When freedom of thought, inquiry, and speech thrive at universities so does American democracy.

Tomorrow, my friend, colleague, and Bernie Sanders supporter Sophia McClennen and I will be on FREQ’s The Morning Mixtape hosted by Jason Crane to talk about the Professor Watchlist. Here are my thoughts (with reference to McClennen’s) on the matter.

In the last few weeks, the Professor Watchlist and its founding group, Turning Point USA have surfaced to set us “free.” While this group of ideological purists allege that they are concerned with American well-being, we can be sure they are anything but. Professors, they promise, are promoting radical ideas and the public needs to be alerted. These far right would-be censors, though, have simply reopened a long-standing battlefront by the culturally regressive armies of the night. A thriving democracy cannot and must not tolerate it.

The list’s founder, Charlie Kirk, is quoted in The New York Times as saying there are many professors who are “advance[ing] a radical agenda in lecture halls.” The people must know about the creeping and overwhelming leftism undermining capitalism and traditional values in these universities. Transparency! It’s a new “reds under the bed” scare tactic. Far from supporting transparency and clarity, it’s foisting reactionary thought on the American people, sowing paranoia, and preventing universities from fulfilling their missions.

Functional institutions require openness and transparency. From Enron to the Nixon administration we can see that its absence breeds corruption and paranoia while its presence promotes mutual understanding, sound judgment, and good decision-making. But transparency alone won’t create the conditions for good decisions. That requires freedom of thought, inquiry, and speech. Those are the values of any university in the liberal tradition. The Professor Watchlist doesn’t hold those values. In fact, it opposes freedom.

Now, I’m not on the Professor Watchlist. I do work at a university and have for most of the last decade plus. I’ve never been targeted by this or other such lists (though my peers have). But I’ve always taught politically contentious issues, some of which offend religious and status quo positions. Over my time at the university I’ve taught on issues ranging from offensive speech and expression, the reality of evolutionary science or the climate forcing potential of human-generated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, or high-stakes standardized test’s effects on children, families, and society. My students have understood my opinions, but my opinions have never been the goal of my students’ learning but have been one of many means by which I can elicit our interrogation of our world. Despite Turning Point USA’s assertions to the contrary, an attitude and approach like mine is widespread among faculty. It also rests at the heart of a university education.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has identified dozens of stated purposes for education since the 19th century. These include enhancing global perspectives, developing mutual responsibility, preserving a democratic society, making commitment to moral and ethical behavior, integrating diverse groups of people, and overcoming anti-democratic behavior. The American Association of Colleges and Universities has said that liberal educational institutions work to develop “the foundations of knowledge and inquiry about nature, culture and society; that we master core skills of perception, analysis, and expression; that we cultivate a respect for truth; that we recognize the importance of historical and cultural context; and that we explore connections among formal learning, citizenship, and service to our communities.” Former director of curriculum development at American University Jerry Gaff wrote three decades ago that universities strive to foster integration, synthesis, and connectedness of knowledge, encourage one’s own and others’ traditions, examines values in issues and disciplines, and foster personal qualities such as tolerance and empathy.

Notice the tensions in these? Inherently, universities uphold freedom that creates collisions between traditions and new questions. They also provide the venues for people to explore and possibly reconcile. We do these things without the requirement that all people adhere to a particular sect or ideology. We only require that people be open to, ask, and try to answer the hardest of our questions. Kirk and his friends either don’t understand the nature of knowledge and inquiry, they don’t care, or they’re hostile to it.

Lists such as the Professor Watchlist drop names and pictures and cherry-picked incidents to unsettle, intimidate, and silence. They make no distinction between what happens inside and outside of the classroom. The public is private and the private is public and all is to be under a great knowing eye. As George Yancy writes, “If we are not careful, a watchlist like this can have the impact of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon — a theoretical prison designed to create a form of self-censorship among those imprisoned. The list is not simply designed to get others to spy on us, to out us, but to install forms of psychological self-policing to eliminate thoughts, pedagogical approaches and theoretical orientations that it defines as subversive.” On the one had, a professor can believe that enough people will come after them they self-censor. On the other hand they are systematically isolated and picked off through what my colleague Michael Mann has described as “the Serengeti Strategy.” Either way, thought, questions, and expression fade or die. Such inaction shuts down the university’s true worth.

A panopticon prison. Image courtesy of The Guardian.

