Academic Freedom

Lynne V. Cheney

April 1, 1992


This lecture was delivered on April 1, 1992, as part of the Ashbrook Center’s “Major Issues Lecture Series” at Ashland University.  The subject for the 1991-1992 Major Issues Lecture Series is “Striving Towards Excellence in Education.”  Because, as former Ohio Governor George Voinovich has said, these lectures “cover topics that are innovative and substantive within the educational field,” and because the “subject is of particular relevance considering the challenges facing our current educational system,” the Ashbrook Center published the lectures under the series “Excellence in Education.”  Other speakers and authors in the series included: Denis P. Doyle, Pete du Pont, Rita Kramer, Chester E. Finn, Jr., Dinesh D’Souza, and Lamar Alexander.  The opinions expressed in these publications do not necessarily reflect the views of the John M. Ashbrook Center or its Board of Advisors.  The Center is grateful to the John M. Olin Foundation for its generous support of the series.

Academic Freedom

Usually, a long time passes between the time I receive a speaking invitation and when I actually have to deliver the speech, and, inevitably, a few weeks or months before the scheduled date, some poor person from the organization that invited me to speak will be assigned the task of finding out what I’m going to speak about.  And I say some poor person because usually my office gives them the runaround.  The reason is that I don’t know what I’m going to talk about until I write the speech, and like most people I wait until the last minute to do that.  So at some point when everyone’s frustrations are high—the poor person’s because he or she can’t get an answer, me because I don’t have an answer, and my secretary because she is caught in the middle—about the same time I make up a topic just to calm everyone down.

In this instance, I said, “Tell them I’m going to talk about academic freedom,” but when I sat down to write this speech, I realized that what I perceive to be a very serious threat to academic freedom today is caught up in other matters, with other problems plaguing our universities.

The idea that our universities have serious problems is a fairly new one.  When I first came to the Endowment almost six years ago, there was a widespread feeling across the nation that while our schools might not be performing as well as they should, our colleges and universities were institutions we could point to with pride.  Then came Allan Bloom, followed by a flood of books and articles about how higher education has lost its way.  Liberals as well as conservatives have been speaking out—Eugene Genovese, Page Smith, and C. Vann Woodward, as well as Dinesh D’Souza and Roger Kimball, and what they have had to say seems to have struck a chord.  A Harris poll fielded last August showed a sharp drop in public confidence in those running our colleges and universities.  Only 21 percent expressed high confidence—the lowest percentage by far in the twenty-five years Harris has been conducting the survey.  In the interests of fairness, let me point out that this is not as low as Congress, Wall Street, or the people who run political campaigns, but it is right down there with television news.

The litany of complaints coming out of all the books and articles is by now a familiar one: faculty members who don’t teach, students who don’t learn; and, perhaps most serious of all, politics everywhere from the scholarly journals to the classroom.  Now I know there are people who think these charges have been exaggerated, and certainly they do not exist with the same intensity at every institution; but the problems are very real—and very hard to solve.  If one focuses on a single institution and discovers that insufficient emphasis is being paid to teaching, it’s very hard to blame the faculty there—or even the administrators.  They are all caught up in a reward system that encompasses all of higher education, a reward system that encourages research—that makes research central to status for both colleges and universities.  Now there are, to be sure, teachers who devote themselves to their students.  There are institutions that emphasize teaching.  But in a system that has made research central to status, these tend not to be the teachers or the institutions with the most prestige.

The most obvious result of this is a lot of second-rate teaching.  The goal of full-time faculty is all too often to get out of the classroom, to turn teaching over to someone else, graduate students or part-timers.  Necessary stints in the classroom are made more palatable by focusing them on the professor’s publication interests rather than the student’s intellectual needs.  It is not uncommon to find undergraduates who have read very little literature studying the latest literary theories.  In one section of an introductory political science course offered at a university near Washington, DC, students who have probably never read the most basic works of political science are spending their time watching such films as “Do The Right Thing,” “Platoon,” and “The Times of Harvey Milk.”

