Talk on Academic Freedom

 Joyce Johnson, Ph.D. 10/17/05



I want to begin by thanking Dr. Schrecker who has been so generous with her time and insights today…and for her important scholarship and body of work… and Marty Bennett who has organized the events today and finally, thank you for supporting this discussion and the cause of academic freedom … in whatever ways you are doing that.



Is it true, as implied by red star posting, that teachers inculcating students with communism??


Can you imagine how unreal it felt - to have such antiquated ideas– straight from the 1950’s - posted on our office doors? There are 32,000 students here.  2 of them decided – based on things on our doors – that we were communists!  In my case I had a ½” button in my window which says dissent protects democracy.  Obviously these 2 students didn’t agree.


As you’ve heard of more concern is the larger movement, actively recruiting conservative youth to attack and blacklist professors they define as anti-american.


I thought it would be useful for you tonight to hear a little of how and what a sociologist like myself really teaches.


    Sociology is basically the study of how we are influenced by, and how we produce society together at all levels, and the consequences of this.

 We look at how power, prestige, privilege, achievement, health., etc. are distributed in our society; we investigate American culture; so students acquire an informed sense of where they fit into the larger picture.


We learn social facts – such as changes in American marriage patterns, how neighborhoods vary in rates of cancer or infant mortality, the occupations that are rising and falling and which groups are concentrated in them,  etc.  

Then we study how such social facts can be interpreted differently depending upon your view – by the left, by the right, and by the lens of a apolitical perspective called symbolic interactionism.  And then we cover the implications of taking each stance





Some assignments I give students include:

#1.  For one week observe and then describe how technology is shaping your everyday social relations, evaluating both Amish and American arguments about technology.


#2 Examine gender role messages you’re being exposed to, to see how cultural values and expectations influence what gender can be, and why.


#3 - Explain how you create two contrasting social statuses in your life and what you have to change about yourself in order to make these appear as real, and then reflect on the relationship between interaction and social structure.


Are these themes really subversive? I’d say YES.  But in the best sense of that word: to challenge, investigate, take apart the taken for granted.  To become better equipped to freely make educated choices. 


“In the U.S. neither teachers nor students are responsible to the government for the content of what they teach or what they learn.” Says the AAUP.


That independence is what is being threatened today by Horowitz and his Bills.


An instructor at Columbia Univ commenting on the Horowitz bill stated:

 (This) is  a campaign that is based on an utterly spurious argument that the universities are strongholds of radical and liberal ideas. Would that they were strongholds of radical and liberal ideas. Would that the medical schools and the pharmaceutical schools were challenging the stranglehold of industrial medicine, of the industrial pharmaceutical industry. Would that agriculture schools or business schools were challenging the reigning orthodoxies. Would that economics departments, engineering schools, and schools of international affairs were vigorously challenging the reigning orthodoxies in their fields.” UNQUOTE


For today the simple truth is that the structures of real power are not being challenged - much less undermined - by academics. What a joke what a sad and vicious joke – that Horowitz and others have perpetrated on students -- the idea that what we have to fear are professors, that what we have to fear are classes and seminars and homework assignments, that what we have to fear are discussions and books and ideas, that what we have to fear are thoughts, that what we have to fear is freedom itself.


This huge fabricated idea of a gulf between students and their teachers, this simplistic red state blue state  situation…whose interests are being served by all this? Students?  No.  The interests of students are to really use their own minds, to be exposed to knowledge including of course knowledge and ideas they had not encountered beforehand.


It is no accident that the proposed Academic Bill of Rights, heavily funded by corporate interests, pits students against professors of sociology and other fields that challenge rather than benefit from corporate agendas.


For those truly in power (hardly college professors!) would have much to lose if students actually examined THEM instead of their instructors.


Conservative students have picked up from Horowitz and repeat that it is anti-American or even “communist” to examine our system, to become aware of inequalities, how they are distributed and how they are perpetuated.  But why shouldn’t we?


I say…

The nature of ruling relations bears our scrutiny in this or in any age.  When that scrutiny is forbidden whether by law or by invidious threats, or falsely taught as intemperate, or falsely defined as a threat to our country, then I ask you what a “country” is?  This country has a tradition of banding together for the common good, not to be ruled by monarchs or demigods, or even CEOs …


Freedom to serve the corporate is not the same as freedom to think.  With the freedom to boldly advertise Wal-Mart and Gap on your clothes comes the loss of the freedom to know how and when to take them off.


Students today are targets of extremist sentiment…

The chairman of the Calif College Republicans wrote recently in their newsletter :


You are the ones fighting the left daily on your campus. As you organize this year … remember that this isn’t just a battle,  it’s a war.  We are in it for the long haul… we will wear them down and we will win the war.”




Another columnist wrote:

We must act swiftly and justly to free our public institutions that have been taken hostage by the left as the last remaining re-education camp of liberals …we are the true underdogs here – and we must fight to the death.”


Why this inflammatory militarism?  Why see the defense of a bill as fighting to the death? What motivates them? What unifies them exactly?


In part, Horowitz is  pandering to racial and ethnic fears. Historically it is in times like these when resources are being stretched thin, especially when jobs are being lost. that dominant groups focus on competition with subordinate groups, blaming people of color and immigrants, for their own frustrations …rather than looking to those in power who are making the decisions that affect them: corporations or the government.


Horowitz says:  “Under this ‘liberal’ regime, ... the cultures of … immigrants are regarded as having the same importance as American culture… But such artificial equality… downgrades and diminishes our national identity…, UNQUOTE


But it is only an “artificial  equality if you insist that whites are above everyone else and Americans aren’t immigrants..


 David Horowitz should know better.  It is not that long ago that his ancestors – and mine – Jews coming to America - were not only immigrants, but considered to be a distinct race, not white at all – like the Northern Europeans were.


 Playing on xenophobia and racialized fears, Horowitz warns…

“White, Christian westerners, men, conservatives, republicans and heterosexuals will be condemned, excluded and dragged down…UNQUOTE  if people of  color are given their due today which has been the agenda of liberals.


But Studies have demonstrated over and over just the opposite.

ACTUALLY The more we learn about, from, and with each other,- especially the history of race relations - the less we construct barriers, the less we’re likely to exclude anyone.. My experience of teaching Race and Ethnic Relations classes certainly bears this out right in front of my eyes.


No one at SRJC is teaching anything like what Horowitz imagines. . But that is the fear being inculcated in white working-class students susceptible to it-that they are being replaced by the inclusion of others, esp people of color. Everything is code for this fear,students unwittingly recruited to this cause of America divided, to the tune of self-interest, whites vs., blacks… We go down a sad, ruinous path if we cannot see what is at stake. 


This fear can easily be spread.  But it can also be stopped.

 Right here.

Would that we, at this wonderful college and community, lead the way to higher ground for the sake of our students, education’s aims, and for the sake of our country’s soul.