The “Dirty Thirty’s” Peter McLaren Reflects on the Crisis of Academic Freedom

Peter McLaren
Peter McLaren
David Gabbard and Karen Anijar Appleton, “Fearless Speech in Fearful Times:
An Essay Review of Capitalists and Conquerors, Teaching against Global Capitalism and the New Imperialism, and Teaching Peter McLaren,”
MRZine, 30 October 2005

Peter McLaren is Professor of Education at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.  Since writing the teaching memoir Life in Schools (1988) and the ethnography Schooling as a Ritual Performance (1986), McLaren has gone on to author and edit approximately forty books and achieved international recognition as an associate of the adult educator Paulo Freire.  He is considered  one of the major architects of “critical pedagogy,” an educational movement grounded in a “philosophy of praxis” which hopes to fuse meaningful learning experiences with the attainment of radical social goals.  He is most recently the author of Capitalists and Conquerors (2005) and Red Seminars (2005) and Teaching against Global Capitalism and the New Imperialism (with Ramin Farahmandpur) (2005).  La Fundacion McLaren has been established by a group of Mexican scholars and activists to discuss McLaren’s work in critical pedagogy and educational activism.

McLaren’s most recent claim to fame, however, has little to do with his accomplishments.  He was recently placed at the #1 position on the “Dirty Thirty” list, the blacklist of progressive educators created by Andrew Jones, mastermind of the “Bruin Alumni Association,” a right-wing Potemkin-village organization set up to harass professors in various schools of thought.

The “Dirty Thirty” smear on Peter McLaren, which accuses McLaren of “cult-speak, plain and simple, the exact sort of thing Scientologists teach new members,” is mere ideological bluster, employing obfuscating vagueness since no comment of real substance can pin such notoriety on McLaren.  The story received international attention and was reported in major newspapers throughout the world as an example of a resurgent McCarthyism against scholars in the United States.  Against this sort of attack, McLaren associate Marc Pruyn claims: “McLaren is dedicated to a democratic, loving pedagogy that embraces (although not uncritically) all positions take by students in his seminars.”

Samuel Day Fassbinder: Could we start by discussing the agenda of the New Right with respect to higher education?  I’d like your understanding of the various forces at play.

Peter McLaren: Let’s start with events directly after 9/11.  Lynn Cheney, the wife of Vice-President Dick Cheney, was the former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities in father Bush’s administration and a fanatically driven opponent of critical thought on university campuses.  After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Lynn Cheney and her American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) provided a post-9/11 hit list of radical and liberal professors whose teaching and statements were described as tantamount to capitulating to barbarism and siding with the terrorists.  Since that time, the reactionary Right has fomented a war against critical thought in colleges and universities across the country.  Universities are one of the few spaces left in the public sphere where critical thought can be placed on offer to students.  The Right already holds a monopoly on the media, despite their protestations to the contrary.  The media act as a form of perpetual pedagogy, shaping the minds of our youth, and their images act like a visual, auditory, and tactile catechism, encouraging citizens to participate in affirming and reproducing the prevailing worldviews of the dominant culture, part of the process of what Chomsky calls “manufacturing consent.”  Neoconservatives are seeking to make their presence more strongly felt on university campuses.  Hence, what amount to ideological boot camps of the Republican ultra-Right have expanded throughout university campuses across the country, promoting a narrow and intellectually stifling agenda for the role of education and turning the public against the very idea of a critical education.

Recently, one such camp, a University of California, Los Angeles alumni group, the Bruin Alumni Association, headed by a former campus Republican leader, offered students payments of up to $100 per class to provide information on leftist professors who oppose the Bush administration and its illegal war in Iraq and who are “abusive, one-sided or off-topic” or who otherwise use the classroom to exercise their political ideologies.

