Higher education has historically been a bulwark against authoritarianism — or its pawn. What’ll it be this time?

By Jason Stanley

The Chronicle Review 

Sept 02, 2018  – In recent years, several countries across the world have been overtaken by a certain kind of far-right nationalism; the list includes Russia, Hungary, Poland, India, Turkey, and the United States. The task of generalizing about such phenomena is always vexing. But such generalization is necessary now, when patterns have emerged that suggest the resurgence of fascist politics globally. Increasingly, attacks on universities and conflicts over their policies are a symptom of this phenomenon.

I use the label "fascism" to describe any ultranationalism — ethnic, religious, or cultural — in which the nation is represented by an authoritarian leader who claims to speak for the people. As Donald J. Trump declared in his Republican National Convention speech in July 2016, "I am your voice." In particular, my interest is in fascist politics as a mechanism to achieve power. Once those who employ such tactics come to power, the regimes they enact are in large part determined by particular historical conditions. What occurred in Germany was different from what occurred in Italy. Fascist politics does not necessarily lead to an explicitly fascist state, but it is dangerous nonetheless.

Honest politics needs intelligent debate. One of the clearest signs of fascist politics, then, is attacks on universities and expertise — the support systems of discussion and the sources of knowledge and facts. Intelligent debate is impossible without access to different perspectives, a respect for expertise when one’s own knowledge gives out, and a rich enough language to precisely describe reality. When education is undermined, only power and tribal identity remain.

This does not mean that there is no role for universities in fascist politics. In fascist ideology, only one viewpoint is legitimate. Colleges are meant to introduce students to the dominant culture and its mythic past. Education therefore either poses a grave threat to fascism or becomes a pillar of support for the mythical nation. It’s no wonder, then, that cultural clashes on campuses represent a true political battleground and receive national attention. The stakes are high.

For at least the past 50 years, universities have been the epicenter of protest against injustice and authoritarian overreach. Consider, for example, their unique role in the antiwar movement of the 1960s. Where speech is a right, propagandists cannot attack dissent head-on; instead they must represent it as something violent and oppressive (a protest therefore becomes a "riot"). In 2015 the Black Lives Matter movement spread to university campuses. Given that Black Lives Matter gained strength after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Mo., it is no surprise that the first campus it touched was the University of Missouri at Columbia. The Missouri student movement was named Concerned Student 1950, after the year in which the University of Missouri was desegregated. Among its aims was to address the incidents of racial abuse faced by black students on a regular basis, as well as to change curricula that represented culture and civilization as the product solely of white men. The media largely ignored those motivations, and, representing protesting black students as an angry mob, used the situation as an opportunity to foment rage against the supposed liberal excesses of the university.

Fascist politics seeks to undermine the credibility of institutions that harbor independent voices of dissent. One typical method is to level accusations of hypocrisy. Right now, a contemporary right-wing campaign is charging universities with hypocrisy on the issue of free speech. Universities, it says, claim to hold free speech in the highest regard but suppress any voices that don’t lean left. Critics of campus social-justice movements have found an effective method of turning themselves into the victims of protest. They contend that protesters mean to deny them their own free speech.

These accusations also extend into the classroom. David Horowitz is a far-right activist who has been targeting universities since the 1980s. In 2006 he published a book, The Professors, naming the "101 most dangerous professors in America," a list of leftist and liberal professors, many of whom were supporters of Palestinian rights. In 2009 he published another book, One Party Classroom, with a list of the "150 most dangerous courses in America."

In fascist politics, universities are debased in public discourse, and academics are undermined as legitimate sources of knowledge and expertise.

Horowitz has started numerous organizations to promote his ideas. In the 1990s, he created the Individual Rights Foundation, which, according to the conservative Young America’s Foundation, "led the battle against speech codes on college campuses." In 1992 he founded the monthly tabloid Heterodoxy, which, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, "targeted university students whom Horowitz viewed as being indoctrinated by the entrenched Left in American academia." Horowitz is also responsible for Students for Academic Freedom, which was called the Campaign for Fairness and Inclusion in Higher Education when it was introduced in 2003. The goal of Students for Academic Freedom is to promote the hiring of professors with conservative worldviews, an effort marketed as promoting "intellectual diversity and academic freedom at America’s colleges and universities," according to Young America’s Foundation.

