Angling for red herrings in academe

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THE self-professed aim of Accuracy in Academia (AIA), an offshoot of Accuracy in Media, is to monitor the ``political bias'' of our nation's universities, particularly any bias to the left. Its members claim there are some 10,000 Marxists on college campuses attempting to brainwash America's youth. This group poses as guardians of unbiased teaching, but their angling for a Marxist red herring is more likely to result in imposing their own repressive orthodoxy. They pose a threat to the free exchange of information that forms the foundation of our system of higher education and research.

Claiming as their goal the ``broadening of the academic base,'' a vague phrase that more likely contradicts, rather than reveals, their true goals, AIA's members hope to set up a network of students and possibly senior citizens who will furtively report back to the organization examples of liberal bias. The effect of such resurgent McCarthyism on students, not to mention unten- ured faculty, would be chilling.

The public certainly has a right to know what is going on at colleges and universities, and students are of course free to discuss their classroom experience with parents, friends, and whomever else they choose.

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Still, the teaching relationship between professors and students must be based on mutual trust and mutual respect. Universities try very hard to cultivate that trust. Encouraging students to report secretly on, or to bring pressure upon, professors outside of the classroom undermines that relationship.

Some students hear things in the classroom that they don't agree with; that is one of the purposes of the classroom. A class should be a marketplace of ideas, a forum for opposing points of view, where students learn to think critically and where both students and teachers reveal and examine their biases -- not hide them.

In such an environment, the best way to expose a bad idea is to give it a hearing, and the proper activity for students and professors is to discuss competing ideas.

Ideas are challenged in university classrooms; to assume that students passively allow themselves to be spoon-fed ideologies of any sort -- Marxist or otherwise -- is to underestimate their intelligence and spirit.

Encouraging students to ``expose'' professors rather than to confront them in the classroom would be bad enough; bringing in outside ``monitors'' would undermine the function of the classroom further. Professors dedicate themselves to years of painstaking scholarship, and students face rigorous admissions standards, but what qualifications will AIA's watchdogs possess? Will they understand that an idea can be taught without being advocated? Will they be able even to accurately describe what they're afra id of, by distinguishing Marxism from Communism? Who will monitor the monitors?

Just as disturbing is the thought that AIA's monitors could very well prompt other special interest groups to demand equal space in the classroom for their own truth squads. If everything spoken in the classroom by professors and students had to meet the censorship of vigilantes with competing values, university classes would soon be characterized not by informed discussion, biased or not, but by silence.

AIA's proposed tactics are dismaying enough, but it is the organization's overall outlook that is most troublesome. The group's claim simply to be on the lookout for misinformation is disingenuous; its purpose seems to be closer to a thinly disguised attempt at thought control.

Malcolm Lawrence, until recently the leader of the group, has asserted that AIA is not some sort of subversive organization, but a group of people who believe in the continuation of our form of government, a capitalist economy, and a strong national defense.

Those are fine beliefs, but that is beside the point. They nonetheless represent a particular orthodoxy, and it is not the place of a university to indoctrinate its students in any particular social or political system of belief. Universities, more than any other institution in a free society, must be places where all viewpoints receive a hearing, whether they are views we endorse as a society or not. There are undoubtedly Marxists teaching on college campuses, just as there are others who believe in a wide range of social and religious, as well as political, doctrines. But their ideas do not go unchallenged by other professors or by students. The assertion that there are 10,000 somehow subversive people on college campuses brainwashing the youth of the country harks back to a fear voiced about Socrates undermining the youth of Athens, but it's simply not true.

Our universities are the envy of the world. They are marvelous places. The special atmosphere that permits the free exchange of ideas should be precious to us all, and we should remain vigilant against any group that attempts to poison it by putting spies in the classroom and having them report to an outside, unidentified audience.

AIA and its troops have tried to portray themselves as underdogs battling a monolithic, left-leaning college bureaucracy. Attempting to invoke anti-elitist sentiment, they ask what we have to hide, what we are afraid of.

Our universities are characterized by openness; little goes on at them that is hidden from view. We would welcome anyone onto campus to discuss openly what we're up to. But we all have much to fear in clandestine attempts by groups such as AIA to stifle the community of free inquiry that prevails on our nation's campuses.

Dr. Sheldon Hackney is president of the University of Pennsylvania.

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