Right-Wing Post-Modernism and the Student's Academic Bill of Rights
By Terry Mulcaire
I’d like to focus on David Horowitz and the campaign he’s leading for a Student Bill of Rights, partly because one of the goals of the College Republicans in Operation Red Scare, as they called it, was to generate favorable publicity for the SBR. Horowitz’s complaint is that academia is full of radical left-wingers who have politicized the pursuit of academic knowledge, abandoning the traditional pursuit of knowledge in favor of a radical postmodern relativism, an anything goes ethic that frees academics to teach their own personal political biases as facts.
Professor Schrecker described this characterization of academia as a “clever caricature.”—I agree, but I’d like to focus for a couple of minutes on the way in which this caricature is not merely misleading; it actually gets certain essential elements of the issue exactly backwards. And this is not a coincidence. It points to a remarkable irony that Professor Schrecker hinted at briefly—which is that Horowitz and his followers, in supposedly attacking the postmodern relativism of modern academia, are in fact embracing it—indeed, that the so-called Student’s Academic Bill of Rights promises to write a postmodern relativism into law, by legally mandating a situation in which questions of what counts and doesn’t count as academic knowledge and legitimate academic inquiry can be made into political questions, to be decided by votes in state legislatures. What I want to suggest is that the proponents of the Academic Bill of Rights have to caricature academia, to hide their own efforts to politicize academia, and their own embrace of the relativism they supposedly want to reform.
The case of evolution shows how the proponents of ABR, in charging academics with a politicized relativism, get it backwards. The Florida state legislator who introduced that state’s version of the Student’s Academic Bill of Rights said that the bill would stop what he called “leftist, totalitarian” professors from behaving like dictators, and forcing their opinions on students. When he was asked to provide an example of such a dictatorial relativist, he described a biology professor who refused to accept a student’s claim that creationism was just as scientifically valid a theory as evolution in explaining the development of life on earth.
But the implied claim that evolutionary theory displays even the slightest taint of postmodern relativism is precisely backwards. On the contrary, the manner in which evolutionary theory has developed over the last 150 years, and its current unchallenged status in biology, represents a classic, textbook case for the traditional, apolitical, unbiased pursuit of higher knowledge. Researchers into evolution follow the scientific method; they formulate hypotheses that must be supported by facts, and borne out by experiments whose results can be confirmed and repeated by other researchers; experimentally confirmed theories must then successfully predict future discoveries. The results of such research must be reviewed by peers in the field of biology, before they can be published. And scientists must always be open to altering their views in the face of new hypotheses that meet all the tests I’ve described. For generations now, evolutionary theory has met all these rigorous challenges with spectacular success, and continues to do so.
In other words, the pursuit of biological knowledge follows a rigorous process of reasoned critical inquiry that is designed precisely to exclude personal bias and mere, unfounded opinion. Every academic discipline has its own version of such a process of reasoned critical inquiry. English and Philosophy teach, among other things, how to do this in general--how to think critically. We teach, for example, how to make basic distinctions between different kinds of knowledge, and different kinds of claims, so that students may distinguish between the claims of religion, for example, and the claims of science. To point out that the claims of creationism are religious ones, not scientific ones, is not in any sense to disparage them, any more than to say that an apple is not an orange is to disparage the apple. It is simply to describe them as they are.
The charge of postmodern, left-wing relativism directed at the biology professor in this case not only gets the biology professor’s values exactly wrong—for his or her teaching is grounded in the most traditional standards of unbiased rigor and objectivity—it also masks, ironically, a submerged postmodern bias in the supporters of creationism. To say that evolution is “just another theory,” no more or less valuable than creationism, and that a professor’s preference for evolution over creationism is merely a reflection of political bias, is to ignore the vast accumulation of rigorous critical inquiry which has established and confirmed the claims of evolution. Creationism can appeal to no such process of inquiry; so it falls back on a pure appeal to relativism, in which everything depends on your point of view, and evolution is just another theory.
I may have my own reasons for believing that apples are the same thing as oranges, and religious claims are the same as scientific ones, but my reasons simply won’t stand up to the critical analysis that is the genuine business of higher education. For me to claim that my teacher’s refusal to accept my reasons is political oppression shows, first, my failure to appreciate the value and significance of reasoned critical inquiry, and second, I think, my failure to understand the real meaning of political oppression.
When we move from the sciences to the humanities things do indeed become more complicated, for various theories of postmodernism have found advocates in the humanities. I and many other academics in the humanities are of the opinion that the reasoning behind postmodernism is flawed, and the critical debate between proponents and critics of postmodern theory is, in a certain sense, a classic example of academic dialogue and debate, as the process by which knowledge is advanced.
But I think this particular debate is, perhaps, more important than many academic debates. Postmodernism suggests that there are no stable grounds for knowledge, that all knowledge is ultimately relative. But if this turns out to be true, then academics in particular are in deep trouble. For if all knowledge is relative, and educated practicioners of reasoned critical analysis can lay no special claim to authoritative knowledge, then why should we have a system of higher education at all? You hardly need to take a college biology class in order to embrace the claims of creationism.
And so, for me, the most important and most alarming thing about the movement behind the SABR is that, under the misleading guise of opposition to left-wing relativism, it seeks to write that relativism into law, and institutionalize it, by opening questions of academic knowledge to direct, partisan political influence. Horowitz and his followers are not offering any principled, reasoned critique of postmodern relativism whatsoever. They have no problem with postmodern relativism; their only problem is with left-wing postmodern relativism, and their solution is to establish in academia, by political fiat, a place for right-wing postmodern relativism. If this happens, academia will, in effect, be transformed into a political battleground. It will be all Operation Red Star, all the time.
I still don’t think that this movement will succeed. Most people, I think, still believe that certain truths are knowable in common, no matter how difficult and laborious the process of arriving at those truths may be. Most people believe that words have stable meanings, that you can’t make them mean whatever you want them to mean. Liberal does not mean the same thing as communist, any more than apple means the same thing as orange. Conservatives, if the word has any substantive meaning, are people who want to conserve things: traditional values, for example, like the value our civilization has traditionally placed on reasoned critical inquiry as a means of pursuing higher knowledge.
I don’t think there is really anything conservative, in any meaningful sense, about the movement for a Student’s Academic Bill of Rights. This movement promises to free students from the traditional rigors of critical inquiry, and free them to replace the traditional tools of academic inquiry with the weapons of public relations and political smear campaigns. I still hope that people of goodwill, and lovers of knowledge, of all political persuasions, will recognize this as the dangerously radical proposal that it really is, and reject it as such.