What is Advocacy?

Peter Wood

Yesterday I had the opportunity to debate Ernst Benjamin on the merits of the AAUP’s report, Ensuring Academic Freedom in Politically Controversial Academic Personnel Decisions. The occasion was the AAUP’s annual conference on the state of higher education held this year at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC. John K. Wilson had set up the debate and served as moderator and critic of both the report and my critique of it. Peter Schmidt reported  the event for the Chronicle of Higher Education and accurately summarized some of my key points.

Ernst Benjamin and I have gone at this before. I critiqued the AAUP’s report in a two-part essay in the Chronicle (here and here) when it was issued as a draft in February, and Mr. Benjamin, who was the report’s primary author, replied in the Chronicle and at greater length in the AAUP’s Journal for Academic Freedom.

Our in-person debate was constructive, not least because it sharpened the focus on our central disagreement: the proper role of “advocacy” in the college classroom. In a series of recent reports beginning in 2007 with Freedom in the Classroom, the AAUP has staked out a position that aggressively expands the zone in which faculty members should be free to enunciate their personal opinions to their students. The AAUP has, in effect, found no appropriate limit on what professors should say or how they say it, other than to draw the line at “dishonest tactics” and outright attempts to “deceive students.”

Faculty members teaching a course on botany are, in the AAUP’s reckoning, free to digress on the perfidy of political leaders; faculty members teaching American literature are free to delve at whatever length they choose into issues of economics, social justice, or the environment. The freedom of faculty members, in this view, extends to “rhetorical intensity.” So faculty members are free to bully, humiliate, and rant—although the report genteelly avoids putting in plain language the various forms of intemperate expression its authors would countenance.

It is not that Mr. Benjamin himself would indulge in such excesses. He is a cultured and sophisticated man, not inclined to bombast. Rather, he worries that any attempt to draw the line between permissible and impermissible forms of advocacy might well be seized as a pretext by those who are eager to silence certain views. In Ensuring Academic Freedom, the hoary shade of Senator Joe McCarthy is conjured from the grave once again. If we say faculty members can and should express themselves vigorously but must nonetheless exercise certain forms of rhetorical restraint, we are apparently bound to topple into the abyss of McCarthyism.

I think this is mistaken in a number of ways, not least in its evocation of imaginary dangers. The university is as free from inappropriate and censorious outside pressure as it has ever been in its history. There is no latter-day Joe McCarthy eager to investigate the political views of American faculty members. What we have instead is a dozen or more highly competent social scientists (e.g. Neil Gross, George Yancey, Daniel Klein, Matthew Woessner, April Kelly-Woessner) who spend a great of time and care documenting the political orientations of the American faculty. Most of what we might want to know about this topic is known in detail.

This is not to say that the academic left can breathe a sigh of relief. To the contrary, a substantial and growing number of Americans are indeed bothered by the leftward tilt of the professoriate and by the dominance of the progressive left in certain areas. But with few exceptions, this public displeasure isn’t taking the form of anyone attempting to hunt down the rascals. One exception is David Horowitz’s The Professors:  The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America (2007), which produced no discernible public reaction. Another exception is Campus Reform, which encourages college students to “Add leftist faculty to Campus Reform’s professor watch list today.” I’ve no information on the success of Campus Reform’s enterprise, but I have detected no swell of public interest in it.

Rather, the disenchantment is playing out in the marketplace and the polling booths. The more that colleges and universities extend the warrant of academic freedom to behavior that undermines genuine scholarship and fair-minded teaching, the less inclined the public will be to fund the enterprise or to send their children to the institutions that exemplify such approaches.

To be sure, the market for college degrees is very large, and the losses of support at the margin due to public disenchantment may not have reached the level where lots of people are noticing. So the AAUP faces no immediate danger from its decision to push the envelope for an even broader definition of legitimate forms of faculty “advocacy” in the classroom. But I doubt the wisdom of this strategy.

American higher education is now, on the whole, an oppositional institution. As the NAS recently documented in its report, The Vanishing West: 1964-2010, colleges and universities have almost entirely abandoned teaching Western history survey courses, even to history majors. The “world history” courses that have sometimes been introduced as replacements tend to treat the West as the bad example against which students are invited to admire the achievements of other cultures. The sustainability movement on campus is shot through with anti-Western sentiment coupled with disparagement of the industrial and economic advances that have made our current civilization possible. The liberal arts have been cast as the point of departure for students to think of themselves as “citizens of the world”—a metaphor that is surely overdue for deconstruction. The “diversity” doctrine,  now thoroughly institutionalized in American higher education, depicts America in the past and the present as a collection of oppressed groups valiantly struggling to achieve rights against the domination by a privileged elite.

I view all of these as profoundly distorted pictures of the world we live in, but I don’t object to these pictures being presented in the college classroom or advanced by faculty members who believe that they represent the most accurate account of things. My objection is that these representations are nearly the entirety of what most college students encounter. The academic left has so far succeeded in its own domination of the means of intellectual production that most students never catch a glimpse of the alternatives. The exception may be in economics courses, where even liberal professors tend to take a positive view of free markets, but this exception does little to modify the overall proposition: Our universities teach from a standpoint of opposition to the society they are part of.

The AAUP explicitly regards this as a good thing, and it further regards “academic freedom” as the doctrine our society needs in order to keep “vested interests,” the “tyranny of public opinion,” and other threats of “interference” at bay (see pages four and five of the new report).  We need academic freedom, in this view, to foster the progressive “long term” thinking and criticism that can flower in an academy that sets itself against the short-term calculations that are likely to prevail in the political and social world outside.

I emphasize this to make clear that when the AAUP sets out to defend “advocacy,” it isn’t speaking about advocacy in the innocuous sense of faculty members teaching the books they most admire or the ideas they judge to be most accurate or worthiest. In our debate, Mr. Benjamin took the trouble to school me on how virtually everything we say has an implicit element of advocacy. When we say X, we are advocating that it bears more importance than the Y or Z we didn’t say. Advocacy is inherent in the enterprise of teaching. I readily conceded the point. But it wasn’t to preserve “advocacy” in this sense that the AAUP wrote this report. Rather, the AAUP was, as the report forthrightly declares, focused on “politically controversial” advocacy. Advocating the aesthetic importance of Andy Warhol, the value of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, or the merits of the New Deal are not at issue here—although there are surely pedagogically good and bad ways to go about such advocacy.

Rather, the question is whether the hard-edged political advocacy that is an increasingly familiar part of campus life deserves a robust defense. Mr. Benjamin thinks it does. I think the AAUP is mistaken on that principle. That kind of advocacy robs educational opportunities from students—even if they are entertained by it or roused to enthusiasm. It diverts our scarce educational resources for an illegitimate purpose. And it contributes to the loss of public esteem in our work and in our institution.

When we allow the word “advocacy” to mean simultaneously the generic act of presenting our best judgments on matters in which we have won some intellectual authority and presenting our mere opinions actuated by our political passions, we are losing sight of a crucial distinction. I don’t know whether Mr. Benjamin has really lost sight of that distinction or whether he was just trying to score an easy point, but I do think the AAUP has seriously misstepped in the way it has framed the problem in Ensuring Academic Freedom in Politically Controversial Academic Personnel Decisions. Throwing up a protective wall that would protect gross abuses of proper teaching in the name of defending ordinary teaching will only serve to further alienate the American public from higher education.

This article originally appeared on June 9 in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations Blog

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