Letter to the Editor: The Professor Watchlist

Letter to the Editor: The Professor Watchlist

By Chris Dietrich

One of the seemingly minor outcomes of the 2016 election has been the creation of the Professor Watchlist, a website that claims to “expose” college professors who “advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”

In a period in which documented hate crimes are on the rise and in which social media death threats are ever more common, this is more than just a polarizing action.  It is important not to stretch historical analogies too far.  But this type of cruel venture is reminiscent of McCarthyism and its philistine going-over and punishment of academic work not for its content but for what was then described as its “political fitness.”

Certainly our world is different from the late 1950s.  We are not recovering from total war and the destructiveness of atomic power is often an afterthought.  History does not repeat itself, but it does echo.  If the Professor Watchlist seems a dim echo of McCarthyism, it is a disgraceful and malicious one.  Attempts to censor through fear have no place in our society.  Those who wish to do so have as much right to intimidate scholars as an adder has to be at the altar of a chapel.

The historians I know who are on this list are hardly radical.  (And if they were, it would be their right.)  Rather, they do what historians do.  They sift through evidence and try to understand how people have lived, loved, and believed.  They have done no more than reaffirm the most important value of our scholarship and teaching: the pursuit of knowledge based on free and independent discussion.  

To argue otherwise is also to argue that students cannot make their own choices in the marketplace of ideas.  If this trend becomes more acute, the United States will look even more like the sort of society to which it wishes be juxtaposed.


Chris Dietrich

Assistant Professor, Department of History