to pay to keep my job, and I have resolved never again to bow to religious or political pressure in the classroom. In the future I will send students to the Internet to view authors' credentials. When I next teach the New Testament, I will use the disagreement between Gagnon and myself to demonstrate that scholarly debate -- unlike political debate, in which each side is expected to be partisan -- is a way of systematically testing the beliefs of both sides, and that my job is to critically assess all the arguments, from within my area of expertise.

Like many other academics, I have dedicated my life to the faithful transmission of the truth as best I can discern it. It makes me sick to my stomach to think of falsifying the truth, or even sacrificing my right to have an informed professional opinion.

Ann Marie B. Bahr is a professor of philosophy and religion at South Dakota State University. She is editor of Chelsea House's "Religions of the World" series and author of two books in the series, Christianity (2004) and Indigenous Religions (2005)