Some will argue that a university must have representatives of all positions. Such an argument suggests that being justified in our own positions requires regularly grappling with opposing ones (and that there was no room for those views in the first place). Anyone who has taught philosophy knows that it is often useful to confront cogent defenses of opposing positions, and universities unquestionably benefit from intelligent and sophisticated proponents of positions along the political spectrum. Nevertheless, the general principle, upon reflection, is not particularly plausible.

No one thinks that the demands of free inquiry require adding researchers to university faculties who seek to demonstrate that the earth is flat. Similarly, I can safely and justifiably reject ISIS ideology without having to confront its advocates in the classroom or faculty lounge. I do not need to have a colleague who defends the view that Jewish people are genetically predisposed to greed in order to justifiably reject such anti-Semitic nonsense. Nor is it even remotely plausible that bringing such voices to campus would aid arguments against such toxic ideologies. More likely, it would undermine intelligent debate by leading to breakdowns of communication and shouting matches.

Universities should supply the intellectual tools to allow an understanding of all perspectives. But the best way to achieve that is to hire the most academically qualified professors. No method of adjudicating academic quality will be free from controversy. But trying to evade that difficulty by forcing universities to hire representatives of every ideological position is a particularly implausible fix, one that can perhaps be justified only by a widespread conspiracy theory about academic standards being hijacked by, say, a supposed epidemic of "political correctness."

For decades, Horowitz was a fringe figure. Now his tactics and aims, and even his rhetoric, have moved into the mainstream, where attacks on "political correctness" on campuses have become commonplace. Jesse Panuccio, acting U.S. associate attorney general, began his remarks at Northwestern University in January by declaring campus free speech "a vitally important topic, and, as you are probably aware, one that Attorney General Sessions has made a priority for the Department of Justice. It is a priority because, in our view, many campuses across the country are failing to protect and promote free speech." Since then the Department of Justice has filed suits against universities for their alleged failure to protect the free-speech rights of right-wing speakers. Top officials, including the attorney general and the secretary of education, have appeared as featured speakers at a Turning Point USA conference, an organization that keeps "watch lists" of supposedly dangerous leftist professors, hardly a hallmark of free-speech advocacy.

Trump’s presidential campaign is sometimes described as one long attack on "political correctness." It is not accidental that the rhetoric of the Trump administration overlaps with the talking points of some of the well-funded institutions that have arisen to attack and delegitimize universities as bastions of liberalism. These broad criticisms have real impacts on academic careers and academic freedom. In January 2017, Missouri State Representative Rick Brattin, a Republican, proposed banning tenure at all of Missouri’s public universities. After calling tenure "un-American" in an interview with The Chronicle, Brattin added, "Something’s wrong, something’s broken, and a professor that should be educating our kids, should be concentrating on ensuring that they’re propelling to a better future, but instead are engaging in political stuff that they shouldn’t be engaged in. Because they have tenure, they’re allowed to do so. And that is wrong." When Brattin was asked whether he was concerned that eliminating tenure would damage academic freedom and lead to professors’ losing their jobs for political reasons, he responded, "In what area do you have protection of your job for whatever you say, whatever you do, you’re protected? You don’t have that."

In the classic style of demagogic propaganda, the tactic of attacking institutions standing up for public reason and open debate occurs under the cloak of those very ideals.

Within universities, fascist politicians target professors they deem too political and often denounce entire areas of study. When fascist movements are underway in liberal democratic states, certain academic disciplines are singled out. Gender studies, for instance, comes under fire from far-right nationalist movements across the world. Professors in these fields are accused of disrespect to the traditions of the nation.

