During the last twenty years, I have spoken at more than three hundred universities, where I interviewed students and professors about the intellectual climate on their campuses. In the course of these visits I became concerned about the changes that had taken place since I attended college half a century ago. I was particularly troubled by the increasingly intolerant atmosphere of the schools I visited and by the relentless intrusion of political agendas into an academic environment where they did not belong.
As a result, in the fall of 2002 I began an effort to address these problems by reviving doctrines of academic freedom that were an integral part of university governance but had been increasingly abandoned as a practice in recent decades. I had first encountered these doctrines during my undergraduate years at Columbia College, in the McCarthy period, when they provided a bulwark against the turbulence of those troubled times. Their origins could be traced back yet another half century to the Progressive Era, when professors had been forced to defend themselves from the meddling of benefactors who were angered by academic critiques of their business practices. The principles of academic freedom were devised at that time to ensure that scholars could publish the results of their professional research without fear of reprisals from donors and politicians who lacked their academic expertise.
In recent years, by contrast, it is faculty members who have intruded a political agenda into the academic curriculum and have sought to close down intellectual discussion and prevent open-minded inquiries into “sensitive” subjects. Ideas deemed “reactionary” and “politically incorrect” are suppressed through “speech codes” and a collective disapproval that renders them verboten. Unlike previous attempts to interfere with disinterested inquiry, the new political assault comes from faculty insiders who regard their scholarship as a partisan activity and the university as a platform from which they hope to change the world.
The radical attempt to turn schools into agencies for social change is a recent development that coincides with the emergence of “political correctness” as the signature feature of a radicalized academic culture. “Political correctness” is a term that describes an orthodoxy or party line, in this case reflecting the agendas of the left. Ideas that oppose left-wing orthodoxy— opposition to racial preferences, belief in innate differences between men and women, or, more recently, support for America’s war in Iraq—are regarded as morally unacceptable or simply indecent. The proponents of such ideas are regarded as deviants from the academic norm, to be marginalized and shunned.
In defending their position, faculty radicals are quick to deny that an orthodoxy is something new to the academic world. In their view, a conservative orthodoxy has always governed the educational curriculum. The objection, they contend, is not to the establishment of an orthodoxy as such, but to an orthodoxy that is not conservative. In this view, conservatives are merely defending the status quo ante, objecting to change. As evidence, radicals point to the “consensus” view of American history as an orthodoxy that prevailed in the preceding generation, and has now been overthrown.
This argument is misconceived. It is true that there has always been an American consensus, but only as a common heritage of shared national memories and common civic virtues. Contrary to the radical claim, the consensus view of American history was not one that excluded ideas because they were dissenting. On the contrary, it embraced them as expressions of American pluralism. The consensus view was more like a patriotic accord: a shared appreciation of the wisdom of the American founding and the value of the democratic, multi-ethnic republic the Framers created. The embrace of this legacy represents a unity indispensable to the social cohesion of a nation that is not based on blood and soil, but on a social contract established at its founding—a nation “conceived in liberty” and dedicated to propositions that its constituent elements shared.
Within this American consensus there has always been ample room for dissent and for views that are sharply self-critical, even of the American project itself. The American consensus has always embraced a wide-ranging spectrum that includes the disaffected, provided they seek redress of grievances through the democratic process. In other words, this consensus is not an orthodoxy of the political right; it is the social contract of a historically constructed nation and a community, diverse in its origins and plural in its views. The preservation of this diversity and its democracy is the heart of the consensus. The consensus, in short, is the common cultural bond of the democracy of which all Americans are a part: out of many, one. It is this bond that is now under assault from radicals who have entrenched themselves in the university culture.
Side by side with this American consensus—and reflecting its values—there has been until recently a common understanding of the function of education in a democracy. This has included respect for intellectual disagreement as the necessary condition for the development of independent minds. In the modern era it embraces the idea that research and teaching are professional disciplines, which observe the scientific method and require intellectual objectivity and restraint; it insists on a perspective that is expert, skeptical and dispassionate; and it respects the uncertainty of human knowledge and the pluralism of views on which a democracy is based. It is consequently a consensus that opposes the imposition of ideological orthodoxies and sectarian agendas in the classroom.
