After Ward Churchill
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Ward Churchill, the Colorado professor at the center of the national controversy, is someone I’ve never met. I’ve never seen him in person. But I recognize him … the speech patterns, the theories, the bravado. Ward Churchill embodies much of what I ran into during my undergraduate waltz through college at the tail end of the 1960s.
As I intermittently horsed around and slept through my years in Madison, Wis., I encountered two very different types of professors. There were the old curmudgeons who looked at us with complete contempt. They viewed our dress (which we rarely changed), our hair (unkempt), our music (much of which, in my humble opinion, did not stand the test of time), our lack of scholarship, and our Herculean talent for wasting time with undivided disdain. In spite of our shortcomings, these old-fashioned educators held to the rules, were thorough in their scholarship, and graded us without mercy. On the other side of the equation were the “cool” professors, the ones whose courses we loved to take because they professed political views that matched the popular culture of the time. They spoke with sarcasm toward everything we were taught to revere before we entered college: our country, our government, our history. That was seen as cool back then. Their hair was also long and unkempt, and unlike the curmudgeons, they never wore ties. They dressed in jeans and army jackets just like us (the irony strikes me now – opposing the military, but wearing its uniform).These cool professors did run into a problem regarding their politics and their positions: How could they be part of the university system that they also openly disparaged? That was solved with the concept we liked best of all: They announced they would give everyone A’s at the start of the course. That was their blow against the university establishment and conformity. Their rationalization for this was that, once we got the false and arbitrary system of grades out of the way right at the start, we could concentrate on the important part, the “learning.”
The only problem was that like socialism and communism, when you give human beings a guaranteed salary, they tend not to work. We were no different. Sure we attended their lectures, which could be entertaining (when we weren’t sleeping through them), but my roommates and I rarely did the reading. And in those few instances when I actually did, I found it meaningless, often silly, and invariably poorly written. I just assumed it was my problem, my lack of depth or something.
Although it’s completely appropriate to challenge the status quo during college – not a concept unique to the 1960s – it’s the lack of solid scholarship I question today. More than 30 years later, this point is driven home: I cannot remember one thing I learned from these cool guys. Not one nugget of information or the teensiest bit of knowledge … not a thing I have used since that time. I can’t even remember what they were actually teaching. Oh, I laughed and cheered them on. But the half-life of those classes dissipated as soon as I walked out of the lecture halls. In contrast, the information that has stayed with me, the quotes I have used over and over to make a point or impress a date, all came from those old curmudgeons, God bless them.
I think about all of this as I see Mr. Churchill strut through the spotlight of the national press, all of it coinciding with a real and serious debate that has focused on higher education for the past decade. This growing national reassessment has centered on four major fronts:
* The mind-numbing political correctness that has increasingly stultified dialogue and thought.
* The formation of questionable disciplines that have now become entire departments where scholarship is often eclipsed by political advocacy.
* The vastly disproportionate number of left leaning professors versus educators with conservative or even middle-of-the-road views.
* The stifling of ideas and debate on positions that are contrary to the leftist viewpoint (perhaps President Bush would be wise to aim his next case for democracy on the American college campus).
In this ongoing debate, Mr. Churchill has actually done us all a service. By unwittingly exposing his bizarre lack of scholarship and mediocre showmanship, he has cast a spotlight on this form of quackery. This past week, when I watched a video replay of professor Churchill’s talk to a group of students at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, I immediately recognized him. Even the start of his act was familiar … beating on a drum with real Native Americans and blowing smoke over himself in their rituals, it smacked of the drama of those lectures past. Pure shtick.
Of the content of his talk, the rants about “chickens coming home to roost” and September 11 only being some form of payback for the sins committed by the U.S. Empire against, in no particular order: the children of Iraq, Palestinians, Native Americans, Panamanians, Nicaraguans, Grenadians, the Japanese in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – that was old news. Thirty years ago, I heard how we as a nation went after only brown-skinned people (no one seemed to register that our bloodiest wars were fought against white people … the Germans (World Wars I and II) and ourselves (1861-1865). Concerning his belligerent defense of his treatise on those who were killed in the World Trade Center, he was clear to exclude the service people in the towers at the time. So, if a father or mother worked as a stockbroker or a lawyer or for an insurance company they were legitimate targets, the little Eichmanns he wrote about.
Mr. Churchill did all of this with force, with bravado and, frankly, very good timing. I understand how 18-year-olds are intimidated by this guy. And if I heard him correctly, he said he does 40 of these “gigs” a year. That gives him enough rehearsal time to get the act just right, not to mention putting a small chunk of change in his pocket at the same time. If every venue pays him what UW-Whitewater paid him – $4,000 plus expenses – my elementary school math tells me he is taking in an extra $160,000 a year on top of his salary at the University of Colorado. No little Eichmann, he.
Mr. Churchill will eventually go away. He will recede, unrepentant, from his 15-minute spotlight (which will upset him, no doubt, more then anything). But the other issues that have been raised aren’t going away any time soon. It’s now getting serious because alumni are beginning to take notice. And that’s important because alumni represent a university’s largest source of funding. When money stops rolling in, university officials may finally be forced to take notice of the ersatz departments and silly scholarship of some of their professors. We will hear the term McCathyism bandied about. Everyone from Mr. Bush to Lynne Cheney to the vast right-wing media will be blamed. But none of this will be true. It will be universities and their ceding power to political agendas instead of scholarship that is the root cause of this problem.
My one piece of advice for students is if you insist on taking these “cool” courses, see them for what they are – theater. The tough ones will last longer.
Mr. Kozak has been a writer for television news shows including “Nightline,” “Moneyline with Lou Dobbs,” and “World News Now.”