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Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Lesson Learned

Posted by on November 2 at 9:02 AM

Back in June, my brother Bill Savage—an author, a scholar, a prof, and the beneficiary of a little nepotism—wrote an essay for the Stranger about the “problem” of Red states outbreeding Blue states. No problem, Billy said, because eventually those Red kids would require college educations, and that would expose them to liberals and progressive profs like Bill, and that exposure would turn some of those Red kids Blue.

Billy made it clear that he wasn’t indoctrinating his students:

I don’t indoctrinate my students. My job, as an English professor, is to teach my students to read deeply, to think for themselves, and then to write their own arguments effectively. I suspect that the Bill O’Reillys of the world believe that lefty academics engage in all-out Maoist Cultural Revolution- style indoctrination because that’s the only way they can picture a classroom, not having been in one for a while or ever… As our politics show all too often, we lefties have hyper-developed consciences. To force students to agree with me would be unthinkable, not to mention boring. What really happens to students in my classroom is this: They get exposed to the world around them…

Despite having made himself perfectly clear (you can read the whole essay here), Billy’s piece is being used as evidence that left-wing academics are indoctrinating their Red-State students. Today I got this email from Billy about the latest attempt to misrepresent his piece:

Some things never end. When I was asked to write about the idea that the Red States would outbreed the Blue States, from the point of view of higher education, back just after the ‘04 elections, I had no clue what I was getting into. By the time The Stranger ran the piece, (insert URL, date and title here), I had almost forgotten what the damn thing.

I argued that however Red the Red states might get, their children will largely be educated in Blue towns, counties, and cities, since bastions of higher education also tend to be bastions of liberalism. I used some provocative language, but my overall point was simply that children of the Red states will have their minds opened by seeing their professors have open minds. (Not all of academia is as left as people think: at NU, the biggest undergraduate major is Economics, and last time I looked we didn’t have any Marxist-Leninists in the department. And like most fair-minded liberals, I feel the need to present both sides of all arguments, even as I make my own claims.)

But then the right-wingnuts got on the case. I made the mistake of appearing on Michael Medved’s radio show (though I’m told by some listeners I put the windbag in his place) and my bosses at Northwestern—from the Dean up to the University President—got several emails with the lovely subject heading “A Disgrace to Northwestern.” (Luckily for me, they are strict constructionists when it comes to the First Amendment, and like all faculty here I’m free to express my opinions.) A few more irate emails after the show re-ran, and then I thought I was done, and could go back to scholarly solitude.

But no: a couple weeks ago, I got a phone call from a home-schooler who immediately identified herself as “not a conservative Christian.” She informed me that Patrick Henry College, a fundamentalist right-wing outfit that takes no Federal money so it won’t have to abide by various laws it doesn’t like, was using my essay in their fundraising letters. She had Googled my essay, read it and found it reasonable, and just wanted me to know I was being used by these Bible-thumpers as a bogey-man (bogey-prof?) to raise money. She forwarded me the letter (with her contact info cut out: she says she fears them, and I don’t blame her).

So, on it goes. Michael Farris, JD, President of Patrick Henry College, if you’re reading this: Thanks. I am flattered that you think that my essay will inspire people to give you money. I am honored to be held up as an enemy of everything you stand for, because I am one. As an American proud to support the separation of Church and State, I am glad you don’t take any of my tax dollars for your “educational” enterprise. As your letter states, “this is a philosophical war.”

I thought I’d fired my shot and could retire behind the lines. Your letter reminds me that this is not an option: the Culture Wars are in full swing. See you on the battlefield.