Liberal academics (part 2)


Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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72 Responses

  1. Avatar ThatPirateGuy says:


    When the barbarians are invading your village and trying to set everything on fire it is hard to resist the draft.Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    In the REST department, I had one professor who spoke and read Greek, German, and Hebrew who was a devoted Christian and taught theology and history with neither animus against the Evangelical Christians nor the Superatheists in the classroom… and another professor who spoke/read but English and assigned us nothing but John Crossan.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      That’s pretty interesting. I’m still trying to decide what to learn from that example.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        I don’t know. It’s more likely to be anecdote than data.

        At the time, I sort of assumed that everybody in the academy would be hostile to Christianity and my problem with that would be that they were hostile in such ways that would be ineffective against the Looming Leviathan of our coming Christian Overlords who would impose a Handmaiden’s Tale lifestyle upon us all.

        I was at a point in my life where being wrong was still surprising to me.Report

  3. This is, in my opinion, generally unprofessional because usually the class topic really doesn’t relate to your thoughts on Bush, and because it can give the impression, which might be unfair, that you could give bad grades to students with differing opinions, as you are, after all, in a position of authority. Also academics might have a certain status as “learned people” that could give more credence to your opinion that “Sarah Palin is like really stupid” than is deserved.

    I’d also add that an instructor has a “bully pulpit” and can control–open or close off–debate and discussion, which might prove frustrating for some students who hold contrary views.

    For a long time, when I was a TA, I used to believe that it was my privilege and duty to “challenge young minds” and that this meant occasionally voicing my (then, usually left of center) opinions occasionally. I’ve since then, especially when I adjuncted a couple years ago, tried to be one of the group #4 types you describe.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      There is a way doing the Socratic method where you raise interesting questions for all political viewpoints and sort of gently challenge all of the students. It’s very hard though because they do tend to be so insecure at that age and can take it very personally. I try to encourage them to see why people would have differing viewpoints (which is a big part of reading in the humanities anyway) more than I challenge their own viewpoints. But, you know, I’m not an expert and, I don’t know how it was for you, but teaching was not something that came naturally for me, but does get easier each year.Report

      • Teaching certainly didn’t come naturally to me, and after my year of adjuncting (I’m still a grad student), I snagged a Graduate Assistantship.

        I should say that I’m not particularly good at using the Socratic method, although I think I am better at lecturing and eliciting discussions during the lecture.

        I like the idea of seeing the humanities as teaching students to understand why people have different viewpoints. If I ever teach again, I might try to incorporate some sort of exercise into the lectures and discussions.Report

  4. When I think ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ in academia I think of problems beyond mere political affiliations and the unprofessional drift of those affiliations into the classroom. What I think of is how liberalism differs from conservatism in the way we interpret events. In my experience a conservative professor was more apt to look for the simplest answers when asking us to interpret our research findings. This carries over into field work.

    A classic example is when I was doing field work at a plantation here in Kentucky shortly after graduating. We found two pieces of flatware at the site of a former slave cabin. Both were marked with an X. Myself and one conservative colleague believed that the simplest answer was that the flatware was a hand-me-down from the owners and the X was used to denote that it had been given to the slaves. My liberal colleagues spent a lot of time discussing African religious traditions and claiming that a cross or X was a powerful symbol in African culture and it had been passed down to these slaves through oral tradition.

    When it comes to archaeology I always believed in Occam’s Razor and I kept my interpretations conservative in my reports. My experience was that my more liberal colleagues were more prone to speculation and more prone to thin linkages between findings and interpretation. Simply put, they were over-thinking things.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      That’s a pretty fascinating obersvation. I work in history, so I definitely know the sort of thought processes you’re talking about, but I’ve never associated it with politics. I’m not even sure how it would square up, although I suppose I’d be more in the simple explanation camp.Report

      • Well I was a double-major and history was my other field of study and i saw the same thing there. Often it manifested itself in areas of concentration. The conservatives like military history or medieval Europe or even traditional US history. The liberals tended to like Asian or African or South American studies. Granted, these are generalizations but I think they hold up to at least a moderate level of scrutiny.

        I will even go so far as to note that my conservative professors had very tidy offices while my liberal professors seemed to pride themselves on how messy their offices were.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. says:

          I don’t like to write LOL, but you can imagine that I am laughing out loud at much of this. On the other hand, I teach military history, so there you go. I will say that all of the conservative professors we’ve had in our department have worn bow ties. So maybe they dressed more neatly too. I’m still the only one with a fedora. Finally, an exception to this would be a professor we have who is fairly left-leaning (more libertarian left though) with a ridiculously well-organized office. Of course, he’s German and they’re known for having all the pencils on their desk perfectly lined up.Report

          • Yeah – you certainly can’t use a German professors as part of your control group. Or Canadians.

            I remember making the messy office observation about 5 years ago. At that time I had been away from academia for several years and had been working for a very conservative Fortune 500 company. Because I wanted to get back into the history field I started working weekends at a historic site. The manager of the site was pretty liberal and her office was a complete disaster. This was in stark contrast to the offices at my day job there were nearly at military levels of organization. Then it all clicked and i started reflecting back on my professors and it held up.

            I’ve also found that with liberal academics every decision seems to be made by committee. I always loved conservative crew leaders in the field because they were decisive.Report

            • Avatar Rufus F. says:

              Ah, now I’m starting to bridle a bit because I’m really falling squarely in your conservative side of the column here: I’m the one who’s reorganiznig the grad student office, teaches the military history course, tries to make all decisions on my own, and prefers the more straightforward sort of historical explanations. So, clearly, I need to buy a bow tie.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley says:

              At my college, the two messiest offices belong to an extremely left wing (group 1) sociologist and a moderate-right (group 3) economist.

              Go figure.Report

  5. Avatar Pinky says:

    You don’t have to worry about charging into the breach if you’re fighting straw men. After all, Professor Guevara is apocryphal, and you’ve only run across one example of category 2 and he was harmless anyway, and if students complain they’re probably whiny conservatives, and if critics complain they’re probably trying to sell books. And you didn’t address my comment from part 1, that the material may be biased.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      And you just ignored about half the post.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        I mean, Jesus, what an uncharitable reading that is! What I wrote is that Group 1 is unprofessional behavior that should be dealt with administratively, Group 2 is unprofessional behavior that those of us who are in the profession should recognize as such and not do, Group 3 is unprofessional behavior that we should avoid as much as possible, while recognizing that nobody’s going to be perfect, and Group 4 is probably the largest group and likely harmless in the classroom; however because there are so many people in the profession of the same viewpoint, it probably leads to a consensus effect in which the discourse is biased and that problem needs to be addressed, even if it doesn’t lead to a hostile environment. And you read all of that as me bashing conservatives.Report

        • Avatar Trumwill says:

          I mean, Jesus,

          There you go, proving your rightwingery through religiosity!

          More seriously, you know that saying “What you are speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say?” There’s a sort of inverse of that, “What I’ve decided you are dictates what I’ve decided you’re saying.”Report

        • Avatar Pinky says:

          I reread your article, and I still really think I read it correctly. I “ignored about half your post” in that I only mentioned a small portion of your dismissals of both the idea of bias and those who claim to see it. If I was a bit too rough on you, it’s because the first article got my hopes up.Report

          • Avatar Rufus F. says:

            Dude, I’m explaining this one more time- by “consensus effect”, I mean bias. By “Matters of some debate- such as whether or not gender is socially-constructed or if there is man-made climate change, start seeming like settled facts within the group. This is not only pernicious; it’s intellectually stultifying.” I mean what that says.

            You wanted me to agree with you that there are these rigidly enforced rules of the road that I’ve never even heard of in this profession that I work in and you don’t. You said your comment was poetic- it was also almost total crap. One does not accept the Enlightenment. One does not study musicians before the 20th century unless they were gay. Oh please! Five minutes on J-Stor or with the local college’s course catalog could disprove nearly everything you wrote there.

