The Limits on “Telling It Like It Is”

In today’s quarrels over politicized instruction, it is always assumed that eschewing ideological bias is pedagogically possible. That is, a professor, regardless of personal ideology, can instruct objectively. Yes, that’s wonderful in principle, but perhaps no longer possible. Some professors are too immersed in the current politicized environment to try to teach objectively, while those who try are likely to be condemned for “telling it like it is.”

When I began teaching government in 1969 at Cornell, bias was not an issue. Professionalism reigned and ideological bias was almost too faint to detect. Decisions regarding course readings reflected the value of their content, their readability and brevity. Balancing was about explicating scholarly debates, such as (in my field) disputes over whether voters choose rationality or not.

As I neared retirement in 2003, matters had changed. Because the professional political science literature had grown indecipherable, I had to rely increasingly on textbooks or, frequently, on textbook excerpts collected into copy-shop-produced course-packs. Ideological biases were by then almost inescapable (though, I suspect, barely noticed by my left-leaning colleagues). In some instances, bias took the form of neglecting aspects of an issue—ignoring the dangers of burgeoning public debt, for example. In most instances, however, ideology mongering was more barefaced.  

Publishers encourage this one-sidedness. Regardless of personal views, publishers know that being politically incorrect will kill sales. This is especially true if textbook adoptions are decided by committees. What profit-minded publisher would ever allow an introductory sociology textbook to cite a study suggesting that heterosexual parents outperform gays in raising children? And since those seeking textbook riches know this reality full well, self-censorship is widespread.

A January 2013 study from the National Association of Scholars of history course assignments at the University of Texas-Austin and Texas A&M confirms my suspicions. The study found that history courses emphasized race, class and gender at the expense of America’s diplomatic, philosophical, and military history. Books such as Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and the Gettysburg address—once obligatory—were no longer assigned in any of the history courses. Peter Wood, president of the NAS (and a study co-author), argues that this ideological one-sidedness is typical nationwide, so many students are just learning PC-flavored American history. 

Escaping the left’s gravitational pull may be getting even more difficult. Today’s newly minted Ph.D.s were mostly born after 1980. From grade school to graduate school they have largely known only the liberal/left orthodoxy (and by 2020, nearly every professor will be in that situation). As a fish has no concept of water, alternatives to the PC orthodoxy may soon be inconceivable. Today’s assistant professor covering the New Deal, for example, is probably unaware that serious opposition existed during that time. It is unlikely that he or she would search out this scholarship. Far easier to just regurgitate the standard wisdom of how FDR saved America.

Defenders of today’s academy will insist that yes, liberal bias is widespread but an instructor can still achieve balance. But that means he or she must be willing to plow through the scholarly literature seeking heretical needles in the orthodox haystack to assemble an academically respectable fifteen-week reading list. Outside of political theory this quest is far too burdensome. It won’t happen.

To preserve and share the truth, going beyond the readings is now the only way to provide balance. Yet compensating for the bias-by-omission almost invariably guarantees accusation of ideological mongering, not praise. In today’s Orwellian university, striving for balance will itself be deemed “imposing right-wing nonsense” on hapless students. Demanding that every bit of “balance” be anchored in a specific, professionally certified piece of scholarship asks the impossible. Certainly no liberal professor feels constrained by this formidable standard.

This is not hyperbole. Recall what happened to Stephen Thernstrom, Harvard’s distinguished history professor (and a self-defined liberal) when in a 1987 class he assigned a book that merely mentioned that some people viewed affirmative action as preferential treatment. He became a campus pariah, feverishly vilified as a racist to the point where he couldn’t sleep and dreaded walking through the Harvard campus. (This was only one of multiple attacks resulting from alleged “insensitivity”; others included using the term “welfare dependency” and failure to assign writings by slaves in the syllabus of his course. To defend himself from attack, Professor Thernstrom began tape-recording his lectures, even office conversations with students. No doubt, less distinguished academics got the hint: never, never assign anything that might, might offend.

Consider 1950s-era McCarthyism, a topic invariably portrayed as a witch hunt organized by right-wing paranoids to punish innocents under the guise of fighting non-existent commie conspiracy. Like the World War II internment of Japanese Americans, racial segregation, and a xenophobic immigration policy, McCarthyism must be taught to demonstrate America’s historic shame, if not its downright evil.

Actually, considerable recent scholarship demonstrates (e.g., John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America among many others) plus evidence from recently released Soviet archives material, documents that there was a vast, and often highly effective network of Communist spies operating in the United States. The alleged senseless witch-hunting was justified by national security—though, to be fair, Senator McCarthy’s accusations were often recklessly off-base. The U.S. Communist Party was hardly some harmless progressive movement; it was a KGB auxiliary. On innumerable occasions, the FBI knew full well that an “innocent” liberal school teacher was part of the espionage network, but it eschewed formal charges to avoid compromising top secret U.S. government intelligence.

Now imagine if a fairness-minded instructor explicated this recent scholarship to justify anti-communism during the McCarthy era. Or if the instructor agreed that atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg both deserved the electric chair for treason? Or that Richard Nixon’s anti-communism should be celebrated?

The horror would be breathtaking—instant accusations of right-wing proselytizing and favoring “nut case” slander over “well-established” reputable scholarship. Moreover, offering up mounds of scholarly evidence for one’s heretical lectures would only fuel more outrage.  “Everyone knows about McCarthyism….”

The bottom line is simple: to urge academics, especially those beginning a career, to strive for balance is career-ending advice. Toe the party line, no exceptions. I see no escape other than going outside the university to offer unofficial courses (a throwback to the 1960s Left “alternative university” strategy).

If one worships at the altar of truth, better to devote one’s career to subjects light years from today’s political orthodoxy. Teach statistics where nobody is vilified for insisting 2 +2 equals 4. But, then again, who can predict the future?