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July 19, 2010

Seeing Academic Repression Everywhere

By Anthony Paletta

acrep1.jpgIn the epilogue of a new compendium volume, Mark Bousquet notes that, "In July 2007, the American Sociological Association reported that one-third of its members felt their academic freedoms were threatened, a significantly higher figure than the one-fifth ratio recorded during the McCarthy years." Sounds dire, doesn't it? Well not if you've spent the prior 500 pages learning just how fantastical the contributors' conceptions of academic freedom are.

The book is Academic Repression: Reflections from the Academic Industrial Complex, edited by Anthony J. Nocella, II, Steven Best, and Peter McLaren. It's a bad sign when the appearance of Bill Ayers, Ward Churchill, and Howard Zinn as contributors on a book cover leaves one still unprepared for how unfathomable its premises are. Academic Repression purports to demonstrate how corporatization and right-wing assaults have marginalized academic freedom and genuine liberal thinking at our universities. Really?

It's not at all unusual to see hand-wringing from the left over the state of academic freedom; it is unusual to see an essay collection that "asks whether the concept of academic freedom still exists at all in the American University system"(itals mine).

Let's get a few easy premises out of the way first. The book's favored adjective for the Bush administration is "fascist"; that administration's election is once described as the "coup de Bush." And the state of the nation hasn't been getting any better since. The introduction asserts, "Our claim is not that there is no academic freedom, but that academic freedom---and our rights and liberties in general---is rapidly disappearing as the U.S. under Obama continues its perilous decline into a militarist, soulless tyranny of a surveillance society and post-Constitutional garrison state." Recognize this America? Most of the authors in the book appear to.

Getting down to particulars, the introduction furnishes a comparatively concise (and impossibly broad) definition of academic freedom: "Academic freedom is freedom from politically motivated intimidation tactics and punitive actions and freedom to speak, write, teach, and act as one chooses."

Let's start with the "from." The author makes clear he's not merely talking about punitive administrative tactics, which are fair cause for concern. He's discussing any pressures. In the ludicrously thin-skinned world of this volume, any contemporary criticism of the professoriate seems --- if not tantamount to --- at least a preface to a pink slip, the sound of jackboots, or worse. The preface intones that "the more scholars raise questions about the vexing issues of our day, the more roadblocks they find in the way of their career advancement and even, quite possibly, their very existence as non-persecuted or free citizens." In the world of this volume, "where the attention of the culture wars has focused on professors allegedly harassing students, it is more often the case that conservative students are harassing their professors." And in the world of this volume, the greatest threats to academic freedom appear to be ones that you don't have to bother to prove.

Thus academic repression occurs when the state, political groups, or the university administration attempts to muzzle the outspoken through punitive actions, but it also occurs---all too effectively---when fearful, self-concerned professors censor themselves for purposes of career advancement. Furthermore, one need not be demoted, non-promoted, or fired for academic repression to manifest, it is enough to be marginalized or treated with disdain. It does not require the actual exercise of power, it operates on the mere hint, suggestion, or threat of slapdown, and it thrives in the chilling afterglow of its prior victims whom the state, university administrators, and political assassins uphold to say: "Be careful, or the head on this stake could be yours."

The idea that a climate of fear is so pervasive as to strangle genuine expression in its cradle and leave left-wing professors quivering like jelly is dumbfounding in this age of political scholarship. Has no one told the Group of 88? Or the assorted schools that continue to hire and promote them even after a firestorm of criticism? Bill Ayers appears to have come out on top; as has his wife Bernadine Dohrn. Have the authors seen a single academic conference lately? What of the Peace Studies departments? Social justice pledges at teacher's colleges? How about the whole range of identity studies departments - the "political assassins" seem to be very faulty marksmen.

Here let's return to the other side of the introduction's definition of academic freedom, the freedom "to" - to "speak, write, teach, and act as one chooses." In this particular it soon becomes apparent that, on average, as "one chooses" doesn't seem to be nearly political enough for the authors.

Take a look at some practical hopes for the profession:

While I would like to see US academics, as a class, take a leading role in movements to assert radical humanistic values that have the possibility of transforming society, I don't believe that such change is likely, or even possible, in the near future.

And another:

It is urgent that more scholars use the openings they have to challenge the hierarchical organization of society and the exploitative and unsustainable operations of the capitalist economy, and that they do so in organized and consorted ways.

And another:

..the sad reality is that academic intellectuals have, for the most part, failed to meet the moral and political responsibility to speak out against barbarism. As US imperial power expands and the leading military force poses new threats to world peace, liberal and "progressive" academics have either adapted to this universe or suffered their protest in silence---exactly the type of marginalization process universities want to impose on different professors.

