Guest: Decter, Midge
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THE OPEN MIND
CAN THERE BE “ACCURACY IN ACADEMIA”?
HOST: RICHARD D. HEFFNER
GUEST: MIDGE DECTER
VTR: MARCH 8, 1986
HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Now there’s a particularly interesting twist to today’s program, ideologically speaking. My guest is writer/editor Midge Decter who has often joined with me on one or another program over the years surely whenever I’ve longed for an old friend, particularly one endowed with great intellectual strength and determination and a consistency of viewpoint, one indeed that I’ve not always shared. Well, just recently here on THE OPEN MIND Reed Irvine, who considers today’s guest a bedrock of support for his conserving efforts to identify a left-leaning bias in America’s press by means of his now very well entrenched Accuracy in Media organization. Well, he had some tall explaining to do at this table for the fact that Midge Decter has been quite so critical of his new organization, Accuracy in Academia, designed to perform the same search and destroy mission on the college and university campus. He seemed to suggest that she really isn’t all that critical. That her blast at Accuracy in Academia in CONTENTIONS sparkling bright conservative publication and in THE NEW YORK TIMES Op-Ed piece didn’t really convey what she meant to convey. Which I find somewhat difficult to believe for Midge Decter always writes with such concern and precision. So we’ll ask her. Midge, did you mean to put it to Accuracy in Academia?
DECTER: Yes, I did. I did. The reason, perhaps, that Reed Irvine thought that maybe I had backed off from m y position is that Reed and I are friends. It was not with any joy in my heart that I came to the conclusion I did about his new project. And I have not wanted to quarrel with him. I was actually trying to persuade him to change his mind.
HEFFNER: But you know when I read your editorial in CONTENTIONS you called it “Accuracy in Academia,” an editorial, and then THE NEW YORK TIMES gave it the added title, “More Bullying on the Campus.” I was impressed with the notion that you rather felt that Accuracy in Academia was making use of the same tactics that you have deplored for so long now about what goes on on the campus. And I wonder if you would elaborate on that.
DECTER: Well, when I wrote the editorial, of course, Accuracy in Academia was just beginning. So none of us, I think not Reed as well, were really sure what tactic s Accuracy in Academia would be using. Except for the fact that it was set up as an organization to make use of students as monitors and informants about this. Now Reed, the work that Reed Irvine does on the press, he does himself. He reads the newspapers. He follows the stories. He does the research. And he or members of his staff do it themselves. This you cannot do in a university if you are an outsider. And he was going to and has organized students to do this job. And that is what I very much object to.
HEFFNER: The tyranny of the young?
DECTER: Well, the tyranny of the young or using the young to bring pressure on the institutions that are supposed to be the intellectual authorities over them. I’m not saying that Reed Irvine’s students will go trashing libraries and setting fires and doing what the wonderful idealistic young of the 1960’s did. But they will be bringing pressure. They will be making demands. They will be yet another pressure group on the university. To the extent that they succeed, if they do, which I very much doubt, because in the end you know as well as I that what they will be doing is creating academic martyrs who will then become a cause celeb re among all the right thinking people. But to the extent that they succeed it will be just another case of the university collapsing. In the face of student pressure.
HEFFNER: Is that what you think has been happening in this country on the campus for generation now or more?
DECTER: I think it has happened…let’s date it. Let’s date it from 1965. That’s undoubtedly arbitrary, but it’s useful. Because that’s when the student revolution began at Berkeley. So it’s a convenient date. Obviously the rot that I feel is in the university had to have been there for a while. Because the minute the students brought pressure, the universities collapsed. Entirely. Completely. The faculties, the administrations. And so you had a round of student pressures being brought. First there were the radical students who I think the first set of issues was that the CIA shouldn’t come recruiting. And then there should be no ROTC. And then the United States should get out of Vietnam. How the universities were supposed to effect that nobody know. Then there were minority rights. Gay rights. Women’s rights. Just a series. Reflections of the political pressure groups going on in the outside world.
HEFFNER: Do you think that the kids, the students were used as surrogates for others who had political positions to take and points to make?
