IN WHICH WILL BE FOUND WHAT IS SET FORTH THEREIN

Saturday, April 15, 2006

AMIRI BARAKA: HOROWITZ'S IDEAL PROFESSOR?


among the many oddities I’ve been writing about in Horowitz’s book and tour, one of the strangest is the serious disconnect between his repeated admonitions to the effect that he is not campaigning against political bias but against professors who use their classrooms to communicate their political bias, and what we actually find in his book and speeches. When I first saw the book, I wondered why Amiri Baraka is even in the volume. True enough, he was a professor many years ago. You could make the case, I suppose, that his inclusion is meant to show that universities hire faculty members they shouldn’t hire. The entry for Baraka, though, has little to do with universities at all. Many of the examples are from early in Baraka’s career, before he was a professor. Many more refer to the New Jersey Poet Laureate contretemps ( an episode that took a leap into the surreal when the governor who was calling for Baraka’s dismissal was forced to resign in the midst of his own scandal). If pressed, you could say that all this is relevant because Baraka does poetry readings on campuses (but so does Dana Gioia , if you’re looking for fairness and balance in poetry series. Both poets appeared at Penn State in the same year.).

Here’s news, though. Amiri Baraka, when he was a professor, might be considered the very model of classroom balance that Horowitz claims to advocate. As it happens, I’m one of the few people weighing in on this who is in a position to comment on Amiri Baraka in the classroom. More than a quarter of a century ago, I was a student in a course that Baraka taught at the George Washington University. It is true that Baraka let us know he was a communist (which, at the time, came as news to a couple of cultural nationalists who hadn’t read his recent work). And we even read a couple of texts in literary criticism and social analysis that were published by communist scholars. But there was plenty of debate. On one day, Baraka and C.L.R. James (who had been a major figure in what used to be termed “the anti-communist Left,” from which come many of the people who brought us neoconservatism) discussed their differences with the students. That was also the day, by the way, when Amiri Baraka condemned antisemitism in the harshest terms imaginable when one of the cultural nationalists tried to get a discussion going about the role of the Jews in all that is bad in the world. (There WERE witnesses; it did happen.) The nationalist appealed to some of the same early poems by Baraka that Horowitz cites, but Baraka wasn’t bashful about explaining what was backwards and ignorant about anti-Jewish bias or about why he had changed his ideology.

More important, in our assigned readings and classroom discussions we followed precisely the course of study that Horowitz appears to approve. We studied all sides. We read conservative writers like Booker T. Washington and George Schuyler. Nobody in the class enlisted afterwards in the communist cause (unless, like Horowitz, you think that engaging in post-structuralist analysis, something Baraka opposes generally, IS Marxism).

It may be that Horowitz doesn’t discuss Amiri Baraka’s classroom work in his book, the period of Baraka’s career that you would think most immediately relevant to the book’s project, because he’d have to concede that Amiri Baraka represents the ideal of what a professor should do in the classroom.

on a distantly related matter. In the course of Horowitz’s Penn State talk he repeated his theories about the relationship between the Selective Service and the take-over of the Liberal Arts by Marxist radical faculties. Horowitz told the Penn State students that he had become an English major early in his life because he’d thought it would provide him with an instrument for revolution. [Believe me, I am not making this up.] He went on to speculate that, because of student deferments from the draft during the Viet Nam war, many radicals found it advantageous to remain students, thus progressing to become PhD students and eventually professors. If you think about it, this explains much of Horowitz’s attack on those of us in the Humanities; he thinks we’re like him; or like he would have been had he gone on from his Masters work to the doctorate. In the interest of full disclosure, let me point out that, unlike David Horowitz, I was drafted. Unlike David Horowitz, I fulfilled my service obligation to my country. I didn’t go to Viet Nam; I was registered as a conscientious objector (remember e.e. cummings’s Olaf, “whose warmest heart recoiled at war”?) and I was sent to do work in poverty-stricken communities. I resided in a Catholic rectory and lived on one hundred dollars a month, considerably less than the poor people I was helping to organize day care centers etc. It was an experience I am glad to have had. I knew a lot of Viet Nam vets when I returned to school. We got along just fine. Most of them respected the decisions I’d made and the work that I’d done. Some of us joined forces in defense of the proposal for the Viet Nam War memorial when conservatives attacked the plans for it. The college classroom was a place where Viet Nam vets and war resisters could come together in discussion and scholarship. I’d like to think that is the sort of classroom I’m creating today. It’s the sort of classroom Horowitz says he favors, but we will judge his commitment by his words and actions.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

(remember e.e. cummings’s Olaf, “whose warmest heart recoiled at war”?)

Not one of his greatest, but an unforgetable piece nonetheless. "there is some shit I will not eat." You said it, teddy.

Grant and Caleb said...

Great point about Baraka (though I suppose I still need to be convinced that he has left his anti-Semitism behind). I think most of us are like this in the classroom--we welcome debate because that is what makes classrooms lively and interesting for us, right? Anyway, kudos as well for the service as a CO.