NOW WE LEARN THAT ANDREW JONES, the right-wing wack job who was offering UCLA students $100 a pop for information on and tape recordings of their supposedly “radical professors,” has withdrawn his monetary offer.
What a wuss! After Jones provoked a mini-media storm last week with his crusade to cleanse Westwood of commies, his mostly on-paper Bruin Alumni Association has suffered a hemorrhage of defections among his once high-profile and now deeply embarrassed supporters. After the L.A. Times wrote about Jones’ efforts and publicized his online list of the “Dirty Thirty” profs poisoning the minds of our youth, former Congressman Jim Rogan, KABC radio ranter Al Rantel, conservative historian Stephan Thernstrom and UCLA emeritus English professor Jascha Kessler all hurriedly resigned from the association’s board. Apparently, to these folks the idea of hunting down lefty profs sounded great on paper, but they plain lost their nerve when the real action started. More wusses!
Ranter Rantel is quoted in the Times this week saying: “Now what’s happened is that the whole project is discredited. Now it looks like a bunch of crazies who were trying to go after innocent professors, which certainly wasn’t what I supported.” Sure. Perish the thought, Al.
So what did Rantel think he was supporting when he originally backed Mr. Jones? Jones had already gained a rep on the UCLA campus — as leader of the Young Republicans — for being a rather unbalanced chap. Even fire-breathing rightist David Horowitz had earlier canned Jones after concluding he was sort of a head case.
Which is what the reaction of everyone else involved in the story ought to have been. The guy’s nuts. Laugh him off. Instead, we had to hear a lot of throat clearing about how this was a “witch hunt,” or how this was some sort of New McCarthyism. Please. McCarthy had subpoena power. Jones is just a dick.
Yet . . . it seems to me that if college professors are given tenure, precisely to insulate and protect themselves from politicized firing, then shouldn’t they — in exchange — invite even the most off-kilter sort of political feedback to what they teach? I actually read some of the summaries that Jones had posted on his site of the so-called Dirty Thirty (I know a couple of the targeted profs and my daughter had just taken a class from another of those listed). The sketches offered by Jones were surprisingly well written and even, to a point, balanced. Because, he is, indeed, a head case, each one of these temperate portraits unfortunately ends with the same sort of spurious insinuation: that in spite of how reasonable this or that prof would seem to be, he or she is really a dirty, lying, pinko subversive.
I TEACH ACROSS TOWN at Troy and — frankly — I wish more students would invest as much interest in their professors (and their curriculum) as has the crank Mr. Jones. Modern university life seems all too devoid of real engagement, debate and political conflict. Walking across any major American campus today can too often resemble a stroll through a manicured cemetery. Tenured professors are allowed to slowly ossify and decompose, growing ever more detached from the reality around them. Too many students, meanwhile, stumble around in a cyborglike trance, fixated on GPA’s and merit scholarships and oblivious to any of the challenges and rewards offered by actual critical thinking. And school administrators lust only after the next fund-raising gimmick.
Back in the golden-oldie days (I entered college in the magical year of 1968), the universities seethed with passion. Some of the same tenured profs harrumphing today about McCarthyism were no doubt having a grand time back then (as I was), chasing ROTC and Dow recruiters off campus, and blockading the classrooms of tenured Cold War ideologues and hard-bitten male chauvinist pigs. Surely in our more ripened years, and many of us (not me, alas) swathed in tenure, we should be able to graciously weather a bit of similar push-back from the right-wing crazies. We could be generous and even a tad wry about the whole thing and simply say that, while we admire their guerrilla tactics, we dissent from their goals.
While my current crop of graduate journalism students crackle with energy and effort, there have been dark moments in the past (mostly teaching in the Cal State system) when I would have offered $100 out of my own pocket to any student engaged enough to take detailed notes on what I was yammering about. If they had actually made the effort to analyze what I said, write a summary, a response, a scathing critique, even a denunciation, and then actually take the time to post it on the Web, I might be moved to pony up a $10 tip.
So, what if we put the Mr. Joneses of the world out of business by preempting them? What about the university creating a public blog for each class that is offered and opening it to comment from the students, the public and the prof? Let the professor state his or her core thesis and then stand back and let the punching begin. Or, heaven forbid, actually step in and defend their theses? Spend any time nowadays on an American university campus and you’ll figure out within five minutes that a whole lot of professors — and students — could well use a little intellectual pummeling.