The nation is the top priority of fascist education, and fields that don’t align with the nation’s identity are typically denounced as "Marxist indoctrination," the classic bogeyman of fascist politics. Used without any connection to Marx or Marxism, the expression is employed to malign the equality represented by even small amounts of space being given to marginalized perspectives. Fascism is about a hierarchy ordered by the dominant perspective, and so, during fascist moments, there is strong support for figures who denounce disciplines that teach perspectives other than the dominant ones — such as gender studies, or, in the United States, African-American studies or Middle Eastern studies. The dominant perspective is often misrepresented as the truth, the "real history." Attempts to allow space for traditionally nondominant perspectives are used to foment panic about an attack on tradition; when English departments add Ngugi wa Thiong’o to the curriculum, it is represented as an attack on Shakespeare.

Fascist opposition to gender studies, in particular, flows from fascism’s patriarchal ideology. National Socialism, for example, targeted women’s movements and feminism generally; for the Nazis, feminism was a Jewish conspiracy to destroy fertility among Aryan women. In fascist attacks on universities, the universities play the role of the Nazis’ "Jewish conspiracy" behind the women’s movement.

According to fascist politics, universities subvert masculinity and undermine the traditional family. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has gone on the offensive on this issue, repurposing universities into ideological weapons directed against the supposed Western excesses of feminism. In her 2017 book, The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (Riverhead Books), Masha Gessen describes how Russia’s antigay, antifeminist university agenda emerged out of a 1997 conference in Prague called the World Congress of Families, organized by Allan C. Carlson, then a professor of history at the "ultraconservative Hillsdale College in Michigan." The conference attracted a large audience. Gessen writes, "Inspired by the turnout, the organizers turned the World Congress of Families into a permanent organization dedicated to the fight against gay rights, abortion rights, and gender studies."

As one example of policies inspired by the conference, the Russian government persecuted the European University at St. Petersburg for its liberal inclinations; Russian authorities had been trying to close it down for years and finally succeeded in 2016, when its teaching license was suspended. According to the university, "the inspections were instigated by an official complaint from Vitaly Milonov," a member of the Russian parliament for Putin’s United Russia Party. Milonov, who is responsible for some of Russia’s antigay legislation, has expressed concern about the teaching of gender studies at the university: "I personally find that disgusting, it’s fake studies, and it may well be illegal," he told The Christian Science Monitor.

In Hungary and Poland, gender studies has also been a flash point of political controversy, drawing the ire of political leaders seeking to paint universities as bastions of liberal indoctrination. As Andrea Peto, a professor of gender studies at Central European University, relates in her study "Report From the Trenches: The Debate Around Teaching Gender Studies in Hungary," the undersecretary of the Hungarian Ministry of Human Resources, Bence Rétvári, compared gender studies to Marxist-Leninism (again, the standard bogeyman of fascist regimes).

Attacking gender studies is also an explicit tactic of the far right in the United States. In 2010 the state legislature of North Carolina was taken over by Republicans affiliated with the Tea Party movement. Together with the Republican governor, Pat McCrory, they went after the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A newly appointed Board of Governors of the university dismissed its widely admired progressive president, Tom Ross. Governor McCrory said in an interview that public universities should not teach courses in "gender studies or Swahili" (Swahili is spoken by 140 million people as a first or second language). He added, "If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine, go to a private school and take it."

In fascist ideology, the function of the education system is to glorify the mythic past, obscuring the perspectives and histories of those who do not belong. In a process sometimes tendentiously called "decolonizing" the curriculum, neglected perspectives are incorporated, thereby ensuring that students have a full view of history’s actors. In the fight against fascism, adjusting the curriculum in this way is not mere "political correctness." It is an essential means of protection against fascist myth.

Higher education can either stand as a bulwark against fascist politics or be a weapon of fascist politicians.

