"We hold these truths to be self-evident..." --The Declaration of Independence
Before I begin my review of David Horowitz's new book, The Professors, I should acknowledge my expectations. I'm a graduate student in an English department, I teach freshman composition and other freshman and sophomore courses, and most would call me liberal in my politics. Of course, I think the term "liberal" has been made useless--it's like a public statue touched so many times it appears to have lost a toe. (That isn't just defensiveness--I feel the same way about the term "conservative.")
So I'm not Horowitz's ideal reader. Already familiar with Horowitz, I expected The Professors to be terrible, and I read it much the same way I read essays by students who routinely turn in not-passing work--I resisted at every turn but allowed myself to be pleasantly surprised. The introduction is often lucid, intelligence, and certainly worth teaching to a classroom of undergraduates (and not necessarily as an object of ridicule). And many of the profiles in the book present damning examples of classroom bias beyond simple personal bias.
That praise given, however, I think this book is shoddily presented and in many ways anti-academic. By "anti-academic," I don't mean "anti-leftists in the academy," I mean that while Horowitz frames the text within the language of academic standards, his method fails to meet most basic academic standards. If a freshman argued as Horowitz does in The Professors, he or she would have to make serious revisions. His book fails on three major levels: it presents assumptions and assertions as truth, it ignores and obfuscates context, and it demonstrates profound ignorance about basic academic principles and processes of thought.
Assumption and Assertion as Truth
I began with the quote from the Declaration of Independence, a text I love, because I think it represents how many Americans--myself included--approach the world. (Note: in its context, I agree entirely with the truths the Declaration holds as self-evident.) We resist unfamiliar ideas because we already hold other truths as self-evident. Thus we have intelligent design supporters, flat-earthers, and Fox News. But as any academic knows, we can't hold any truth as self-evident in our pursuits as scholars. We must interrogate even our most basic assumptions--not to overturn them, but to make certain we've established them on solid ground.
Horowitz fails to do any such thing. His assumptions of what equals truth serve as unquestioned foundations of the book. That's why he rarely acknowledges counter arguments, and when he does, he establishes them on such shallow ground that any reader could knock them down. The main unquestioned assumption is Horowitz's conception of the university. Of academics who were activists in the 1960s, he writes, "As tenured radicals, they were determined to do away with the concept of the ivory tower and scorned the contemplative life that liberal arts colleges like Hamilton created" (ix-x). Horowitz assumes that the image of the "ivory tower" represents high praise. In fact, the "ivory tower" signifies for most the academic who is so imprisoned within his own abstractions, he cannot interact normally with the outside world.
And here's Horowitz's footnote to the above quotation: "When I was at Columbia College in the 1950s, there was a reluctance to look at events more recent than twenty-five years in the past because of the dangers of "present-mindedness" and the fear that events so fresh could not be examined with "scholarly disinterest" (379). That footnote stands as Horowitz's ideal for university inquiry. What that ideal suppresses is the fact that "present-mindedness" is only one of many skewing dangers, as is that of "scholarly disinterest." What "scholarly disinterest" often serves is a view of the world established not on "truths" but on political expedience. The canon of valuable literature, for example, long excluded important writers based on their gender, race, or class. Critical investigations and reorientations of the canon don't necessarily require equal numbers of men and women, or of different races (some, not me, would argue that it does, and often in intellectually valid ways), but they do expose how "scholarly disinterest" masks situated political interests. (For an example, see Richard Ohmann's "The Shaping of a Canon: US Fiction, 1960-1975," which explores the processes by which texts get included and excluded.)
Consider the evidence Horowitz uses to condemn professors as dangerous. As the New York Sun reported, "Mr. Horowitz attributes to Mr. Foner a statement by the late author and journalist, Paul Foot, from a collection of responses to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.” What the Sun doesn't note, and which I think displays Horowitz's method, is that, in The Professors, no analysis follows the quote. Horowitz allows the quote to stand on its own as if, in itself, it is damning. In his defense of the error on his website, FrontPage Magazine, Horowitz acknowledges the error and includes the corrent Foner quotation. Here's what Horowitz writes after the correct quotation:
"I think a fair minded reader will agree that the actual Foner quote provides an even stronger support for the claim I make about Foner in the text, than the Foot quote which was erroneously substituted for it. (That it was my intention to cite the authentic quote will be evident to anyone familiar with my book Unholy Alliance where it is cited as Foner’s reaction to 9/11.) In other words, the error in my book is an inconsequential one and does not affect the accuracy of its portrait of Professor Foner. Readers can judge themselves whether this is a reason for dismissing my work as Foner advises. And they can judge his honesty by the same measure."
