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May 02 2005

Why David Horowitz attacks academia

Regular readers of this blog know that David Horowitz has been behind efforts to introduce the so-called Academic Bill of Rights, allegedly to “protect” college students from academic bullying by their professors. He has been going around the country, speaking on college campuses and to state legislatures, trying to place limits on what professors can and cannot say. In the process, he has also attacked what he considers the laziness of the academic life.

Horowitz resorts to his usual over-the-top rhetoric. He accuses faculty as follows: “Shiftless, lazy good-for-nothings? Try the richly paid leftist professors securely ensconced in their irrelevant ivory towers” and again “You teach on average two courses and spend six hours a week in class. You work eight months out of the year and have four months paid vacation. And every seven years you get ten months paid vacation.”

Such utterances perpetuate a strong misunderstanding about the nature of a university and of what faculty do. People who say such things see it only as a place where the only worthwhile activities occur in the classroom, and even then, they see the process of teaching very narrowly, as that of transmitting information. Hence they are baffled that college professors seem to spend so little time in the classroom, and see the whole thing as some kind of boondoggle.

People who think like this overlook the fact that faculty are not hired just to transmit knowledge. They are also hired to create new knowledge. Indeed that is one of the key functions of all universities, but especially research universities. This requires faculty to learn, and to keep on learning all their lives, and this requires time more than anything else.

It is for this same reason (that learning takes time) that students can get a degree without spending more that 15 hours or so per week actually in class, along with long summer breaks. This enables them to think and read and discuss ideas. (This is why I am always concerned about those students at Case who have double- and triple-majors and throw in a couple of minors as well. I admire their ambition, energy, and work ethic but am concerned that in the process of accumulating credit hours, they don’t have time to reflect on their learning, to toy with new ideas, and hence are not learning deeply enough.) So the logical end point of Horowitz’s claim should be that college students too are not spending enough time in class and are also “shiftless, lazy good for nothings.”

Universities have been the source of much of the new knowledge that has revolutionized our world. And the reason that they have been able to do so is because its faculty have been given the time to generate new ideas and put them to use. In Bertholt Brecht’s play Life of Galileo Galileo himself complains to his university chancellor that he was teaching so much that he did not have time to learn.

My father worked in a bank all his life. On his desk he had an ‘in’ box and an ‘out’ box. He would pretty much spend each day reading and signing off on papers, transferring them from the in to the out, and then he would go home, his work for the day done. His work was well defined and a ‘hard day’s work’ meant that he had been kept busy all day.

A faculty member’s life does not have that same daily rhythm. Faculty members also have things that they need to do each day (prepare for class, teach, grade papers, attend meetings, write committee reports, talk with students and respond to their emails). But these things come in waves and they have other duties that cannot be done in a nine-to-five time frame (such as write a book or research paper, solve a problem, prepare research proposals, do research). These things are carried around in their minds all the time. The stereotype of the ‘absent-minded professor’ has a kernel of truth but it is not that the professor is actually forgetful. It is that he or she is always thinking about the ideas of their discipline, wrestling with them, sorting them out, and this process is so engrossing that it can often drive other concerns from their minds. When I am working on a book or article, I can assure you that it is almost a full-time, 24/7 preoccupation. I think about it as I am going to sleep and it is the first thing in my mind when I wake up.

The difference is that most academics do not see this as ‘work’, if by that we mean doing something at the expense of something else that we’d rather do. We tend to love our ‘work’. This is what we live for and enjoy.

And perhaps, as we shall see in a later posting, this is what Horowitz really finds offensive about academics.

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