Monday, February 28, 2005

How to Deal with Left-Wing Academic Blather

David French, over at FIRE's The Torch, writes about a speech by Newt Gingrich (my comments bolded in brackets):
Gingrich asks, “What obligation does society have to fund its own sickness?” This is a good question—but it is constitutionally dangerous. One of the most common statements we hear at FIRE (in the context of both public and private schools—since almost every college and university in the United States receives significant government funding) is: “Sure, they have their right to free speech, but why do I have to fund it?” [Good question. It's your tax dollars at work.]

In essence, what Gingrich (and others) wants is to attach viewpoint-related strings to public funds. We will “fund” speech, but only the speech we like. In the public university context, I can think of few ideas more catastrophic to free speech and open debate than the notion that the funding entity controls the political discourse of a university community. [But the funding entity can and should control a university's academic emphasis.] Do we really want state legislators injecting themselves into tenure disputes? Deciding which English teachers deserve their salaries? The obligation of the funding entity should be viewpoint neutrality, not ideological conformity. [So, we leave ideological conformity in the hands of the left-wingers who dominate university faculties?]

Within the university setting, think of the state as funding not a point of view but a marketplace of ideas. [Balderdash! See previous comment.] The goal is to advance knowledge and freedom through public institutions that foster and support the free exchange of ideas. [The kind of blather espoused by academic left-wingers isn't remotely related to knowledge.] The existence of a Ward Churchill is no more evidence that the marketplace is broken than the existence of the Edsel (or, even worse, the AMC Pacer) was evidence of fundamental problems in the American car market. [But the Edsel and Pacer were evidence of fundamental problems in the American car market, which have been cured to some extent by competition from Japanese makes.] Even in a perfectly functioning marketplace, Ward Churchills would exist, teach (sometimes to packed houses), and maybe even get tenure. [In a perfectly functioning academic marketplace there would be conservative and libertarian counterparts to Ward Churchill, who would also be heard.]

The real problem in our public universities is not that “bad ideas” are funded but that the marketplace of ideas itself has broken down. [As I was saying.] Through speech codes, mandatory diversity training, viewpoint discrimination in hiring and other mechanisms that violate basic constitutional protections, universities have closed the free marketplace and are often simply vendors for the prevailing political orthodoxy. If Newt wants to create positive change at our universities, he should be talking about opening them up to more ideas, not adding yet another “forbidden topic” to the long list that currently exists. [Agreed. But how does one open them to more (non-left-wing) ideas?]

How have we improved our universities if we add just one more “ism” to the long list of banned thoughts and words? Campuses have already banned subjectively defined expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on. Do we solve anything by including “anti-Americanism”? If the state and federal government have any role in this dispute, it is to take steps to restore the free marketplace, not to add further restrictions. [Perhaps restoring the free marketplace at universities requires the application of something like an intellectual anti-trust act, to break up the left's stranglehold on most universities.]
Actually, although Ward Churchill and his ilk are despicable human beings, I don't care what they say as much as I care that they represent what seems to pass for "thought" in large segments of the academic community. Clearly, universities are failing in their responsibility to uphold academic standards. Left-wing blather isn't knowledge, it's prejudice and hate and adolescent rebellion, all wrapped up in a slimy package of academic pretentiousness.

The larger marketplace of ideas counteracts much of what comes out of universities -- in particular the idiocy that emanates from the so-called liberal arts and social sciences. But that's no reason to continue wasting taxpayers' money on ethnic studies, gender studies, and other such claptrap. State legislatures can and should tell State-funded universities to spend less on liberal arts and social sciences and spend more on the teaching of real knowledge: math, physics, chemistry, engineering, and the like. That strikes me as a reasonable and defensible stance.

It isn't necessary for State legislatures to attack particular individuals who profess left-wing blather. All the legislatures have to do is insist that State-funded schools spend taxpayers' money wisely, by focusing on those disciplines that advance the sum of human knowledge. Isn't that what universities are supposed to do?

Favorite Posts: Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech