Thinking in Shorthand
The culture wars over political correctness in academia never really went away, I suppose, although they only sometimes bubble up to the top of the simmering zeitgeist. One of those bubbles reaches up near the top today at Butler University, as a student took public his unhappiness with his professor’s request to a second-year political science class that students “write and speak in a way that does not assume American-ness, maleness, whiteness, heterosexuality, middle-class status, etc. to be the norm” and instead use “inclusive language” as “a fundamental issue of social justice.”
The student who found this instruction an offensive and insulting presumption that he is a racist, sexist, heterosexist, classist, and national origin-ist, named Ryan Lovelace, dropped the “politically correct” class rather than do what the syllabus asked of him. The just-under-the-text line of outrage that we are supposed to read in to the story is the professor “indoctrinating” her students instead of “educating” them.
After all, if we were to loosely say that valuing, seeking out, and emphasizing matters of demographic diversity is “liberal” and eschewing such an emphasis is “conservative,” then the outrage that actual conservatives (are apparently supposed to) feel when reacting to stories like this becomes understandable. Bear that in mind when you read that Mr. Lovelace claims:
… I expected to hear professors express opinions different from my own. I did not expect to be judged before I ever walked through the door, and did not think I would be forced to agree with my teachers’ worldviews or suffer the consequences.
After reading the syllabus, Mr. Lovelace became upset because he believed that he was being asked to write and speak from the point of view described in shorthand as “liberal,” and if he instead adopts the attitude described in shorthand as “conservative,” he is not welcome in the class.
In my experience teaching undergraduate college classes both online and in person, I have found that students are remarkably sensitive, and react emotionally and unpleasantly, when their writing is challenged. Usually, though, this is when the challenge is based upon a showing of an actual deficiency in the writing itself, as in:
Student: [tentatively enters office, wide-eyed and nervous.] Professor, this looks like you gave me a B- on my research paper. Is that right?
Professor: Yes, Student, that’s right. Twenty of of thirty sentences in your paper have no verbs, and half of the paragraphs are not about the assigned subject matter. You have only one citation to authority, which is the textbook for the class, in your entire three-page research paper, and there’s no bibliography, so it’s not clear to me that you did any research at all.
Student: OH MY GOD WHY ARE YOU GRADING ME SO HARSHLY I AM A GOOD WRITER THIS ISN’T FAIR MY PAPER DESERVES AN A AND YOU’RE RUINING MY COLLEGE CAREER I’M GOING TO FILE A GRIEVANCE AGAINST YOU AND TELL EVERY WEBSITE ON EARTH THAT YOU’RE A GRAMMAR NAZI WITH IMPOSSIBLY HIGH STANDARDS AND NO ONE SHOULD EVER TAKE YOUR CLASS BECAUSE YOU’RE A MONSTER WHO FAILS EVERYBODY WHO DISAGREES WITH YOU ON ANYTHING! [Storms out in tears.]
Professor: [Reaches for bottle of whiskey hidden in bookshelf.]
This is perhaps a little different because we’re talking about content rather than quality. But not much. Mr. Lovelace was told, right up front, that when talking in class and writing reports for it, he was not to assume that dominant demographics were the norm. (In his essay, he makes a point of mentioning that the professor is an African-American woman.) From this, he infers on his own that he was told to assume that to be within particular dominant demographics is somehow evil or morally wrong. “Not the norm” is different than “evil.”
This does not seem a fair reading of what he was asked to do, if you ask me.
If papers expressing liberal points of view were the only ones that got “A” grades and papers expressing conservative points of view were all failed, that would be one thing. But I don’t see anything that would lead me to suspect that the professor would actually grade papers based on their ideological perspective. I might go so far as to think that a paper expressing a conservative point of view which did not demonstrate meaningful consideration of a liberal point of view would be graded poorly.
I can see a potential objection that maybe such a heavy emphasis on diversity might not be what Mr. Lovelace signed up for when he asked to be in this class. The class is called Political Science 201, Research and Analysis, and is described by the university as:
Introduces you to the process of designing and executing research projects in Political Science. Focus is on approaches and methods to teach how to find information and report it.
