The Best Defense is a Good Offense

As the old saying goes, sometimes the best defense is a good offense. That’s certainly a winning idea in football, and sometimes policy organizations try it as well.

A case in point is the paper “Manufactured Controversy” published by the group Free Exchange on Campus, which declares that it is “battling for the free exchange of ideas.”

Readers are supposed to think that this brave David of an organization is up against a Goliath conspiracy of “far right” groups that wants to silence professors who disseminate ideas it dislikes, take over the curriculum, and discredit higher education.

The truth is 180 degrees in the other direction. It’s Free Exchange that is the enemy of ideas and debate.

Since I’m a believer in freedom of speech, I concede that the people at Free Exchange are entitled to style themselves as they wish. Undoubtedly it helps to keep the flow of money from leftist donors coming to say that they’re holding back a horde of conservative barbarians intent on sacking the lovely city of American higher education.

They’re free to say what they want, but that idea is just a hobgoblin. No serious person or organization wants to stifle the free exchange of ideas or to discredit higher education. But just as the government in Orwell’s 1984 needed an enemy and invented the traitorous Goldstein for the purpose of arousing anger, Free Exchange has invented the threatening far-right cabal to take over higher education for the same purpose. It claims that this sinister cabal has “manufactured” controversy over non-existent leftist bias in higher education, but actually it’s Free Exchange that has done the manufacturing.

The argumentative approach of this paper reminds me of labor union tracts insisting that anyone who criticizes the union movement is “anti-worker.” Here, anyone who criticizes any college’s curriculum or any professor who uses his classroom as a platform for political advocacy is dismissed as a “far-right” enemy of education.

Free Exchange has manufactured a monolithic opponent that doesn’t exist. The fact is that one finds critics of higher education all along the political spectrum.

Higher education does have conservative critics. The Pope Center recently published this essay by self-described conservative Mary Grabar, in which she shows how heavily politicized many colleges have become. Read it and see if you find any suggestion that she’s interested in taking over or discrediting higher education.

It also has libertarian critics. One is George Mason University economics professor Daniel Klein (whose analysis of the tendency for university departments to become uniformly leftist in outlook I discussed in this Clarion Call). Another is Michael Munger, who chairs Duke’s Political Science Department. Here’s what Professor Munger (the Libertarian Party’s candidate for governor of North Carolina in 2008) says:

I’ll tell you who should be upset: Liberal students! Liberal students ought to sue the faculty of their university for breach of contract. Conservative students get to play against the first team, many of America’s best liberal minds. Conservative students learn to argue, to defend themselves without becoming angry, to understand and dissect the opposite view.

What do liberal students get? They get patted on the head, and told, “Good little liberal! Here’s a biscuit!” I was in a meeting of faculty department chairs where one chair, apparently believing she was among friends, openly said, “I don’t feel like I have to talk to the liberal students much. They already have it right. So I spend my time on the conservative students, educating them about the truth. But there are so many of them! Sometimes in my classes I have 3 or 4!”

So, in my mind there is a paradox working here, but it is working on the side of good. It is the liberal students, recognizing that they are being denied the (pardon the pun) “faculties” of critical reasoning that are starting to drive a backlash against leftist hegemony in the academy.

Higher education also has liberal critics, including Stanley Fish, who laments that some professors are so busy pushing a political agenda that they neglect their obligations to teach students the subjects they’re supposed to. I reviewed Fish’s book Save the World on Your Own Time here.

And it has been criticized by groups such as the “Mac Mods”—an association of Macalester College alumni from different points on the political compass who just want to see their alma mater get back to the kind of serious, balanced education they knew as students.

Free Exchange’s attempt to tar all critics with the “conservative” (and even “McCarthyite”) brush is simply dishonest, but there’s much more wrong with its paper.

Readers are told, for example, that college students are adults, “a tough crowd to indoctrinate.” True enough, they’re adults, but the assertion that they can’t be indoctrinated is both untrue and irrelevant.

Many students are terribly unread, unsophisticated and inexperienced in the evaluation of arguments and evidence. A good example was the course in Africana Studies at Wellesley College, where a professor used a most unscholarly diatribe of a book to persuade students that the ancient Greeks had “stolen” their culture from black Africans. Wellesley history professor Mary Lefkowitz (who is not a conservative) wrote about that in her book History Lesson, which I reviewed here. The students overwhelmingly sided with the professor when the accuracy of the book came under attack. Despite what many college officials say, most students are not adept at critical thinking.

And even if they were, critics would still have good grounds for complaining about professors who use their courses for purposes other than teaching the subject. (The Pope Center covered an instance, where a professor bragged about “squatting” a course, that is, replacing the intended content with a political seminar.) Whether attempted indoctrination works or not, class time and course materials should be devoted to teaching knowledge and skills, not opinions. If students want the latter, they can easily get them out of class.

Equally absurd is the paper’s assertion that even if there might be some tiny problems or “mistakes” where professors possibly go a bit too far in their educational zeal, there’s no reason for those rabble-rousing conservatives to do anything because the colleges and universities will deal appropriately with them. That sounds reassuring to people who know nothing about colleges and universities, but in fact administrators are extremely reluctant to discipline professors who abuse their positions.

Complaints by students often fall on deaf ears because administrators either sympathize with the faculty or even have their own agenda, as was the case at the University of Delaware. There, the administration was behind the “Residence Life” program that was blatantly political, a controversy I wrote about in this Clarion Call.

Free Exchange’s position makes just as much sense as saying, “We don’t need people watching over the government, because the government has its own rules against misbehavior and can be counted on to enforce them.”

History gives us a lot of good examples of “manufactured controversies.” The Nazis manufactured a “border incident” so they’d have an excuse to attack Poland. Ralph Nader manufactured the “auto safety crisis” to put himself in the national limelight. Those attacks were groundless. Criticism of higher education in contrast–for its ideological slant, its mania over “diversity,” its curricular degeneration, and more—is not groundless.

It’s almost funny. A group that purports to be in favor of the free exchange of ideas telling readers, “Don’t listen to anything those people say—they have a bad agenda. Just take our word on it.”