Governor McCrory did not stop with his suggestion that some courses should be removed from the public curriculum. He also called on the university to focus more on the type of skills-based education that employers supposedly need, to the detriment of subjects like sociology, which aid students in becoming better citizens. He was backed up by what was then the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, run and funded by Art Pope, a powerful and wealthy Republican donor. The Pope center has successfully urged the University of North Carolina to raise its tuition. This move will lead more students away from humanities and social sciences and into majors that will give them "business skills."

At the same time that it denigrates subjects that would enable a greater understanding of human cultural diversity, the Pope center (now known as the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal) also urges the teaching of a "great books" curriculum, which emphasizes the cultural achievements of white Europeans. The priorities here make sense when one realizes that in antidemocratic systems, the function of education is to produce obedient citizens structurally obliged to enter the work force without bargaining power, and ideologically trained to think that the dominant group represents history’s greatest civilizational forces. Conservative figures pour huge sums into the project of advancing right-wing goals in education. In 2017 the Charles Koch Foundation alone spent $100 million at around 350 colleges and universities.

When universities restrict their required offerings to European cultural touchstones, they risk suggesting that white Europeans constitute the core of human civilization. Our universities must not be complicit, even unwittingly, in promulgating such a myth.

When universities restrict their required offerings to European cultural touchstones, they risk suggesting that white Europeans constitute the core of human civilization.
Across time and place, as fascism rises, so too do figures who call for stacking colleges with professors more sympathetic to nationalist or traditionalist ideals. What has been happening in Hungary is a classic example. When Viktor Orban assumed power, he condemned universities as sites for liberal indoctrination. The best university in Hungary is Central European University, which retains independence from the Hungarian state. Orban presents CEU as a foreign institution that seeks to displace local Hungarian schools, spreading liberal universalist values such as pro-immigration sentiment. In April 2017, the Hungarian parliament attached legislation to an anti-immigration bill seeking to strip CEU of its ability to operate as an American university in Hungary and regulating the movement of its faculty and students for national-security reasons.

Similar efforts to shape curricula to nationalist ends are underway around the world, including in Turkey, where one of the first actions that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan undertook after the attempted coup against him in 2016 was to dismiss more than 5,000 deans and academics from their posts on suspicion of pro-democratic or pro-leftist sentiments. Many were also imprisoned. In an interview with the Voice of America, Ismet Akca, a political-science professor who was removed from his position at Yildiz Technical University, in Istanbul, said, "These people being purged are not just democratic left-oriented people, they are very good scientists, very good academicians. By purging them, the government is also attacking the very idea of the higher education, the very idea of the universities in this country."

The replacement of a varied curriculum with a narrowly proscribed one is a renunciation of knowledge and expertise. Rush Limbaugh has made this explicitly clear on his radio show, denouncing "the four corners of deceit: government, academia, science, and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That’s how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper." Limbaugh provides a perfect example of how fascist politics targets expertise, mocking and devaluing it. In a liberal democracy, political leaders are supposed to consult with those they represent, as well as with experts and scientists who can most accurately explain the demands of reality on policy.

Instead, fascist politicians call upon universities to bolster their preconceived messages rather than to inform and shape policy. Across the world right now, we see right-wing movements attacking universities for spreading "Marxism" and "feminism" and failing to give a central place to far-right values. Even in the United States, home to the world’s greatest university system, we see Eastern European-style attacks on universities. Student protests are misrepresented in the press as riots by undisciplined mobs, threats to the civil order. In fascist politics, universities are debased in public discourse, and academics are undermined as legitimate sources of knowledge and expertise. Instead they are represented as radicals spreading a leftist ideological agenda under the guise of research. By debasing institutions of higher learning and impoverishing our joint vocabulary, fascist politics reduces debate to ideological conflict, thereby occluding reality.

History suggests that when the central government targets universities in ways we are now witnessing in the United States, it is a signal of encroaching authoritarianism. We would do well to take such signals both literally and seriously, if we are to preserve what history teaches is a bulwark against authoritarianism — a vibrant, robust, and independent university system.

Jason Stanley is a professor of philosophy at Yale University. He is the author of the new book How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them (Random House), from which this essay is adapted.

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