In its latest response to complaints about the politicization of higher education, the American Association of University Professors has embraced a novel view: "It is not indoctrination for professors to expect students to comprehend ideas and apply knowledge that is accepted as true within a relevant discipline." Under this precept, put forth in the AAUP's recent report "Freedom in the Classroom," teachers are no longer held to standards of "scholarly" or "scientific" or "intellectually responsible" discourse, but to whatever is "accepted as true within a relevant discipline." With this formulation, the AAUP jettisons the traditional understanding of what constitutes a liberal education and ratifies a transformation of the university that is already well advanced.
Since the 1960s, many newly minted academic disciplines have appeared that are the result not of scholarship or scientific developments but of political pressures brought to bear by ideological sects. The discipline of Women's Studies, the most important of these new fields, freely acknowledges its origins in a political movement and defines its educational mission in political terms. The preamble to the Constitution of the National Women's Studies Association proclaims:
Women's Studies owes its existence to the movement for the liberation of women; the feminist movement exists because women are oppressed. Women's studies, diverse as its components are, has at its best shared a vision of a world free not only from sexism but also from racism, class-bias, ageism, heterosexual bias--from all the ideologies and institutions that have consciously or unconsciously oppressed and exploited some for the advantage of others. . . . Women's Studies, then, is equipping women not only to enter society as whole, as productive human beings, but to transform the world to one that will be free of all oppression.
This is the statement of a political cause not a program of scholarly inquiry.
The AAUP has issued its defense of indoctrination fully cognizant of the fact that these new academic disciplines view their mission as using the classroom to instill an ideology in their students. These programs include, in addition to Women's Studies, African American Studies, Peace Studies, Cultural Studies, Chicano Studies, Gay Lesbian Studies, Post-Colonial Studies, Whiteness Studies, Communications Studies, Community Studies, and recently politicized disciplines such as Cultural Anthropology and Sociology. At the University of California Santa Cruz, the Women's Studies department has actually renamed itself the "Department of Feminist Studies" to signify that it is a political training facility. It has done so without a word of complaint or caution from university administrators or the AAUP.
Under the AAUP's new doctrine, these sectarian creeds are shielded from scrutiny by the scientific method. In the new dispensation, political control of a discipline is an adequate basis for closing off critical debate. The idea that political power can establish "truth" is a conception so contrary to the intellectual foundations of the modern research university that the AAUP committee could not state it so baldly. Hence the disingenuous compromise of "truth within a relevant discipline."
Some years ago, Robert Post of Yale, a member of the AAUP subcommittee that drafted the report, summarized the principles that have informed university governance for nearly a century. A "key premise" of the AAUP's classic 1915 "Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure," Post wrote, "is that faculty should be regarded as professional experts in the production of knowledge." Post explains, "The mission of the university defended by the 'Declaration' depends on a particular theory of knowledge. The 'Declaration' presupposes not only that knowledge exists and can be articulated by scholars, but also that it is advanced through the free application of highly disciplined forms of inquiry, which correspond roughly to what [philosopher] Charles Peirce once called 'the method of science' as opposed to the 'method of authority.'
The method of authority is precisely the method now recommended by the AAUP--the authority of the discipline. Virtually every Women's Studies department throughout the university system teaches a curriculum premised on the controversial thesis that gender is "socially constructed." Women's Studies presents and explores this doctrinal claim as though it were an established truth, and students in Women's Studies are expected to apply it as knowledge.
The social construction of gender, however, is merely academic nomenclature for the primacy of nurture over nature, an idea that is essential to an ideological movement--radical feminism--that proposes the use of political means to reshape social relations. But the claim itself is contested. It is contested by the findings of modern neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology, and biology (as readers of Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate know). To force students to accept as true a doctrine that is controversial among biological scientists is precisely what is meant by indoctrination.
At the time its report was finalized, a new edition of the AAUP's official journal, Academe, featured two articles defending the feminist indoctrination of university students. The first was "Impassioned Teaching," by AAUP chapter president Pamela Caughie, head of the Women's Studies department at Loyola University. Caughie wrote: "I feel I am doing my job well when students become practitioners of feminist analysis and committed to feminist politics." This is the attitude of a missionary seeking to ground her students in feminist dogma, not a professor seeking to educate them about women. In the second article, Professor Julie Kilmer of Olivet College describes the need to publicly expose and intimidate students who "resist" such indoctrination and suggests how to do this. The publication of two such articles can hardly be regarded as coincidental. It reveals the slope on which the AAUP now finds itself.
It is a slope slippery in more ways than one. The doctrine of "truth within a relevant discipline" opens the university to political factions. Suppose antagonists of Darwin's theory of evolution were to establish the academic field of Intelligent Design Studies. What academic principle would prevent them from teaching their contested theories as truth? The same would apply to 9/11 conspiracy theorists, or animal rights activists, or racists--in fact, to any ideology that was able to take control of a university department and structure its curriculum as a new academic "discipline."
Some defenders of the AAUP's position say indoctrination is not really indoctrination if the student can object to a professor's classroom advocacy without fear of reprisal. But how would students know that there was no penalty for refusing to embrace a professor's political assumptions? How would they deal with Professor Kilmer's threats to "expose" them and break down their "resistance" or with the pressure implicit in Caughie's "impassioned teaching"?
Even the very term "impassioned teaching" is a significant departure from an older understanding of higher education. The AAUP's 1940 statement on academic freedom, which is part of the template of most modern universities, states that scholars and educators should be "restrained" rather than impassioned, and should show appropriate respect for divergent views: "As scholars and educational officers, . . . [professors] should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint [and] should show respect for the opinions of others."
Under the old guidelines, professors had an obligation to hold back their ardor, to teach students to be skeptical, to assess the evidence, to respect opposing views, and to support the pluralism of ideas on which democratic culture rests. It was their professional duty to provide students with materials that would allow them to weigh more than one side of controversial issues, and so learn to think intelligently and to think for themselves. It is that central purpose of the university that the AAUP would now betray.