Are professors in American colleges and universities interested in the truth? That sounds like a strange question, but in an extremely revealing new book, Mary Lefkowitz shows that there are some who won’t let the truth get in the way of their efforts at indoctrinating students. Worse yet, administrators often cave in to these academic bullies rather than standing up for faculty members with the nerve to question them.
Lefkowitz is an emeritus professor at Wellesley College, where she taught courses on classical culture for many years. Ancient Greece is her specialty. It is hard to imagine that such a quiet scholar would become the center of a vehement controversy that would rock the campus and descend (on one side) to the level of vicious personal attacks. History Lesson (Yale University Press, 202 pages) is the story of her bitter experience after challenging the accuracy of material a professor in Wellesley’s Africana Studies Department used in his classes.
In her introduction Lefkowitz writes, “Telling the truth, instead of being our first responsibility, has suddenly become less important than achieving social goals. These goals were to be reached not by means of the usual scholarly tools of reflection and reasoned persuasion. They were to be imposed by assertion and fiat.”
One of those “social goals” that now dominate in American education is that of making various minority groups (those designated as victims of our oppressive culture) feel good about themselves. Toward that end, some professors have taken to the creation of myths. The particular myth that plays the central role in this drama is that of the “Stolen Legacy.”
Here is the way that myth goes. The culture and philosophy of the ancient Greeks was not truly their creation, but was “stolen” from Egypt. Since Egypt is in Africa and all the people in Africa are “black” this means that white Europeans were victimizing blacks more than 2400 years ago. In one particularly ludicrous aspect of this myth, it is asserted that Aristotle journeyed to the Library at Alexandria and stole books that he later claimed as his own works.
When Professor Lefkowitz learned that this and other intellectually indefensible ideas were being taught by a professor (Tony Martin) in the Africana Studies Department, she publicly challenged their historical accuracy. Among other problems with the “stolen legacy” idea is that Aristotle died years before the Library at Alexandria was built. But when she pointed this fact out to Professor Martin, he took umbrage. Who was she, a white Jew, to question his interpretation of black history?! At that point, it began to occur to her that Martin, a tenured faculty member, was one of those people who won’t let the truth get in the way of achieving their objectives.
More disturbing yet, she discovered that the dean of the college would not intervene. Quoth the dean, “He has his view of ancient history and you have yours.” Throughout the confrontation between Martin and Lefkowitz, the Wellesley administrators were cowering, spineless creatures—much like the Duke administration during the infamous lacrosse case in 2006.
Looking further into the curriculum in Martin’s department, Lefkowitz discovered that students were assigned a book entitled The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, an anonymous book published by the Nation of Islam. While masquerading as a work of scholarship, complete with 1,275 footnotes, it is a screed that seeks to promote the idea that Jews were mainly responsible for slavery. The book is hate literature with a thin veneer of sophistication. Using it in a college course is deeply troubling. The Wellesley administration, however, ducked behind the curtain of professors’ “academic freedom” when it was brought to their attention.
Lefkowitz’s purely academic criticisms of the materials being used to teach Wellesley students elicited an outrageous counter-attack by Martin, a book entitled The Jewish Onslaught: Dispatches from the Wellesley Battlefront. In it, Martin depicted himself as a hero standing strong for “black progress” against the evil oppressor class (the Jews) and craven blacks who didn’t go along with his racial harangues (such as Wellesley economics professor Marcellus Andrews and Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr.).
Martin wasn’t done yet. Next he filed a lawsuit against Lefkowitz claiming that an article she had written slandered him. The article was about an incident in 1991 where Martin had verbally abused a female student. His suit alleged that the article contained erroneous material that had damaged him professionally. Naturally, Wellesley’s administration refused to defend Lefkowitz. She was able to find expert legal help, however, through the Anti-Defamation League. The case dragged on until 1999, when it was finally dismissed.
One of the hot topics in higher education these days is whether there is a significant problem of professors turning their classes into indoctrination camps. We often hear from defenders of the status quo that instances of this are mostly made up or exaggerated, and that in any event, American students are “critical thinkers” who are too bright accept any propaganda that might happen to make its way to their ears. History Lesson refutes both parts of that defense. Martin clearly meant to indoctrinate his students with historical falsehoods, and from the letters and comments of his students about the controversy, it’s evident that many of them had swallowed his line completely. To them, Lefkowitz was an enemy just as to Mao’s Red Brigades any intellectual was an enemy. If you’ve heard that American college students are impervious to propaganda because they can see right through it, this book demonstrates otherwise.
In a fascinating aside, Lefkowitz explains that she tracked down the origin of the “Stolen Legacy” myth. It comes from a novel published in France in 1731. The American writer George G. M. James based his ostensibly factual 1954 book Stolen Legacy on this work of fiction.
Sadly, it isn’t just in the area of Africana Studies that we encounter the double standards and anti-intellectualism on display throughout the book. Professors who question global warming, the benefits of “diversity,” and other articles of faith on the left risk intimidation or reprisals for saying what they believe to be true. American colleges and universities are far from being havens for objective, dispassionate inquiry.
History Lesson is an extremely important, gutsy book. I’m afraid, however, that the people who most need to read and reflect on it—college administrators—will avert their eyes.