The Bruin Alumni Association encourages current students to secretly audiotape their teachers and employs tactics reminiscent of the anti-Communist witch-hunt of the 1950s organized by Senator McCarthy, which targeted the entertainment industry and which used its House Committee on Un-American Activities to terrorize the political Left (fortunately this group has no such clout).  The Bruin Alumni Association website says: “Do you have a professor who just can’t stop talking about President Bush, about the war in Iraq, about the Republican Party, or any other ideological issue that has nothing to do with the class subject matter?  It doesn’t matter whether this is a past class, or your class for this coming winter quarter.  If you help . . . expose the professor, we’ll pay you for your work” (at  Later on, the BAA added the name of Howard Dean and to the above statement, to make it appear more “balanced” and removed their offer of cash payments.  Nevertheless, the BAA still encourages the spying efforts by the students in an effort to reclaim civilization from the academic barbarians who are turning generations of students against the United States.

Spying on or otherwise monitoring professors is an attempt to counter what right-wing zealots regard as an overwhelming leftist tilt at elite colleges and universities around the country.  The head of the Bruin Alumni Association, Andrew Jones, a young epigone of David Horowitz with delusions of one day becoming a Republican operative grandee, is frightened by the very idea of critical thought.  In his insane cravings for the public limelight, in which he appears to be auditioning to be the next wunderkind Karl Rove, he is navigating this parlous political time more with his ego than his political convictions.  Heaping calumnies on the academic Left at every opportunity while preening himself in the reflection of the camera lens, Jones’s self-important and self-aggrandizing antics were designed to propel himself to the commanding heights of public prominence usually reserved for the likes of veterans David Horowitz, Bill O’Reilly, or Rush Limbaugh.  I ask you: How can a man so young be so venal?  His offering of payment to college spies has brought him worldwide condemnation, and the charge of political overreach from some of his conservative allies.

Members of the advisory board of the Bruin Alumni Association include Linda Chavez, former federal civil rights commissioner in the Reagan administration and head of a Virginia-based anti-affirmative action group; and current UCLA professors Matt Malkan and Thomas Schwartz.

SDF: Who are the “dirty thirty” and how are you situated with respect to this right-wing initiative?

PM: The “dirty thirty” are a group of professors on the Left who teach at UCLA (we have named ourselves “In Good Company” in response to our being labeled the “dirty thirty”).

SDF:  You were named by the Bruin Alumni Association as number one on its “Dirty Thirty” list.  Labeling you “a monster” and “a friend to the gay community,” the BAA reported on its website that “this Canadian native teaches the next generation of teachers and professors how to properly indoctrinate students” (see

Justifying their targeting of leftist professors, the site claims: “Very simply, we’re facing an exploding crisis of political radicalism on campus.  It’s endangering the very core of UCLA — the undergraduate experience.  One aspect of this radicalization is an unholy alliance between anti-war professors, radical Muslim students, and a pliant administration.  Working together, they have made UCLA a major organizing center for opposition to the War on Terror” (at  When the story broke at the end of January, I understand reporters followed you all the way to Venezuela.

PM: Well, they contacted my hotel in Caracas and I did a few interviews over the phone.  Look, The Bruin Alumni Association is but one example that the United States has entered a dangerous period in its educational history, and while I consider being red-baited as “the worst” of the dirty thirty to be a relatively minor political affair, these actions speak to larger tendencies within the United States, tendencies that betray an uneasy affinity with authoritarian populism and fascism.

SDF: What is Congress’ role in supporting the right-wing initiative with respect to academia, and how does this dovetail with the current political climate of reactionary neoliberalism?

PM: As if it isn’t repugnant enough that the White House paid a prominent journalist to give favorable coverage to Bush’s No Child Left Behind program, and as if the recent establishment of the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board (a formal agreement between leading research universities and government security agencies) isn’t shameful enough, we have new right-wing initiatives on the table.  The passage of HR 3077 in the House in 2003, (which is one of seven bills that comprises the Higher Education Act Reauthorization), was designed to weed out teaching deemed anti-American and anti-Israeli and to bolster education that more closely accommodates national needs related to homeland security.  This bill, now called the International Studies in Higher Education Act (H.R. 509), and the momentum gathered by the “Academic Bill of Rights” advocated by right-wing fanatic David Horowitz is a testament to the growing reactionary ideology of the Right, whose tactics are reminiscent of the fascist anti-intellectual movement of 1930s Germany (see M. Junaid Alam, “A Snapshot of the Right Wing Tactics,” AlterNet, 30 January 2006).

