Academic Freedom Neutralizes Political Extremism · 12 April 2005

Academic Freedom Neutralizes Political Extremism

By: Dennis M. Clausen--North County Times--04/01/05

Sen. Morrow's euphemistically titled "student bill of rights," which would create a state law that guarantees students' grades must be based solely on "reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge" of the subject, would seriously undermine academic freedom on our university campuses.

An external panel (politicians?) would clearly be needed to define the above terms and arbitrate each and every grade grievance for political content. Not only would such a panel be inundated by disgruntled students who would quickly see political motives behind every C, D or F, but it would also place a political litmus test on every class discussion, examination and course paper. This is precisely the kind of slippery slope that has led to the suppression of academic freedom and the decline of meaningful academic standards in other countries.

Any discussion of American higher education should acknowledge that our universities are considered the finest in the world, which is why so many foreign students choose to study in the United States. They understand that academic freedom guarantees that our universities will be educational institutions, not propaganda machines for whichever political group is in power ---- as is often the case in their own countries.

Political extremists of the far left and far right have always targeted academic freedom. This was as true in communist countries as it was in Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy. Phillip G. Altabach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, cites more recent threats to academic freedom: "Russia has reimposed many of the controls of the Soviet era. ... China has stepped up harassment of non-Chinese researchers. ... Researchers in such Southeast Asian countries as Malaysia and Singapore face routine restrictions on what they can research, publish and teach."

America has its own troubling history of attacks on academic freedom. In the 1950s, during the McCarthy purges, academics were among the favorite targets of right-wing politicians. In the 1960s, it was the far left that evicted professors and used their classrooms as political forums.

One compelling example demonstrates that political agendas of the type Morrow's bill would try to monitor are often in the eyes of the beholder. David Horowitz, a left-wing student activist who was convinced that universities were too conservative in the 1960s, has become a conservative activist who is convinced that universities today are too liberal. In both incarnations, Horowitz argued that our universities were sanctuaries for extreme, albeit contradictory, political ideologies. His proposed Academic Bill of Rights, which is very similar to Sen. Morrow's "student bill of rights," also introduces a political litmus test into our universities under the guise of protecting students' rights.

Political extremists are often neutralized by open debate encouraged in our universities. Conversely, as Human Rights Watch's World Report 2002 points out, "Extremism thrives in countries where assaults on academic freedom foster a climate of ignorance and intolerance."

By protecting academic freedom from today's far right, we also protect it from those on the far left who will inevitably attack academic freedom when the political spectrum swings back in the other direction. More important, we protect our economy and standard of living from political extremists who will sacrifice virtually anything to reshape the world in their own image.

Escondido resident Dennis M. Clausen is an author and professor of American literature at the University of San Diego.

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