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An Exchange on Sidney Hook

In response to:

Yes Men from the February 12, 1970 issue

To the Editors:

One of the constant malpractices of the Right has been the habit of taking a large and disparate collection of supposedly leftist attitudes and constructing out of them a composite and biologically improbable monstrosity. The purpose of this is plain—to achieve maximum guilt by widest associations those who oppose the Vietnam war are also violent, foul-mouthed, drug-taking Commies…

Whatever our views on the wide spectrum of attitudes which have become associated with the Left, it is surely the duty of thinking radicals to make distinctions; and it is just this that I think Professor Aiken failed to do in his powerful and eloquent attack on Professors Hook and Boorstin [NYR, Feb. 12, 1970]. He has accepted the monster whole, patted it on the head and set out to defend every hair of its hide. It may well be that he believes both that militant negroes are justified in their militancy and that students are justified in calling their professors “motherfuckers.” But by melting these dissimilar rights into each other he is guilty of just that failure of discrimination which Mr. Jason Epstein so signally avoids in his brilliant account of the Chicago Conspiracy Trial [NYR, Feb. 12, 1970].

The notion that all “libertarian” demands are indivisible, in the mystical cause of revolutionary opposition to the system, seems to me to be a dangerous mistake. “Student Power” is not a slogan of the same order as “Black Power,” and the right to excrete on a university principal’s desk has almost nothing in common with the right of young Americans not to kill or be killed in Vietnam. Surely a failure of discrimination here is likely to do a real disservice to the major causes.

Philip Toynbee

Brockweir near Chepstow

Monmouthshire

England

To the Editors:

Professor Aiken’s review of Sidney Hook’s Academic Freedom and Academic Anarchy (NYR, February 12) argues with Hook’s conception of what (and how) a university should be; he suggests that Hook goes astray in interpreting facts marshaled from the recent history of American universities, although not in his statement of the facts. This is a mistake in Hook’s favor. If the Appendix which Hook devotes to the University of Colorado is an indication, he has cut his facts to fit his theories, and not the other way round.

Item 1 (of commission): Professor Hook describes the interruption of an address by S. I. Hayakawa at Colorado as “one of the most violent and disgraceful riots in the history of American education.” This is a portrayal (which he uses as evidence for a general theory) of an incident in which, the interruption notwithstanding, (a) the speaker spoke; (b) nobody was injured; (c) material damage was approximately $1,800. The immediate issue here is not a justification of the disruption, or even Hook’s right to hyperbole; his account is a straight-forward misrepresentation of what occurred.

Item 2 (of omission): Hook contends that the action of the University’s Regents in disaffiliating the local chapter of SDS (the first time round), although “precipitous,” was at all events justified. Why does he choose a term like “precipitous” to describe the facts that (a) the question of affiliation had not appeared on the Regents’ agenda made public before their meeting; (b) the Regents in making the decision acted prior to (and as it turned out, contrary to) the recommendation of the student-faculty committee from which they had themselves requested an opinion; and (c) no other testimony—from faculty or disinterested students, let alone from members of the local SDS chapter—was considered? Regent Lynch’s arguments against the decision, about which Hook is so patronizing, noted the total absence of due process. Hook mentions that the disaffiliation of SDS succeeded only because of the absence of one Regent who was ill. Due process, it seems, is to be followed when one doesn’t have the votes to act without it.

These are only misrepresented facts of the matter (others might be cited); they do not even raise the question of Hook’s theorizing—for example, his exotic judgment that in a situation bordering on riot, university officials should have by force introduced television cameramen (whose presence would have been legally questionable) into a campus meeting; or that a Board of Regents, politically elected, should exercise a veto over the election of departmental chairmen, even where this means overriding a decision supported by a large majority of a department and by a university administration.

The issues, of course, are larger than the University of Colorado, although we here have had an unusual (and unwanted) opportunity of seeing some of Professor Hook’s ideas on the university put to work. In his summer visits to the University, where he warms the ghost of the Cold War at an Institute which seems to have no other purpose, Hook has aligned himself with a group of men and a current of opinion which would willingly bring the University to the end of the Lehr- and Lernfreiheit which he piously extolls. So far as Colorado is concerned, he (and they) are much more immediately a danger than the SDS in its wildest dreams hoped to be. Professor Hook is nobody’s fool, of course—but this doesn’t mean that he knows what he’s doing.

