“Terrorists, racists, and communists – you know them as The Professors.” So reads the cover of David Horowitz’s new book, “The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America.”
As its title suggests, the book is nothing more than a grocery list compilation of professors from American campuses whom Horowitz deem liberal, manipulative, and subversive.
The aim of Horowitz’s witch hunt is to dethrone the “antiquated hippies” he claims exercise a monopoly over institutions of higher education in America. These professors include tenure-holders, chairs and distinguished scholars who are renowned and praised in their respective fields of expertise.
Among the 101 professors that, by the lights of Horowitz, will probably get coal in their stockings this Christmas was Dr. Dean Saitta, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Denver.
The following excerpts are from an e-mail interview I had with Dr. Saitta, in which he shares his personal views regarding the broader implications of Horowitz’s book and the role of academia in stimulating debate:
(1) What are the broader implications of Horowitz’s book? In your opinion, is
it indicative of a growing movement within this country to repress civil liberties?
Saitta: I certainly think that you have to analyze it in the context of current challenges to civil liberties spawned by “wartime” conditions. But this critique of liberal professors isn’t new. The current critique has much in common with the “Accuracy in Academia” movement of the 1980s, which also monitored liberal professors in classrooms. Interestingly, the 1980s was another time when a Republican administration played to its right-wing base as a way to consolidate power, supporting not only classroom surveillance of liberal professors but also fueling various culture war antagonisms – including attacks on the teaching of “godless” evolution. In many ways this is, to quote that great philosopher Yogi Berra, “deja vu all over again”!
(2) In your opinion, what danger, if any, lies in presenting polarizing arguments and challenging the status quo in class?
Saitta: The biggest danger is probably student misinterpretation of what you’re trying to accomplish as a teacher. Students need to have the cognitive maturity, and the appreciation of pedagogical strategy, to understand when their professor is being deliberately provocative. This maturity takes time to develop, and is probably rarely achieved before junior year. It would also help if students understood that all knowledge is, in a fundamental sense, “constructed” and shaped by prevailing social and cultural conditions. Non-trivial knowledge is rarely “disinterested” or “apolitical,” as Horowitz asserts. Our educational system is probably failing to cultivate this sensibility in students, beginning in K-12. But it’s not just on students: there are better and worse ways of teaching with these principles in mind. Professors can’t get in students’ faces to press a partisan agenda, and they must first and foremost make sure to create a safe classroom environment where it’s made clear at the outset that all knowledge is “up for grabs,” and that disagreement and dissent are a valuable stimulus to the educational enterprise.
(3) In your opinion, does the “conservative thought police” that you mention in one of your papers epitomize a modern day version of the Thought Police in George Orwell’s “1984”?
Saitta: Charges of Orwellianism and McCarthyism have been flying back-and-forth in this debate, and I don’t find those exchanges very helpful. To me, the Horowitz crusade is what it is: a largely uninformed and clearly partisan attack on the university, [which] is stunningly ignorant of decades of good scholarship-and even a few established truths-about the nature of knowledge, the relationship between the university and society, and what it means to teach in the service of democratic citizenship.
So far, one of the most memorable classroom moments I have had in college was when a professor accused me of being a “treasonous young lady” for questioning our government’s engagement in Iraq. Interestingly, I would later learn that this professor was against the war, himself. However, at the moment, I perceived him as a worthy adversary in a debate, which made me dig deep into my knowledge bank and string together logical arguments that might sway him to change his mentality. So, what is so dangerous about these professors? Perhaps, it is the fact that they provoke us to think, question, and, in some cases, take action.
Luci Storelli-Castro is a junior double majoring in political science and philosophy. Her column runs every Wednesday in the Collegian.