There are good people on our campuses, teachers who despair about this situation, but they frequently find themselves powerless to change it.  Even if they could institute a core curriculum, a series of broad-based courses that would give students the foundation they need for a lifetime of learning—even if they were able to do this, who would help them teach such courses?  It is not in the interests of faculty members whose careers advance through narrowly focused research to spend time teaching a broad survey of European civilization—or Islamic civilization or Asian or any other.

So the primacy of research on our campuses results in a lot of second-rate teaching.  This has helped undermine the public’s faith in higher education.

And the primacy of research has also resulted in a lot of second-rate research.  A few years ago, I visited a state university in the east, and the assistant professor who drove me around confessed that what he really loved doing was teaching.  He knew that’s where his talents lay.  People generally do like to do what they’re good at.  But if the assistant professor wanted to stay at the university, he had to publish; and so he was forcing himself to do it, he told me, even though he was fully aware that what he was producing wasn’t all that great.

Multiply his story a thousand times, and it becomes clear why our library shelves—and budgets—are groaning under the weight of scholarly publications that nobody reads.  In a recent study, a researcher found that up to 41 percent of the articles published in the biological sciences remained uncited in the five years after they were published.  In the social sciences, this rate of uncitedness rose to 75 percent, and in the humanities, I am sorry to say, to 98 percent.

There is, of course, excellent research being done today, some of it aimed at a more thorough knowledge of groups and cultures that scholarship has not heretofore paid sufficient attention.  I think of Henry Louis Gate’s black periodical literature project, for example, or the work on collecting and publishing the papers of notable American women such as Jane Addams and Frances Willard.  Just last month, I had the opportunity to visit in Guatemala with Arthur Demarest, the director of a project on Maya culture that the National Endowment for the Humanities is funding.  The Demarest project is helping revolutionize our understanding of how the Maya lived.  Indeed, the knowledge of how Maya agricultural practices permitted large populations to thrive in the tropical rain forest for centuries may well prove useful to those living in the Guatemalan lowlands today.

American scholars are doing important work, and the media cover their efforts.  The public can read about Arthur Demarest’s project, for example, in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times; but they can also read in newspapers from one end of the continent to the other about the goings-on at the annual conventions of the Modern Language Association, one of the largest scholarly organizations, where papers are presented on such topics as “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” and “Is Alice Still in Phallus Land?”  Making scholarship seem as shocking and titillating as possible does little to help convince people that the scholarly enterprise is worth supporting.

None of this, however, damages the reputation of our colleges and universities as much as does the politicized classroom.  Over the past few years, we have heard a lot about this subject.  It is a part of the “political correctness” syndrome, a topic that has received a great deal of attention lately.  Political correctness has received so much attention that there has even begun to be a backlash against all the articles and books on the subject: Conferences are being held, organizations formed, a rash of proclamations issued declaring that PC does not now and never has existed.

But even as some people are declaring PC not only dead but never to have lived, others on our campuses are making it clear that teaching is being politicized as never before.  At the most recent Modern Language Association convention, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin presented a paper describing “the task of the politically committed cultural worker in today’s university” while another professor from the University of California at San Diego urged her fellow professors to “disrupt our students’ ideas of inevitable capitalism.”  A faculty member from Columbia University felt obliged to issue warnings that awareness of cultural difference might be useful to American business.  Her nightmare was that businesses such as Coca-Cola might become more effective at marketing their products if they became more knowledgeable about how different societies work.  She urged her assembled colleagues to find ways of teaching about cultural difference that could not be appropriated by what she called “late capitalism.”

In the last few years, people intent on using the curriculum and the classroom to advance a political agenda have become very frank about their purpose.  In an article in Harvard Educational Review, a professor at the University of Wisconsin insists that professors like herself should be very open about their intention “to appropriate public resources (classrooms, school supplies, teacher/professor salaries, academic requirements and degrees) to further various ‘progressive’ political agendas.”  This professor describes a class she teaches at the University of Wisconsin called innocuously enough “Curriculum and Instruction 607,” but it has an anything but innocuous purpose.  Students are taught to demonstrate in Curriculum and Instruction 607—and then they actually demonstrate, as the professor describes it, “by interrupting business as usual (that is social relations of racism, sexism, classism, Eurocentrism, as usual) in the public spaces of the library mall and administrative offices.”  All this, and students get three hours credit, too.  Which is certainly a marked change from when I was at the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s.  Students demonstrated then, but nobody ever thought of giving them credit for it.

