It's been months since NYU Press kindly sent me a copy of Priests of our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge, the more-important-than-she-really-lets-on but not-quite-so-good-as-it-should-be new book by Marjorie Heins. I haven't reviewed the book until now because, well, because I couldn't quite put my finger on exactly why either of those things is true.
I think I've got it now, though, and with it comes the understanding of why I was having trouble. There aren't two issues here. They're really one.
Heins takes her title from Felix Frankfurter's concurring opinion in Weiman v. Updegraff, a 1952 case in which the Supreme Court addressed a loyalty oath that public employees in Oklahoma were required to take as a condition of their jobs. As it came to the Court, the folks who were challenging the oath were faculty and staff of Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College. The court found the loyalty oath unconstitutional, but on narrow, technical grounds of due process rather than on the broad grounds that might have dealt a death blow to such silly and offensive demands of declared patriotism.
Frankfurter, the former law professor, offered an encomium to the academy and those who toil within it.
To regard teachers—in our entire educational system, from the primary grades to the university—as the priests of our democracy is therefore not to indulge in hyperbole. It is the special task of teachers to foster those habits of open-mindedness and critical inquiry which alone make for responsible citizens.It's powerful language, a potent idea, and Heins buys it completely.
I'm a shade less convinced than she that it's right. More precisely, I'm not convinced that the second sentence is right. Teachers are, I'm comfortable saying, invaluable. (Disclosure, again since this is stuff I've said before: My first career was English professor; my wife is a professor and a Dean; both my children are in PhD programs - one in the humanities, one in the social sciences; I believe deeply in the academic enterprise.) But I'm not at all sure that they have any special responsibility to make "responsible citizens" of a particular (open-minded and critically thinking) ilk (or any other ilk, for that matter).
It is their job, rather, and their duty, to educate. If they do their job properly and well, students will secure some skills (e.g., basic computation; writing coherent sentences), attain some information (e.g., there was this thing commonly called the Civil War; the earth moves around the sun), they will have learned how to consider and evaluate and parse. But inculcating the habit of using those skills and that knowledge and that ability? Becoming open rather than closed-minded? Frankfurter may have thought those desirable goals. Marjorie Heins, I think, does. Frankly, I'd like it if more people were open-minded and actually thought critically and wrote coherently. But I don't think the schools are there to push that.
The job of teachers (my god, I'm sounding a bit like Stanley Fish here) is to educate, to develop capabilities and capacities. It's not to get students to use them in particular ways (beyond the disciplinary requirements of their coursework). That's indoctrination, not education.
In some ways, that's largely beside the point here, since Priests of Our Democracy doesn't argue that teachers should be indoctrinating. Yet it's also exactly to the point since the thrust of most of the book is that "academic freedom" as a concept and a recognized value developed in large part to protect teachers from charges that they were indoctrinating. And those charges led to witch hunts.
We often refer to it as McCarthyism, though Heins regularly points out that his particular witch hunts weren't the ones she's mostly writing about.
And that's a piece of the problem. Her topic is bigger than her focus, which fuzzes things up. There's all this discussion of the history of red-hunting in the New York City public schools and universities. Heins spends a lot of time rehearsing the players - administrators, investigators, inquisitors, those who rolled on their colleagues and those who did not - and who did what to whom and when and how enthusiastically.
There were the folks who were purged because it was said that they were once members of the communist party. And perhaps they were. And the courts, when the cases got to the courts, generally acquiesced in those purges because commies teaching our children arithmetic will necessarily teach Stalin and urge revolution against the Good Ol' US of A along the way. And god help us if we let a commie teach history.
But then there were the loyalty oaths and the folks who were purged because they wouldn't make public declarations of patriotism. And the courts sometimes struck those down because this or that oath was just too damn confused.
And along with this there was the development of this idea of academic freedom which said that teachers had a right to think what they liked and should only be judged by how they actually performed their jobs - not what they might have believed on the side. And the courts didn't buy into that, because there was this rights/privileges distinction the Supremes developed (you have the right to think and say what you want, but it's a privilege to get to actually hold a job or get to eat dinner and while you can certainly say terrible things, you can damn well be fired and blacklisted for them.
All of this is important. Heins knows it. She's not just telling a story, after all. She's making a point:
Teachers are, indeed, the high priests of democracy, and they must be allowed to teach without fear and to speak and think without fear or they won't get to set the examples of fearless and independent thought (which is to be open-minded and critical, you'll recall) and inculcate those behavioral models in their students. Teachers, that is, must not be presumed to indoctrinate in bad ways and must not be purged for indoctrinating since what we really want them to do is to indoctrinate in good ways.
But it's less than absolutely clear just what that has to do with loyalty oaths except that they were pursued with a vengeance as part of our anti-communist hysteria and were back in, for instance, Ohio, as part of our anti-Al Qaida hysteria. Heins notes Ohio for that, mentioning that there was only one legal challenge to its statutory post-9/11 loyalty oath for state employees or folks doing business with the state, and that challenge was resolved in favor of the challenger but without an actual ruling on the merits of the oath. (More disclosures - Heins called me at one time to ask what was going on in Ohio with its oath, and I was counsel for the guy challenging the oath in that case.)
But it's too much. Heins switches back and forth. She delves too deeply here, reporting in painstaking detail just what happened at this interrogation and just how fine a teacher this person was. Then she flits through 35 years and drops briefly into some other possible purge only to head back to from where she came.
The thing is that she wants, really to be writing about Academic Freedom and she wants to write about anti-communist hysteria and what it wrought and she wants to write about how the Supremes likes the idea of liking the First Amendment a whole lot more than they like the actual amendment which leads to messy things like protests on the steps of the court and high school students with a sign proclaiming
Bong Hits 4 JesusBut see, if you spend 230 pages (I'm making up these numbers) on how all of this worked and developed through 1970 or so, and then 30 pages on how it's coming around again - albeit less horrifically and with Islamic fundamentalists rather than communists as they bogymen -- well, if you do that, it isn't exactly even and the latter part, which is really about how all this still resonates today and don't think it doesn't because it absolutely does, gets short shrift.
Which is OK. Because she gets to write the book she wants, which is more about times before than the times now, but she tosses in just enough of the times now to leave the reader unclear about just where we are. And what might happen next.
There is, of course, a bottom line.
Priests of Our Democracy is a really good book. Heins does a terrific job of telling her story. And it's an important story of what is ultimately irrational fear and anti-semitism and mob rule (though the mob that was ruling was elected and high appointed officials. It would be counterfactual history (what if the Nazis had won) except that it isn't actually counterfactual. And it's a solid reminder that the courts can do good or ill and that the seeds of victory can be sown in defeat, but that victory can be snatched away, too. (And, as an aside, victory for one perspective is loss for another - a point Heins doesn't actually make, but one that's worth remembering.)
But Priests of Our Democracy should be better. Heins knows, and actually understands, that these struggles are ongoing, that we face the same issues - albeit in slightly different form and with generally fewer outright purges - today. But her failure fully to develop that - to show how we moved from where we were to where we are, and how it's not really very far and looks a whole lot more like those days than we really want to accept - that's a real weakness.
The book should resonate. It's not like Heins is dispassionate, has no point of view. She does, indeed have one. Had she pushed a bit, she'd have given us not just an academic tome (and really, although published by NYU press, it's not really a dry academic tome) but something of a clarion call. You can tell she wants to do that. Sadly, on that score she falls a bit short.