DECTER: Oh, I think in many many cases the students, the young of the 60’s and 70’s were what I call intellectual cannon fodder. I think there’s no question about that. They also were only too happy to participate and I wouldn’t…I don’t want to equate what Reed Irvine is doing with that kind of manipulation. I don’t think he regards these students, I know he doesn’t, as intellectual cannon fodder. However, whatever he has in mind, that’s what’s going to happen. Now there is a very serious crisis in the university right now. It’s a political crisis. And it is that there is widespread bad teaching which can only be called anti-American. And it’s all over the place. Harvard Law School. Harvard Law School for God’s sake.
HEFFNER: Why do you say for God’s sake? Where else would you expect it?
DECTER: Well, I don’t know. Harvard Law School is the elite of the elite.
HEFFNER: But the elite has always been in the vanguard.
DECTER: Well, I suppose so. But one had certain illusions about the law and about law schools. I did anyway. I think I’m probably not alone in that. But there is this pervasive, vague, pious, radical…you see Reed Irvine calls it, Marxist. In some cases it’s Marxist and in other cases it’s not Marxist. It’s rot is what it is. And it’s rot with an anti-American tinge all over the place. Now how do you go about dealing with this? Well, the issue is one of professional standards. The issue is not one that this Marxist or that young Marxist or that young radical is an assistant professor in this school and is using a bad textbook or is an associate professor in that school and is using a bad textbook. The issue is an institutional issue. And I t is that this institution in which the society invested great honor, not to mention great money, has allowed, lowering isn’t even the word, degradation, of its professional standard.
HEFFNER: Well, in CONTENTIONS, in your editorial and then in the Op-Ed piece you took Reed’s word accuracy. And I gather you can accept that in the Accuracy in Media, accuracy in the press, that that’s okay. But when we get to accuracy in academia you have your concerns as to whether that word has any real meaning.
DECTER: Yes, I think it doesn’t have any real meaning. I mean I suppose if there were a school in which teachers were teaching that two plus two equals five, you would have an accuracy problem. But the issue here is none of the maintenance of a high standard. That’s not an issue of accuracy. You can’t teach philosophy accurately. But you can teach it in a cheap and debased way. Or you can teach it like a serious person. If you do that, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Marxist or anarchist or a fundamentalist Christian. There is such a thing as an intellectual standard. And that’s what has been de based. And this is no way to deal with it at all.
HEFFNER: So that you have no litmus, political litmus test, for an academic. You’re saying an academic whether he or she leans one way or another politically that doesn’t make any difference as long as there is fairness and decency as you said in CONTENTIONS in the presentation of the material.
DECTER: Yes. And seriousness in the presentation of the material. That’s right. And we know what the…we actually all know what those standards are. We really don’t have to define them. But this country went through a whole, a whole debate on the question of academic standards at the time of McCarthy. You remember when the question was, should Communists teach in the schools or should they not teach in the schools. And Sidney Hook, for instance, took the position that they should not. He took it in a very serious responsible way. And he had a case to make. There were other people equally serious, equally anti-Communist as Sidney Hook who thought not. Now that’s a debate. The students didn’t come into it, however. I think on the whole I’m not sure any more whether I would side with Sidney Hook or his opponents in that debate. I no longer care.
HEFFNER: I’m puzzled.
HEFFNER: What do you mean you no longer care?
DECTER: Because the issue no longer is one of…the issue as Sidney Hook raised it is that Communists were by virtue of their membership in the party, were placing themselves under a discipline, had shown themselves placed under a discipline, which was external to their profession and which called upon them to follow a line as it was dictated no matter what. That, he said, ipso facto, made them unfit to teach. And that’s a very weighty argument. The fact is there no longer is a Communist Party. There no longer is discipline. The people who take lines in the academy now are taking lines out of…they’re following the lines of…they’re obedient to social pressure, to the pressure of the community, to the orthodoxy of course that pervades the intellectual community. That’s what they’re doing. But that’s a very different kind of problem. And it’s a problem that must be dealt with in my opinion by these people’s peers saying, you as a colleague are behaving in an unfit manner.
HEFFNER: But you…on the one hand you talk about the intellectual pressure ore what is given in the intellectual community at any one time by those who are their peers so I mean…
DECTER: Well, yes.
