Horowitz’s ‘academic freedom’ ideas deserve honest discussion

Nick Busse

I have to admit that I expected more, or less, rather, from the audience that showed up for David Horowitz’s speech Tuesday night at Willey Hall.

Usually when a conservative pundit such as Horowitz comes to the University, the event is invaded and taken over by a gang of angry left-wing activists who storm the podium and refuse to let the speaker talk, a la the previous on-campus debacles with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and libertarian scholar Tom Palmer.

Although I consider myself liberal, I have no patience for so-called “radicals” who would rather dress up and play revolutionary than engage in constructive dialogues with political opponents, and I was very much looking forward to devoting this column to lambasting whatever Marxist fiends showed up to bully Horowitz.

But alas, there was no such bad behavior Tuesday. Actually, the crowd at the Horowitz lecture was respectful, patient and reserved, minus a lone idiot who yelled, “This is bullshit!” and stomped out of the auditorium like an angry toddler near the end of the presentation.

Because my activist-ego-smashing intentions have been thwarted by an unusually well-behaved audience, I thought I’d comment on Horowitz’s speech instead.

The subject of Horowitz’s presentation, contrary to some misleading event fliers, was the Academic Bill of Rights Horowitz has been pushing at universities across the country and which he described in an opinion piece published in the Daily earlier this week.

The crux of his argument was that an academic bill of rights would prevent professors from preaching extremist political views that are irrelevant to the course material – for example, a geology professor who spends class time haranguing students about President George W. Bush’s “war crimes” rather than teaching geology.

The essential reasonableness of this argument seemed to take much of the audience aback, despite that some doubtlessly regarded a liberal bias as a good thing.

Unfortunately, Horowitz has a tendency to stray into tangential rants.

He lost the audience with some befuddling remarks about Oprah Winfrey and Kobe Bryant, and his speech took a turn for the facetious when he called the Democrats “pussies” on foreign policy and decided to make a series of offhand and ill-advised comments on things such as the Iraq war and “that degenerate Ted Kennedy” that only served to distract the audience from the topic at hand.

The result was that during the question-and-answer session afterward, only one person asked Horowitz to clarify his thoughts on academic freedom, while the rest tried to bait him into shouting matches over the Iraq war and various other irrelevant issues.

This was regrettable, because Horowitz is right: College faculty members are statistically overwhelmingly liberal, and their politics often bleed into their courses in a way that undermines academic integrity.

Last spring I took a course on American drama that consisted, in its entirety, of plays by Arthur Miller (a leftist), August Wilson (an extreme leftist) and Bertolt Brecht (an extreme leftist who isn’t even American).

To be fair, the professor was excellent and it was one of my favorite courses, and at no time did I feel I was being pressured into conforming to a certain ideology. But who could look at the syllabus for that course and say the readings constituted (for lack of a better phrase) a fair and balanced cross-section of American drama?

This is what Horowitz was talking about – the fact that “having 100 percent on one side of an issue and keeping it this way” leads to sloppy intellectualism.

Horowitz might be using the cause of academic freedom to push his own neoconservative agenda, but that doesn’t invalidate his criticism. Academic freedom and the academic bill of rights deserve honest and serious discussion.

Nick Busse welcomes comments at [email protected]