To learn, minds must be liberated and relatively unimpeded by traditional authorities. We must be free to exercise our imaginations in the service of discovery. Self-, technological, historical, mathematical, or artistic discovery through the educational experience means no one can be cowed by sectarian religious obligations, by political or economic ideological dogmas, by the cults of personality, or by fads. Of course, we know that university people fall for fads, to groupthink, and charismatic leaders. I needn’t highlight the myriad –isms and –ologies that grip academic subcultures. Such is the price of imaginative people that we in the marketplace of ideas, much like the real marketplace, make a lot of crap. We university people are human after all. But intellectual and expressive liberalism guarantees that bad ideas tend not to last for too long. The open questioning of dogma and the application of sunshine disinfects often.

And this liberalism doesn’t extend only to the politically liberal. As I pondered the state of controversial American academics, I reached out to some friends, asking them, “Who are some academics that have been unpopular though persuasive in different ways?” Our Anglo-American list includes popular astrophysicist Carl Sagan, ecologist Rachel Carson, and philosopher Bertrand Russell all of whom were noted for public political action against nuclear proliferation or the toxification of the environment. But it also has Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray whose book The Bell Curve has been criticized by political liberals for its dance with racial determinism. For the Palestinian sympathizer Edward Said and feminist Carolyn Heilbronner we have intelligent design creationist Michael Behe and nuclear proliferator Edward Teller. For our atheistic philosopher like Peter Singer defending the rights of animals we have Alvin Plantinga arguing for the special creation of humans and our souls.

If we extend this list to people who come and give guest lectures at universities, you’ll find at least a semblance of balance. I remember when I was doing my undergraduate we had Inga Muscio who wrote the book Cunt and Oliver North. That, my friends, is a place accepting expression. If there’s indoctrination at work there, it’s Socratic. It is in offering people the possibility to open hearts and minds to perspectives, not closing them down because they threaten orthodoxy. We may not reach absolute parity, but there is nothing fundamentally at work against the politically conservative that threatens their position at universities.

I want to share one more thing about teaching. Several years ago I taught a class that examined music, poetry, art, propaganda, film, and architecture in the context of the Third Reich. I realize that referencing Hitler can invoke Godwin’s Law. But my point isn’t really about comparing our current situation to the Third Reich.

My classes examined art Hitler made, that he loved and hated, that glorified him, and also reflected the depredation of the Final Solution. Take Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire or Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, two works fundamentally at odds with the authoritarian regime’s nationalistic Aryan ideology. The Third Reich banned them (among many others) and both men became expatriots. Where? To the United States. Where in the United States? UCLA and Yale respectively. Both left indelible marks on music in the 20th and into the 21st centuries. Or consider the juxtaposition between the official glory and splendor of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and the abject horror of Elie Wiesel’s Night, Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, and Jerzy Kozinski’s The Painted Bird. They make any person of conscience question freedom’s stability and humanity’s good.

My students may not have loved this music nor the spirit-crushing depravity Wiesel faced. But the struggle in the subjects opened their minds to imagination, to morality, and to freedom’s requirements. The whole point was to wrestle with discomfort and to grow. In that time, my students and I have pushed and pulled one another, gotten into lively discussions and debates, and often not agreed. The same can be said of many other faculty in courses across this country, many of them better at it than I am.

Finally, there’s no evidence that professors are successfully mass-recruiting young people to some huge liberal groundswell. As Sophia McClennen points out, “In fact all the research on student political beliefs and college show that faculty do not influence their students at all.” At least, not the way that apparatchiks for the armies of the night are arguing they do. The Guardian ran through some studies that show that faculty who work to convert their students are more likely to get backlash (good!). But there’s also the fear “of being accused of indoctrination may lead to “disengagement from civic and political affairs and discouragement of debate.” That, my friends, is a price too high for democracy. But civically and meaningfully engaged students do better in school, become better critical thinkers, and also more productively participate in public life. Isn’t that what we want?

The Professor Watchlist obscures and attacks the core of the university. It uses false transparency to intimidate and shame us into acquiescence. We can broker no compromise with such people. They are fundamentally anti-American. When freedom of thought, inquiry, and speech thrive at universities so does democracy and American life.


5 thoughts on “When freedom of thought, inquiry, and speech thrive at universities so does American democracy.

  1. Reblogged this on Civil Rights Advocacy and commented:
    Turning Point USA is a right-wing organization that is much like McCarthy’s red-baiting back in the 1950’s. Their creation of a Professors Watchlist is a form of intimidation. The final paragraph in this blog clearly expresses why faculty, students, and the larger community must resist such attempts at censorship :

    “The Professor Watchlist obscures and attacks the core of the university. It uses false transparency to intimidate and shame us into acquiescence. We can broker no compromise with such people. They are fundamentally anti-American. When freedom of thought, inquiry, and speech thrive at universities so does democracy and American life.”

    Liked by 1 person

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