Back in the old days say…during the Bush administration, there were all sorts of attacks on academic freedom. There were attacks on science and many of the various humanities and social science disciplines. But those assaults came almost always from outside the academy: from politicians who declared themselves arbiters of morality or scientific rigor. That’s how we got the travesty of Terri Schiavo. But even in those bad old days there was a barrier between the ideologues and the academics. There was a tacit agreement that while politicians might step into the realm of science, they would maintain a certain semblance of distance.
For example, on national science panels or cabinet department positions which called for scientific credentials you appointed real scientists. They might be scientists who were Republicans. But at least they were scientists and had PhDs. All that has gone by the wayside. Now, the Trump administration appoints charlatans without regard to their professional credentials. In fact, having any bona fide credentials is considered a drawback, if not an absolute disqualifying mark.
Similarly, in the old days the campus wars were invariably between professors upholding the rigors of research and free expression, against outsiders who offered nothing but political ideology shorn of any scientific or academic bona fides. That’s how we saw an outsider like Paula Stern conduct a full-fledged campaign against Prof. Nadia Abu el-Haj in 2007 when the latter was considered for tenure at Columbia University. At least then, the University ignored the campaign and awarded her tenure based on her professional and academic merit.
But now, all that has changed. As recently as 2014, Illinois politicians and Jewish federation leaders organized a successful campaign to deny a job to Steven Salaita based on the claim that his social media posts were “uncivil.” After getting the Palestinian-American academic fired in his role as chair of the University of Illinois board of trustees, Christopher Kennedy is now running for governor, with the generous support of the very Israel Lobby figures who fought with him against Salaita.
Over the past few weeks, Canadian media report that a University of Toronto professor of psychology, Jordan Peterson, has launched a full-frontal assault on numerous social science disciplines he dubs “post-modern neo-Marxist.” In fact, he uses terms which in some disciplines might have meaning; but in combining two different sets of terms, he makes each of them devoid of any academic rigor or meaning. They are simply ideological slogans and a stand-in for whatever academic field he finds politically objectionable. These include gender and racial studies, social science disciplines, and even English literature and schools of education, which he calls “corrupt.” He wants to ban any course which explores progressive social or political movements of which he disapproves.
Peterson has used defamatory, inflammatory and even violent terms to describe his campaign against his academic enemies. He’s bemoaned the fact, for example, that he cannot have a physical fight with a woman with whom he disagrees as he could, so he declares, with a man. And because of such a gender disparity, he feels disempowered from schooling his female opponents in the academy. Someone at the University needs to remind him that university teaching is not the same as pugilism. Academics don’t settle disputes with fistfights, much as he might prefer. And the age of jousting or duels is long over.
Lately, Peterson has taken his attack to an entirely new level. Fueled by over $500,000 in funds raised through Indiegogo campaigns and his Patreon-funded broadsides, he announced the launch of a website which will catalogue every course taught at every Canadian university. The chief method of categorizing the courses will be whether their content is “post-modern neo-Marxist.” He proposes to do this using an artificial intelligence algorithm he calls a “post-modern lexicon detector.” If this sounds like junk science, that’s because it is. There is no reasonable way to detect based on a course description what the so-called ideological underpinnings of the instructor or course are. The only way to do this is by attending the class or by interviewing the instructor and reviewing the entire syllabus and reading list. Even then, there is no such term as post modern neo-Marxist. So there is no such bias to detect in the academy.
It sounds like what Jordan Peterson needs is a billion dollars from the Koch brothers to start his own Ayn Rand Institute of Freedom…from gender, race and every other detestable -ism). Prof. Peterson doesn’t belong on a liberal arts campus since he disputes the very notion of the liberal arts university.
Though I’ve written extensively about issues of academic freedom, I don’t often write about events in Canada. I did this time because the very terms of opprobrium Peterson uses were reminiscent of the tactics of the Israeli neo-fascist NGO, Im Tirzu (IT). It too funded a purported academic project cataloguing courses taught at Israeli universities. In this case, they were seeking to blacklist academic courses offering what IT called “post-Zionist” content. In this case, it was again a term whose original meaning was distorted so much it became a parody of itself. The NGO uses the term”Post-Zionism” to portray a purported movement within the academy seeking to destroy Zionism and with it the conventional Israeli state, turning it into a radical notion of a mogrelizing unitary state that included Arabs and Jews mixing freely and equally. Needless, to say academic courses don’t advocate for political outcomes. They study developments in their field, including political developments. They may even suggest alternatives to existing political or social structures. But they don’t implement them. They don’t go into the streets demanding anything. The classroom is a place of study, debate and deliberation. The street is a place of protest. But one does not necessarily lead directly to the other.
Instead of opposing Im Tirzu’s smear campaign, Israeli university administrators sought to placate it. They funded courses and proposed studies to respond to the demands. They got along to get along. They knew that Im Tirzu had powerful political patrons and it was best not to take a firm stand against it. However, the way to respond to a bully is not by accommodating. It is by opposing. By putting your body on the line if need be. That’s not what happened in Israel. Let’s hope academic leaders in Canada act more forthrightly.
Other Israel advocacy groups which adopted the tactic of academic blacklisting with a vengeance were Daniel Pipes’ Campus Watch and David Horowitz’s Freedom Center and its publication, 100 Most Dangerous Professors in America. Pipes in particular sought to compile lists of courses and professors as reported by students themselves for their alleged anti-Israel bias. It sounds almost precisely what Peterson is doing except targeting a different shibboleth.
Though the terms of opprobrium might be different (post-modernism vs. post-Zionism), the overall goals of Jordan Peterson, Pipes, Horowitz, and Im Tirzu are quite similar. They aim to defang academia of broad, diverse discourse. They aim to dumb-down the academy. To turn it into a homogenous set of disciplines which adhere to ideological principles dressed up in an academic gown.
The notion put forward by Peterson and IT that the academy is a primary social ill and that it is the source of a sort of political pollution in society is deeply offensive. It should be combatted by everyone, but especially by academic departments and campus administrators who seek to maintain traditions of scholarship and research which have developed over centuries.
The election of Donald Trump has shown us how quickly political consensus and tradition can erode. Values an entire nation thought sacrosanct may be disposed of virtually overnight. Institutions that have been the bedrock of a nation and its democracy over generations appear to dissolve in front of our eyes. This can happen to the academy as well. I dare say it is happening right now.