Rather than demonstrate how Foner's observations are wrong, misguided, or dangerous, Horowitz assumes that only a fair-minded reader would agree, only a biased reader would disagree. Foner's supposed error is, for Horowitz, an obvious truth.
Yet another problem with his misquotation above (one of many factual errors in The Professors) is his defense of how the error entered his book. Contrast where Horowitz places responsibility in his book, then on his website:
"These profiles should be treated as a collective effort, but I am ultimately responsible for their judgments and accuracy" (xlvi).
"As I pointed out in the introduction to The Professors, the 101 profiles were the work of thirty researchers. In these circumstances, juxtaposing a quote – which is clearly what happened -- is not too difficult a possibility to imagine. The Foner quote and the Foot quote appeared in sequence on a page in the London Review of Books which was referenced in The Professors, and during the many revisions of the manuscript that’s how the error was made. "
Allow me to present a reasonable apology: "The error is mine. I apologize to the family of Mr. Foot and to Mr. Foner for misrepresenting him. However, I think the argument still stands. Let me show you the actual quotation and explain why the point still holds."
Horowitz dismisses his error as inconsequential, but that error, along with others (one or two of which I'll address below), casts much of his evidence in doubt. Among others (again, see the above-linked New York Sun) article, Horowitz claims Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia, was present at a teach-in, a claim Gitlin denies. Notably, Horowitz provides no source to back up his claim that Gitlin was present. Also, given Horowitz's record of defending his factual errors by saying that his general idea was correct, I think readers have to question many of Horowitz's claims.
The Absence of Context
In order to be taken seriously, scholars should always acknowledge the context of their evidence and their arguments. Since Horowitz's main goal is to demonstrate the extent of political bias in the classroom, one would expect him to always connect public statements from his list of professors to classroom activity, either in the form of syllabi and assignments, extensive interviews with students, or recorded classroom lectures or discussions. However, Horowitz's logic is often built upon association: Professor X has made these public statements, so he/she must make similar statements in the classroom.
But in Horowitz's profile of Noam Chomsky, he fails to mention the classroom even once. He never even acknowledges what courses Chomsky teaches (linguistics--it's not difficult to find through MIT's website) or the content of those courses. That failure to connect scholarly and political activity to the classroom pervades many of Horowitz's profiles, even when he does attempt to make the connection. For example, in his profile on bell hooks (who, I'll admit, in the little work of hers I've read, I'm not a big fan of), one paragraph purports to address hooks's text on teaching, Teaching to Transgress, but it includes several quotes that aren't from the text. The paragraph's structure implies that all of the quotes come from that text, even though they don't (224).
And consider one of hooks's statements, from a lecture, not from her text: "Teaching, according to Professor hooks, 'is a performative act...that offers the space for change, invention, spontaneous shifts, that can serve as a catalyst drawing out the unique elements in each classroom'" (qtd. in Horowitz 224). That sounds like what teachers try to do, whether they are biased or not: we try to engage the students in order to teach them how to think, not what to think.
But most humorously, consider Horowitz's explanation of why the professors he profiles are representative:
"The university is also by nature and structure a conformist institution regardless of who controls it. It is hierarchical in organization and the apprenticeship required for admission to its ascending levels of privilege is long in duration and closely observed. The committees that manage its hiring and promotion processes are collegial and secretive, and its ruling establishment is accountable only to itself. Because the performance on which advancement is based is ultimately the production of ideas, the pressure to share common assumptions and common attitudes is far greater in universities than in other social institutions, whether governmental or corporate. In these circumstances university and departmental elites create faculties in their own image" (373).
I can only assume Horowitz has never sat in on a faculty meeting or a job talk. Nor has he entered the offices of many professors or hung around many departments. Given the changing nature of department focuses over time, the idea of departmental elites creating faculties that mirror their own approaches and beliefs calls to my mind a funhouse mirror. In the last half-century, for example, the number of creative writing programs within English departments has boomed, and many literary critics and theorists see the enterprise of granting degrees in creative writing as a way of maintaining outmoded and outdated textual approaches in the rise of post-structuralist and non-formalist theory (Note: I'm getting a degree in creative writing, and I see the argument from both sides). Humanities departments constantly change in focus, and pettiness and bitterness abound in places where the small size of the battleground leads to angrier skirmishes.
(Yes, there are also collegial departments; I'm in a department that is largely collegial and ideologically diverse; yet in a metropolitan area with a large African-American population, my department has one African-American professor out of over seventy faculty. And, yes, I'm aware that this is an anecdote, like the vast majority of Horowitz's evidence. That's why it's in parentheses.)
More importantly, Horowitz fails to examine what classes students take to fulfill university requirements and whether or not the bulk of these faculty teach those courses. How many undergraduates take courses from Noam Chomsky and the other professors he profiles? That statistical evidence is crucial to establishing the kinds of indoctrination Horowitz rails against, as would the numbers of students in the majors he focuses on most, those in the humanities.
