The Arizona Desert Lamp

“I was talking about my university” – A Horowitz Reaction

Posted in Campus, Politics by Evan Lisull on 8 April 2009


“You aren’t interested in Islamofascism?”

“You mean, politics?”

It’s not really worth going into the lengthy expositions on Middle Eastern affairs, or the claim that Dr. Cornel West received his honorary degrees on the sole basis that he is “black and articulate” (no love for pop culture?), or the other various assertions relating to the Duke lacrosse case, President Obama bowing to King Abdullah, Islam as a religion, and US-Mexican border issues. There are other sites if you’re into that sort of thing. All in all, old revolutionaries never die – they just change uniforms. It’s hard, after fighting the system for many years, to simply drop the pugnacious attitude and become a well-tempered professor – there are battles to be fought, and won! And so, Mr. Horowitz attempts to change the world of academia, and along the way finds himself mired in a litany of other debates.

The only interesting part in the presentation occurred when one Jeff Larson, a frequent target of Horowitz’s broadsides, asked a question. Mr. Larson proclaimed that he teaches such “radical leftist ideas as resource mobilization theory, which states that if you want to organize a movement you have to recruit people and get supplies . . . that doesn’t strike me as particularly political.” Yet this is not the only idea that Mr. Larson teaches, according to his homepage:

My main interest is to knock the rich and powerful from their leather-lined perches and give the historically exploited and degraded a seat at the sustainably harvested, round table of autonomy, personal expression, and self-governance. Everything else is secondary.

My secondary interests include studying social movements, organizations, and social networks with an eye toward achieving my main interest.

Which is to say, Mr. Larson’s obligation to the University of Arizona to serve as an instructor to her students is secondary to his goal of knocking “the rich and powerful from their leather-lined perches,” and so forth. This strikes me as particularly political. Yet it is secondary to a more troubling claim:

The problem, from my perspective, of your critique . . . being an insider, I know more than you do – and the audience generally doesn’t, right?

It is hard to overstate the consequences of Mr. Larson’s critique – essentially, you are not allowed to criticize, because you don’t have the proper credentials. When it comes to determining the course of the Women’s Studies department, or the Political Science department, or any department, us ignorant outsiders have no say, and must defer to the experts. This is not to say that there isn’t truth to this – jumping to extremes, Raul Grijalva should not be looking over every biochemist’s shoulder. But when Mr. Larson asserts that he “know[s] more,” what is it that he knows more about? Mr. Larson’s knowledge on social movements is clearly superior, but Mr. Horowitz is not disputing his proposed thesis on social movements – he is disputing the manner of his teaching. At what point is one allowed to review anything with regards to instruction of students at the university?

Yet this is not a pedagogical debate, but an institutional one (bear with me here). For universities are increasingly viewed not as repositories of knowledge, but more as vehicles of social and economic advancement. We can see this in places as diverse as President Shelton’s address to the House Education Committee, which he closes by stating:

Just so, every dollar taken away further weakens a sick economy, shuts off opportunity to Arizona students, and leaves this state further in the dust of national and global competition for jobs, economic opportunity and a better way of life.

To President Obama’s remarks on education, which opened by discussing “job creation” and closed by declaring that,

And we are not going to rest until your parents can keep their jobs, your families can keep their homes, and you can focus on what you should be focusing on – your own education. Until you can become the businessmen, doctors, and lawyers of tomorrow, until you can reach out and grasp your dreams for the future.

These, of course, require an M.B.A., an M.D., and a J.D. – all professional degrees. Yet the non-professional degrees are not as they seem, either, as this quote from the Wildcat exhibits:

Wildcat: What do you do with linguistics?
Student: After college?

Wildcat: Mhmm.
Student: You teach linguistics.

What do you do with African American Studies? You become an African American Studies professor. Etc. In their own way, these majors have become professional degrees of a different ilk. The undergraduate university experience becomes little more than a glorified finishing school. This works out to be a convenient compromise – those willing to spar in the marketplace go pro. Those who do not stay within the quad – and, not surprisingly, are usually skeptical of the catallaxy. This being the case, why should students question a professor if it might hurt their grades and/or their career opportunities? If you know that your professor wants you to write from a leftist perspective, why not take the risk-averse approach? After all, college is quite the monetary investment – you wouldn’t want to muck it up on some quibble about, say, Iranian foreign policy. If you are in this for the salary, then why do these issues brought up by Horowitz matter at all? Bow your head, get the sheepskin, and get real paid – so it goes.

The only place where this trend can really be combated is on the fields of general education, a system in serious need of reform here at the University of Arizona; it is here, and not the finishing schools, where Mr. Horowitz’s critique really matters. Unfortunately, admidst the political static, this important message may very well be lost.


4 Responses

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  1. A. Hill said, on 8 April 2009 at 1:48 am

    I laughed, I cried, I commented. This is all so true, and I’d love to read more of everyone’s thoughts on academia.

  2. Jeff Larson said, on 9 April 2009 at 11:21 am

    Give me a break. What I write on my website is not a reflection of the sociology of social movements, which I teach. You’re unfairly stretching the truth to support your position.

    Even Horowitz realizes this isn’t really an issue of individual academics, but a systemic issue of entire disciplines and areas of study. So, he criticizes Women’s Studies, African American Studies, and the like. I’m yet to hear a good argument that the sociology of social movements is inappropriate for a university classroom, as Horowitz suggested on Tuesday night. In fact, that’s absurd.

    • Evan Lisull said, on 9 April 2009 at 12:02 pm

      First of all, Mr. Larson, thanks for commenting.

      Yet as you yourself state on your official university page, the sociology is secondary to the entire program of “knock[ing] the rich and powerful from their leather-lined perches ” and so on. Given such sentiments, is it so unreasonable to express concerns that the scholarship relating to sociology might be upstaged by more political concerns? That the necessity of effectively teaching Intro to Sociology to undergraduates might be co-opted by the primary concern of implementing the “sustainably harvested, round table of autonomy”? I do not see the prioritization of activism over scholarship and education as a good development.

      As for your concerns with Mr. Horowitz’s argument, you will have to take them up with him; these thoughts, for better or worse, are my own.

  3. Jeff Larson said, on 10 April 2009 at 3:24 am

    Is it unreasonable to express concerns? If what you mean by expressing concern is to launch a political campaign, publish books, and travel the country smearing the professional reputations of individuals, then yes, I think it is unreasonable.

    If a professor were to write that her reverence for God eclipsed her professional interests, would you single her out for scrutiny? What if her class was on religions of the world and she encouraged students to attend local church events? (Of course, they could go to mosques too, but we don’t see many of those in Tucson.) Would you launch a political campaign attacking her and the entire field of Religious Studies? I wouldn’t recommend it. You might, however, want to learn more about her class and what she’s teaching. But then that might require more than a brief look at her website.

    You’re arguing against a straw man, which is why few academics take this kind of argument, or its purveyors, seriously.

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