Thursday, September 6, 2018
Jason Stanley (Yale): Universities should resist government and donor pressure to reinforce propaganda (Michael Simkovic)
In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Yale philosophy Professor Jason Stanley warns about rising neo-fascist tendencies around the world and related efforts to deligitimize universities. Of particular interest to readers of this blog, Stanley recommends against appeasing critics by hiring faculty members who will promote viewpoints that are popular with donors or political leaders. He instead advocates retaining a strictly merit-based approach to academic hiring, protected from outside influences.
Professor Stanley writes:
"In recent years, several countries across the world have been overtaken by a certain kind of far-right nationalism; the list includes Russia, Hungary, Poland, India, Turkey, and the United States. . . . [P]atterns have emerged that suggest the resurgence of fascist politics globally. Increasingly, attacks on universities and conflicts over their policies are a symptom of this phenomenon. . . [M]y interest is in fascist politics as a mechanism to achieve power. . .
Honest politics needs intelligent debate. One of the clearest signs of fascist politics, then, is attacks on universities and expertise — the support systems of discussion and the sources of knowledge and facts. Intelligent debate is impossible without access to different perspectives, a respect for expertise when one’s own knowledge gives out, and a rich enough language to precisely describe reality. When education is undermined, only power and tribal identity remain.
This does not mean that there is no role for universities in fascist politics. In fascist ideology, only one viewpoint is legitimate. Colleges are meant to introduce students to the dominant culture and its mythic past. Education therefore either poses a grave threat to fascism or becomes a pillar of support for the mythical nation. It’s no wonder, then, that cultural clashes on campuses represent a true political battleground and receive national attention. The stakes are high. . . .
Where speech is a right, propagandists cannot attack dissent head-on; instead they must represent it as something violent and oppressive (a protest therefore becomes a "riot"). . . .
Fascist politics seeks to undermine the credibility of institutions that harbor independent voices of dissent. One typical method is to level accusations of hypocrisy. Right now, a contemporary right-wing campaign is charging universities with hypocrisy on the issue of free speech. Universities, it says, claim to hold free speech in the highest regard but suppress any voices that don’t lean left. Critics of campus social-justice movements have found an effective method of turning themselves into the victims of protest. They contend that protesters mean to deny them their own free speech. . .
These accusations also extend into the classroom. . . . a far-right activist who has been targeting universities . . . published a book, The Professors, naming the "101 most dangerous professors in America," a list of leftist and liberal professors . . . The goal of Students for Academic Freedom is to promote the hiring of professors with conservative worldviews, an effort marketed as promoting "intellectual diversity and academic freedom at America’s colleges and universities," according to Young America’s Foundation. . . .
Some will argue that a university must have representatives of all positions. Such an argument suggests that being justified in our own positions requires regularly grappling with opposing ones (and that there was no room for those views in the first place). . . . Nevertheless, the general principle, upon reflection, is not particularly plausible.No one thinks that the demands of free inquiry require adding researchers to university faculties who seek to demonstrate that the earth is flat. Similarly, I can safely and justifiably reject ISIS ideology without having to confront its advocates in the classroom or faculty lounge. I do not need to have a colleague who defends the view that Jewish people are genetically predisposed to greed in order to justifiably reject such anti-Semitic nonsense. Nor is it even remotely plausible that bringing such voices to campus would aid arguments against such toxic ideologies. More likely, it would undermine intelligent debate by leading to breakdowns of communication and shouting matches.
Universities should supply the intellectual tools to allow an understanding of all perspectives. But the best way to achieve that is to hire the most academically qualified professors. No method of adjudicating academic quality will be free from controversy. But trying to evade that difficulty by forcing universities to hire representatives of every ideological position is a particularly implausible fix, one that can perhaps be justified only by a widespread conspiracy theory about academic standards being hijacked by, say, a supposed epidemic of "political correctness."
