Tuesday, May 9

Stanley Fish on the Student's BIll of Rights

Last week the undergraduate body at Princeton University voted to ratify a Student Bill of Rights, modeled on the Academic Bill of Rights written by David Horowitz. Mr. Horowitz is an influential and widely read conservative activist who has persuaded a number of state and national legislators to insert the language of his bill into proposed laws. (This is not a marginal effort; in Congress, it has the support of John Boehner of Ohio, the House majority leader.)

Several versions of the bill—including a separate but overlapping Student Bill of Rights—can be found on a Horowitz-sponsored Web site, studentsforacademicfreedom.org, but they all display the same strategy of alternating unexceptionable statements with statements that at first sound benign but are in fact troubling in their implications. Who could disagree with the Princeton document’s insistence that “professors must never allow a student’s affiliations or religious beliefs to negatively affect his/her academic performance” or with the assertion that “Teachers are entitled to freedom in teaching their subject as they see fit, but not to the point of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination…”?

I certainly don’t, which is why three of my own essays are featured on the Students for Academic Freedom Web site. I have problems, however, with the clause that concludes the second quotation: “or to the exclusion of other viewpoints.” The repetition of “or,” linking the three propositions, suggests that they are all in the same line of work, but they are not. The second clause—“not to the point of political, ideological, religious, or anti-religious indoctrination”—properly limits the instructor’s freedom (which cannot include the freedom to proselytize). But the third clause takes that freedom away by requiring the instructor to give class time to viewpoints simply because they are out there.

This little move has been telegraphed by the first words of the Princeton bill: “Believing in the need to affirm the principles of academic freedom and intellectual diversity.…” The strong suggestion is that academic freedom and intellectual diversity go together, but in fact they pull in opposite directions. Academic freedom is the freedom to go wherever an intellectual inquiry takes you without regard to directives proclaimed in advance by a regime of prior restraint. Intellectual diversity is a prior restraint; it tells you where to look and what you must look at—you must take into account every point of view independently of whether you think it is worth considering—and it tells you what materials you must include in your syllabus. The number of viewpoints you decide to consult or present to your students should be determined by the shape and history of the academic task rather than by a general imperative which may or not be pertinent to a particular line of inquiry.

If I am persuaded that a dispute in the field has been resolved beyond any reasonable doubt, why should I waste class time telling my students about approaches rejected by the vast majority of researchers? (Yes, I know that an approach rejected today may be revived in 10 or 30 or 50 years and prove triumphant, but I am paid to teach the present state of the discipline, not to speculate about what it will look like in an indefinite future that may never arrive.) This does not mean that challenges to prevailing orthodoxies should not be mounted, only that they should be mounted for good disciplinary reasons—like the emergence of new evidence or the discrediting of old evidence—and not for the blanket reason that we must have intellectual diversity.

The truth is that despite the packaging of its name, intellectual diversity is not an intellectual requirement, it is a political one. It is at base a demand for proportional representation, for it asks that we take a census of the perspectives and theories vying for attention and take steps to assure that each of them is accorded space in our lesson plan. Intellectual diversity is not a device for winnowing the true from the false, but a device of inclusion. Ironically, its politics resemble nothing more than the politics of multiculturalism, a politics supporters of the various bills of academic and student rights usually denounce.

What is the content of this politics? The answer is provided by Mr. Horowitz when he complains, in an April, 2003, post on his blog Frontpagemag.com, “There is a lack of intellectual diversity on college faculties and in academic classrooms.” This lack, he goes on to say, has a specific lamentable result: “The conservative viewpoint is ‘under-represented’ in the curriculum and on its reading lists.”

There is so much wrong with this that it is hard to know where to begin.

