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Nov 12, 2004 4:34 am

The OAH and Free Speech ...

Six months ago, Jim Horton, president of the Organization of American Historians, appointed a committee chaired by Yale's David Montgomery to look into contemporary threats to academic freedom. At the time, Michael Burger of the Mississippi University for Women, in a comment here at Cliopatria, David Beito at Liberty & Power and I urged the committee to look into the degree to which campus speech codes were threats to academic freedom. Blessed with a more irenic temperament than my own, Beito put it well, I thought:"As someone who has not hesitated to use his academic freedom to criticize the war (normally considered a"leftist" cause)," he wrote,"I would urge Montgomery to take this request seriously. This could be an excellent way to build bridges between conservatives, libertarians, liberals, and socialists and thus be better able to defend academic freedom for everyone. It would also be a wonderful advertisement for Joe and Jill Six Pack about the across-the-board consistency of the OAH."

At least two of the four members of the OAH committee appointed by my friend, Jim Horton, are long-term professional and personal friends of mine, but I'm afraid that I have to say that the committee made no effort to look at the kinds of concerns that libertarian or conservative historians have expressed about the chilling effect of speech codes on academic freedom. You can read the committee's report here. Despite the fact that both Beito and I contacted David Montgomery in re the question of speech codes, it is obvious that it made no effort to investigate questions other than those which might occur to a historian on the left. It is a huge opportunity missed by the blinders, if I may coin a phrase, of"political correctness." Shame on the OAH and its committee!

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Robert KC Johnson - 11/13/2004

Even if this were the case, however, I take strong exception to the committee's labeling government funding for "traditional" subfields of American history or government oversight of education programs that it already funds (Title VI) as threats to academic freedom; these issues do not involve academic freedom at all.

Oscar Chamberlain - 11/13/2004


I understand your disappointment, but the committee seems to have focused with some consistency on the dangers posed by the actions of the government and outside groups. That leads me to wonder if the committee understood its mission was to focus on xternal threats to academia.

If so, then what you had hoped for would have required the committee expanding its own mandate. That's something that most academic committees tend to avoid, for better or worse. (I'm sure there are exceptions, but I wonder how many have ended well?)

For what its worth, I think two of the issues that addressed, the access to records and all the problems connected with visas are more important than intradepartmental politics.

I am not saying that there should not be an attempt to do what you hoped they would do. I think it would a good thing. But you really haven't shown if this was a failure of the committee or of its mandate.

Charles V. Mutschler - 11/12/2004

The article is in the Chronicle's opinion section. The title is "Liberal Groupthink is Anti-Intellectual," by Mark Bauerlein, who is at Emory. His thesis sounds plausible enough. If there is no real disagreement, and no real discussion, intellectual decay sets in, because no one is forced to improve their scholarship and arguments. While not specifically addressing history, Bauerlein does state that the problem of intellectual one-sidedness is especially evident in the humanities.

I'll let you read, think, and draw your own conclusions. If you don't subscribe to the _Chronicle_, you can reach this article via their web page through the "Arts and Letters Today" column. Bauerlein's article is a few days back, but near the top.



Charles V. Mutschler - 11/12/2004

Thanks for the link, Mr. Luker. For another take on this same subject, readers may want to go to the current _Chronicle of Higher Education_, both print and on-line versions. This same subject is under discussion there as well, though in the larger context of "Why aren't there more conservatives in academe?" The conclusion is probably not what many of us want to rtead in the wake of the elections, but I think there is food for thought.

I'll try and find the computer address.