Earlier this year, Senator Kerry dismissed the "idea that there is an ideological bias on college and university faculties" as a fantasy of "conservative talk show hosts." Duke University's philosophy chairman, Robert Brandon, deemed intelligence, not ideology, the cause of any imbalance: "If," Mr. Brandon asserted, "as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire."
Since surveys disclose that the ranks of humanities and social sciences faculties disproportionately tilt to the left, Mr. Kerry's denying the obvious makes little sense. The real question is: Has this ideological imbalance adversely affected the education that college students receive?
Regarding instruction in American history, the answer is yes. During this year's fiercely contested presidential election, with American troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would seem self-evident that college students should learn about the history of American politics, foreign policy, and government institutions. The final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States underlines the need for all citizens to understand how our government makes policy, processes information, and allows for oversight.
Unfortunately, as Mr. Brandon's remark suggests, many in the academy have allowed ideological or political prejudices to influence professional judgments. As a result, students too often receive a portrayal of the American past as the drama of dominant groups exploiting vulnerable and powerless ones, filtered through the analytic triumvirate of race, class, and gender.
This change dates from the 1960s,when scholars active in the civil rights, feminist, and antipoverty movements sought what they termed a "usable past." As a result, they commendably expanded the discipline into previously neglected topics such as African-American, women's, and social history.
This mindset, however, has taken an exclusionary turn to justify eliminating fields such as political, legal, or diplomatic history that some ideologues perceive as focusing on "dead white men."
The most extreme example: Brooklyn College President Christoph Kimmich recently installed on the history personnel committee, which controls future staffing decisions, a senior professor who had informed him that studying about the history of American political institutions is useful only for "a certain type of student, almost always a young white male." Opposing her personnel approach, the appointee added, was "immoral."
Imagine the outcry if a college president had endorsed the opposite position - that African-American history classes are appropriate only for "a certain type of student, almost always a young black female." Yet eliminating positions in fields viewed as "conservative" has recently become fashionable.
A look through the Web sites of 30 large public university departments shows only six with more than a quarter of the American history faculty whose research focuses on politics, foreign policy, the law, religion, business, or the military. Other institutions have virtually abandoned the topics.
These statistics understate the problem. In what one scholar has termed the "re-visioning of American political history," many professors have redefined political, constitutional, or diplomatic history so radically that politics and state relations have been all but read out of them.
A case in point comes at UCLA, whose class in inter-American relations explores not diplomacy but "the role of gender and sexuality in U.S. expansion...with a particular focus on the relationship between the U.S. and its Latin American 'backyard' in all of its suggestive allusions." Taxpayer dollars, meanwhile, paid for a UCLA course in recent political history asserting as fact that after September 11, 2001, "the US remains on course in exercising its ruthless dominance over the rest of the world."
A similar pattern of biased American history offerings exists at lower-profile colleges that follow the agenda of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, a group with an imposing name but a peculiar curricular philosophy. AAC and U schools characteristically use banal rhetoric of inclusion, diversity, and teaching "democratic citizenship" to mask courses presenting one-sided viewpoints on controversial political issues. The apparent goal: to indoctrinate poorly prepared undergraduates and thereby create a new generation of social activists. Public moneys fund all of these institutions.
Two ideologically driven patterns have combined to distort instruction in American history. First, history departments have dramatically reduced the number of professors whose fields are deemed "old-fashioned." Then, remaining courses in these topics have been "re-visioned" along heavily ideological lines.
Since faculty members seem unlikely to correct this problem on their own, administrators and trustees must intervene to counter personnel decisions that prove to have been made to satisfy ideological wish lists rather than educational and scholarly needs. Trustees of public institutions also have a fiduciary obligation to undo procedures that restrict the rights of applicants for faculty positions. The First Amendment, contrary to the thinking of Duke's Mr. Brandon or those like him, does not allow departments to reject candidates because they write for conservative publications or teach about topics that ideologues deem "old-fashioned."
Without effective oversight, even outside initiatives can be counterproductive. For example, the U.S. Department of Education recently funded a program called "The Arts of Democracy," anticipating that students would acquire the intellectual tools to make informed judgments about American domestic and foreign policy. Instead, the AAC and U-coordinated initiative focused on multicultural studies.
A typical "Arts of Democracy" project at New York's Rochester Institute of Technology lamented how Islam suffered under "notions of Global Apartheid," while grading students in part on their "involvement in social advocacy groups."
Despite the "Arts of Democracy" experience, a limited governmental role is needed. Along these lines, Senator Gregg, a Republican from New Hampshire, has sponsored the Higher Education for Freedom Act, which would create targeted grants aimed at reviving postsecondary teaching and research about American political institutions. Princeton, Duke, and the University of Louisville already have established models of such programs.
Through the efforts of its former Executive Vice Chancellor, Louise Mirrer, the City University of New York has established a similarly imaginative initiative. "Investigating U.S. History" aims to create online history lessons from a chronologically and intellectually diverse range of topics, which it then will provide to faculty and students nationwide.
The chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bruce Cole, recently maintained, "Today it is all the more urgent that we study American institutions, culture, and history. Defending our democracy demands more than successful military campaigns. It also requires an understanding of the ideals, ideas and institutions that have shaped our country."
Attempts to exclude or politicize beyond recognition historical fields considered "old-fashioned" will deny an entire generation of future citizens a full understanding of the American past. Colleges should not be staffed according to a theory that teaching about the history of the American government is immoral.