HEFFNER: …what remedy do you have?
DECTER: Well, the remedy is that there are people who are not like that. Everywhere. After all, there are a lot of brave and honest souls in the world. They need encouragement to be braver. They need companionship. They need moral support. But it isn’t as if the entire academic community actually in its mid is obedient to this orthodoxy. The real problem is that there are an awful lot of people who know better. And I mean this is no place to name names. But there are an awful lot of them who…and they are college presidents. And they are deans. And they are distinguished professors. Eminences. And yet they collapse of when some large issue comes up they tend to hide or they tend to negotiate it away or they run away. And there’s very little taking of a firm stand. There’s very little talk about role models. There are very few role models in the academic community for students for people who are…who are brave in following their own intellectual commitments.
HEFFNER: Then if I understand correctly, we have Reed Irvine on one side who says there is a discipline on the campus and it’s a left-leaning discipline and I don’t like it and it expresses itself in purposeful, usually, inaccuracies. And I want to identify those. You on the other hand raise a signal of distress concerning the American campus. But is has to do not with discipline but with a lack of discipline if I understand what you’re saying.
DECTER: And a lack of discipline and lack of standard and as I say the university collapsed morally and intellectually as an institution.
HEFFNER: Well then, Midge, if it did, if it collapsed…
HEFFNER: …what are we talking about?
DECTER: Well, we are talking about the fact that we nevertheless force our children at great cost to ourselves and with some hope for them…children are forced to attend these institutions for four years. It’s very hard to get a decent job in this society unless you’ve got the piece of paper that says you spent four lovely, juicy, energetic, young years of your life in this place.
HEFFNER: Being entertained.
DECTER: Theoretically being entertained. If there were some way to liberate our children from the university, then it wouldn’t matter. Then as consumers we could say, well that’s no good. To hell with it. That’s the complication. We do send these children there. We do send them there in hope that they will prolong their youth a little bit longer under the tutelage of people who will exert genuine intellectual authority over them.
HEFFNER: But by and large you don’t see that happening.
DECTER: Well, it’s happening badly. Or in many cases it’s not happening because some of these things…I read Reed Irvine’s newsletter. It’s called ACADEMIC REPORT or something. I really should remember the name but I’m…
HEFFNER: You should. I should.
DECTER: And I have been reading it. And look there’s nothing vicious or McCarthyite or anything about it. The only thing is that it tells us things we already know. There’s this case study of some dumb girl teaching some freshman course and using the textbook of a professor named Howard Zinn who is a well known radical leftist. Has been for years. And they interview her. And they say well, do you discuss this? And she says, no, she doesn’t discuss this. And no, she doesn’t think about that. You’re not going to get anywhere with the university by picking out that stupid girl and some other jerk. I mean, they’re all over the place. We know they are. We know they are. And they have jobs for a lot of extraneous reasons besides academic accomplishment. We also know that on account of Affirmative Action. There are a lot of people teaching in a lot of places who are there not by virtue of their having mastered the discipline after all.
HEFFNER: But you know on that subject, just that question in THE NEW REPUBLIC last November, they said our system is not damaged by them. And by them they meant what they called the true believers and the ideological quacks. Even if some undiscerning students are persuaded by their silliness, it’s not a big price to pay for liberty. Academic liberty. Academic freedom. Is that what you’re saying? It really doesn’t make much difference what someone who’s silly or whatever does.
DECTER: I think that the problem on campus is not the radicals like that stupid girl and many others. I think the problem is an institutional problem. And the problem is the liberals. Not the radicals. And what I mean by the liberals is the academic establishment. That’s when I meant…I mean Derek Bock and Bart Giomatti who is a splendid fellow. And who knows better. And dozens of other presidents. And dozens of other colleges…
HEFFNER: What are they doing that you take exception to?
DECTER: They are appeasing. They are appeasing the forces of this community. They are appeasing…in fact they appease all the people who come and make strident demands. And they might even, in the end, dome of the appease in some way…
HEFFNER: Reed Irving?