Authored by Select Education Subcommittee Chairman Pat Tiberi, an Ohio Republican, the “International Studies in Higher Education Act” seeks to update international programs at colleges and universities that have taken on increased relevance in the post September 11-era.  This bill reauthorizes and extends Title VI programs that ensure that public funds are not used to support or further racial discrimination at educational institutions.  But a new twist has been added to the reauthorization process.  After a Congressional hearing on “International Programs in Higher Education and Questions about Bias” portrayed academic institutions, particularly area studies programs, as staging grounds for the fostering of anti-American propaganda, proponents of the bill proposed the creation of an advisory board that has the final word on curricula taught at Title VI institutions, on course materials assigned in class, and on the faculty who are hired in institutions that accept Title VI funding.

SDF: What precisely are Title VI programs?

PM: Historically, Title VI dates back to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.  If somebody receiving federal assistance is found to have discriminated and there is no way to bring about voluntary compliance, then the federal agency providing the assistance should either cut off funding or take the issue to the Department of Justice for appropriate legal action.  In this specific context, Title VI refers to Title VI of the 1965 Higher Education Act.  This particular act provides substantial funding for area studies centers and university programs throughout the United States.  Title VI provides support for key college and university programs that seek to advance knowledge of world regions, that motivate students to study foreign languages, and that educate U.S. citizens in areas related to national security.  Title VI empowers the government to fund selected international studies and foreign language centers at various universities throughout the country.  Its grants offer sums of money up to $500,000 that are earmarked for training individuals in the area of national security and government service.  Title VI grants are also supposed to be used to educate the public on international affairs.  The various domains of  teaching, study, and research in modern languages, area studies, and international studies are all affected by Title VI funding, and this includes programs such as Fulbright and FLAS (see also The legislation currently on the table seeks to update the fundings and purposes of Title VI in ways that purportedly deepen and extend international education.  It also promotes the idea of using centers and programs as resources for courses and materials for elementary and secondary education, bringing international education into a variety of venues that cut across all age groups of students.

SDF: Now, what about this advisory board?  What makes it dangerous?

PM:The seven-member advisory board has the power to recommend cutting federal funding for colleges and universities that are viewed as supporting academics that are critical of United States foreign policy.  The advisory board is set up to increase accountability by making recommendations to the Secretary of Education and the Congress on issues affecting international issues and programs within higher education, to make certain that programs receiving Title VI funding encourage students to enter careers in government, including those related to national security, by requiring that recruiters from U.S. government agencies be given regular access to students.  Using the 1996 (amended in 2005) Solomon Amendment (that provides for the Secretary of Defense to deny federal funding to institutions of higher learning if they prohibit or prevent ROTC or military recruitment on campus) as a precedent, H.R. 509 also threatens to remove Title VI funding from any center that engages in or abets a boycott of national security scholarships.

With the ratification of this bill, the U.S. government will be given the power to ensure that classroom and course activities reflect diverse perspectives and the full range of views on world regions, foreign languages, and international affairs, and to decide whose views are legitimate and whose are not.  The danger here, of course, is the degree to which programs, centers, and fellowships at institutions of higher education will be evaluated according to how faithfully they serve the interests of the U.S. empire.  Funds will likely be used to advance the interests of the most conservative and reactionary programs.

This represents an assault on those principles of freedom of expression in open and public debates that we have fought so long and hard over the centuries to protect.

With the ratification of H.R. 509, all of these area studies and language programs will be subject to government oversight and censorship.  For instance, professors who take an open position against U.S. imperialism and the war in Iraq will likely not receive Title VI funding at all, especially when competing with course developers who refuse to contest the official line.  Any part of a course’s curriculum containing criticisms of U.S. foreign policy can be censored.  Courses that are seen as anti-American or critical of the hawks in Washington can be purged and prevented from ever being offered to students.  This inflicts severe damage on the already strained democratic polity.

SDF: Who is David Horowitz and what does he have to do with all of this?

PM: Horowitz is president of the right-wing Center for the Study of Popular Culture and founder of the online and self-proclaimed conservative “battering ram.”  He works in the service of reactionary right-wing agendas that are in support of the current Bush White House.  He is the major architect of the so-called “Academic Bill of Rights,” versions of which are being introduced by Republican politicians in legislatures in Ohio, Florida, Indiana, New York, Pennsylvania, and California, among other states, and which aim at purging universities of radical and progressive thought in the name of “academic freedom.”  Duty-bound to tear strips off the hides of liberals with all of the bluster of an evangelical preacher, this pompous, goatee-sporting ex-leftist with the permanent grimace, this self-ordained spokesperson for the good and the righteous who never tires of pandering to his fellow conservatives, can’t seem to manage to stem the tide of snake oil oozing from the corners of his lips.  Offering an ur-soup of cranky right-wing slogans, he can provide little evidence for his accusations of left-wing academic malfeasance except for a few anecdotal stories.  Most of his analyses of the left academy are just wild generalizations.  Vitriol and slander follow him wherever he goes, like a bad smell wafting down from the attic.

SDF: Where can I find a copy of this “Academic Bill of Rights”?

PM:You can download it from the internet at

SDF: You were not mentioned by Horowitz in his new book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America.  Why is that?

PM:  I don’t think Horowitz follows schools of education very carefully.  I think with just a few exceptions we are off his radar.  Yeah, I am kidded a lot by my friends about this.

SDF: What else is going on with this so-called “movement”?

PM: A network of Republican youth on some 200 campuses, called Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), have been actively promoted by Horowitz and these amount to little more than spy squads who procure information on leftist professors’ political agendas and demand their firing and who are also invited to appear at legislative hearings related to Horowitz’s academic bill of rights.

The Bruin Standard, the newspaper published by the UCLA chapter of the SAF, targets progressive faculty and calls on students to identify others.  The SAF Handbook included a section (“Focusing On Specific Professors and Departments”) on how to spy on progressive professors.

Over the last decade, Horowitz has received millions of dollars for the Center from the Bradley Foundation (which had early ties to the John Birch Society), Scaife Foundations, Castle Rock (Coors), and others.  This is serious funding.

While Horowitz and his ideological goon-squad student groups proclaim that they seek fairness and equal time for their views, including hiring conservative faculty, at the same time they oppose affirmative action for exploited minority groups.  They do not seem to notice the contradiction and hypocrisy of opposing the self-governance and autonomy of professors while at the same time fighting for a type of affirmative action so that right-wing Republicans can get positions as professors.  Well, perhaps they do see the contradiction but hope that the majority of the American public do not, hence their deceptive tactic of placing an ideological veil over their activities — something that can be seen in the very disingenuous name chosen for the bill itself.

The Academic Bill of Rights (which explicitly excludes private institutions) imposes a narrow, government-imposed political instrument with which to assess diversity on a university campus and introduces a measure of diversity (such as the notion that all opinions are equally valid) that would corrupt the integrity of the scholarly standards in the academic disciplines in question.  Not only does this bill make it impossible for professors to take a position on issues that divide researchers in their respective fields, it renders obsolete the very exercise of critical judgment.  It also strips the authority of the teacher by making decisions about pedagogy dependent upon the views of university administrations and the courts, a criticism also made by the American Association of University Professors (see

Horowitz views the teaching of leftist texts as the instilling of an “ideology” or “doctrine” and therefore he argues that wherever and whenever such texts are used in class, the curriculum must provide for texts that criticize that “ideology.”  Further, he would outlaw “exams which feature controversial questions with only one right answer” (see David Horowitz, “Defending ‘The Professors’,” 20 March 2006).  While Horowitz denies he wants quotas or an official imposition of ‘balanced’ ideological viewpoints, or wants faculty hired on the basis of their political beliefs, he strongly decries what he claims is an extraordinary imbalance of intellectual viewpoints at liberal arts universities.  He compares Marxists to flat-Earthists and says that the place for the teaching of Marxism on campus should be in the department of religion (see Horowitz, 20 March 2006).  He has said that Peace Studies courses are simply indoctrination and recruitment centers for the anti-military, anti-American Left and that if Peace Studies courses are allowed on public campuses, then a professor of military science must be hired on every Peace Studies faculty to explain “how the military keeps the peace” (see Horowitz, 20 March 2006).

