MLA 2008: David Horowitz Meets His Critics

December 29, 2008

San Francisco — David Horowitz is no stranger to the MLA. His campaign for an “academic bill of rights” and his criticism of what he says is classroom indoctrination have earned him the enmity of many scholars — not just in literary studies, a frequent target of his barbs, but other disciplines as well. But to hear him tell it, the extreme attacks on him have blocked any real discussion. In fact, Mr. Horowitz’s appearance at the MLA here today, he said, is the first time that a scholarly group has ever asked him to appear to defend his views.

And that was either cause for dismay, as some here viewed it, or a step forward for the MLA. Mr. Horowitz appeared on a panel called “Academic Freedom?” along with Mark Bauerlein, Norma V. Cantú, and Cary Nelson. It was a tightly formatted event: The speakers were given 12 minutes to make their comments, and audience members 30 seconds afterward to raise questions — limits that were actually enforced, even if it meant audience members shouted out “your time is up!” to Mr. Horowitz when he went over a bit.

Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University and a conservative critic of higher education, seemed somewhat surprised that they had been invited, and each thanked the MLA for the chance to speak. In different ways, each criticized the professoriate for a kind of denial in not acknowledging real problems in the classroom and how identity politics can infringe on academic freedom. “The danger to academic freedom comes from within, not from David Horowitz, Anne Neal, or Stephen Balch,” said Mr. Bauerlein.

In their remarks, Mr. Nelson and Ms. Cantú did not deal with the supposed problems described by Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Bauerlein; they each offered defenses of academic freedom. Mr. Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and president of the American Association of University Professors, argued that academic freedom is the assurance that professors can do what they choose in their research and teaching and that the profession has many means to constrain faculty behavior if necessary. He also spoke of the need for protecting the rights of contingent faculty members who work without the customary protections that professors have from being punished for what they say in public arenas.

But members of the audience weren’t having any of this. They wanted to challenge the panel about one thing: why Mr. Horowitz was there in the first place.

“Are you now proud that you are the only organization to invite Horowitz to speak?” an angry Barbara Foley of Rutgers University at Newark asked. “Did you do your homework” about Mr. Horowitz’s blog, Frontpagemag.com? she continued, to applause from the audience. Grover Furr of Montclair State University and a self-described “victim” of Mr. Horowitz’s book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, said he objected to Mr. Horowitz’s being invited “not because of his views but because he is a liar.” Another audience member complained that out of thousands of MLA members, the organization had picked “two Frontpage columnists” for the panel.

“You have to have a modicum of respect for people,” Mr. Horowitz responded. “I was in the civil-rights movement before Barbara Foley was even born.”

Before the session began, members of the MLA Radical Caucus handed out a statement protesting the organization’s decision to invite Mr. Horowitz to speak. Mr. Horowitz “consistently misrepresents the views of academics whom he wishes to discredit,” the caucus said. “He is not a scholar but a liar of the Goebbels school.”

That kind of rhetoric may have been what Mr. Bauerlein had in mind when he said that certain professors on the left deny to Mr. Horowitz and other critics “any decent or honest motive. They don’t grant them the impulse to care about young minds and the curriculum. They cast them as partisan hacks, and that’s wrong.”

The differences among the speakers were reflected in their responses to one issue Mr. Horowitz cited as an example of political indoctrination: teaching that gender is socially constructed. That idea, he maintained, is refuted by biology and neuroscience. As a theory, he said, it “has every right to be in the university curriculum,” but professors “can’t teach it as a scientific fact rather than as an opinion of radical feminists, which is what it is.”

Yet many scholars in a variety of disciplines do agree about gender’s being socially constructed, including Mr. Nelson, who said he teaches it as fact.

Asked by Mr. Bauerlein how he responds when a student disagrees with him, Mr. Nelson replied: “When I teach the social construction of gender, we have an open discussion about the idea. I make it clear where I stand, and the students are free to agree or disagree.” He said he gives extra credit to students who disagree with him. “If that’s indoctrination, higher education should come to an end,” Mr. Nelson said. Mr. Horowitz agreed that that was not indoctrination.

During the question period, Gerald Graff, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said he wanted to know more about what is really happening in classrooms. “The charge is whether professors are bullying students,” said Mr. Graff, who is the current president of the MLA. “We who defend our practices need a more straightforward response from our colleagues Cary and Norma.”

Ms. Cantú, a former director of the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, said, “The charge is whether we are radicalizing our students,” and added, “I hope so.” She defended education as the chance for people to develop into full human beings. “What do they go to university for?” she said.

On a typical campus, said Mr. Nelson, one or two professors proselytize, and their effect is nil. “That does not require a new mechanism for surveillance of faculty members,” he said. —Liz McMillen