And more of the same:

The challenge of progressive educators is vigorous and varied and difficult to itemize. Most liberals, of course, unhesitatingly embraced a concern to bring about social justice. This is certainly to be applauded. However, too often such a struggle is antiseptically cleaved from the project of transforming capitalist social relations.

Goals such as "to challenge the meritocratic foundation of public policy that purportedly is politically neutral and racially color-blind, to create teacher-generated narratives as a way of analyzing teaching from a 'transformational' perspective, to improve academic achievement in culturally diverse schools, to affirm and utilized multiple perspectives and ways of teaching and learning, to re-deify the curriculum and expose meta-narratives of exclusion" are praised but ultimately dismissed as insufficient, as they "do not go far enough, and in the end, support the exiting status quo social order."

One assistant professor writing in the volume is incredulous when a poster promoting a 9-11 teach-in she circulated including the phrases "Faculty: Send your students" and "Students: Walk out" was "interpreted as my disrespect of fellow faculty members rather than as a contribution to the work and traditions of the university and the faculty." If the traditions of her university and faculty was understood as activism and not teaching, then she was surely correct; otherwise, her surprise suggests a breathtaking arrogance and a feckless faith in activism as pedagogical duty that infects nearly all of the essays in this collection.

Academic Repression schizophrenically raises the specter of an age of widespread persecution of leftist scholars and then proceeds to demand repeatedly and shrilly even more political instruction, leaving no meaningful sense of the right of students to avoid indoctrination, and virtually no sense of the acceptable limits of political proselytizing in the classroom and the professoriate. No, references to students in the volume generally dismiss their objections wholesale: as Henry Giroux states, "Because students disagree with an unsettling idea does not mean that they should have the authority, expertise, education, or power to dictate for all their classmates what should be stated, discussed, or taught in a classroom." By contrast, many of the authors in this volume seem to reserve the absolute privilege of the professor to set these bounds however they please.

There are a few rare moments of dissent. One professor stands up for the dissenting students that others seem to regard as paid informants, wondering, refreshingly, "is it accurate and/or strategic to describe the presence of a student in your class, even one there to keep tabs on any hint of professional failure, as being under surveillance, given that the term carries a connotation of being shadowed by law enforcement?" Two contributors question the worth of the ubiquitous McCarthyism parallels.

Otherwise, though, the book's combination of paranoia and activist tract makes sympathetic interpretation impossible. There's not a moment of broader perspective present. The authors appear doggedly convinced that every trend in modern higher education is a right-wing/corporatist ideological plot designed to exclude and marginalize leftists, despite the continued expansion of programs and departments dear to their concerns.

The book sees leftist employment under threat, with familiar cases from Sami Al-Arian to Ward Churchill to Angela Davis (ignoring or dismissing any complicating factors in each of these cases). These are advanced as evidence of the muzzling of left-wing dissent; as Henry Giroux writes, "Faculty are still advised to think twice about voicing controversial politico-economic perspectives." Oh really? A quick glance at the syllabi of the average Sociology or Anthropology department, not to mention Hispanic Studies, Peace Studies, or Community Studies, would suggest that leftist politico-economic perspectives are not merely safe but are thriving. And how are controversial gender perspectives doing? Ask Larry Summers.

In sum, it would be difficult to find a portrait of the academy with a more dizzying lack of perspective than Academic Repression. The contributors stand convinced that universities, despite their steady expansion of left-minded departments, actually hope to muzzle the left. They stand convinced that universities are either actually right-wing or profoundly susceptible to right-wing pressure, despite the near-complete absence of conservative faculty. They stand convinced that the rise of tenure is a right-wing scheme to purge the academic left, even as surveys of faculty opinion reveal enduringly pervasive progressive sentiments in the professoriate (and no rise in conservative or libertarian views). It's useful that the contributors are so strongly convinced, because the chances of anyone else being so are distinctly small.



Comments (2)

Perhaps it is unnecessary to point this out, but I cannot help myself. The quotations from the book being reviewed are all very poorly written--comma splices, misused words, impenetrable jargon. I guess protecting the language that makes academic life possible is a matter of only secondary concern.

Retired Professor:

After reading this review, I am struck by how it contrasts with my 30 plus years experience in higher education; that experience covers two state research universities and one selective liberal arts college. While at the research universities, I experienced no constraints or even mild pressure to adopt any particular political orientation. I was a moderate Democrat during those years.

The selective liberal arts college was another case entirely. Group think dominated the campus and a cadre of radicals enforced thought discipline on campus by marginalizing and mobbing anyone they suspected of impure thoughts. It was the worst intellectual climate I ever served in. By the time I retired, I was very conservative. My experience is there is no serious threat to academic freedom from outside the academy, but there is a serious and malignant threat to academic freedom from within the campus.

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