Writing in a recent issue of College English, the publication of the National Council of Teachers of English, a professor at California Polytechnic at San Luis Obispo makes clear that there is no longer any question of whether to use the classroom for political purposes.  The only question is how most effectively to do so.  Strategies must be calibrated, he writes.  One should not try to reeducate students at an elite university in the same way as at a community college.  At his own middle-class institution, he suggests the following strategy:

The best starting point is to challenge [students’] conditioned belief in their freedom of choice and mobility within American society by bringing them to a critical awareness of the constrictions in their own class position.  They can be exposed to sources [showing] the gross inequities between the upper class and themselves; the odds against their attaining room at the top; the way their education has channeled them toward mid-level professional and social slots and conditioned them into authoritarian conformity.  [They can be exposed to sources showing] their manipulation by the elites controlling big business, mass politics, media and consumership, in large part through the rhetoric of public doublespeak.

This faculty member is intent on converting his students to his own view.  He has no intention of introducing them to other perspectives.  He wants students to share his conviction that our society is closed and class-ridden and that they are victims of it.  And he is doing this under the guise of teaching them how to write.

Such an approach to teaching—and the ethic it implies—could hardly be more different from the way faculty members have traditionally viewed their responsibilities in the classroom.  And it represents as well an entirely new attitude toward students and their rights.  It used to be thought that they had what the American Association of University Professors calls “freedom to learn.”  They did not come to the college or university to be indoctrinated in the views of their professors.  They came to learn about a variety of views on a host of subjects.  They came to test their own thoughts against the great ideas of the ages, to challenge those ideas, contest them, and ultimately, enlightened by the contest, to discover what they believed.

Students who find themselves in a classroom where the professor has a political purpose are unlikely to have this kind of experience.  For one thing, debate between student and professor is by nature an unequal affair.  For there to be a genuine clash of viewpoints, professors must be motivated by a spirit of generosity toward students.  They must be willing, for example, to take students’ incompletely formed ideas and flesh them out so that they are sufficient for the contest.  It is hard to imagine the professor I quoted a moment ago, the one who wants his students to view themselves as victims of big business and consumership, helping students who want to make a case for free markets.

A student at Mount Holyoke, troubled at finding herself in a politicized classroom, wrote a protest article in a campus newspaper.  The professor’s response was, without any advance warning to the student, to leave class early one day so that the student’s classmates could tell her what they thought of her article.  Angry student activists took turns condemning the student’s actions and berating her views—all in the finest tradition of a kangaroo court.

A student at Oberlin describes a similar incident in a campus newspaper there:

In a course I took last year a maverick student said he agreed with a Supreme Court justice’s view that a particular affirmative action program would unconstitutionally discriminate on the basis of race.  During the next few minutes a couple of students vehemently objected.  One raised her voice significantly, the other began to yell at him.  In the following fifteen minutes, the professor did not speak; instead, he took other volunteers.  Almost all of these students jumped on the bandwagon, berating the one maverick student.  The professor gave him one more chance to speak.  By this time the student was quite flustered and incoherent.

The student describing this incident notes, “The class learned that bringing out such controversial views would carry a high social cost.  They would be less likely to repeat the ‘error’ of their fellow student.”  A student at Wesleyan University offers the following description of classroom life today.

The classroom used to be the one place where anything went.  There used to be a dialogue.  If you said something ridiculous people would take you apart on the merit of your argument.  Now the accusations are things like: ‘That’s typical white male thinking.’

