Nov 25, 2007
Conservatives in the U.S. are targeting universities because they are
perceived to be places where ideas that undermine Western
Twenty years ago, like thousands of other young Indians before and
after, I went to the United States as a post-graduate student. I went
because I wanted to see the world and because I wanted to be a
writer, a novelist. Certainly, one could be a novelist without going
to the U.S., or for that matter going away at all. It was just that
for me going was important. When I went, I did not know how long I
would stay, or even whether I would finish my course of study. Half a
lifetime later, I have written two novels. I also have a Ph.D., have
written a scholarly book and articles, and am still in an American
university not as a student now, but as someone who, aside from
writing novels, teaches and does research on American and
postcolonial literature and films. To some extent, this is simply a
way to make a living pay the rent, put rice on the table, support
my movie habit. But there surely are other ways to make a living, and
if I have stayed on, it is also because I have wanted to. Not just
necessity but desire too has played its part.
Everyone knows about great American universities like Harvard or
Stanford. However, the real achievement of the American higher
education system is not to be found in such universities alone, but
rather in the system as a whole. Virtually every one of the 50 States
of the U.S. has its own elaborate public university system, often a
combination of large research universities and smaller teaching
oriented community colleges. The best of these University of
California at Berkeley or University of Texas at Austin rival the
Harvards and Stanfords in their teaching and research and in their
influence over the public life of the country.
Now, all is not well in this immense system. A storm has broken out
across the country's many university campuses. Since widespread
opposition to the Vietnam War on campuses in the 1960s and 70s,
conservatives have perceived the influence of universities and
colleges to be liberal or, even worse, radical. They have seen the
university as a place where values antithetical to American
conservatism flourish where American foreign policy is routinely
criticised, where support for radical feminism and homosexual
lifestyles abounds, where there is unthinking acceptance of
entitlements for African Americans and other racial minorities.
For many conservatives, the American university has become an
institution devoted to systematically brainwashing young and
impressionable minds with ideas that undermine the Western and
Christian traditions on which the country was founded. Instead of
celebrating the great tradition of European literature and
philosophy, these conservatives complain, professors are engaged in
trashing the Western classics or else teaching inferior books like
those of Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu. Where
is Plato? Thomas Aquinas? Shakespeare? Vanished, neglected, or else
attacked for what they stand for. So claim many influential
conservatives, and now mad as hell, as the Americans say they have
come to do battle to try and take the university back.
One of the shrillest of these battling conservatives is David
Horowitz. Through the David Horowtiz Freedom Center, an organisation
charmingly named for himself, he has launched the Campaign for
Academic Freedom, meant, he declares "to restore academic freedom and
open inquiry to college campuses". Another eager participant in these
polemics is an immigrant from India, Dinesh D'Souza, whose book
Illiberal Education was one of the first to decry the erosion of
Western values in university courses and textbooks.
Conservatives have not only attacked books and ideas. Lives and
careers too have been threatened. Take Ward Churchill and Norman
Finkelstein. Churchill is a well-known scholar and historian,
outspoken in his criticism of the U.S. government's treatment of
Native Americans. Because of a high profile investigation provoked by
an article he wrote criticising the U.S. regarding the terrorist
attacks of 9/11 (which, it must be said, put forward some deplorable
ideas on those who died on that day), he has been fired from his
position at the University of Colorado. Finkelstein, himself the
child of Jewish survivors of Hitler's death camps, has been critical
of U.S. and Israeli actions in West Asia. The result: he too has been
fired from his job at DePaul University. I don't mean to endorse
everything that Churchill and Finkelstein have said, but in both
these firings, the conservative movement has played a powerful and
inappropriate role by putting enormous pressure on the
administrations of these universities. They have seen the Churchill
and Finkelstein affairs as opportunities to further attack the university.
So, what are we to make of this conservative assault on the university?
Space for everyone
Certainly, the American university has been home to many famous and
outspoken liberals and radicals. Noam Chomsky and Angela Davis
readily come to mind. Chomsky, renowned linguist and unrelenting
critic of American foreign policy, teaches at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology. Angela Davis was, at one time, a member of
the radical militant group the Black Panthers. She now teaches at the
University of California at Santa Cruz.
But the American university has also been home to any number of
equally famous and outspoken conservatives. Alan Dershowitz, who, it
appears, played a pivotal role in getting Finkelstein fired, teaches
at Harvard University, as does conservative thinker Samuel
Huntington, notorious for his ideas about a "clash of civilisations"
between the West and Islam. Alan Bloom, whose book, The Closing of
the American Mind, did much to stake out a conservative position on
cultural issues during the 1980s, taught at the University of Chicago
until his death. For every liberal or radical member of the
university, it is possible to think of a conservative counterpart.
For every Noam Chomsky, there is a Samuel Huntington.
The real reason
Why then have conservatives targeted universities? It is difficult to
agree with Horowitz or D'Souza that conservatives or conservative
ideas have been censored within universities. That is certainly not
what my experience of the last 20 years tells me. In fact, I think
the opposite might be the case. Universities are amongst the few
places where robust challenges to conservatism can still be found.
And that, it seems, is enough to invite the wrath of conservatives.
S. Shankar's latest book is the novel No End to the Journey. He
teaches at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa.