International Studies Perspectives

Volume 8 Issue 4 Page 396-400, November 2007

To cite this article: Miriam Cooke (2007)
Academic Freedom: The "Danger" of Critical Thinking
International Studies Perspectives 8 (4), 396–400.

Academic Freedom: The "Danger" of Critical Thinking

  • *Duke University

Something is wrong when campaigns are launched against academics and their right to freedom of thought and expression. Something is at stake when a hew and cry is raised about educators’ political persuasions. When we hear of this kind of academic harassment in places like Syria, Iraq, or North Korea we Americans shake our heads self-righteously. Look at that tyrannical regime, pity the fools who stay and endure it. We know we have our freedoms when we see those who do not. We laugh to scorn the notion that a state of war can be invoked to justify abduction of civil liberties.

Then, in 2003, we Americans found ourselves at war (the War against Terror or the War for Democracy in Iraq, take your pick) and among the first casualties was academic freedom. For the duration, a state-defined notion of patriotism prevails. It entails subjection to the will of the leader that is often cloaked in "support of the troops" language, defense of Israel right or wrong and speaking and acting in specific ways. If we resist these conditions of patriotic behavior, we are labeled "unpatriotic" and become fair game for the zealots.

One such zealot is David Horowitz, an ex-liberal turned-neocon think tanker. In 2003, he founded Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), that now has 150 chapters in the United States. The SAF website is a mine of information about those stigmatized as bad professors. It projects Horowitz’s tireless campaigning to muzzle "liberal" ideas, to adopt quotas for conservative academics1 and to lobby for his Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR). This bill empowers students to condemn speech that offends them, allows them to opt out of any part of a course they consider "personally offensive" and authorizes their monitoring and reporting of such offense. Using progressive language from the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) 1940 statement on academic freedom, ABOR calls for an end to what they call ideological orthodoxy on the left, in other words equal opportunity for neoconservative ideologues.2 Horowitz also edits (that publishes articles on the unacceptable speech and writings of academics), and he directs the Horowitz Freedom Center that recently founded the Terrorism Awareness program.3

Horowitz (2006) formally launched an academic witch hunt with the publication of The Professors. America’s 101 most Dangerous Academics. The sensational dust jacket warns "coming to a campus near you: terrorists, racists, and communists—you know them as The Professors." These dangerous professors include ex-terrorists, murderers, sexual deviants, anti-Semites, and Al-Qaeda supporters. At a time when the U.S.A. government is in the business of tracking down terrorists and, yes, ex-terrorists to prosecute its War on Terror, it is not a laughing matter to stand accused in a book that promises to expose proponents of terror in the classroom. Yet, far from finding a rogues’ gallery, the reader will encounter the names of influential scholars like Noam Chomsky, Ali Mazrui, Paul Gilroy and Allison Jaggar. Their "dangerous" profiles are collages of comments made outside the class, sometimes reported to the Horowitz Freedom Center by students in its pay. The product is a distortion of their ideas with words and phrases cut and pasted from various different articles and public speeches to make arguments they never made. Horowitz targeted these intellectuals not because they are dangerous to their students but because he does not like their opinions and positions. Does that make them dangerous? Yes and no. The fact of being in this book creates the perception that they are dangerous, and once there it is they who are endangered.

Apparently, this kind of unethical behavior is sometimes ok. In 2000 Horowitz published a pamphlet entitled "the art of political war: how Republicans can fight to win," where he argued that "there may be a need to make false statements and gain support unethically to win this political war" (quoted in Meranto 2006). How does this pamphlet fit with ABORs call for academic freedom? The key term is "political war."

As it is war time different rules prevail, norms have to give and, for the duration, the preservation of academic freedom sanctions lies, unethical behavior and criminalization of critical thinking. FrontPage articles are a good example of how this works. Filled with egregious misrepresentations of "liberal" academics’ political and academic positions, FrontPage employees fabricate facts and make dangerous allegations. These unreferenced articles then become authoritative sources for their other writings, like Meir-Levi (2007) "The Nazi Roots of Palestinian Nationalism and Islamic Jihad." Distributed before and after screenings of the Horowitz Freedom Center’s film "obsession," the pamphlet accuses Muslims, especially Palestinian Muslims, of having been in league with Hitler and Mussolini, and for primary sources it cites FrontPage articles.4 These are the people who criticize liberal professors for teaching critical thinking that they claim is repressing students’ academic freedom.

In this time of war that allows some people to lie and cheat, it is taboo for others to think critically. Especially problematic is any critique of the Israeli state’s treatment of the Palestinians or of its favored relationship with the United States that allows it to act with impunity.5 It is dangerous even "to speculate about the relation between this war (in Iraq) and the geopolitical interests of Israel." These are the words of Paul Gilroy, who, at the time of speaking, was chair of African-American studies at Yale. Enraged, his colleague Scot Silverstein compared him with Hitler and claimed that his words "illustrated the moral psychosis and perhaps psychological sadism that appears to have infected leftist academia" (Younge 2006).

Joan Scott, chair of a committee on academic freedom and tenure that AAUP appointed shortly after 9/11, is another professor surprised to find herself accused of anti-Semitism for stating that there were "many more examples of attacks on critics of Israel than on students who are pro-Israel" (Scott 2006). The passing of the Patriotic Act, she added, has had a chilling effect on civil liberties in general, on the academy in particular and above all on foreign scholars and students coming to the United States.

Academics and especially Middle East specialists with years of experience and research in the region cannot criticize the problems they see in the Israeli leadership or in the pro-occupation Israel Lobby or in U.S. policy in the Middle East without being labeled anti-Semites. Why are academics and academic freedom the focus? Mearsheimer and Walt, among others, point out that in the wake of 9/11 the Israel Lobby has had more success on Capitol Hill than in the academy, and Laurie Brand suggests that had the war in Iraq succeeded so might the war on academic freedom in higher education (see her article in this volume).

Think tanks like the Horowitz Freedom Center, the American Enterprise Institute, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Middle East Forum are trying to impose a new ideological orthodoxy in Middle Eastern studies (Cooke 2004). Any professor who does not toe the pro-Israel, pro-war-on-terror, patriotic line is somehow infringing upon the academic freedom of supporters of the Bush administration and the Israel Lobby. When neocon scholars, like members of the National Association of Scholars and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (founded by Lynn Cheney and Joseph Liebermann), learned that the political affiliation of most humanities and social sciences faculty was Democrat or "liberal," they protested. They were sure that these liberal academics were indoctrinating their students: "the assumption was that party politics inevitably intrudes on teaching and scholarship" (Salaita 2006). Neocon think tankers reject the notion that universities are sites of critically engaged inquiry and debate over unpopular and subversive ideas. Their only concern is that professors should not teach critical thinking but only indoctrinate "patriotic" norms.

Academic freedom is not a right but a basic necessity. The disciplines have developed through the constant critique of their own norms without certainty about the outcome. The classroom is one place where this conflict should take place. Students should expect to be challenged and to be exposed to a wide variety of new ideas that do not conform to views, norms and values they bring ready-made from high school and home. The professor’s task is to examine with students how facts are shaped into persuasive, moralizing narratives by opinions, judgments, and standpoints. Hayden White has warned against the "impulse to moralize reality, that is, to identify it with the social system that is the source of any morality we can imagine…the demand for closure in the historical story is a demand for moral meaning, a demand that the sequence of real events be assessed as to their significance as elements of a moral drama" (White 1982). Students need to understand how individual judgments are not only made but also moralized through narrative closure. In other words, they need to know to ask what is left out of an argument, what added to make an idea palatable. They have to be able to distinguish plausible truth from propaganda.

Think tankers who call for the imposition of their singular version of academic freedom are rejecting critical thinking and the deconstruction of moral meaning making to create uncontested space for their ideas. They are calling for an end to education. In so doing, they recall the lackeys of tyrants in places like North Korea, Iraq, Iran and Syria who control and crush dissent and deny academics and students the right to speak their minds without fear of retaliation.

If students are not taught to think critically, they will be at the mercy of anyone with a persuasive story. How, for example, can they decide between equally urgent arguments about 9/11? Whereas some claim that the terrorists from the Al-Qaeda network were solely responsible for the attacks, others counter that incontrovertible evidence proves that the Bush administration not only let the catastrophe happen it was actually involved (see the film Loose Change). How can they make an informed decision about the validity of an argument such as the one proffered by Daniel Pipes? In March 2005, he asserted that peace can only come to the Middle East through "a total Israeli military victory over the Palestinians…the Palestinians need to be defeated even more than Israel needs to defeat them" (quoted in Scott 2006). Students need the critical skills to make their own judgments about how a statement is structured, what are the stakes involved and whether its claims are credible. Only then can they agree or disagree about the proposition that it is better for the Palestinians to be defeated than to defeat. After having reflected on the identity of the author of this statement and the stakes involved for him and his watchdog organization Campus Watch in making such a statement. In other words, they need to understand and deconstruct the implications of this statement for all involved. Only then can they make an informed decision about the basis for its truth claims, its intention and its expected outcome.

Critical and engaged pedagogy, the hallmark of academic freedom, can only be effective in a classroom that is safe: safe for the professors to provoke students and to push them to think differently; safe for the students to defend ideas they have not yet thought to question. Students need to learn how to address difficult issues thoughtfully. At a time when there is a growing belief that universities are preprofessional schools, we need to insist that they are in fact institutions for engaged scholarship and pedagogy.

Some argue that this is not McCarthyism because threats to academic freedom do not seem to involve the state. Others like Ellen Schrecker counter that the focus on the classroom is "reaching into the core academic functions of the university, particularly in Middle Eastern studies" (Younge 2006). Neve Gordon, professor of politics at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, explains that the main difference between McCarthyism and today’s academic witch hunt "is that today private interest groups and not the government are running the show. Of course, the major players within these think tanks have unhindered access to the corridors of government and are frequently successful in influencing high-ranking public servants; yet the resources for the campaign to de-legitimize academic dissent and to control the production of knowledge come from opulent think tanks." Gordon goes on to quote Robert Post, a Yale law professor and a former general counsel of the AAUP. For Post the danger of the current campaign and the call for greater outside surveillance of departments of international studies is that they might transform academic institutions "into programs that merely promote opinions held by the people who provide funding and therefore undermines the social function of the university as a free market of ideas that advances knowledge" (Gordon 2006).

I propose a curriculum committed to what I have called a multiple critique.6 It is difficult but also necessary to learn how to judge and critique problems in a number of different communities at the same time. This is vital in international studies: to criticize the Bush administration is not to be in co-hoots with Islamists (Buck-Morss 2003) or to love Saddam Hussein; to criticize Saddam Hussein does not mean condoning the U.S. invasion of Iraq; to be opposed to the bombing of the Afghan people does not mean giving "thumbs up to the Taliban" (Stillwell 2004); to warn against the dangers of the pro-occupation Israel lobby is not to be anti-Semitic or to support the oil lobby; to point to colonial legacies as in part responsible for domestic violence in post-independence countries is not to let abusive husbands and brothers off the hook. Multiple critique allows for a simultaneous condemnation of U.S. policy in the Middle East, Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, the pro-occupation Israel lobby and the oil lobby, the Talibans’ treatment of its people, Osama bin Laden and his murderous Al-Qaeda, violence against women wherever it happens and whoever the perpetrator, and also legacies of European colonial rule in the region. No single affirmation of guilt and responsibility should be singled out to constitute cultural betrayal. There are many necessary reasons behind outbursts of violence; none taken alone is sufficient. Students should be supple enough to understand this fact and then to make connections so that they may consider both the problems and the dangers in many institutions.

Academic freedom is not a soap box from which to declare oneself right and others wrong. Academic freedom is both a right and a responsibility. It is a right to deal with those who disagree with us without being reduced to silence; it is a responsibility not to silence those with whom we disagree and also to see and to teach others to see many sides to an issue so that they can make and safely articulate their own opinion about the complexity of the world in which we live.


1Horowitz complains "You can’t get hired if you’re a conservative in American universities." See Younge (2006).

2ABOR passed the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in July 2005 and a committee was formed to investigate how faculty are hired and promoted and students are treated and evaluated.

3The Horowitz Freedom Center website announces: "Our Academic Freedom campaign has reached into every nook and cranny in the university culture and has alerted a new generation of conservative students to their right not to be indoctrinated and harassed by faculty leftists.... As a direct result of the (Pennsylvania) Hearings two of the three major state universities—Temple and Penn State—adopted student-specific academic freedom rights…the Center is actively taking these reforms to other states." See (Accessed April 10, 2007).

4The Horowitz Freedom Center website announces that they distributed and sold 800,000 pamphlets and books in 2006.

5Mearsheimer and Walt (2006) exposed the role of the pro-occupation Israel Lobby in U.S. Middle East policy. They were attacked for being anti-Semitic. Yet this 80-page article does not deal with Jews, rather it criticizes the Israel Lobby that harms both the United States and Israel.

6I define this concept in Cooke (2001).



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Cooke, Miriam. (2001). Women Claim Islam: Creating Islamic Feminism Through Literature.

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Cooke, Miriam. (2004). Contesting Campus Watch: Middle East Studies Under Fire. Al-Azhar Journal of Research 7(1).

Gordon, Neve. (2006). Academic Freedom After September 11. From History News Network. Available at (Accessed August 24, 2006).

Horowitz, David. (2006). The Professors. America’s 101 Most Dangerous Academics.

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Mearsheimer, John J., and Stephen Walt. (2006). The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.

Middle East Policy


Meir-Levi, David. (2007). The Nazi Roots of Palestinian Nationalism and Islamic Jihad.

Horowitz Freedom Center


Meranto, Zia. (2006). Review of The Professors, by David Horowitz. New Political Science 28(3): 437–447.


Salaita, Dean J. (2006). Higher Education and the Dangerous Professor: Challenges for Anthropology. Anthropology Today 22(4).

Scott, Joan W. (2006). Middle East Studies Under Siege. The Link 39(1).

Stillwell, Cinnamon. (2004). Duke Feminist Gives Thumbs Up to the Taliban. FrontPage Magazine, September 27.

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: University of Chicago Press.

Younge, Gary. (2006). Silence in Class: University Professors Denounced for Anti-Americanism; Schoolteachers Suspended for Their Politics; Students Encouraged to Report on Their Tutors. Are US Campuses in the Grip of a Witch-Hunt of Progressives, or is Academic Life Just too Liberal? The Guardian, April 4.