Covering Old Ground

[Originally published on the Free Exchange on Campus blog.]

As a new academic year is starting this week, I’d like to renew discussion that, while old hat to some, may be as yet unexplored by others. My concern is the subtle twisting of words and phrases that puts an entirely new spin on them—something that David Horowitz and many of his followers do, those people whose attacks on academia (though losing steam this last year or so) have been so high-profile this decade. They have mastered the art of redefinition—and it takes constant vigilance to keep the new “definitions” from becoming the accepted ones.

Take, for example, the website of Students for Academic Freedom (SAF). It contains the slogan “You can’t get a good education if they’re only telling you half the story.” Leaving aside the fact that the organization itself only tells half the story—for it is no organization of students (at least, it was not founded or financed by them) but of Horowitz—the implications of this phrase, used where it is, are troubling, if not deceptive or even downright dishonest.

A good education, of course, is not something one “gets” like a gallon of milk from the corner store. It depends for creation on the actions of the student, not on some “they” who are “telling” any part of any “story.” Take Frederick Douglass learning to read: he succeeded because he found ways around the barriers put before him. “They” were “telling” him much less than “half the story,” but Douglass wasn’t deterred by any “can’t.” The SAF slogan deliberately assumes passivity on the part of students, an assumption completely at odds with any successful quest for education such as the one Douglass embarked upon; ultimately, it plays upon the ignorance (about education) of its audience.

Most depressing about this SAF view is, of course, that the attitude it expresses towards education has long been shown (again) as weak and counterproductive—witness Paolo Freire’s ‘banking model of education’ (summarized here). Again, the slogan itself expressed less than “half the story.”

This whole shibboleth of “both sides” is another example of language twisted for the purpose of attacking (and gaining control over) academia and not as some real outgrowth of belief in breadth. This is demonstrated by the SAF’s very own site.

The lead story on the site for a few days last week was “Leftwing Law Professors Who (Like the New York Times) Don’t Understand Who the Enemy Is” by Horowitz minion Jacob Laksin. Words like “enemy,” “terrorist,” and even “they” do nothing more than divide, making it possible to write the “other” off completely, never bothering to learn about the other “half.” Laksin’s is a story written by a man with a closed mind looking at a complex situation—exactly the sort of thing one might assume the SAF is against.

The Horowitz approach (which the SAF site echoes) is to cry for expansion of views to be considered in the classroom—when it is Horowitz who feels on the outside. When it is others? No need.

The SAF site doesn’t even bother to hide this inconsistency.

Why learn about what really goes on in “terrorist” training camps? Why try to understand the motivation of those who might attack “us”? Just destroy them. Or, in the Padillo case that engendered Laksin’s short article, just toss them in prison.

Ff you really want the whole picture, of course, you have to objectively study the views of all sides. When you call one side “enemy,” that becomes nigh on impossible.

Such intellectual inconsistency makes it clear that Horowitz and his followers have no real interest in improving education. Instead, they simply want to make sure that their views have a platform—no matter whether or not what they believe has a foundation in research and considered thought or has stood the test of skeptical criticism—and makes it clear that those they oppose can be pushed aside without consideration. Horowitz and his friends, after all, know the “truth.” We who see conflicts in a more nuanced fashion are (in their minds) little more than apologists for the “enemy,” so deserve to be thrown out with the rest of the “garbage.”

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