            So, I tried to find a nice way of saying, yeah, that’s not really what it’s like, but here’s where bias does originate and here’s why it’s a problem. There are no rigidly enforced ‘postmodernist’ rules that I know of, but having a majority with the same viewpoint leads to a softer sort of consensus effect. People do tend to write the same things and have the same underlying assumptions; that is intellectually stultifying. That wasn’t what you wanted to hear, so you’re dissatisfied. What can I say? Go into the profession and find out for yourself what it’s like.Report

  6. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    “Sarah Palin is like really stupid”

    I believe that should read “Sarah Palin is also, too really stupid”.Report

  7. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    I see a great many workplaces. I get to hang out with everyone from management to middle management to coders in their cubes to mechanics to factory workers, in various venues. I wouldn’t dream of dragging my politics into work, but I get an earful of the local politics. Especially overseas, I’m questioned about American politics. Since 9/11, I get more than questions, to put it mildly.

    How different is academia than the workplace? Perhaps I should rephrase it – than the high-tech workplace? Not much, I’d argue, but I can point to cognitive dissonance everywhere. In Louisiana, I hear rants about Obama forcing the drilling industry to recertify the offshore rigs but in the hotel restaurant, the same people bemoan the lack of fresh oysters because of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. In Arizona, I hear rants about Obama failing to enforce the national borders from the management of a company which is doing land office business selling the microwave perimeter security system set up around Air Force One and every federal prison, yes, and the US border too.

    Perhaps, and this is just a guess, academia doesn’t offer the possibility of such cognitive dissonances. Within academia, there’s the luxury of adopting some fashionable political position, completely divorced from reality.

    Henry Kissinger observed academic quarrels were so vicious precisely because the stakes were so small.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      Well, there’s a bit of that insulation from political realities going on, sure. But the flipside is that a lot of academic positions now are… well, exploitive is actually the nicest word for it. Adjuncts are treated pretty terribly and people like McArdle have suggested that this experience gives academics a terribly skewed view of capitalism and American labor practices. I’ve noticed that “corporate” is often used as an epithet by people other than myself.

      I’m not really fond of discussing politics at work either. I do understand, though, that people do discuss these things around the water cooler. That was part of what I meant by uniformity of the discourse. When you have a department where the majority of people are liberal, it probably gets awkward around the water cooler for the conservatives. On the other hand, I’ve been able to avoid discussing politics with the people in my department for seven years now, so I think it’s probably more that conservatives get lonely.Report

  8. Avatar Trumwill says:

    I think that you really nail the different types. You touch on this, but it’s important to emphasize how the earlier groups reinforce the later groups. It leads people to clump those who make offhand comments with those trying to dominate the students’ way of thinking.

    However, my views on all of this are complicated by the fact that I don’t think it’s an altogether bad thing for politics to infuse lecturing. I remember my early humanities courses and being fascinated with the (generally quite lefty) perspectives being mixed in with historical readings. Coming from staid public schools, it was really beyond interesting.

    It was a problem, though, when it ceased being new. When I wanted to say “I GET IT!” when so much became tied into how terrible the right wing in the United States is (and I think started attributing more innocuous comments as being more of a “lecture” than they were) and to a lesser extent how backwards (in the sense of it being rightwing) my country is. This is where I think the lack of balance is problematic. This is where I think more ideological diversity would be better. Not to the point that I would create an affirmative action program, but enough so that I would lament the current state of affairs.

    On a sidenote, my college was not remarkably liberal. Particularly the political science department, which had a couple of actual conservatives there. Even though more poli sci profs were liberal than not, I don’t mind as much because there was some offset. Oddly, the technology and business courses were some of the worst. They could throw offhanded comment after offhanded comment without ever actually investigating the issues involved. I didn’t feel like I was being indoctrinated or anything, but you sort of feel the need to respond and can’t because it’s “off-topic”.

    I think as far as that goes, it would probably be rather helpful to have some good examples that lean in the direction you’re less likely to lean. If discussing propaganda, I don’t think it would hurt all that much to have an example of Democrats doing it in addition to an example of Republicans. Even if you are inclined to believe that the Republicans are so, so much worse, you’re probably less likely to keep the attention of those that otherwise feel like they’re being targeted.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      Some of the topics I teach are unavoidably political. When I teach something like the French Revolution, I try to get them to understand why someone would have been a liberal, a radical, a conservative, a reactionary, a monarchist, etc. at that time, and why they disagreed so strongly with each other. The problem with this approach is that there’s still going to be a few students who will think my message was, “become a liberal”.Report

      • Avatar Trumwill says:

        In part because a lot of people are unreasonable, in part because they’re defensive because of the actions of other professors, and in part because they are taught to be defensive because of the (maybe real, maybe not) reported actions of some professor that they’ve never met, I think that kind of response is, unfortunately, unavoidable.