Berel Lang

Chairman

Department of Philosophy

University of Colorado

Boulder, Colorado

To the Editors:

Despite his lively and perceptive criticism of Sidney Hook [NYR, Feb. 12, 1970], your reviewer, Henry Aiken, has missed an obvious but important point: that in the current political context, he is closer to Sidney Hook than to the campus radicals whom he praises. For, even more basic than the question of the soundness of Mr. Aiken’s proposals for the revitalization of the university is the question of how these proposals are to be adopted. Would Mr. Aiken want his program to be adopted by debate in the journals and in public meetings? Or would he want his program to be adopted by a forcible seizure of faculty councils?

Surely be the act of writing a review, as well as by teaching at an established university, Mr. Aiken seems to imply that any program must be decided by rational discussion and democratic procedures, and that neither Sidney Hook nor anyone else should be prevented from writing a book or speaking in public. By holding this belief and acting on it, Mr. Aiken has divorced himself from a small but important segment of campus radicals who believe that they possess The Truth and that they have the right to impose their views by force.

The point may be obvious; and that Mr. Aiken shares with Mr. Hook a basic set of assumptions about rational discourse and freedom of speech does not negate the specific criticism of Mr. Hook’s views. I, too, would criticize Sidney Hook in much the same way as Mr. Aiken. But I recognize that my freedom to advocate change in the university depends on these basic assumptions, and that some of the extremists on the left) as well as the right) would take away this freedom. Would Mr. Aiken deny that Sidney Hook and his followers would protect his freedom to teach and to write and that the campus followers of Castro and Mao would not?

Mr. Aiken can coexist with Sidney Hook even while engaging in sharp debate. Is it not important, in the context of his article, to admit this fact, as well as the fact that he could not exist as a philosopher if the extremist groups took over the colleges?

Lawrence W. Hyman

Brooklyn College

City University of New York

Henry Aiken replies:

Mr. Toynbee rightly contends that thinking radicals have a duty to make distinctions. To this I should add only that it is every thinking person’s duty to do so. He then goes on to say that I have “accepted the monster [of contemporary leftist attitudes] whole, patted it on the head and set out to defend every hair of its hide.” Oddly enough, I thought that one of the burdens of my review was to show that Boorstin and Hook had created some such monster and then rejected it. But monsters beget monsters. So let us see whether, to change the figure, I have unwittingly fallen into my own trap. Already in my discussion of Boorstin’s book I tell how young professors of jurisprudence have shown us how “our grand old constitutional and common law” can still be used as powerful vehicles of justice and common good. And of course I still say it, despite Judge Hoffman’s infamous decision and the anxieties I share with many others at the prospect of Judge Carswell’s elevation to the Supreme Court. Two days of cold do not make a winter. This attitude is not shared, alas, by certain other radicals on the left. In discussing Hook’s book I was quite explicit in stating that I too want liberal democracy to survive in America, though my notions of the conditions of its survival differ profoundly from Hook’s. Again, many radicals for whom the very word “liberal” is now a term of abuse would certainly not say that. I also stated that I do not approve of book-burners, anti-intellectuals (whether off or on the campus), and devotees of the rhetoric of Marcuse who are indifferent to civil rights and the entire system of constitutional government and law in America. The list could have been extended, but something, I felt, could be left to the reader’s imagination. Anyway, there are new-leftists who undoubtedly diverge from the attitudes which these examples reflect. And I say many other things that reemphasize the fact that I was not creating a leftist monster of my own which I then uncritically accepted in toto.

But the matter cannot be left there, for the question is not only what I said but also what is true in regard to the great issues discussed, however inadequately, in my review. Of course Mr. Toynbee is right in holding that it is a mistake to regard all “libertarian” demands as indivisible, in the “mystical cause of revolutionary opposition.” He is also correct when he says that the slogans “student power” and “black power” are not of the same order. And I know that many student radicals, white as well as black, would also agree that this is so. It was not I who conflated these slogans but, again, Boorstin and Hook.

