Academic vs. Horowitzian Truth Standards

28 January 2005

Dear Mr. Horowitz,

Thank you for
your response
to my recent
of your interest in promoting left-right balance.
In it, you urge me to comment more on the specific contents of the
Bill of Rights
, rather than on your statements in defense of
the Bill. While I’m more than happy to share my thoughts on the
Bill’s contents, it is not easy, in the context of our exchange,
to separate this material from your own arguments. Indeed, I think
it would be very enlightening to show how your own way of thinking
epitomizes many of the things that most trouble me about the Bill.
A consideration of competing concepts of truth (or, as some would
have it, “truth”) should make the case.

To my mind,
one of the ABOR’s most unsettling features is its encouragement
of epistemological relativism. For instance it

knowledge is a never-ending pursuit of the truth, that there is
no humanly accessible truth that is not in principle open to challenge,
and that no party or intellectual faction has a monopoly on wisdom.

Further down,
the Bill refers to “the
uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge
My gut reaction to this kind of radical relativism is a pragmatic
one. As the saying goes, it’s good to keep an open mind, but don’t
keep it so open that your brain falls out. Unlike those people who
only ever put the word “truth” in quotation marks, I feel that some
principles, ideas and conventions are more right than others, even
in cases when their truth-value is not categorically demonstrable.
Otherwise, what is to prevent us from slipping into a dangerous
moral relativism?

When it comes
to loosening prevailing standards of truthfulness, you certainly
practice what you preach. For instance, in paragraph 11 of your
, you imply that you had not read a
which is written in the first person, and published
in your magazine, complete with your name and an image of your signature
at the bottom. After insisting that the piece was entirely ghostwritten,
you go on (in the interest of denying that you never talk about
balance) to disclaim any knowledge of the statement that the ABOR
“demands balance in reading lists,” even though you cannot deny
my observation that this very passage is actually an unsourced quotation
(or variation of a quotation) of something you wrote elsewhere.
You wrap up this prodigious little nugget of indirection by simply
guilty to not paying more attending [sic] to my fund-raising mail

To those of
us who don’t share your ABOR-endorsed relativism, you’re guilty
of a lot more than neglecting to check your mail. By the measure
of the enduring civil standards upheld in reputable academic research,
this kind of double- or triple-dealing is simply inexcusable. Like
every academic I know, I personally make a habit of reading all
first-person statements that I authorize to bear my signature. Indeed,
I go so far as actually to write any such statements myself.
After that, I stand behind my words. In my profession, writing one’s
own material, and standing behind it, is nothing short of an ethical
imperative. For academics, serious writing is properly viewed as
an outward sign of inner integrity — or, as the case may be, lack
of integrity. That’s why we consider plagiarism and ghost-writing
to be such grave offences. (Another practice that keeps us honest
is linking
readers to our sources by means of footnotes or other citation methods,
even when these sources complicate our argument.)

In short, by
academic standards, your cavalier practice of allowing your name
to be attached to an influential document that you didn’t write
(even if it is “very obviously a direct mail solicitation,” as if
that matters) and your subsequent effort to shirk responsibility
for the content, amount to a serious abuse of your readers’ trust.
Given the discrepancy between the standard academic reverence for
truthfulness and your own more nonchalant attitude, is it any wonder
that academics question your motivations when you try to force us
to submit to “the
uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge
This phrase, coupled with your own instrumental view of truth, makes
me worry about how moral relativists might act on the idea of the
pursuit of the truth
,” or on the phrase that “there
is no humanly accessible truth that is not in principle open to

Let’s see how
this last pronouncement breaks down in real life, by applying it
to the following truth-claim.

should always strive to be honest and free from delusion.

Does anyone
care to challenge this? This statement is certainly not ‘open
to challenge’ according to my principles. I believe it to be
both ‘humanly accessible’ and absolutely, categorically
true. Anyone who wants to pass blanket legislation suggesting otherwise
had better come up with a pretty good explanation of what could
possibly be wrong with my truth-claim, or my principles, in this
particular instance.

On the subject
of truth and delusion, I continue to be astonished by your persistent
of the fact that the ABOR movement has repeatedly pushed
for ideological “balance.” In the face of all
my evidence
, you have had little choice but to back down just
a little, yet you now ask

“left-right balance” were the agenda of the Academic Bill of Rights,
or the academic freedom campaign, why wouldn’t it be at the center
of both?

Given the facts
of the matter, how can I respond, except by offering yet another
example of the very term you initially denied using at all, and
by choosing it from the “center” of your campaign? My latest example
is a phrase in the Students for Academic Freedom Mission
and Strategy statement
. It asserts that

the university is not the arm of any political party but an institution
whose purpose is to promote learning and the exchange of ideas,
student programs of a partisan nature should be fair and balanced
[my emphasis].

There you have
it. That pesky “b” word again, and once again in an explicitly political
context. Are parts of the SAF Mission Statement also ghostwritten,
and full of things that its authors (whoever they may be) didn’t
mean to assert? Or is this sentence something that you’re willing
to stand behind? If you do admit to the reality of this call for
“balance,” how will you then reconcile it with your insistence that
the “balance” issue isn’t (as you now rephrase it) “at the center”
of your freedom campaign. If a “Mission and Strategy” statement
isn’t “at the center” of a movement’s agenda, then it’s a funny
kind of mission statement.

Thank you for
your attention. I look forward to any future responses.

Graham Larkin

Stanford University, Department of Art & Art History
CA-AAUP VP for Private Colleges and Universities

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©2005 CA-AAUP

This article was first published on the California AAUP website and is republished here by permission.

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