Universities this year have found a new thing that "goes bump in the night." It is called Accuracy in Academia, a kind of thought police to make certain that conservatism is given its fair share in the classroom even against the liberal leanings of the professoriate. Its structure is simple; students monitor their professors in order to report, and their leader, Reed Irvine, publishes these reports in order to punish. The aim of all this is "balance," forgetting quite that one man's balance is another man's vertigo.
The title Accuracy in Academia is ridiculous. One hardly imagines that Irvine and his junior G-men will spend much time on engineering, topology or surgery, where accuracy matters. In philosophy, the social sciences, literature and most history, accuracy is a mug's game. In addition, all externally imposed orthodoxies are bad for universities because they're not needed, because they don't work, and because they're ultimately destructive.
Efforts to chop faculty members into some procrustean political fit are really not needed. Professors are not infallible, but are convinced in their bones, John Donne says, that "to stand inquiring right is not to stray." In the give and take of academic discourse, in the interplay of review and critique, in all the gathering of learning and skill that make a university, gross errors have a way of being weeded out. It takes time, but then so does any good growth.
While Irvine's interventions may be lucrative, they will have little or no clout because no faculty body will pay attention to him or his notetakers. Faculty members know that their job is not thundering truths off Sinai, but the long labor of trying what has been found and lost and found again to time, our time.
That doesn't mean that the efforts of AIA won't do damage. I am not talking so much about the university but rather the damage done to students who treat their professors like Cassius: "all his faults observed, set in a notebook, learned and conned by rote . . ." They will lose much, misshape their university career, and break the contract that makes the university possible.
Any student involved in AIA will suffer two serious losses. First of all, he will lose all speculative play, the tossing back and forth of ideas, the espousal of the impossible, the ardent defense of what one disagrees with. It's the richest kind of training for agility of mind, and whipping out a notebook to catch the prof in something prosecutorial will kill it deader than a doornail. A greater loss will occur where play turns serious. Teaching in the arts and humanities aims to bring young minds into contact with great works, great ideas, great beauty. The resulting explosion is as unpredictable as an earthquake, and as likely to change the spiritual landscape as a spouting volcano. It may be possible to bang into greatness while looking for nits, but it's unlikely.
AIA's process will wreck the shape of a university curriculum. Only a tunnel vision sees all reality in terms of today's political orthodoxies. Few subjects, even politics, can be seen whole or healthfully with that kind of blinder on.
When we deal with writings far removed in time, there is an enormous anachronism in imposing our politics or our prejudices on them. Aristotle or Freud, Plato or Marx, talk to a great deal more than the give and take of political debate in modern America. The university is an immemorial conversation, and any conversation takes listening for granted. There is a difference between listening to learn and listening to trap. Prosecutors make bad jurors, and the student who won't listen won't learn.
The whole process AIA has in mind involves students in something profoundly unethical. The academy lives on a contract between student and teacher. I, as teacher, undertake to teach, study and write, and to deliver the results of all three as honestly as I can. The student has an absolute right to disagree, even to tune out. But he has no right to attack the contract while claiming its benefits. Together we are searchers, not judges and juries, much less executioners. We rate each other in terms of the academy itself, not in terms of political or even ecclesiastical orthodoxies.
The minute we reach outside the academy for marching orders, we falsify every relation between us and wreck the shared grasp of what we are up to. Reed Irvine's sorry and threadbare pretense that he is in some mysterious way serving students comes apart on the simple fact that the vast majority of them have neither asked for nor will accept the service rendered. If today's students start yearning for faculty autos da f,e, their charges are more likely to be based on marks than on Marx.
No one in the university will stop Irvine and his troops. There are a thousand different reasons for coming to a university, and each brings its own freedom to wreck the process for oneself. Narrow-minded attacks such as AIA mounts ignore the moral openness that makes a university possible.