Horowitz also fails to mention his previous interactions with some of the professors listed, and he frequently cites evidence from articles published on his website, Frontpagemag.com, without providing other sources to demonstrate the veracity of his claims.
Speaking, or Not, of Statistics
One of Horowitz's targets, Michael Berube (my apologies for leaving out the accents--I'm new to blogger), took part in a discussion on Horowitz's website, and the two have an interesting and spirited history, one that's growing more entertaining almost by the day (Berube's website is not only a good source for that history, you can also read his compelling and compassionate blog posts about his family; whatever your politics, those posts are moving, I think). Yet Horowitz failed to mention their history. His profile on Berube displays many of Horowitz's weaknesses, including his embarrassing lack of knowledge about basic terminology.
After acknowledging Berube's support of the U.S. military action in Afghanistan, Horowitz writes, "With the onset of the Iraq War, Professor Berube resumed an orthodox anti-war position" (71). If Berube supports the war in Afghanistan, then how is his position against a different war "an orthodox anti-war position?" That simply isn't orthodox at all. Moreover, Horowitz fails to provide any evidence of Berube's position on the Iraq War or of Berube's position on war in general.
Also, and even more damning, is Horowitz's attempted condemnation of Berube's work in Cultural Studies. (A relevant side note: Horowitz never substantively investigates what approaches and fields such as Cultural Studies, Queer Theory, or Women's Studies actually do; he simply allows his reader to assume those things must be bad.) One of Horowitz's bullet points about Berube (Horowitz also leaves out the accents in Berube's last name, by the way) is that he "Believes in teaching literature so as to bring about 'economic transformations'" (71). Here's Horowitz's evidence, which he defends on his website as well: "According to Professor Berube, 'The important question for cultural critics, is also an old question--how to correlate developments in culture and the arts with large-scale economic transformations" (72). For Horowitz, that attempt to find correlations equals causation.
Any introduction to statistics, however, explains the distinction between correlation and causation (and note that Berube uses the word correlation): just because two things happen in sequence or at the same time does not mean that they are interrelated. For example, the novel as a literary form rose at around the same time as capitalism; that doesn't mean one caused the other. Also, and to take an example that refers less to economics, consider the sonnet. The sonnet became popular in Italy, and as the form moved northward, each language made alterations to it, so we have multiple forms of the sonnet.
The structure of the book itself is the biggest indicator of Horowitz's failure to understand statistical evidence. In his introduction, he explains that his method is "prosopography," which is defined as "the study of biographical details of individuals in the aggregate" in order "to establish a universe to be studied" (Lawrence Stone in his essay "Prosopography," in the 1972 collection Historical Studies Today, qtd in Horowitz xxii-xxiii). The danger of prosopography, as Horowitz demonstrates in the structure of his text, is the cherry-picking of individuals and the failure to meaningfully distinguish between them. Horowitz lists his targets in alphabetical order, which implies that they bear the same characteristics and are equally dangerous.
However, Horowitz's candidates aren't equally dangerous. While some of his profiles seem to cover professors who attempt to teach students what to think, not how to think, others don't. Michael Berube, for example, in his 2002 essay in Pedagogy, "Teaching to the Six," discusses in detail his teaching methods and practices, including his concern that students aren't familiar enough with formal and structural methods of reading. Hardly dangerous, wishing his students could perform formal readings of texts, a method often countered to what Horowitz and others would call "identity politics." By lumping all these professors together, Horowitz demonstrates not a network of dangerous, America-hating elites, but a confused notion of what constitutes a dangerous professor and an inability to make the most rudimentary statistical distinctions.
Of course, Horowitz likely isn't that interested in doing the scholarly work required to make a convincing argument that the minority of radicals teaching in universities endanger students and America. The only use a scholarly audience serves for him is to be irritated so he can take their responses out of context and post them on his website, creating more publicity for his book. The Professors is published by Regnery, whose credibility is thin at best. He's preaching to an audience that already agrees with him, and I assume he hopes his book will take hold with a few bookstore-browsers who won't investigate his footnotes--they'll take his footnotes as evidence that he's right.
And before I'd finish, I'd like to ask, is Horowitz, for all the weaknesses of his argument, right about leftists in universities? Based on my experience, absolutely not. While the majority of humanities professors are "liberal," Democrats, or leftist, the majority I've met in my work at three very different universities are passively liberal--they express frustration with Republicans in general, but they keep that frustration out of their classrooms. But I can't say whether or not "leftist" bias (and we have to use that term as broadly as possible to keep up with Horowitz) is really that widespread in classrooms because I'm not naive or arrogant enough to assume that my own experience is that answer.