All the same, I should argue that the slogan “student power” represents something of far greater consequence than Mr. Toynbee appears to believe. Indeed his example of the “right to excrete on a university principal’s [sic] desk” suggests that he knows little about the “order” of magnitude of the “student power” movement. What this slogan represents, among other things, is the radical—I should say simply “reflective”—students’ deep sense (which I share) that existing university hierarchies are obsolete, that they perpetuate many pernicious educational practices, serve to divide members of the academic non-community in ways that are both counter-educational and inhuman, and hence that they are, in considerable part, responsible for existing campus conflicts both in this country and elsewhere. “Student power” in short represents a demand for an end to repressive structures throughout the university which tend to alienate all academic classes in the university from one another, thus making communication, and hence mutual education, next to impossible. Students believe that they have to represent attitudes which their teachers, not to mention administrators and trustees, ought to know about and share. They believe that they have much to teach their elders about the meaning of what I should call liberal education in our time. And they rightly believe that such an education in depth is of vital importance, not only for academicians on all levels, but also for our whole confused and moldering society.

But the issue goes still deeper. For many of the remediable evils which concern student radicals do profoundly overlap those which outrage the blacks: the draft, the spreading war in Southeast Asia, the continuing inability of blacks, as well as other impoverished people in our country, to obtain forms of higher education commensurate with their gifts and needs. It does not follow, as Mr. Toynbee seems to think, from the fact that one recognizes distinctions that one cannot go on to relate the things distinguished.

Professor Lang’s instructive letter provides, by a fascinating irony, an excellent basis for my reply to Professor Hyman. For Hook’s methods of attack are, despite his talk about the imperatives of rational discourse, at least as irrational, tendentious, and incitive as those of (some of) the people he condemns. Professor Lang in short enables me all the better to see why I am not closer to Hook than I am to many campus radicals. True, the campus followers of Castro and Mao probably would not protect my freedom to teach and to write if they had their way. But if it comes to that I am less confident that Mr. Hyman or that Sidney Hook and his followers would bend over backward to ensure such freedom to teach and write as I now possess. The record does not seem to me all that clear. “Protect” is a strong word! Let me put the matter in this way: I would, and always have tried, to protect the right of Communists to teach and to write, even though I profoundly disagree with them. And the same goes for followers of Castro and Mao. Would Hook and his followers do the same? This question would have to be answered before I would be able to agree that Hook and I share the same “basic set of assumptions about rational discourse and freedom of speech” not only off the campus, but also on it.

The freedom to advocate change has little meaning in reality unless one can gain a hearing for the changes one advocates and unless those to whom one’s views are addressed are both willing and able to consider them thoughtfully and in depth. To my knowledge (and sorrow) many responsible and reasonable advocates of change on the campus (as well as off it) have a very hard time getting a hearing; they have a still harder time getting a hearing which is thoughtful and deep. None of us has a “right” to impose his views by force in ordinary circumstances. But circumstances are not always ordinary. Sometimes, as everyone knows, it may be necessary to use force simply in order to gain a hearing. Some university authorities, I am prepared to believe, have in effect resorted to force in order to gain a hearing. And in the face of mob violence they are right in doing so. But violence is a two-way street, as many broken-headed and broken-hearted students and faculty members have come to see. Have trustees and administrators the right to impose their views by force? When Professor Hyman has answered this question, we may continue our colloquy.

The issue cannot be avoided: Who shall set the ground rules for rational debate? Hitherto it has been the trustees, the administrators, and their faculty representatives. Now these rules are changing. Who has changed them? The intransigent students (not all of them Maoists and Castroites by any means) and their friends on the faculty and (occasionally) in the administration. Now, to some extent, it is becoming possible for the first time to make those who have hitherto held effectual power within the university face academic realities to which they have been systematically blind.

The reason why I have argued again and again for the principles of rotation and reversals of role within the university, from top to bottom and from bottom to top, is precisely in order to make it possible without force for meaningful discussions to take place between all academic classes. I should also apply the same principles more widely, in industry, in government, above all in the military where rigid hierarchies make discourse between the classes largely meaningless. There can be no true discourse between those who are fundamentally unequal and who therefore can find no basis for a meeting of minds.

As for Professor Lang’s letter, I find his account of the facts at the University of Colorado, to which he refers, including Professor Hook’s own role there, entirely plausible. Let me add only that I was careful to point out that in Hook’s “case studies,” although many facts are cited many other available and relevant facts are not cited, and that his highly colored interpretations of those he does mention do not enable us to reach responsible conclusions about the events in question. I did not mean to vouch for all the “facts” he mentions. If I appeared to do so, then I am very sorry.

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