Horowitz even favored the hiring of homophobic and racist radio show host Michael Savage as Dean of the School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley campus.  This is the same “journalist” (who does hold a Ph.D. in Health and Medical Science from the University of California, Berkeley) that MSNBC fired after he told a caller to “get AIDS and die”; Savage has “labeled the ACLU a ‘terrorist organization’, called GLBT pride marchers ‘the brownshirts of the modern era’ and claimed that ‘the gay and lesbian mafia wants your children’, called teenage kindnap/rape victims ‘sluts’, and said women should be denied the vote because ‘their hormones rage . . . they are too emotional’.”  He once described San Francisco Bay Area High School girls who were participating in a feed-the-homeless program as wanting to get raped behind a trash dumpster (Daniel Zoll, “Savage Family Values,” San Francisco Bay Guardian, 20 September 2006) and said that Korean neighbors might be cooking your dog on a BBQ (see the entry on Michael Savage at SourceWatch).  He has been documented (see as stating that for every one hard-working farmworker taking jobs Americans don’t want, there are “four or five” illegal immigrants “sitting in front of the television” on welfare, “popping out babies like tasty bread.”  Fortunately UC Berkeley hired Orville Schell, whom Horowitz compared to “a pig farmer who has written a couple of books” (see Horowitz, 20 March 2006) when, in fact, Schell is a recognized journalist, author of numerous books, and a distinguished China scholar who at the time of his hiring had received numerous awards and writing fellowships.  So much for Horowitz’s support for Savage as the Dean of the School of Journalism.

Horowitz also claims that appropriate discourse for a classroom is not a free speech issue but an issue of “professional standards” and while he would permit views representing the full political spectrum into the classroom, they must, he argues,  be expressed in the “appropriate” manner.

The common understanding of neutrality and nonindoctrination is altered by Horowitz in such a way that it actually functions as a form of indoctrination of right-wing views.  This is because views that contradict those on the right are considered biased, whereas right-wing positions are considered neutral and form the universal backdrop against which the definition of bias is constructed.  The jihad for ideological balance undertaken by Horowitz amounts to the kind of “balance” that Fox News brags about or that Senator Joe McCarthy sought.

What the Academic Bill of Rights is attempting to do is to give the already advantaged and over-privileged more power than the considerable power it already holds.  It also attempts to discredit, marginalize, and eventually purge critical left analysis from the precincts of the university, turning campuses into non-think tanks of the conservative and religious Right and discursive factories for the reproduction of neoliberal capitalist consensus.

SDF: What is the real danger you see in this initiative?

PM: Well, already Ohio and Colorado have enacted compromises in response to the Academic Bill of Rights, that is, they have agreed to adopt a version of the Academic Bill of Rights on their own, which means they want to avoid a legislative solution.  But this will just provoke Horowitz to use his storm troopers to ratchet up more public support for his initiatives.  If Congress incorporates the Academic Bill of Rights into the Higher Education Act Reauthorization, then this blow to academic freedom will reverberate around the world.  Given how the Academic Bill of Rights seeks to impede critical judgment and self-reflexivity, it is not hard to discern how these forces on the Right seek to create a society where their worldview prevails uncontested.  For them, to dissent against the reactionary ideologies of the far Right or to reveal the suppressed history of US imperialism, racism, war crimes, and capitalist democracy’s war against the poor constitutes a crime against civilization.

Samuel Day Fassbinder is an ecosocialist.  He is a founding member of Green Alliance.  He keeps a blog at <>.