        I suspect that you would have done alright by me. I hit my most conservative my last two years of college (before reality started dragging me back from it), but I was always appreciative of professors that would at least make an effort to present the viewpoints of all parties involved.

        Incidentally, I actually watched the Khan Academy’s thing on the French Revolution a while back. It was really interesting.Report

  9. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    “This is not only pernicious; it’s intellectually stultifying. And, even if this doesn’t produce rigid social norms (and the critics don’t seem to understand that it generally doesn’t), it can lead to a certain amount of blandness and unoriginality in the discourse. Consensus is quite often boring. And, if your opinions are outside of that discourse, you could find the environment quite lonely, even if it isn’t particularly hostile.”

    I agree with the general point that you want to foster debate and have a thriving market place of ideas. On the other hand there are always going to be fringe ideas that just can’t be tolerated. That doesn’t mean they have to be censored, but that doesn’t mean they have to be tolerantly embraced either.

    All issues are different as well. Abortion has two thriving sides. Other issues do not, like perhaps, slavery. Would anyone consider it a worthwhile time to argue over the pros/cons, rights/wrongs, of slavery for more than a couple moments? Should faculty embrace a journal article arguing the merits of human ownership? At some point, certain views don’t just become fringe, but fall off the cliff into an abyss of unacceptable dialogue. So going with that example, if you want to advocate slavery, you have a right to voice your opinion, but don’t expect not to be laughed out of the room.

    That said, I’m not comparing the conservative view to advocacy of slavery. Lower taxes, less regulation, anti-abortion, anti-union, pro-market, are all strong positions to be charitably interacted with. But where is the line of what should be debated and what should be ignored?

    If someone wants to argue that women should stay in the home, how seriously should we treat them? How tolerant and patient should we be? If someone asserts that women are weaker/inferior to men, how much time should we spend rebuffing them?

    I think that boundary, between the acceptable debates, the fringe debates, and the unacceptable debates is what is at issue in the university. And depending on where you are politically, you’ll most likely have a different view as to where the boundary is located. So at the end of the day, how do we decided what arguments/opinions one is obligated to respectfully tolerate and interact with?Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      I think this is a very important point and one of the reasons I’d like to see more conservatives in academia is to hash out these questions. When you have more conservatives in think tanks than universities, you end up with more rigid positions on both sides. I think some academics do forget sometimes that, “Lower taxes, less regulation, anti-abortion, anti-union, pro-market, are all strong positions to be charitably interacted with”. Conversely, I’ve heard people here talk about “epistemic closure” in political discourse quite frequently.Report

    • Avatar Pooh says:

      Further, to the extent that a worldview is simply antithetical to an academic discipline, how can we really expect “representation”. The obvious example is the degree to which religiosity and faith-based reasoning is simply incompatible to the scientific method. But I would also expect it to be pretty difficult for an extreme hard leftist to exist in an economics department simply because they can’t or won’t speak the language required by the discipline.Report

      • Avatar Will H. says:

        I remember going to see an optometrist that was a Mormon.
        The man was obviously religious, but he became a doctor nevertheless.
        Odd how that happens.
        I would wager that somewhere in this world are some nurses walking around that are practicing Catholics.

        Now, I had mentioned in the thread in part one here that I had conducted something of an informal survey of associates over a period of time on my own.
        But I wasn’t asking about ‘liberal bias.’
        I was asking about hostility toward God or religion.
        And the language that liberals use, along with the unfounded assumptions they clothe in that language, and the prevalence of the matter, demonstrate that something real is afoot.
        And to say that it is nothing other than some silly superstition of especially ignorant and primitive people that would claim otherwise merely reinforces the position.
        And with clueless indifference intact.Report

        • Avatar Pooh says:

          I don’t doubt you are correct that there are Mormon optometrists, and there are obviously Catholic nurses, but I would suggest that being a young earth creationist would make teaching college-level biology pretty difficult, as an example. That was the extent of the point I was trying to make.Report

          • Avatar Will H. says:

            Thank you for clarifying this, although I believe that geology or astrophysics might be a better example than biology.
            Generally, biology falls into that class of things known as “Things I don’t care to think about too much while eating barbecue.” On the other hand, geology, astrophysics, and young earth creationism are all perfectly acceptable for me to consider in depth while eating barbecue.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        I would think the sciences would be easier for people to teach and leave their personal views out of it. If you’re teaching continental drift accurately, what difference would it make if you were a liberal, communist, Catholic, or Buddhist in your private life? And how would it come up in class? I also imagine that science and religion are not mutually exclusive- at least, I know they teach the theory of evolution at our local Catholic High School.

        In the Humanities especially I’m not sure it makes a difference, to be honest. We have Catholics in our department, a lot of Jews, a good number of athiests, and one Hindu. If you’re religious, you can just do the history of your Church. It’s not really a problem. I actually worked for a semester with a guy who was an expert on Martin Luther and devout. But, I should mention that History as a department might just have more room for these sorts of things.Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

          f you’re teaching continental drift accurately, what difference would it make if you were a liberal, communist, Catholic, or Buddhist in your private life?

          Continental drift mixes badly with young earth creationism.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            If you’re teaching continental drift accurately, what difference does it make if you’re a young earth creationist?Report

            • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

              Read what Rufus said that I was responding to:

              I would think the sciences would be easier for people to teach and leave their personal views out of it.

              If a y.e.c. teaches accurately about a process that’s taken millions of years, he has left out his personal view that there haven’t been millions of years.Report

              • Avatar Rufus F. says:

                What I meant by that was more that it’s easier in the sciences to establish what’s appropriate to teach and what personal views people should keep to themselves. If a guy teaching geology believes that the earth is 10,000 years old, it seems pretty straightforward for the department to say that’s not accepted as accurate or scientific in the profession and, therefore, it’s not legitimate to teach that in a geology course. In the humanities, it’s just not so straightforward. If one history professor argues that, on the whole, Reagan’s presidency was good for America and another argues that it was destructive for America, it’s not like the profession can establish that one view is accurate and the other won’t be accepted. Then when you get to topics like the religious views of Shakespeare or if Emily Dickinson has a masculine voice, it’s really unlikely the profession is going to establish a correct answer.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                Fair enough.

                By the way, does anyone know how geology is taught at Liberty University? I see that they have a Center for Creation Studies.Report

  10. Avatar Sam MacDonald says:

    More important than how they treat students is how they treat the material. This is most famous in terms of readings lists. You know, the 90s culture war stuff. But it goes beyond trading Shakespeare for Naomi Wolfe. (Ah, the 90s! Would that I remembered them!) I remember taking a class with John Demos, I think his name was. It was something about early colonial history. Instead of learning about the Magna Carta and all that stuff, we read journals to see how the social structure impacted the culture. We learned about the posts and pans they used.

    I seem to recall that this was considered a “liberal” perspective. I don’t know about that. Maybe. I guess. I thought it was interesting either way. I think I was supposed to be curious and try to do some extra reading and figure out how these things related to the Magna Carta. But I wasn’t a very good student so I didn’t. I wish I could take it again. Was Demos a “liberal”? Probably. But any shortcomings in the class were my own.

    Later, I had real concerns about the way my university was teaching comp. It was very touchy-feely, for lack of a better phrase. I suspect most of the students wanted or at least needed RULES. Basic five-paragraph essays. Drills! A nun in the back with a ruler. I remember people telling me this was “conservative.”

    So maybe someone somewhere is complaining about pinko John Demos, while someone else is complaining about the reactionary me.

    Maybe I was lucky, but this disconnect was never a problem for me. I hope it wasn’t for my students.Report

    • Avatar tom van dyke says:

      I found the same phenomenon as Mr. McDonald, examining the changes to the Texas curriculum after the hysteria quieted.

      The previous program had substituted anthropology for history, having become the study of peoples, raceclassgender, etc. Foods, customs, “the pots and pans they used.” Find yourself in history!

