Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Solving the Problem

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Aug 05, 2005

Regarding: Don't Worry - Ward Churchill Will Solve the Problem

Anne D. Neal argues, "The reality remains that faculties are politically imbalanced, many course readings and campus speaking events are one-sided, and there is a basic hostility to ideas outside of campus orthodoxies. It's time for the institutions to take concrete steps to live up to their words."

I was fortunate enough in my education to have been exposed not only to the espousal of Marxist thought in the philosophy department but also to varying strains of conservative thought in history and geography, pragmatics in computer engineering, and even the confessional approach to teaching in religious studies.

My experience suggests that if there is an inclination on the part of professors to return higher grades to work that reflects their own views, this inclination operates equally regardless of political affiliation. And I have the low grades and battle scars from conflicts with the academic right in order to prove it.

Allegiance in academia runs in streaks. In my dealings with the Business faculty I found not one person who did not believe in the merits of capitalism and free enterprise. Through the numerous courses I took in Religious Studies I found not one irreligious professor. Sitting on the Board of Governors I found that I was the lone socialist, with the more leftward strains of communism and Marxism not represented at all!

One wonders, when we hear voices from the right calling for greater diversity and balance, why their aim is not so diverse. From my perspective, it would be healthy to have substantial representation from the Muslim community teaching at Oral Roberts University. Business faculties worldwide could do with more thought representative of Singer's deep ecology or Freire's liberation theology.

Indeed, one wonders why the calls for diversity end at the ivory tower walls. Where is the representation from the left on the New York Stock Exchange, in the membership among boards and CEOs in the Fortune 500, in the membership of the various think tanks and agencies that have been created to foster the conservative agenda? In Canada I ask, why no socialists at the Fraser Institute?

If we are to embrace diversity of political opinion, moreover, what will we then do regarding the demographics of those who self-select to enter into a life of service rather than business and profit? It seems that if a person is called to enter the teaching and research professions, then a condition of this is the freedom of opinion and expression.

If there is indeed a tilt to the left in academia, this much is self-evident: the tilt is the result of numerous highly intelligent and strong-willed people, the best of a generation, freely choosing to support and express left-wing political points of view. Efforts to redress this by legislation rather than reason reveal, if anything, the intellectual paucity of the conservative position, a belated recognition that force must be used where reason has failed.

But, in fact, I sincerely doubt that there is such a tilt. As I said, political opinion runs in streaks, and the carefully chosen samples of the surveys can show the opposite if their methodology is applied to a different sample.

Moreover, what constitutes 'left' and 'right' is very much in the eyes of the beholder. From my perspective, American academia is almost unrelentingly right wing, with strong streaks of militarism, patriotism and capitalism pervasive. The positions that for me characterize left-wing thought - global justice, demilitarization, social service and infrastructure - are in my experience minority views in American academic thought.

The sort of 'right wing' thought being touted as under-represented by Horowitz and his ilk is to me a dangerously extreme form of conservative thought, one that is rare in its expression elsewhere in the world, and subject to only a small minority of popular support anywhere save some deeply conservative regions in the U.S.

Even were one to disagree with my characterization of what constitutes 'left' versus 'right', the question remains, who decides? How does one establish a balance when the parameters of that balance are themselves open to debate? How does one respond to a left-winger who depicts a 'balanced' academia as equally divided between Marxists and Leninist?

And it is here, I think, that the poverty of Horowitz-style arguments becomes evident. For what such arguments amount to is not a genuine appeal to diversity, but rather, a reframing of the academic agenda to recognize a particular sort of political philosophy to be regarded as definitive in the definition of academic schools of thought and culture. Such an argument ought to be rejected, for it denies the very diversity it seeks to espouse.

A rhetoric consistent with diversity would call, not for an artificial and politically motivated 'balancing' of political views, but rather, a fostering of the means and conditions known to encourage diversity. Foremost among these is freedom of thought and freedom of expression, the very conditions the Horowitz approach would first undermine.

The existence of a Ward Churchill in any branch of academia should serve of proof of the capacity of the educational system to embrace diversity rather than as a clarion call to arms in an effort to silence such voices. Diversity requires, needs, is defined by the existence of voices that are uncomfortable, not only to a minority, but to the majority. Freedom of thought essentially requires the capacity to be the only person in the world who holds a certain set of beliefs, and to be able express those beliefs.

The inevitable result of a legislated form of political diversity in academic will be a form of intellectual monoculture, where voices such as Churchill's are silenced, on the grounds that they are 'not representative'. This would be the death of the educational system, and the birth of a system of propaganda and indoctrination.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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