Tuesday, April 07, 2009

If your only tool is a hammer, you might be David Horowitz.

In today's Daily Wildcat, Justyn Dillingham interviews White Black Panther turned crusader against left-wing academics David Horowitz lectures tonight at 7:30 in the Education building at the University of Arizona.

It appears that he hasn't evolved much in his thinking since his last visit. I took him to task in the Wildcat back in 2007 for fretting too much about the mere existence of theories of left-wing pedigree and not enough about the real nature of bias in academia, which is far more insidious, and for verging on calling for a false balance in every course syllabus. Longtime Horowitz bogeyperson V. Spike Peterson couldn't possibly teach her Gender and Politics course if she had to spend time on foundations of canonical gender theory and on the (many, good) arguments against them.

Every course at the university, beyond the survey level, comes with a set of assumptions. Those in a physics course are less controversial than those in Gender and Politics--unless the topic up for discussion is climatology, in which case the right-wingers "question" the validity both of radiative balance and of using digital, automatic computers (as opposed to the old-fashioned human kind) to do calculations--but they're there. Should each semester's physics course cover modern philosophy of science, disputes over foundations of e.g. statisical mechanics and quantum physics, and additionally the probably mal fide right-wing misgivings about digital computers?

Horowitz worries about students being indoctrinated with "infantile leftism"--and were that happening, it ought to be worrisome--but he misses his own infantilizing assumptions:

  1. Students cannot assume things that, strictly speaking, are not true, like the Second Law of Thermodynamics or the social construction of gender, for the sake of exploring an idea without coming to mistake these assumptions for truths.
  2. Without being told that an opinion is opinion, students will mistake it for fact.
  3. Students will not know that foundational issues, such as the social construction of gender, are in dispute unless they are explicitly told so in their classes and will not locate the opposing views unless these are presented by their professors.

Horowitz is an anti-intellectual gadfly, but one whose rhetoric is tuned to provoke legislative interference in the curriculum. We do need more policing of intellectual standards at our universities, and to say "no more" to studies departments which become havens for those whose approach to the liberal arts is ideological. But not by the legislature, and not for the reasons Horowitz emphasizes. To invoke Barzun, there ought to be no room for merely laying a sieve over a problem and reporting on what comes through. The trouble with Marxism, gender feminism, and the like is that they are mechanistic.

And that's the problem with Horowitz, too. He lays a sieve over a syllabus and sees what comes through. All too often, he reports artifacts of his methodology as though they were genuine phenomena. Two years ago, graduate student Sung Ohm emphasized dialectal and critical reading in his English 101 syllabus, but because the reading list was radical left, the course must have been, lack of evidence be damned, an attempt at indoctrination wherein students will be graded based on their demonstrated acceptance of the ideas presented in the course reading.

Evan Lisull of The Desert Lamp did some digging and reveals Horowitz's criticism of at least one other syllabus to miss the point. Horowitz cries "bias!"--as if it's a bad thing for professors to have opinions--and makes believe that students will be indoctrinated because a course includes an introduction to Marxism, when he should question whether Marx merits inclusion and why certain other thinkers are omitted. Marxism! Bad! Infantile leftism! Must...slander...professor!

Horowitz supports equal time, but he's not showing us academic types how that would work. I think it's safe to assume that the probability Horowitz will tonight present Kalafut's opposing view--that Horowitz's criticisms are misplaced and amount to anti-intellectual slander--is very close to zero.

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