DECTER: It’s not likely. Not very likely. But in some places I could imagine some colleges I could imagine if there were enough students carrying on and making scandals they might get appeased a little bit particularly if the board of trustees is sympathetic to them.
HEFFNER: These are very frail Reeds that you describe.
DECTER: They are very frail Reeds. They are. And it seems to me by now if one is to use, if you don’t mind me ;using the language of warfare, because that’s how I feel about it, the weapons that one has to use on these people are intellectual weapons. They’re not organized pressures. They’re intellectual weapons. And they are shame. Embarrassment. Preaching. Recalling people to their duty. All those stuffy old things. This is not something students can do at all. But it is something that a distinguished professor can do. Professors used to do that. They had graduate students. They used to say to their graduate students, go back and do this over. This isn’t good enough. Or they would say to one another, let us not hire such a person. He doesn’t meet our standard. That’s no longer the case at all. And therefore, the university is to be authority to reimpose a decent standard and that’s not our kids. And it shouldn’t be, because you see what happens to the kids, and I see it happening to conservative kids just a well…they’re not, of course they’re not rowdy and badly behaved, most of them. Some are even rowdy, but most of them behave themselves a lot better. But I see it happening to them. What happens to students when they are surrendered to in this way or encouraged to pressure in this way is they become quite arrogant and they’re quite pleased with themselves. And they imagine that they know a great deal more than they do know.
HEFFNER: It sounds as though you’re saying they simply repeat the patterns of homes.
DECTER: Well, perhaps.
HEFFNER: They’re just doing what we taught them to do only they’re doing it on the campus.
DECTER: But that’s not what a university who used to be a place where kids came and their assumptions got challenged. And that was a healthy thing. It was a wonderful thing. But what goes on now is a total parody of that process. Students come to school and some professor might say, you think this is a just society, but it isn’t a just society. Well, that’s not challenging an assumption. I mean really challenging. Challenging your students. Telling them that an awful lot of very good books have been written by an awful lot of people who lived a long time ago who were a lot smarter than they and who elect to be listened to and who…including Karl Marx, why not? I don’t think that a kid nowadays has a proper political education if he hasn’t studied Karl Marx. If only to understand where…what is the source of an enormous political development all around him. I think he should study Karl Marx. But I’d be very careful about who was teaching this course.
HEFFNER: But you know the thought that occurs to me is to whether we’re not sounding or listening to the death knell or death rattle of an older kind of institution that you and I embraced, want to see recreated. But talk about population explosion. What you’re talking about is not quite Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other. But you’re talking about a much more personal kind of education that doesn’t really have very much to do with the huge masses of students who come into us today. And I wonder if you’re expressing your wish and your hopes as if you thought they were going to come to pass?
DECTER: Well, I don’t know if they’re going to come to pass.
HEFFNER: What’s your bet, Midge?
DECTER: What is my bet? My bet is that the university will be in a very sad condition for another quarter of a century.
HEFFNER: And then?
DECTER: And then, then a new generation of intellectuals who will decide that teaching is the thing they want to do as they had done after World War II. They’ll once again come into the universities and will make them serious places. On the other hand, given the massiveness of this education, these kids come to college, they should learn something. So if they’re not learning to be challenged by great minds and the assumptions of other ages and so on, then the least they should be learning is something. They’re not learning something either. Ask anyone who interviews a recent college graduate including from all the ivy league colleges, whether this student is capable and competent of writing a decent English paragraph.
HEFFNER: And as we end the program I gather what you’re saying is that this is a far cry from having anything to do with those 10,000 Marxists Reed Irvine sees on the campus.
DECTER: Yes. They are only a symptom.
HEFFNER: They are only a symptom. You know, I don’t know when we spoke about…when Reed Irvine was here I talked about getting you two together, but I think sort of back-to-back what he said and what you’ve said, such different basic positions on what the problems ar. I think it all speaks for itself. And I want to thank you for joining me today and speaking it.
DECTER: Thank you.
HEFFNER: Bye bye, Midge. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please do write to THE OPEN MIND in care of this station. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, good night and good luck.
Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from the Richard Loundsbury Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; Mr. and Mrs. Laurence A. Wein; Pfizer Incorporated; and THE NEW YORK TIMES Company Foundation.