That course description is a good example of how not to use infinitives. Hopefully the syllabus itself does not suffer from the same sort of soupy language and since language fundamentally the issue here, perhaps we ought not to make such an assumption. Nevertheless, I am baffled in my attempts to find a scan of the actual syllabus that so offended Mr. Lovelace. It does appear that the class will require research into a political issue of some sort, and a written report on the findings. It’s hard for me to imagine that things which have been traditional sorts of political cleavages – race, national identity, sex, economics – are avoidable in such a class. Diversity will of necessity be confronted in this class.
Now, in one sense, Mr. Lovelace’s sniffers of potential “indoctrination” may well be scoring a legitimate hit. There is little doubt in my mind that language, both as heard and read from others and as used by oneself, molds thought. A complex and reciprocal relationship exists between the thoughts and concepts in one’s mind, and the structure of language used to express them. So Mr. Lovelace being asked to consider the perspectives of people demographically unlike himself in the manner of his expression of ideas is likely an exercise in changing the way he thinks of his own demographic place in the world. He is being asked to consider on a different suit of opinions and perspectives, the “liberal” ones, rather than keeping his own “conservative” perspective, and to use more “liberal” langauge as a way of focusing on those new opinions and perspectives.
But here the shorthand stops being useful because it obscures more than it assists. It’s not liberal or conservative to consider perspectives other than your own; it’s not liberal or conservative to value people who are demographically different than oneself. (Yes, there are people who self-identify as conservative who seem to believe that those demographically different than themselves are somehow less important than they are, but I’m not convinced that they are exemplars of what conservatism as an intellectual position is really about.) We’re using “liberal” and “conservative” as shorthand for attitudes towards diversity and inclusiveness and acceptance of demographic differences. Somewhere along the way, that shorthand label becomes the reality and clicks in place with a constellation of other attitudes, opinions, beliefs, and (most powerfully) personal identifications.
By choosing a shorthand notation (“conservative”) that comes weighted with its own value judgments and a whole bunch of the rest of that baggage, we’ve now made something that ought to be universal (accepting people demographically different than oneself as equals and their perspectives as being as valuable as one’s own) and politicized it, and thrown it into a Manichean intellectual process of left-versus-right, what you like I dislike simply because you like it. Thus, diversity becomes a political football.
And even if we were talking about Mr. Lovelace being asked to consider liberal rather than “liberal” opinions, he’s not being asked to adopt them. He’s being asked to try them on for size. And that process of trying them on for size may well be uncomfortable. He may find that from the perspectives he’s being asked to adopt, there are things about his “natural” or at least prior perspective that are questionable. And having seen that, he may be left with a moral quandary about returning to the opinions he once held.
Well, you know what? That’s what it is to think critically. And thinking critically is a very big part of what it is to be in higher education. You don’t have to change your mind on any particular issue, but you do have to look at the issue from several perspectives, thoughtfully and with a willingness to fairly consider that the better position may not be the one you started out holding. Unwilling to do this, Mr. Lovelace now faces a lasting impact on his academic career:
As a journalism major, I will now strive to avoid the liberal arts college as much as possible, not because the college fails to provide its students with any practical knowledge, but because the college seeks to indoctrinate its students with a hostile paradigm that views people like me—an American, white, heterosexual male from a middle-class background—as evil; whitey-righty need not attend.
Query as to how a journalism major intends to avoid taking liberal arts classes. Maybe he’s going to switch majors.
But the real problem is that Mr. Lovelace apparently intends to avoid exposing himself to any situation in which he is required to use langauge so as to reflect fair and honest consideration of perspectives other than his own. As a journalism major, Mr. Lovelace appears to be aiming himself at exactly the sort of career in which he will be routinely required to understand and describe opinions and perspectives other than his own. What kind of a journalist will he become?
I can’t be sure whether the professor was really preaching and indoctrinating a liberal perspective through the incentive of grades. Not nearly enough evidence has been offered in Mr. Lovelace’s essay to reach that conclusion. While I’ve a strong suspicion that the professor is liberal and may well wear her opinions on her sleeve, then she’s like quite a lot of college professors. That doesn’t mean that there’s some kind of mind control being attempted at Butler University.
What’s going on here is Mr. Lovelace opting out of the community of thought that characterizes a university because it’s uncomfortable for him to understand ideas and perspectives other than his own sufficiently well that he can articulate them fairly. Assuming a posture of political victimhood here is unseemly at best and contradictory to the idea of higher education at worst. Mr. Lovelace ought to take the class, learn how to separate fact from opinion, and form his own opinions based on the facts he’s learned.
That’s what college is all about.
Burt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.