      Yes, there were stupid proposals made in the process [and well-trumpeted in the press!], but they were not implemented. What was implemented was history-as-good citizenship, the study of history and how it got us here. Although it wasn’t said directly, it’s good for the kids to know why Mexico sucks and the US doesn’t. There are reasons that have nothing to do with anthropology.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      It’s hard to say. I’ve always thought it was strange that traditionalism is so strongly tied to ‘conservatism’ or ‘reaction’. We have a World Civ core class that everyone ends up teaching. My first semester I TAed with a prof who was very moderate politically and she taught using the bland-as-dishwater textbook, which is now written at about a 9th grade level for college students. The next year I worked with the guy who is sort of known as the ‘department anarchist’, only half-jokingly. He had the kids read: The Iliad, The Bhagavad Gita, The Republic, Saint Augustine’s Confessions, The Book of Proverbs, The Koran, the Tale of Genji, and the Song of Roland. It was a very traditional course focusing on common human concerns and how different times and places have dealt with them. If you knew the guy personally, you’d think he was a radical; if you knew him from the class, you’d think he was a conservative. I found the experience really illuminating.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        Also, in a lot of ways, the 90s were horrible.Report

      • Avatar Sam MacDonald says:

        As did I, on both sides of the podium.

        During college and in the first few years after graduation I did some political stuff that might be described as conservative. Running in these circles, I met a lot of people who were very worked up about media bias and bias in academia. I can see their point to some degree. I was in an English Department and I heard a LOT about transgendered this and radical that and Bush-lied other stuff. I never once heard anyone question, say, abortion. While the difference was stark and potentially problematic, I would recommend almost all of those teachers to a conservative neighbor.

        I honestly think that if I ever were to take a sharp right turn, I would very much prefer to send my kids to Brown than to one of the strongly “conservative” colleges. Just to challenge them. I don’t think kids are THAT malleable. For heaven’s sake, half of the conservative movement is run by members of Yale’s Party of the Right. They somehow managed to emerge from the indoctrination unscathed.

        In terms of teaching style and grading, my extremely liberal colleagues were far more harsh about “cliche” than they were about conservative viewpoints. As mentioned above, they had a strong preference for “nuanced thinking” in the essays. Which I get. But I always argued that one reason 18-year-olds were not writing nuance is because they tended not to THINK nuance. I can’t tell you how many essays I read about being in second grade watching 9/11 on TV, then hating Muslims until they met one somewhere and there was this eureka moment and presto, they really like Muslims now. OK. This shows way too much preference for tidiness and closure and all that stuff. BUT IT’S REALLY WHAT THEY THINK. They will probably challenge this narrative later in life. But until then, if the essay is well organized and grammatically correct… that’s a good essay. Some of my colleagues would spend a great deal of time arguing that it’s NOT a “good essay” because it doesn’t show them thinking through the issue, problematizing it in an interesting way.

        I see that. But some times writing is about conveying thoughts. Sometimes it’s about developing thoughts. My liberal colleagues had a strong preference for the latter. So I guess we disagree about that. But… meh. As far as cultural scourges go, this is pretty far down the list.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. says:

          It’s interesting- I’m starting to get the feeling that English departments are a very different world from History departments.Report

      • Avatar Koz says:

        This gets at something that I wanted to draw on from our earlier comments.

        A lot of what has gotten modern American universities in trouble isn’t necessarily liberalism as its understood in mainstream culture but antipathy to academic traditionalism. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what this is, but maybe the best way to summarize this is that the academic Left believes that judgments of aesthetic quality are mostly a matter of social convention and have no real meaning, whereas the academic Right believes that aesthetic quality is real and to some extent can be described (and taught) objectively.

        If the academic Left is right, an intelligent young American has no reason to pursue education in the humanities after high school. The realization of this is hitting home right at the same time as the value of an actual humanities education is devalued relative to the hypothetical students other economic needs. It’s a nasty double whammy for the academy.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. says:

          I sort of agree and disagree. I agree with the idea that, for academics in the humanities, making the case that aesthetic standards are a matter of social convention or construction is a pretty good way of shooting themselves in the head. And I have always been at odds with certain fads in scholarship that have amounted to the same argument. And, I agree that the humanities, if they’re going to survive, will have to revive a lot of the more ‘traditionalist’ methods of reading and teaching. Okay, so we’re in agreement there.