The new political orthodoxies insinuated into our universities by the left are quite different. They do not derive from the traditions of a shared American heritage and culture, but are sectarian attempts to subvert both—by deconstructing the nation’s identity and by dividing its communities into warring classes, genders and races—into victims and oppressors. For academic radicals who hope to “change the world,” teaching is not a disinterested intellectual inquiry but a form of political combat. The banner of this combat is “social justice,” the emblem that signifies to the post-Communist left the triumph of the oppressed over the oppressors.
An academic movement for “social justice” has inserted its radical agenda into the very templates of collegiate institutions and academic programs, and into the curricula of secondary schools as well.2 Pursuit of this goal both requires and justifies indoctrinating students in the ideas that radicals regard as “transformative” and “progressive.” Far from being a consensus that supports the pluralistic community of the American social contract, the political correctness of the left is the orthodoxy of one social faction seeking to impose its agenda on all the others—a new and disturbing development in the educational culture.
This book describes an effort to disarm the political assault on our schools and to revive the values—professionalism, political neutrality and intellectual diversity—that previously constituted their common foundation. The academic freedom campaign was launched in 2003 when I published an “Academic Bill of Rights,” designed to restore intellectual diversity and academic standards. The response is already powerful enough to have acquired a life of its own. In the spring of 2006, the student body at Princeton University passed a “Student Bill of Rights” based on the principles I had proposed, but without any direct intervention by myself or the organization I had created, Students for Academic Freedom. The Princeton bill was the creation of the Princeton students themselves. The same self-propelled efforts can be seen in new movements for academic freedom on more than 150 campuses across the nation.
These campaigns reflect a widespread desire among college students and the general public to restore intellectual pluralism and organizational neutrality to academic institutions, and to protect their scholarly mission. They represent a revulsion against the corruption of the classroom by academics who willfully confuse education with activism and who seek to suppress opposing viewpoints in the name of progressive agendas.
Because the attacks on the academic freedom campaign have focused to a great extent on me as the individual responsible, the narrative that follows necessarily deals with personal experiences. The political left which has orchestrated these attacks has a long history of conducting its campaigns through ad hominem charges. It is not for nothing that the word “purge,” for example, is a left-wing coinage, or that every purge has featured the slander of its individual targets. The political purge is a purification ritual and its roots can be traced to the fact that radical politics is essentially a religious vocation.
This religious character is determined by the fact that its adherents conceive their projects as “revolutionary” or “transformative”—secular terms for what in effect would be a rehgious “redemption,” albeit an earthly one. Looked at from this vantage, the radical goal is a secular redemption of society from its vale of “oppression.” The redemption is accomplished by creating a world without “racism,” “sexism” or “classism,” the current term of art for which is “social justice”—a secular version of heaven on earth.
The extravagant goal of redeeming humanity justifies uncompromising means. Social redeemers regard themselves as an “army of the saints,” and their opponents as the party of sinners. They do not view their conservative opponents as supporters of alternative means for improving the lot of women, minorities and the poor, but as enemies of women, minorities and the poor. Progressive agendas cannot be opposed, therefore, on grounds that are principled or practical or compassionate. Opponents of “progressives” are defined as “reactionaries”—advocates of racism and sexism, practitioners of “McCarthyism,” and other incarnations of social evil.
Consequently, to be demonized by “progressives,” as in fact I have been as a result of my efforts in behalf of academic freedom, is not a personal matter, but an ineluctable consequence of opposing their agendas. The anathemas that academic leftists have pronounced on me and the academic freedom campaign have a long and squalid history in the left’s battles with previous opponents. The story of the campaign against academic freedom, therefore, can also be read as a study in the methods of the radical project itself.
Los Angeles, August 2006