The Facts Speak for Themselves

(Editor’s note: This is Jay Schalin’s response to some students of Dr. Eunice Sahle who took issue with his criticism of her writing and appointment to head the African and Afro-American Studies Department at UNC-Chapel Hill. Their letters defending Dr. Sahle are published here.)

I am not surprised that Dr. Sahle has a circle of devoted students and ex-students to passionately defend her. Charismatic professors often have such a cluster of admirers surrounding them. Popularity is not the issue—her specific influence on the minds of young people is.

Some observers of this current debate about my article might be swayed by the students’ claims that they were inspired by Dr. Sahle. They might be tempted to ask, “What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that what education should be about, inspiring students to learn?” But ideas matter; the ideas of Antonio Gramsci, Frantz Fanon, Howard Zinn, and others Sahle cites or writes about in a positive vein, as I said in my article, are indeed “poisonous.” And none of the students defended her on that account; it may well be that many of them share her positive views of such thinkers, adding credence to the theme of my original article, that Sahle encourages such beliefs.

In fact, the students’ letters confirm my fears that Dr. Sahle—and other professors who share her leftist views—have been influencing students in a bad direction.

One former student, Tavia Benjamin, stated that “academia is still overwhelmingly male and white” as a justification for supporting Dr. Sahle. Such a comment is not just wrong factually, but shows that Sahle’s students are indeed steeped in the “grievance culture” I discussed in the article. If we look at the Chapel Hill campus, only 64 percent of the students are white, and only 42 percent are male. Clearly, white male students are in the minority. The dean of Benjamin’s former school, the College of Arts and Sciences, is female. The recently appointed head of her department, Sahle, is a black woman, as was the previous Chapel Hill provost.  Nationally, since 2008-9, women have received a majority of the new Ph.D.s. And even as far back as 2000, U.S.–born white males only received 35 percent of the Ph.D.s in science and engineering.

Yet, Benjamin has been trained to go for the “race-gender card,” even when unnecessary and even when false. Where did she get such training? In all likelihood, at UNC-Chapel Hill, where left-wing professors routinely perpetuate the historical grudges and ethnic bean-counting that divide people along racial, sexual, and class lines.

Another former student, Kara Todd, chastised me because:

[Schalin] clearly never took a course on logical fallacies (as I did at UNC) otherwise he would not erroneously claim that “if Sahle sees the existing order as a nefarious force, and she adheres to the Gramscian philosophy of subverting capitalism by a long march through its institutions, then it is logical to assume that she will encourage students to adopt her grudges and ideology.’” There is nothing logical about that claim, and in fact, if he bothered to check he would find empirical evidence proving the contrary.

That is a remarkable charge, in that it is wrong in so many ways. Starting with my supposed logical fallacy, if one “adheres to the Gramscian philosophy of subverting capitalism by a long march through its institutions” then it follows that one will do what an adherent to the Gramscian philosophy does: subvert capitalism by infiltrating and influencing its institutions. In other words, gaining influence in an institution (perhaps by becoming department head in a public university) and passing on the Gramscian philosophy—which happens to be the communist “ideology”—to the next generation. There is no fallacy in my statement.

I also believe she is confusing “empirical evidence” with “anecdotal claims.” Anecdotal “evidence,” such as these responses from Sahle’s former students, is usually considered too weak for policy purposes—it’s what you use when you do not possess hard facts.

I, on the other hand, used empirical evidence: Sahle’s books, articles, and a stack of her course syllabi. If there is some hidden empirical study on whether Dr. Eunice Sahle influences her students to adopt left-wing attitudes or not, and this student knows of it, why didn’t Todd produce it to make her case stronger against me? I am pretty certain no such study exists.

I’m also not that sure the students who say their views are different from Dr. Sahle’s really oppose her views all that much. These students are a very narrowly self-selected bunch. The “fish in water” principle may be at work here: a fish (the deep sea kind that lives its entire life below the surface) doesn’t know it is in water, because that’s all there is in its world—water. Many academics fall into this category—they are so surrounded by others on the left they do not realize how far from the center they are themselves. Even a liberal Keynesian Democrat might feel like a conservative in many UNC-Chapel Hill departments; despite those feelings, he is not.

But I will concede to my critics that Dr. Sahle may not be confrontational when students express different views, although I have no way of really knowing whether that is the case. There is more than one way to bias an argument, particularly when dealing with naïve young people. Dr. Sahle has shown in her writing that she will leave out important facts if it doesn’t suit her purposes. In my article, I described how she glossed over the negative aspects of Maoist China, and I wondered how one could discuss global economic development without mentioning the amazing rise in world living standards in the modern, capitalist era.

And I checked out the writers from the reading lists on her syllabi; when I was able to ascertain a writer’s political views—and that was most of them—he or she invariably leaned to the left.

This means that students in Dr. Sahle’s classes are indeed getting a one-sided version of the world, at least when it comes to their reading. I am more convinced than ever that there is cause for concern in her appointment.