          There are three areas where I would differ (sort of): the first is that at a lot of universities what really undercuts traditionalism is pressure from admins to make the courses easier and more entertaining for students who spend seven hours a day staring at little glowing screens- it’s not just academic fads that are hollowing out the liberal arts degree. Secondly, I’m still not convinced that the politicizing of this issue isn’t somewhat random and meaningless. Again, I’ve tended to work under the traditionalists in the department (surprise, surprise!) and their politics just didn’t come into it. Finally, by your account, which I do agree with to a sizeable degree, the Right has a responsibility to be enroling in the humanities graduate programs and flooding the profession, which they’re really not. Seriously, it’s not that difficult right now to get into a teaching position in a university if you’re a traditionalist. Also, I think people need to understand that the reason there are plenty of academics studying “gendered bodies in racial discourse” or whatever is really just because they want to. If you want to see more scholarship on ‘traditional’ subjects, you need to enter the academy and start doing it- I am! And I can tell you, the only thing holding anyone back is their level of commitment.Report

          • Avatar Koz says:

            “Finally, by your account, which I do agree with to a sizeable degree, the Right has a responsibility to be enroling in the humanities graduate programs and flooding the profession, which they’re really not. Seriously, it’s not that difficult right now to get into a teaching position in a university if you’re a traditionalist. “

            Hopefully you’ll expand on this if you continue the series. I’m not real clear what you mean by this, and I’m a little skeptical.Report

  11. Avatar D says:

    “It seems to me that the regulative idea that we heirs of the Enlightenment, we Socratists, most frequently use to criticize the conduct of various conversational partners is that of ‘needing education in order to outgrow their primitive fear, hatreds, and superstitions’ … It is a concept which I, like most Americans who teach humanities or social science in colleges and universities, invoke when we try to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic, religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own … The fundamentalist parents of our fundamentalist students think that the entire ‘American liberal establishment’ is engaged in a conspiracy. The parents have a point. Their point is that we liberal teachers no more feel in a symmetrical communication situation when we talk with bigots than do kindergarten teachers talking with their students … When we American college teachers encounter religious fundamentalists, we do not consider the possibility of reformulating our own practices of justification so as to give more weight to the authority of the Christian scriptures. Instead, we do our best to convince these students of the benefits of secularization. We assign first-person accounts of growing up homosexual to our homophobic students for the same reasons that German schoolteachers in the postwar period assigned The Diary of Anne Frank… You have to be educated in order to be … a participant in our conversation … So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. We are not so inclusivist as to tolerate intolerance such as yours … I don’t see anything herrschaftsfrei [domination free] about my handling of my fundamentalist students. Rather, I think those students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft [domination] of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents … I am just as provincial and contextualist as the Nazi teachers who made their students read Der Stürmer; the only difference is that I serve a better cause.”

    – Richard Rorty, ‘Universality and Truth,’ in Robert B. Brandom (ed.), Rorty and his Critics (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), pp. 21-2.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      It’s interesting that fundamentalism keeps coming up in the comments. I really didn’t think about religion when I wrote this- more about political conservatism. I don’t think of fundamentalism and conservatism as coterminous. But I wonder what the conflicts would be with fundamentalist students. To be honest, I couldn’t care less what my students’ religious convictions are. We live in an area with lots of Catholics, so I assume plenty of them are Catholic; but I can’t imagine actually worrying about the students’ religious convictions. On the other hand, how would you talk about something like ancient Greek views on homosexuality without possibly offending a student’s religious beliefs? (I use that as an example because about 10 students walked out of one of our core history courses when the professor talked about the subject and I know the guy well enough to know he wasn’t intending or expecting that response)Report

      • Avatar Trumwill says:

        Well, there’s Catholic and there’s Catholic. People who identify as Catholic are much more likely to run the spectrum than people who identify as fundamentalist, or even evangelical.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. says:

          Yeah, I just assume there’s probably some very religious people present and try not to offend them, which is pretty much what I do in all social situations with people I don’t know that well. If I get into religious history, sometimes I will ask very general questions, like, “so, if any of you here are Catholic, how would you feel about how the state was acting towards the priests of the Vendée?” Things like that. But, it seems a bit cracked to try to de-convert them in a college course.Report

    • Avatar Koz says:

      Ugh, that’s nasty.

