SAN FRANCISCO — It’s not standard practice at meetings of the Modern Language Association to have visible security or a roped-off divide between the dais for speakers and the audience. But it’s not every MLA meeting that features David Horowitz, who has spent years attacking the group.
Amid rumors that the Radical Caucus of the MLA might try to disrupt the Horowitz talk here Monday, the MLA had arranged for Horowitz and fellow panelists — if disrupted — to appear at an undisclosed location and to be broadcast back into the room where the audience gathered. While the Radical Caucus did distribute a written attack on the decision to invite Horowitz, it did not disrupt the event, and the audience saw Horowitz and his fellow panelists in person. Things got a bit frosty when a few members of the audience didn’t wait for the moderator to tell Horowitz his speaking time was up (time was carefully negotiated in advance) and shouted at him to sit down.
Horowitz appeared on the panel with three literary scholars — one of whom backed some of Horowitz’s views — to debate the state of academic freedom. Horowitz didn’t break new ground in his critiques of academe — nor did Horowitz’s critics in their analysis of him.
In some ways what was most notable was that Horowitz praised the MLA for the invitation, which officially came from the organizing committee of the association’s Delegate Assembly.
More than five years have passed since Horowitz first proposed his Academic Bill of Rights – which he says would protect students and which many professors say would intrude on their rights. References to faculty members providing a range of views have left many professors fearful that they would be unable to present strong points of view or controversial work. Horowitz said that the MLA is the first disciplinary group to invite him to speak in that time.
He said that while many academic groups have condemned him and that many professors have compared him to Joseph McCarthy (and worse), few have engaged him in discussion. He said it was significant that the MLA has done so. (He almost spoke at the annual meeting this year of the National Communication Association, but that possibility fell apart, with some of that association’s members questioning the wisdom of inviting him.)
Horowitz said that he believed most professors were not inappropriately trying to indoctrinate students, but that significant portions were doing so, especially in women’s studies. He repeatedly criticized the concept of the social construction of gender, which he said should not be taught as reality but as a feminist theory. Horowitz also linked the perception of professors to their economic well being.
Noting the recent decline in the number of jobs for English professors, he said that there may be a link between the disappearing jobs and the “perception that English is a politicized field.” He said that English professors would be respected if they stuck to their fields. “If you want to teach about global warming or imperialism, become climatologists or political scientists,” he said.
While Horowitz made his points with characteristic rhetorical flourishes, others who spoke here endorsed some of his views – or the legitimacy of considering them – but did so with notably mellower tones. Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, questioned some of the rhetoric that has been used to attack Horowitz, and said that some of the rhetoric used to describe the good work of professors goes too far. He noted that Horowitz’s goals have been compared to those of totalitarian governments and questioned the fairness of framing the debate in that way.
Bauerlein said that academic ideals are sometimes “sacrificed to department politics, personalities in the room, cronyism, identity politics” and other inappropriate factors. This is especially the case, he said, when departments are “insulated” from much of American society and become “more self-involved.” Ultimately, Bauerlein said, academe should acknowledge that infringements on academic freedom are coming from professors, not from David Horowitz.
Gerald Graff, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago and president of the MLA, said that he agreed with Horowitz and Bauerlein that “we should show more curiosity” about the critique of academe as being hostile to certain views and ideas. “There is a question of fact — what is actually going on in classrooms?” he said.
While Graff argued for a discussion of the substance of Horowitz’s criticisms, others questioned why Horowitz was even invited.
The Radical Caucus released a letter to those arriving at the session that said Horowitz should not have been invited. “The reason why we in the Radical Caucus oppose Horowitz’s invited presence at the MLA, however, is not simply that he espouses views many people find troublesome, even repugnant. It is that he consistently misrepresents the views of academics whom he wishes to discredit. He is not a scholar but a liar of the Goebbels school.” The caucus cited Horowitz’s descriptions of scholars in his 2006 book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, as unfair and inaccurate.
During the question period, many of the questions were directed as much toward the program organizers as to Horowitz.
“Did you do your homework before you invited him?” Barbara Foley, a professor of English at Rutgers University at Newark, asked to applause. She asked if MLA officials were aware of the “racist trash” on Horowitz’s Web sites or his “hit list” of professors. Horowitz then commented about not being able to answer all of the “Bolsheviks” in the audience.
Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors and an English professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, disputed Horowitz on numerous points — although they united, prior to the start of the program, by mutually agreeing that they would not evacuate if a protest started, and would face any disruptions from the room together.
Nelson told Horowitz that he was wrong about the social construction of gender and about what goes on in classrooms generally. Nelson said that politics aren’t much discussed in most courses, and that only the smallest fraction of professors — liberals and conservatives alike — abuse their positions to pressure students to take some political stance. Horowitz noted, however, that numerous studies have found that college students aren’t swayed by their professors’ politics or particularly offended that faculty members have views that may differ from their own. In his classes, Nelson said (to Horowitz’s approval), he gives extra credit to students who disagree with him, since the disagreement enlivens discussion.
There is no evidence, Nelson said, to justify the Academic Bill of Rights, which would be “a new political enforcement mechanism.”
Another panelist — Norma E. Cantú, a professor of English at the University of Texas at San Antonio — took a different approach. While she stressed that she respected the views of students and their right to think as they wish, she said there was nothing wrong with a professor hoping to shape a student.
“Are we radicalizing students? I hope so. Why would you read a book except to be informed and to grow,” she said. “I hope all of us are about change.”