Are the regents of the University of California asleep?
This past winter, the Daily Californian, a student newspaper at Berkeley, reported on a women's studies course that involved such educational activities as writing papers about sexual fantasies, visiting strip clubs, and watching an instructor have sex. All of which earned students units toward graduation at U.C. Berkeley.
After the national press picked up the story, embarrassed university administrators shut down that particular exercise in transgression. Have they learned their lesson? Dream on. Consider this item from the Berkeley English department's fall course catalog. It is for English R1A, "The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance," which will earn students four units toward their degree. The description is worth an extensive quote:
"The brutal Israeli military occupation of Palestine, [ongoing] since 1948, has systematically displaced, killed, and maimed millions of Palestinian people. And yet, from under the brutal weight of the occupation, Palestinians have produced their own culture and poetry of resistance. This class will examine the history of the [resistance] and the way that it is narrated by Palestinians in order to produce an understanding of the Intifada. . . . This class takes as its starting point the right of Palestinians to fight for their own self-determination. Conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections."
Let's leave aside the gross tendentiousness of this little bijou. Let's leave aside, too, the question of what a class on Mideast politics is doing under the rubric of English. The real question is what such agitprop is doing on the curriculum. "The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance" is not an academic or scholarly inquiry. It will not attempt to step back and assess the merits of arguments for and against a certain interpretation of historical events. On the contrary, "conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections." Diversity? Phooey.
Universities used to be dedicated to the advancement of knowledge. It was understood that if they were to be successful, they had to presuppose what Matthew Arnold called the ideal of "disinterestedness." In describing criticism as "disinterested," Arnold did not mean that it speaks without reference to a particular point of view. Rather, he meant a habit of inquiry that refused to lend itself to any "ulterior, political, practical considerations about ideas."
We might say that Arnold looked to criticism to provide a bulwark against ideology, something that John Searle, a very different sort of Berkeley professor, put with his customary lucidity: "The idea that the curriculum should be converted to any partisan purposes is a perversion of the ideal of the university."
Since the 1960s, however, universities have become havens for displaced radicals and the humanities instruments of political agitation. Arnold's vision of the civilizing potential of "the best that has been thought and said" gives way to a smorgasbord of attacks on Western civilization that are a part of the "multicultural" agenda.
It may be tempting to dismiss what goes on at Berkeley as nothing more than the twittering of academics -- a group, after all, that is notorious for being out of touch with reality. The problem is that the fate of academic life is not only an academic issue. It is an issue that touches deeply on one of the chief crucibles of the future.
When U.C. Berkeley allows classes like "The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance" to be conducted under its aegis, it betrays a public trust in several ways. For one thing, because Berkeley is widely regarded as a premier educational institution, what it does will be emulated elsewhere. Therefore, condoning courses that are merely fronts for political activism abets the degradation of the humanities.
In allowing classes in which conservatives are unwelcome, Berkeley provides further evidence that universities are beholden to leftist ideology. Universities loudly promulgate a rhetoric of diversity, yet practice strict intellectual conformity on all contentious issues.
Finally, by allowing such courses, Berkeley further erodes the line that once separated academic life from the hurly-burly world of political affairs. The integrity of that line has earned universities a special status as places apart in our society -- and tax-exempt because their inquiry was not merely partisan.
In the late 1800s, the German aphorist G.C. Lichtenberg noted that "Nowadays we everywhere seek to propagate wisdom: who knows whether in a couple of centuries there may not exist universities for restoring the old ignorance?" Now we know.
Mr. Kimball is the editor of New Criterion.