      Obviously the paternalism is intended, that’s the point. But beyond that, the misanthropy is really really distasteful. Does Professor Rorty want us to believe that the dutiful student who learns his assigned lessons well will be better off for it? Are we supposed to think that he’s assuming any level of accountability for the benefit of those students for whom it doesn’t work out that way. Anybody who thinks of their students as mere instruments for projecting their social-cultural-political beliefs should be taking a long look in the mirror.Report

  12. Avatar James Hanley says:

    I know a few of the group 1 type profs at my college. About three of them, I’d say. One of them spent a few years conscientiously trying to make me feel alienated. Unfortunately for him he’s far more of an ass than even I am, so I actually have more friends on campus than he does, despite my unorthodox views. He’s also less-skilled at office politics than I am–a couple of years ago I called him a g****m f***ing liar and goaded him into making a much milder public insult for which he was ultimately required to write me an apology. It’s kind of fun to screw with group 1 types–they’re so serious that they can’t help falling into the trap of making themselves look like an ass by over-reacting to mild expressions of disagreement.

    But teaching political science, it’s impossible to avoid the political topics when teaching. I approach it by not teaching my classes as being about politics, but about analyzing political behavior and how institutions shape actions and outcomes. When I need an example I try to conscientiously use examples that critique both sides, balancing a criticism of Bush, for example, with a criticism of Clinton or Obama. I think it helps, as I almost never get a criticism of bias. But there are the occasional students, both left and right, who are frustrated that I’m criticizing their side. My impression is that the right-leaning students take it differently, being more likely to assume I’m exhibiting the “standard” liberal academic bias. I think they’ve been led to expect it, so they naturally interpret it that way.Report

  13. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    The problem, of course, is that unless you went to UC Berkeley, your school probably looked nothing like the vage, overwhelming and huge Marxist Reeducation Center described on talk radio .

    I did go to UC Berkeley, and it looked nothing like that either, of course.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      Yeah, I was trying to be funny. Maybe I should have referenced the hippie school in Billy Jack.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        I don’t know that one. The idea brings to mind Orwell’s report of a Communist tract:

        I remember in 1920 or 1921 some optimistic person handing
        round Communist tracts among a crowd of public-school boys. The tract I
        received was of the question-and-answer kind:

        Q,. ‘Can a Boy Communist be a Boy Scout, Comrade?’
        A. ‘No, Comrade.’
        Q,. ‘Why, Comrade?’
        A. ‘Because, Comrade, a Boy Scout must salute the Union Jack, which is
        the symbol of tyranny and oppression,’ etc., etc.

        • Avatar Will H. says:

          I remember one time when I was in high school, I brought home a book by Ayn Rand from the library. I don’t remember which one, really; I think it was Anthem.
          Anyway, my dad flipped out. (Godless Russkie) “We used to do the same thing to the Viet Cong, son.” That shocked me. They made my dad go to Vietnam to stock up libraries with Rand?
          He went on to tell me about helicopters that would fly over villages and drop pamphlets down.
          “But I didn’t just find this in the grass after a helicopter flew over,” I told him. “I got this book from the library.”
          His eyebrows popped out and his eyes shot fire. You could tell pretty easy when my dad was hot under the collar. “What library was that?” he demanded.
          “The one at the high school.”

          Liberal bias.
          Godless Russkies.
          Not at all like Asimov, mind you.
          Not only did Asimov write sci-fi (an acceptably American genre), but he also believed in Jesus (meaning he wouldn’t go to Hell if you shot him, like communists do).Report

          • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

            They made my dad go to Vietnam to stock up libraries with Rand?

            That’s forbidden by the Geneva Conventions.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP says:

            Heh. I remember those chieu hoi pamphlet drops.

            Goddamn chieu hoi. The VC used to send in chieu hoi who would hang around just long enough to identify the ammo bunkers, so their good buddies out in the weeds could mortar them.Report