In the early 1950s, during the political witch hunt led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, scores of university academics were allegedly linked to the American Communist Party. Dozens were fired and blacklisted for refusing to cooperate with anti-communist investigations.
Over half a century later, it appears that history may repeat itself. Neo-McCarthyism has ignited across Pennsylvania’s academic realm as public colleges and universities across the commonwealth are being placed under surveillance.
In July, the state House of Representatives voted to establish a select committee to examine the academic climate on public campuses. House Resolution 177 authorizes the committee to “hold hearings, take testimony and conduct investigations” in order to prevent slanted teaching methods and classroom atmospheres.
The findings of these hearings and the remedies suggested to resolve them could be made law, Rep. Lawrence Curry (D., Montgomery) said. It is no coincidence that HR 177 was passed primarily along party lines by a vote of 108-90 (there are 110 Republicans and 93 Democrats in the 203-member House).
David Horowitz, a noted conservative author, is one of the chief supporters of this resolution. Horowitz is leading a nationwide movement to expose the so-called liberal bias of higher education in the United States.
Seemingly innocent in nature, HR 177 claims to uphold “academic freedom” and “intellectual diversity” as values indispensable to education. At first glance, few would argue with this doctrine.
HR 177 actually inhibits the principles it seeks to protect. This legislation is a serious threat to the quality of higher education.
Academic freedom entitles teachers to openly discuss their subject in the classroom without outside censorship or discipline, according to the American Association of University Professionals’ Web site. But the House resolution directly violates this inherent right by attempting to regulate classroom discourse.
Erica Schmid, a Temple graduate student and adjunct professor of English, voiced her concerns about an academic future in which independent thought and speech are policed by the government.
“If this is systematically stifled, the classroom ceases to be ‘an environment conducive to the pursuit of knowledge and truth,'” Schmid said, mocking the language of the resolution.
Government officials are typically far removed from the scholastic sphere. Thus, they have no jurisdiction over academia. Teachers alone, as trained experts in their fields, are qualified to create an environment suitable for progressive learning.
As for intellectual diversity, this notion is stated so obscurely within the resolution that it can be easily manipulated for political purposes. HR 177 says “there is no humanly accessible truth that is not, in principle, open to challenge.”
It is certainly true that colorful, unrestrained debate is essential to the educational process. But teaching material should always be consistent with professional standards.
The underlying questions remain. Where will this legislation draw the line? Will Holocaust deniers and intelligent design advocates ultimately be given equal say in determining classroom curricula?
In addition, HR 177 undermines the power of students. As the backbone of higher education, the student body should question an instructor’s opinions and “seek redress itself,” Schmid said.
The criteria for “professional competence” and “subject matter knowledge” are currently met through the internal hiring processes of institutions. This renders the resolution completely useless. Students are already “graded based on academic merit without regard for ideological views.”
Consequently, HR 177 can only result in the decline of a dynamic exchange of ideas and information. Suppression of intellectual creativity could spell disaster for the future of higher education.
The McCarthy era was a humiliating period in American history. If legislators genuinely hope to promote academic freedom, they should stop trying to revive the shameful political policies of the past.
Instead, they should allow educational institutions to continue to regulate themselves since this method seems to be working. As the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Venuri Siriwardane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.