. . . attacks on "political correctness" on campuses have become commonplace. Jesse Panuccio, acting U.S. associate attorney general, began his remarks at Northwestern University in January by declaring campus free speech "a vitally important topic, and, as you are probably aware, one that Attorney General Sessions has made a priority for the Department of Justice. It is a priority because, in our view, many campuses across the country are failing to protect and promote free speech."Since then the Department of Justice has filed suits against universities for their alleged failure to protect the free-speech rights of right-wing speakers.
Top officials, including the attorney general and the secretary of education, have appeared as featured speakers at a Turning Point USA conference, an organization that keeps "watch lists" of supposedly dangerous leftist professors, hardly a hallmark of free-speech advocacy.
Trump’s presidential campaign is sometimes described as one long attack on "political correctness." It is not accidental that the rhetoric of the Trump administration overlaps with the talking points of some of the well-funded institutions that have arisen to attack and delegitimize universities as bastions of liberalism. These broad criticisms have real impacts on academic careers and academic freedom. In January 2017, Missouri State Representative Rick Brattin, a Republican, proposed banning tenure at all of Missouri’s public universities. After calling tenure "un-American" in an interview with The Chronicle, Brattin added, "Something’s wrong, something’s broken, and a professor that should be educating our kids, should be concentrating on ensuring that they’re propelling to a better future, but instead are engaging in political stuff that they shouldn’t be engaged in. Because they have tenure, they’re allowed to do so. And that is wrong." When Brattin was asked whether he was concerned that eliminating tenure would damage academic freedom and lead to professors’ losing their jobs for political reasons, he responded, "In what area do you have protection of your job for whatever you say, whatever you do, you’re protected? You don’t have that."
In the classic style of demagogic propaganda, the tactic of attacking institutions standing up for public reason and open debate occurs under the cloak of those very ideals.
Within universities, fascist politicians target professors they deem too political and often denounce entire areas of study. When fascist movements are underway in liberal democratic states, certain academic disciplines are singled out. . . . [and] denounced as "Marxist indoctrination," the classic bogeyman of fascist politics. Used without any connection to Marx or Marxism, the expression is employed to malign the equality represented by even small amounts of space being given to marginalized perspectives. . . .
The priorities here make sense when one realizes that in antidemocratic systems, the function of education is to produce obedient citizens structurally obliged to enter the work force without bargaining power, and ideologically trained to think that the dominant group represents history’s greatest civilizational forces. Conservative figures pour huge sums into the project of advancing right-wing goals in education. In 2017 the Charles Koch Foundation alone spent $100 million at around 350 colleges and universities. . . .
The replacement of a varied curriculum with a narrowly proscribed one is a renunciation of knowledge and expertise. Rush Limbaugh has made this explicitly clear on his radio show, denouncing "the four corners of deceit: government, academia, science, and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That’s how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper." Limbaugh provides a perfect example of how fascist politics targets expertise, mocking and devaluing it. In a liberal democracy, political leaders are supposed to consult with those they represent, as well as with experts and scientists who can most accurately explain the demands of reality on policy.
Instead, fascist politicians call upon universities to bolster their preconceived messages rather than to inform and shape policy. Across the world right now, we see right-wing movements attacking universities for spreading "Marxism" and "feminism" and failing to give a central place to far-right values. Even in the United States, home to the world’s greatest university system, we see Eastern European-style attacks on universities. Student protests are misrepresented in the press as riots by undisciplined mobs, threats to the civil order. In fascist politics, universities are debased in public discourse, and academics are undermined as legitimate sources of knowledge and expertise. Instead they are represented as radicals spreading a leftist ideological agenda under the guise of research. By debasing institutions of higher learning and impoverishing our joint vocabulary, fascist politics reduces debate to ideological conflict, thereby occluding reality.
History suggests that when the central government targets universities in ways we are now witnessing in the United States, it is a signal of encroaching authoritarianism. We would do well to take such signals both literally and seriously, if we are to preserve what history teaches is a bulwark against authoritarianism — a vibrant, robust, and independent university system."