An emerging theme in feminist writing is how to “break down [student] resistances.”  When students object to having their composition class read only feminist essays, when they object to never hearing an opposing point of view, the feminist professor should never for a moment—or so the thinking goes—grant that such objections have any validity.  Instead she should regard them as evidence of how deeply embedded the students’ sexism is.  She should regard their objections as affirmation of the necessity of continuing to press her political views upon them.  Student protest, as a feminist professor at Tufts University describes it, is “the sign that I am doing my job.  It swims along beside my ship, like a familiar fish: there it is again, so I must be on course.”  Writes a feminist professor at William Patterson College in New Jersey, “The quantity and quality of the resistance I provoke from my students early in the course is the way to measure my success as a teacher.”  It is small wonder that students soon learn not to argue.

Now I’ve been objecting to politics in the classroom long enough to predict some of the responses to this speech.  There are always politics in the classroom, the professors I’ve been quoting will say.  Your politics, Mrs. Cheney, or our politics; and we’ve decided to teach ours.  But what about the truth?  I ask.  Isn’t that what universities are supposed to be pursuing?  Isn’t education about learning to look at all sides of the question and to weigh evidence impartially and thus to decide what is true?  And that question will be regarded as so naïve it might even get a laugh.  Truth is an illusion—don’t you know, Mrs. Cheney?  It’s an illusion constructed by some in order to control others.  As for impartiality—well, that’s impossible.  No one can be impartial, so there is no sense in trying.

One of the clearest statements of these ideas that I have come across recently is by two historians at the University of Pennsylvania.  “We are all engaged in writing a kind of propaganda,” they declare, “…Rather than believe in the absolute truth of what we are writing, we must believe in the moral or political position we are taking with it…Historians should assess an argument on the basis of its persuasiveness, its political utility, and its political sincerity.”  We cannot know the truth, in other words, so we should forget about the pursuit of it.  Forget about it in scholarship, forget about it in the classroom, forget about it in life—and advance whatever is politically useful.

Well, I say that this is nonsense.  The fact that we are not omniscient doesn’t mean we should abandon the quest to know as much as we can.  The fact that we may never achieve total objectivity doesn’t mean we should stop striving for it.  To abandon truth and embrace political expedience as a guide for judgment and action is to enter the world of George Orwell’s 1984, the world where two and two make five—if it’s politically useful.

Now I suspect that some of you will try to tell me that I’m overworrying the subject of politics on campus.  I’ve had people say to me: “Look, Mrs. Cheney, since the center and right control most of society, what does it matter if the left controls the English departments?”  But there are some important distinctions to be made here.  Frankly, I don’t care what the politics of people teaching in our English departments or any department are.  And I don’t think any of us should care about that.  What does concern me is the classroom being used for political proselytizing no matter what the viewpoint—and not because many conversions happen.  A few, perhaps, but my impression is that most students are not affected politically.  The price they pay is intellectual.  They are deprived of opportunity to engage in the free and open exchange of ideas that should characterize education.  They are deprived of opportunity to know wherein the real excitement of learning lies.

Those of you here today who are in mathematics or science or engineering might suspect that my words have nothing to do with you.  It is true that the ideas and practices I have been speaking about are centered in the humanities.  But they are heading your way.  I recently came across an article on feminist science which postulated that the concept of objectivity was “a parochial one, influenced by a particular ideology about gender.”  A book called The Science Question in Feminism talks about the sexist meanings of scientific activity.  Newton’s discoveries, for example, can be read as presenting a view “[of] nature as a woman indifferent to or even welcoming rape.”  Which leads the author to ask, “Why is it not as illuminating and honest to refer to Newton’s laws as ‘Newton’s Rape Manual’ as it is to call them ‘Newton’s Mechanics?”

Politicized teaching is also making its way into our schools.  Consider an example that Arthur Schlesinger cites: the 11th-grade American history curriculum of New York State which declares that there were three influences in the United States Constitution: the antecedent colonial experience, the European Enlightenment, and the Haudenosaunee political system.  Observes Schlesinger:

Whatever influence the Iroquois confederation may have had on the framers of the Constitution was marginal; on European intellectuals it was marginal to the point of invisibility.  No other state curriculum offers this analysis of the making of the Constitution.  But then no other state has so effective an Iroquois lobby.

As Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers and others have noted, the Portland Baseline essays, used as the basis of Afrocentric curricula across the country, contains similar myths.  The Egyptians, who are said to be a black people, developed the theory of evolution, according to the Baseline Essays.  They also understood quantum mechanics and flew around in full-size gliders.

One of the saddest parts of these misguided efforts is that they discredit good multicultural curricula.  And there are some excellent ones.  I think the new history/social science framework in California which makes clear at every level how this nation has been enriched by men and women of diverse backgrounds and cultures.  But ill-conceived multicultural curricula are so spectacularly ill-conceived that they throw the whole enterprise under a cloud.

The idea that what should be taught should be determined by something other than historical evidence is not limited to our colleges and universities.  The idea that an objective sifting and weighing of facts is not important has even begun to make its way into popular culture.  I watched Oliver Stone being interviewed the other day, and someone asked him how his film “JFK” differed from propaganda.  He couldn’t think of any distinction between the two—and the fact that he couldn’t did not seem to trouble him greatly.

Ideas are powerful, and those that emanate from our colleges and universities carry a special authority.  That is why it seems to me particularly important that we have a free and open discussion of the relationship between knowledge and politics.  There are good people on our campuses trying to initiate these discussions, but they often find themselves marginalized, and they need support.  It is very important that some of our nation’s most eminent academic leaders have begun to speak out: I think of Yale’s Benno Schmidt, Harvard’s Derek Bok, and distinguished scholars like Stanford’s John Searle, Howard University’s Frank Snowden, and Yale’s C. Vann Woodward.

Those of us off-campus need to make our concerns known as well.  When it is time for us to help our children choose a college, we should ask hard questions about which campuses not only allow but encourage a diversity of opinion.  When it comes time for us to make contributions as alumni, we should ask how well the college attended is doing at making sure all sides of controversial issues are heard.  Those who serve on boards of trustees should encourage discussions of academic freedom of both faculty and students.

We need to talk as well about ways of restoring teaching to the position of honor it deserves.  As I try to understand why the idea of using the curriculum and the classroom as instruments of political transformation has had such appeal in recent years, I have to wonder if the low regard into which teaching has fallen isn’t part of the explanation.  Human beings like to feel that what they do is important, and if we devalue teaching as intellectual work, perhaps we should not be surprised when faculty members try to make it matter in other ways.

I came across an essay recently that brought home for me the importance of speaking out when one sees something wrong happening.  The author was a professor of women’s studies who had encountered certain feminist orthodoxies—such as the idea that academic standards represent male values and women should not be judged by them.  The writer of the essay noted that for a long time she had hesitated to speak out because she didn’t want to risk hurting feminism or women’s studies, but then one day she realized that if no one speaks out, nothing gets better.  She put it this way, “Everything that one tolerates that one shouldn’t inevitably returns.”  These are wise words, wise for all of us.  And I thank you for giving me a chance to speak out today.

About the Author

Lynne V. Cheney is Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), an independent federal agency that supports education, research, preservation and public programs in the humanities.  Unanimously confirmed as NEH Chairman by the U.S. Senate in 1986 and again in 1990, she is the first person to be appointed to a second term since the Endowment’s beginning in 1965.

Before coming to NEH, Cheney was a college teacher, a magazine editor, author of two novels and co-author of a third.  With her husband, Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney, she wrote a history of the House of Representatives.  A native of Wyoming, Cheney graduated from Natrona County High School in Casper, Wyoming.  She earned her B.A. with highest honors from Colorado College and her M.A. from the University of Colorado.  She received a Ph.D., with a specialization in 19th-century British literature, from the University of Wisconsin in 1970.  She holds more than a dozen honorary degrees.

Other Resources to Consider

Ashbrook’s “The American Idea” podcast had a recent episode about CRT, academic freedom, and free expression on college campuses. You can read about that here.

September 1992