Is Horowitz's Academic Bill of Rights Designed to
Hinder Critical Thinking?
By Michael Aparicio
The country is beginning to hear more and more about David Horowitz’s ‘Academic Bill of Rights’. The document already has influenced numerous state bills currently being considered throughout the country; and its proponents are hoping to make it the law of the land. Unfortunately it and the bills it’s influenced are flawed in ways that could lead to unacceptable consequences; for while it makes numerous references to well-established educational principles, it applies these principles vaguely.
Horowitz declares “Curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences should reflect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge in these areas.” At first glance this seems reasonable. But how are these topics “unsettled”? Is Horowitz implying there’s an equal amount of evidence for all views? The ‘Academic Bill of Rights’ is not clear.
By itself this vagueness is not significant; but Horowitz makes this reference while prescribing how educators should organize curricula and reading lists. If he is implying there is an equal amount of evidence for all views, what does he mean when he directs educators to "[provide] students with dissenting sources and viewpoints where appropriate"?
It is common for topics to include a lot of different views. Would the ‘Academic Bill of Rights’ require teachers to provide students with all viewpoints on a topic or only some of them? If it implies all of them, a problem arises. For, typically there isn't enough time to discuss every view; and if all views are equally “unsettled,” teachers seemingly would violate the ‘Academic Bill of Rights’ when they exclude any views.
If Horowitz would mandate educators cover only some dissenting viewpoints, which ones would be required? This is a significant question; for,. So, if Horowitz would mandate educators cover only some views, what does he actually mean when he directs them to "[provide] students with dissenting sources and viewpoints where appropriate"? This vagueness leaves the ‘Academic Bill of Rights’ open to speculative interpretations.
An alarming consequence of this bill’s vague reference to the “unsettled” nature of viewpoints can be foreseen when one considers that the bill is applied to disciplines which do not teach viewpoints. These disciplines help students think about a topic’s dissenting viewpoints.
For example, when a teacher illustrates fallacious reasoning, the teacher isn’t criticizing the view addressed by the example. She’s criticizing the reasoning used to support the viewpoint. This is a basic distinction dedicated teachers repeatedly convey to their students.
The fact the ‘Academic Bill of Rights’ fails to apply this distinction is important. For, criticizing the reasoning used to support a viewpoint can be misconstrued as criticism of the viewpoint. By vaguely prescribing educators treat topics as "unsettled," vaguely directing them to “[provide] students with dissenting sources and viewpoints,” and neglecting to make a clear distinction between a viewpoint and the reasoning used to support the viewpoint, the ‘Academic Bill of Rights’ can be interpreted to forbid educators from pointing out flawed thinking unless they present the criticism as only another “unsettled” viewpoint.
Given these problems, my concern is that Horowitz’s ‘Academic Bill of Rights’ will have a tragic effect on a teacher's ability to help students think critically. Teachers who correctly point out flawed reasoning can be accused of being biased against a viewpoint and indoctrinating a contrary viewpoint.
In fact, given the absence of evidence justifying a need for Horowitz’s document – so far I’ve noticed only ‘politically correct’ references to the percentage of registered Republican educators and anecdotal references to allegedly biased behavior, references that typically are described sensationally, fail to name specific instructors, and/or are unverifiable – my concern is that Horowitz is maliciously targeting educators who are dedicated to teaching students to think critically.