Inside a classroom at the University of Massachusetts.
How bad is the indoctrination process in American colleges?
I had occasion to see for myself an answer to this question when I recently visited the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. This is a state school with 20,000 students, and while I was there I audited an hour-and-a-half lecture about the Warren Court’s landmark decisions on civil liberties by a well-known and highly respected political scientist named Sheldon Goldman, a nationally recognized expert in the field.
There are no open conservatives on the faculty of the University of Massachusetts and none that the conservative students who were hosting me could identify. My student hosts were political science majors and the absence of conservative professors was a real problem for them given the extreme and abusive nature of many of their professors. One professor gave an exam, for example, that consisted of a speech by President Reagan. The exam question was: Explain why Reagan is wrong. Another professor was a militant leftist who required a paper on the Vietnam War. To avoid the political minefield which confronted him, a student wrote a paper comparing military strategies for the war. The professor rejected the paper with the comment: “We shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”
When I entered Goldman’s classroom I saw that half of my student hosts were taking his course, a relief they told me later from the harassment they experience in other political science courses. Goldman is regarded by these conservative students as the “best” and “fairest” professor on the UMass faculty, someone who every now and then would vent a “liberal” sentiment or prejudice but whose lectures were relatively free from bias and whose classroom behavior was respectful towards them. Political Science departments in my experience are more academic and less politicized than other departments such as Anthropology, Sociology and the various inter-disciplinary fields (“Peace Studies,” “Cultural Studies”) that tenured radicals have invented to establish their ideological claims.
Consequently, I was not prepared for what I encountered in Professor Goldman’s classroom. I had previously suggested in my writings and lectures on universities that professors who use their classrooms as platforms for their political agendas represent a small but significant minority, which I have estimated to be about ten percent of a given faculty. The other ninety percent are scholars who are professional and observe the guidelines on academic freedom which enjoin faculty from presenting students with “ready-made conclusions” on controversial matters. Or so I thought. After auditing Professor Goldman’s course I will have to revise that judgment.
Let me begin by stating what I believe indoctrination to be and what it is not. Indoctrination is presenting opinion to students as though it were scientific fact or as though no rational, decent, and moral person could have any other view. It is the equivalent of presenting students with ready-made conclusions which they cannot realistically feel free to challenge. There are entire fields of study that are in fact programs of indoctrination. For example, all Women’s Studies programs with which I am familiar are programs to train students to be radical feminists and specifically to instill in them the doctrine that gender differences are “socially constructed” – that they are artificially created by male elites to subordinate and oppress women.
The social construction of gender is not a theory that students in Women’s Studies courses are free to adopt or reject. It is taught in the same way university courses in physics teach Newton’s laws of motion. When, at a recent academic conference, I confronted the president of the American Association of University Professors over this very issue, he replied that he did indeed teach the social construction of gender as a scientific fact but because he allowed students to take the opposite point of view it wasn’t indoctrination. But what does it mean to let a student who is seeking a good grade argue against a scientific fact, except that you are allowing him to make a fool of himself?
Professor Goldman is not a radical and his presentation was of much subtler order, but its import was surprisingly similar. Let me be clear at the outset. If Professor Goldman had presented the rulings of the Warren Court along with the conservative objections to those rulings and then said that personally -- and based on his own years of study -- he was of the opinion that the Warren rulings were wise or correct, I would have no problem with his presentation, particularly since the students were confident that he was fair-minded in his treatment of them. But Professor Goldman did not do this. Instead he presented a series of landmark Warren Court decisions as a salesman for Warren Court’s point of view, and without giving the conservatives’ concerns a proper day in his court. To put it more bluntly, Professor Goldman suppressed the conservative argument against the Warren Court so that no one sitting in the class who was not already familiar with it could think that any modern person, or any rational and moral person for that matter, could fail to approve what the Warren Court did.
In discussing the establishment of religion clause in the First Amendment, for example, he made it seem as though the issue was whether saying a prayer in school was a step in establishing religion or whether it was too inconsequential to trigger concern. But this was not the gravamen of the conservative argument. The conservative position is that the establishment clause refers to the establishment of a particular religion not to acknowledgment that a deity exists. After all, the Founders were or were descended from refugees who had fled to American as Christians persecuted by the Anglican Church which, as the established Church of England could therefore use government powers against rival denominations. Mentioning a non-denominational “God” in the classroom may or may not qualify as the kind of establishment the Founders had in mind, but obviously reasonable, and moral, and modern people can disagree on this matter, something no student in Goldman’s class would understand from his lecture.
Goldman then turned to an even more important case, Griswold v. Connecticut, which as he pointed out provided the constitutional basis for Roe v. Wade. This, as he did not point out, was a decision that can be said to have transformed the politics of this country by virtually creating a “religious right” opposition, turning Supreme Court nominations into political battles and causing a polarization of the two major parties. Nor did he explain why this should be so.
The Griswold case involved a Connecticut law against contraceptives and was resolved when the Warren majority invented a “right to privacy” which Goldman conceded cannot be found in the actual Constitution but then went on to argue in effect that it should have been there and to imply that we can be thankful that it was put there by Justice Douglas under the mysterious doctrine of “penumbras.” Goldman made the case for the ruling easy by making fun of the Connecticut law, acting out an imaginary knock at the door by the contraceptive police coming to look into citizens’ bedrooms. The effect was to insinuate that this was a stupid and dangerous law, and if we have to invent rights that aren’t in the Constitution to get rid of it, well and good. They should have been there and we as enlightened progressives are really obligated to supply them. At no point do I remember Goldman reminding students that actually there was another way to get rid of a stupid and dangerous law, which was through the legislative process. This would avoid having nine unelected judges, appointed for life, rewriting the Constitution and substituting themselves for the electorate. The closest Professor Goldman came to recognizing this issue was a passing reference to Justice Stewart’s dissent in which he said that the majority decision was like having a constitutional convention every day.
At no point did Professor Goldman explain to students that the conservative opposition to the Warren Court decisions revolved around this absolutely critical point, or as the noted liberal law professor Mark Tushnet acknowledges, “To conservatives, the Warren Court converted constitutional law into ordinary politics….” By circumventing (really subverting) legislatures and the democratic process instead of merely applying the Constitution as written, the Warren Court liberals made the selection of a Supreme Court justice a momentous political act, which is why the Supreme Court nominations have since become such open political conflicts, while the Constitution as written by the Founders has been gravely weakened. That is the conservative argument which was absent from Professor Goldman’s lecture.
All this would have been less problematic if the text Professor Goldman required his students to read for the course was not a partisan liberal view of the Court written by Jeffrey Toobin. It is not as though there aren’t equally accessible conservative books about this very history. Robert Bork a distinguished a law professor and jurist (whose name was mentioned a few times in vain by Goldman) has written one himself, The Tempting of America. How difficult would it have been to assign students to read Bork’s book alongside Toobin’s so that students could familiarize themselves with the arguments that Goldman left out of his presentation?
Here is the relevant passage on indoctrination from the classic 1915 statement on academic freedom:
“It is not the function of a faculty member in a democracy to indoctrinate his/her students with ready-made conclusions on controversial subjects. The faculty member is expected to train students to think for themselves, and to provide them access to those materials, which they need if they are to think intelligently. Hence, in giving instruction upon controversial matters the faculty member is expected to be of a fair and judicial mind, and to set forth justly, without super-cession or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators.”
If Professor Goldman had followed these guidelines I would have had no problem with his personal judgments about the wisdom of the Warren Court. But he didn’t and therefore I do. The larger problem is this: what happens to a democracy when its educational institutions are converted into training and recruitment programs for one political party and its worldview?