Skim This Book

Reviewed by John K. Wilson

One-Party Classroom: How Radical Professors at America’s Top Colleges Indoctrinate Students and Undermine Our Democracy. David Horowitz and Jacob Laksin. New York: Crown Forum Publishing Group, 2009.

David Horowitz’s new book, One-Party Classroom, expands upon his long-running war on academic freedom. In an earlier book, The Professors, Horowitz sought to banish left-wing speech with which he disagreed on the grounds that it was irrelevant to course material. Now, he wants to go a step further and ban academic speech and entire courses, programs, and fields of study— particularly the field of women’s studies—that he deems to be too left-wing.

Horowitz (with the help of his employee Jacob Laksin) has written a disturbing attack on politics in academia. He examines course syllabi at a dozen major universities and reports in excruciating detail what he thinks about the course descriptions and assigned books. Horowitz never bothers to talk to any students (and in many cases, obviously hasn’t even read some of the books he attacks) or attend any classes, yet he evinces a magnificent psychic power to determine a long and precise list of abuses that are certain to occur.

It may be tempting to ignore Horowitz and hope that the vast repressive apparatus he proposes will never be enacted, that we will not have administrators and trustees scrutinizing reading lists and ordering professors to ban the books deemed to be too liberal. But Horowitz has tremendous political influence on the far right, and his attacks, even when unsuccessful, can create an atmosphere of fear.

Horowitz’s definition of illegitimate political stands by professors is breathtaking. He objects to geography classes dealing with social issues, apparently unaware that geography professors have gone beyond merely studying maps for many decades. He objects to women’s studies classes dealing with the “unproven” claim that gender is socially constructed, apparently unaware that biology is not the sole determinant of gender differences.

He even objects to a conference entitled “Africana Studies against Criminal Injustice: Research- Education-Action” and writes, “An open academic inquiry would not be ‘for’ or ‘against’ anything.” In Horowitz’s view, it is improper for any professor to be against the wrongful conviction of innocent people and to hold a conference that seeks action against wrongful convictions. This is an ideal of “objectivity” taken to the absurd extremes of relativism.

Horowitz condemns a professor for assigning a textbook that argues that whites are “dominant” in America, a claim that Horowitz disputes. It may seem strange that anyone could look at a meeting of CEOs or at the U.S. Senate and conclude that whites are not dominant in America, but it’s downright bizarre to write that a professor should ban a book from a class because it makes this assertion.

In discussing one course, The Colonial Encounter in African Fiction, Horowitz complains that the professor “is not a historian, let alone a historian of colonialism. He brings no observable academic expertise to bear on the subject.” Horowitz is arguing that English professors should ignore the history of colonialism in teaching African novels about colonialism. It’s difficult to imagine a more mouth-dropping display of anti-intellectual sentiment.

Horowitz similarly objects to an English professor teaching a gender studies class: “This is another professor teaching her ignorance in the fields of sociology (‘race’), political science (‘nationalism’ and ‘militarism’), and economics and geopolitics (‘globalization’).” By Horowitz’s logic, English professors should be banned from teaching anything about race, nationalism, militarism, and globalization— which would make it rather difficult to teach a number of great novels that focus on these topics.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of One-Party Classroom is how little in the book is appalling. There are no stories of students punished for disagreeing with their professors, no stories of censorship at all. That is because Horowitz knows that actual violations of student rights in the classroom are rare and grievance mechanisms are typically effective. Horowitz has a 69 much more radical goal: he wants to revolutionize the idea of academic freedom and declare that students have a right to be free from “biased” comments or readings in class and even from “biased” departments such as women’s studies. Professors, in this view, have an enforceable obligation to be silent about “political issues,” which can encompass almost anything.

Even if we accepted Horowitz’s argument that these 150 courses (out of millions of college courses taught every year) are the worst in America, why should we believe that a regime restricting academic freedom and banning “politicized” classes would be any better? Freedom is an imperfect system. It allows some professors occasionally to teach goofy courses with goofy books from a goofy perspective. But academic freedom is far better than some kind of centralized “Big Professor” who would tell faculty what books were allowed and banish alleged bias from the classroom. If anyone has ever believed Horowitz’s claims that he is not calling for administrators and trustees to step in and infringe academic freedom, this book makes the facts clear. Repeatedly, Horowitz declares that these courses violate the university’s policies on academic freedom and demands that administrators and faculty intervene to stop them: “It is disturbing that the university has allowed them to proceed for so long.” He concludes, “Most disturbing of all is the unwillingness of administrators and trustees to defend their institutions and enforce the professional standards of a modern research university.”

Recently, Horowitz was invited to speak at his fiftieth reunion at Columbia University, and he complained that his books “are more effectively banned in its classrooms than were the books of Marxists fifty years ago, during the height of the McCarthy era.” As One-Party Classroom shows, it is the quality of Horowitz’s writing, not the conservative nature of his ideology, that explains why his work is rarely assigned (although I should note that I’ve assigned Horowitz in my classes). One-Party Classroom is a book full of shoddy arguments and bad, repetitive writing and lacking in evidence. It deserves to be skimmed, however, as a reminder to all of us about the threats to academic freedom.

John K. Wilson is the editor of Illinois Academe and founder of collegefreedom.org. He is the author of six books, including Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies and President Barack Obama: A More Perfect Union.

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