Opinion: Clarion Call

Leftists blast report urging colleges to teach American history and principles

Clarion Call No. 133
A report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has the establishment-left wing of academe up in arms. “Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It” builds on the fact that “academe is the only sector of American society that is distinctly divided in its response” to the terrorist attacks on America to reiterate (not to mention, underscore) the organization’s call for trustees, donors and alumni to seek change in their institutions of higher education.

The report stresses that “the robust exchange of ideas is essential to a free society.” But what emerges in it is that the exchange of ideas on college campuses is anything but robust. The report explains that ACTA is not seeking to limit free speech on campus, but to expand it so that professors and students who support the war effort are no longer intimidated by the dominant campus ideology. It provides a list of over 100 examples of things said on college campuses nationwide that represent the range of campus responses to the terrorist attacks and how they hew the pervasive campus line “that has increasingly suggested that Western civilization is the primary source of the world’s ills.”

Calling America’s first line of defense “a confident understanding of how and why this nation was founded, and of the continuing relevance and urgency of its first principles,” the report calls on “all colleges and universities to adopt strong core curricula that include rigorous, broad-based courses on the great works of Western civilization as well as courses on American history, America’s founding documents, and America’s continuing struggle to extend and defend the principles on which it was founded.” It notes that a previous ACTA study found that, of the top 55 institutions of higher education in America, none required students to take even a single course in American history, only three required a course in Western Civilization, and 78 percent allowed students to graduate without any history credits at all.

“It has never been more urgent for education at all levels to pass on to the next generation the legacy of freedom and democracy,” the report states. “If institutions fail to do so, alumni should protest, donors should fund new programs, and trustees should demand action. What is not taught will be forgotten, and what is forgotten cannot be defended.”

The report has been panned as neo-McCarthyism by leftist academics. The source of this oblique criticism is the report’s examples of “the message of much of academe … BLAME AMERICA FIRST.” Crafting the list “has a little of the whiff of McCarthyism,” as Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Hugh Gusterson told The New York Times (he told the Boston Globe that the report reminded him of the Soviet Union). “Their aim is to enforce a particular party line on American colleges and universities,” Columbia University professor Eric Foner griped in the Times. “Only fanatics demand lock-step conformity,” the Globe editorialized.

Apparently none of the McCarthyism bloodhounds of the academic left sniffed out either of the explicit statements in the report that “professors should be passionately defended in their right to academic freedom” or “Let us be clear. This is not an argument for limiting free speech on college campuses.” Or, perhaps, since both statements were followed by equally explicit statements that professors exercising their freedom are not exempted from criticism, they held their noses at it.

The ACTA report is being decried as a threat to academe — despite its lucid support for academic freedom, and because it seeks that same freedom for those outside of that orthodoxy (“robust debate”) as well as increased attention paid to American history and principles in college curricula. Ironically, such criticism reinforces the dominance of the campus ideology discussed in the report, and furthermore it demonstrates exactly why the report’s calls for reform should be heeded.

The report is available for download (in PDF format) from the ACTA website: www.goacta.org.