First of all, what exactly is a conservative viewpoint? If it is a viewpoint that promotes and defends conservative political agendas, it should not be represented in the curriculum at all except as an object of study. If the complaint is that important conservative thinkers like Richard Hooker, Thomas Hobbes, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Carl Schmidt, Martin Heidegger, Leo Strauss and Michael Oakeshott are not being taught, I would join it. But in fact these and other figures on that side of the political street are taught all the time. If, on the other hand, the complaint is that those teaching these and other texts are disproportionately members of the Democratic party and that therefore we must, as a matter of principle, redress the imbalance, the obvious intention is to replace an intellectual criterion with a political one.

Of course, Mr. Horowitz and his allies believe that their intention is quite the opposite. They desire, they tell us over and over again, to detach academic life from political and ideological commitments. But monitoring the political affiliations of faculty members and drawing conclusions from the percentages of Democrats and Republicans in an academic unit seems a strange way to do that, unless you assume that a professor’s voting record in partisan elections will be a predictor of his or her performance in the classroom. As a matter of fact, that assumption is false. It is quite possible and even ordinary for a professor to vote left and yet occupy a conservative position in the politics of a discipline, where the issues are not foreign policy or welfare reform but quantitative versus qualitative research models or formalist versus historicist interpretive protocols. By not distinguishing between academic politics and real world politics, the supporters of intellectual diversity—by which they really mean political diversity—install politics as a baseline measure of what should be taught and who should get to teach it even as they claim to be doing exactly the reverse.

It could be said that I am overreacting. The Princeton Bill of Rights is not binding on anyone—it specifically disclaims any intention to bind—and the version inserted into the Higher Education Act (section 103 of House Bill 609) by Representative Boehner and two other Republicans, Howard McKeon of California and Jack Kingston of Georgia, has no enforcement mechanisms. But there are other less benign signs of what may be on the horizon and in the minds of those who brandish the flag of intellectual diversity.

In the Pennsylvania Legislature, House Resolution 177 proposes to establish a select committee charged with “examining the academic atmosphere” and reporting its findings and “any recommendations for remedial legislation and other appropriate action” no later than November 30th of this year. The resolution lists as a chief objective the determination of whether faculty are being “hired, fired and promoted” on the basis of “professional competence”—immediately defined as the practice of “helping students explore and understand various methodologies and perspectives.”

It’s not hard to guess what “perspectives” the committee will want to find represented and what recommendations will be made if they are not. One can easily imagine both the report and the proposed “remedial” legislation: not enough conservative voices, too many multiculturalists, too few conservative Christians, too many liberal Jews (this of course will not be said openly; it never is). And the remedy? Heightened and regular monitoring of the faculty’s political affiliations, quotas (no doubt called “targets”), the withdrawal of funds if the numbers do not improve, and public censure. O brave new world! David Horowitz repeatedly disclaims any desire to hand over academic decisions to political bodies, but however pure his intentions may be (and I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt), the intentions of those who have signed on to his program in Pennsylvania could not be more obvious or more distressing.

One last point. Resolution 177, the Academic Bill of Rights, the Student Bill of Rights and the Princeton Student Bill of Rights all speak of the importance of promoting and protecting the academic freedom of students. What could this possibly mean? The only freedom students rightly have is the freedom to vote with their feet if they don’t like the syllabus in a particular course. They are not free to demand on the basis of “intellectual diversity” or “balance” or “pluralism” or some other specious abstraction that the syllabus be changed to suit their personal or ideological inclinations. Nor are students free to introduce into a classroom issues or perspectives that are judged by an instructor to be beside the point he or she wishes to explore. Instructors are free to say to a student, “That may be an interesting question, but it is not one we shall be asking here.”

The rhetoric of academic freedom for students is a subset of the rhetoric of student rights. But students have no rights, except the right to competent and responsible instruction. They certainly do not have any right to be instructed by a conservative teacher or a liberal teacher or a religious teacher or a white teacher or a black teacher or a teacher of any color. The idea that students have rights often accompanies the idea that students are customers and teachers, providers. Students are not customers and if we survey their preferences and alter our “product” accordingly, we will not only have betrayed our professional responsibility; we will have betrayed them.

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