Response to Professor Condemns Committee

, Prof. Kurt Smith, Leave a comment

Dear Ms. Seymour,

I recently caught your article, “Professor Condemns Committee” (May 19, 2006). I believe that we spoke at the Millersville hearings, directly following my testimony, though I spoke to so many that day, it is difficult to keep the names and faces together.

If it isn’t too forward of me, I would like to address a few items included in your article.

You say, “Smith did not mention that Horowitz has said that the idea for ABOR is taken from the 1940 statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the AAUP…” You imply, I think, that I was trying to hide this from the Committee. Horowitz says all sorts of things. For instance, he says that the idea came from the 1915 statement (which he misleadingly calls a General Report), but when it is brought to his attention that there is absolutely nothing in the 1915 statement that looks like the concept of academic freedom as defined in his ABOR, he says that the idea came from the 1940 statement. What I show in my testimony is that there is absolutely nothing in the 1940 statement that looks like the concept of academic freedom as he defines it in his ABOR. In getting the AAUP’s position so wrong, Horowitz is either a very bad scholar or is being dishonest in claiming that his concept is simply that of the AAUP. This was my point.

You say, after Smith noticed that there was no General Report, “Smith concluded that the wording for part of House Resolution 177 is taken directly from the Academic Bill of Rights promoted by David Horowitz.” I did not conclude from my discovering that there was no General Report that HR177 took an entire paragraph word for word from the ABOR. Rather, I discovered by way of looking at HR177 and the ABOR that the former contained an entire paragraph from the latter. It is not my opinion that this is the case. It is a fact that HR177 contains (and is geared around) a crucial paragraph of the ABOR. Why was this important? For starters, if you recall, Armstrong had said to the President of Millersville University that there was absolutely no connection between HR177 and the ABOR. What Armstrong said, then, was utterly false! I am not a bad guy for pointing this out, am I? Facts do matter, Ms. Seymour.

The trouble with the ABOR’s definition of academic freedom, as I point out in my testimony, is that it bases the concept on an incoherent form of epistemic relativism. Horowitz claims that the concept as embraced by the AAUP is premised on the idea that there is no humanly accessible truth that is not in principle open to challenge. First, there is absolutely nothing in the AAUP’s document that embraces any form of relativism (by the way, I am not a member of the AAUP). As I point out, the very idea of ‘challenge’ must meet the following minimal criterion: Jones can challenge P if, and only if, Jones can conceive of not-P (that is, P’s opposite). If one cannot conceive of the opposite of P, then one cannot challenge P. Now, by ‘cannot’ here I do not mean that Jones is a lousy conceiver—as though other good conceivers could conceive of the opposite of P. Rather, the ‘cannot’ here is logical in nature. The traditional example is the square-circle: no rational agent can conceive of a geometrical (Euclidean) figure that meets the conditions of being both a square and a circle.

Truths that cannot be challenged, I point out as an example in my testimony, are mathematical truths. In saying that they are necessary truths, we are saying that they cannot be false. This can also be understood as saying that we cannot even conceive of their opposites. Since we cannot, it follows that they cannot be challenged. Thus, since they are humanly accessible truths, Horowitz is wrong to say that all humanly accessible truth is in principle open to challenge. HR177, in adopting this very wording, embraces the logical (conceptual) problems of ABOR. This was my point. Do you see?

As an aside: Why say that I am condemning this or attacking that when I am simply showing real troubles with positions that have been made? I am not trying to push my position, but am trying to show where these others have problems. This is what real scholars do, Ms. Seymour.

Moving forward, you say that I did not spell out the rights of students, as though this were a defect in my testimony. As you point out, I mention several things that are not rights. But, this wasn’t my list. It was David French’s, and was reiterated by Joan Scott in her testimony. I was simply emphasizing to the Committee something that they need to keep in mind. It was not necessary to produce a list of student rights. Clearly, insofar as we require policies and procedures that protect students, they ipso facto are taken to have rights.

I enjoyed your including the excerpts of the exchange between Armstrong and myself. Even so, lifted from the context in which each is to be found, they are ambiguous and can be interpreted in a variety of ways—some charitable to me, some not so charitable. For example, one exchange goes:

Armstrong: “Do these hearings have value?”

Smith: “[If it] is about investigating indoctrination, No. If it’s about policies it could have been found out by phone.”

Armstrong: “This is a fiduciary responsibility. Billions [of taxpayer dollars] go into higher education and there is precious little accountability.”

Smith: “What are professors to be held accountable for?”

Armstrong: “For what they do in class.”

The aim of this exchange, at least for me, was to get Armstrong to admit that he was in fact interested in what professors teach in the classroom (and, ultimately interested in legislating what professors teach). You may recall that just before the portion of the exchange that you quote, Armstrong had chided me for thinking that he and the Committee were interested in such things. As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Armstrong finally blurted out that he has a problem with an economics course that teaches Marx but not Smith or Keynes. This is directly related to the portion of the exchange that you quote. What I showed by way of this exchange was that Armstrong is in fact wanting to have some influence on what gets taught in the classroom—for he admits in the portion you quote that it is the legislature’s responsibility to hold professors accountable for what they do (and say) in class, something he claimed that neither he nor the Committee were interested in. The exchange, at least for my part, was to show that either his position is inconsistent (he is and isn’t interested in what goes on in class) or that he is lying when he says that he isn’t interested.

Lastly, you will have to forgive me if I refuse to accept any of the “studies” done that show a widespread liberal bias, which in turn are supposed to show evidence of widespread persecution of conservative students and leftist indoctrination of the rest. The studies, if we can even call them that, are paid for by the organizations run by Horowitz, Balch, and by other neo-conservative funding groups. You know this, no? Many credible scholars have looked at them and have brought to light the plethora of methodological and logical problems found littered throughout. I can provide you with these critiques, if you haven’t already read them. Ms. Seymour, can you honestly say that any proof (or even explanation) has been given that demonstrates a clear connection between a professor’s political affiliation (his or her party membership) and what they teach in the classroom? How does a “liberal” physics professor teach quantum physics differently from a “conservative” one? Does she insist that particles spin only to the left? Let’s get serious. There simply has been no evidence provided that demonstrates a widespread liberal conspiracy to harm conservative students or to indoctrinate the unsuspected. Your mention (in another article) of stories told to you at tables do not count as evidence, regardless of what you might think.

My guess is that you think that I am a nutty, left-wing liberal. But you would be wrong. I am a registered Republican, and have been since I first registered to vote on my eighteenth birthday (I am now forty-five). I have grown increasingly concerned over the hijacking of the party by neo-conservative, religious zealots—like Armstrong, Clymer, Santorum, and others. If being liberal means not wanting someone’s morality legislated so that we all have to do and say what that morality dictates, then count me among the liberals. My guess is, Ms. Seymour, that you would be counted among the liberals too, if this is what we meant by the term.

Best wishes,

Kurt Smith, PhD

Professor Kurt Smith is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania. The article he responds to can be read here.