Truth and Freedom
By Crispin Sartwell
I was talking to a student of mine yesterday about one of my
fellow political science professors: "I've taken three classes with
him," she said, "and I still don't know any of his political
hardly say the same of me, I believe. During a given lecture I might say
something like this: "This semester we'll be building a catapult big
enough to free Dick Cheney from the earth's atmosphere and release him into the
There is something to be said for both these approaches. Maintaining a
studied neutrality allows students to come to their own conclusions. But then
again, so does frankly avowing your opinions, as long as you do not require
agreement. I try to provoke people, and get frustrated only when my students
just sit there, staring blankly. If they start attacking me, I've already done
what I wanted to do: make them think.
In any case, my opinions are all over the op-ed page and on the
internet, and it would be silly to simulate neutrality. A frankly avowed
opinion is far more easily resisted than slightly skewed but apparently
objective recitation of the facts.
At UCLA, the right-wing Bruin Alumni Association offered bounties of
$100 to students to inform on their professors, in order to expose their
allegedly extreme and anti-American pronouncements.
Look. If you want to sit in on my class, just ask. If you want to tape
me, ask me and I will say yes. And I promise to be just as opinionated on tape.
But if you're paying someone to inform on me. you're undermining my classroom,
turning it into a war zone.
Indeed, so nasty has this little
ideological war become that some state legislatures - including that of
Pennsylvania, where I live and teach - have passed laws setting up committees
to monitor the anti-American speech of the professoriate. With a Stalinist
flair, these are called "academic freedom" committees. A friend of
mine who teaches in a public university has been threatened with this
totalitarian idiocy, after suggesting to his class that all Americans are
implicated in the war in Iraq in virtue of paying their taxes.
argued that position for a solid week last semester, in the context of teaching
Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience," which makes precisely the same point
with regard to the Mexican-American war. One might teach "Civil
Disobedience" without any contemporary applications, simply as an
historical text. But first of all, Thoreau didn't mean it to address only a
certain moment. And second, if I taught the thing that way, I would put my
students to sleep. I want to embody the passion that Thoreau expressed.
It is, however, worth acknowledging that the motivations of these
conservatives are comprehensible. There is a leftist consensus in academia,
amounting at certain institutions and in certain disciplines to something near
unanimity. I cannot name a single professor at my college whom I believe voted
for George Bush. This, I would say, has unfortunate results.
extremely difficult to examine the foundations of one's beliefs critically
where these foundations are never called into question by anyone else. Thus
consensus breeds delusion.
And the academic left is capable of
breathtaking arrogance. Where every Ph.D. votes for Kerry, it's easy to believe
that disagreement signals stupidity or ignorance. This is in turn going to make
it difficult for the occasional conservative actually to get a job.
And of course, conservative job
candidates are rare to begin with, because today's professors are the ones
training the next generation: writing and assigning the books they'll read,
passing or failing to pass their dissertations, and so on. A Ph.D. program in
the humanities, among other things, is a years-long immersion in leftish political
I am an anarchist or libertarian, and I consider myself to be neither on
the right nor the left. Everyone is fairly happy with me now, because I spend
my time insulting the Bush administration. They were far less pleased when I
was ripping Clinton.
But one thing I will say: in my twenty years of college teaching, no one
has tried to constrain what I say in the classroom or in my writings, though
occasionally maybe they cut me dead in the hall. In other words, academic
freedom has been much more in my day-to-day professional life than a mere
phrase: I really have been free to say what I believe, dealing neither with
right-wing informers nor the pc police.
This is a beautiful thing about academia and an essential aspect of its
pedagogical mission. And it is the only hope, in the long run, for real
intellectual diversity and integrity.