Semi-Daily Journal Archive

The Blogspot archive of the weblog of J. Bradford DeLong, Professor of Economics and Chair of the PEIS major at U.C. Berkeley, a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

What's Illiberal About the Conservative Arts?

Throne and altar: Bauerline on Berube:

: [A] weakness in Bérubé’s argument and to contemporary liberalism in general (in educational contexts). The procedures he details are evenhanded and rousing, but the ensuing liberal tenets of liberal education are just that: all procedural. They lay out how to argue and how to disagree, how to relate to one’s own beliefs and how to relate to others’. True to Bérubé’s neopragmatist outlook, classroom liberalism bears upon attitude and conduct.... The real debate lies not over debating tactics, but over course content.... Bérubé barely touches upon these, leaving What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? with a hole at the center....

[A]n assigned essay topic [by Berube].... the tendentiousness of the question is plain. Here is the final sentence:

Analyze the U.S. constitution (original document), and show how its formulation excluded [the] majority of the people living in America at that time, and how it was dominated by America’s elite interest.

And here is Bérubé’s comment:

If students of American political science are not introduced to the contradictions underlying the foundation of a revolutionary democratic nation that practiced slavery and restricted the vote to landowning men, they are being miseducated.

What Bérubé considers good history registers with conservatives quite differently. They note the emphasis on exploitation and hypocrisy, along with no chance to argue otherwise. The Founding’s positive side is glossed over.... And as for miseducation, the historical significance of the Constitution isn’t primarily that it legalized “exclusion” and “class domination,” but rather that a group of men acculturated to exclusion and domination should have conceived a system of government and a set of rights from which free and oppressed people have drawn inspiration for two centuries.

The assignment, then, asks undergraduates to take a partial and politically loaded viewpoint on the Founding. If we want full historical context, by all means bring in the inequalities and injustices of the time, but let’s not obscure the extraordinary moral and political breakthrough represented by the document.

The liberal outlook, especially regarding race and gender, has seeped into and saturated the curriculum so much that questioning it looks not like a new venture into the marketplace of ideas but like a violation of civility.... When substantive points are recast as lapses in decency, outsiders have no chance of gaining a seat at the table.... [T]he humanities remain tied to a liberal outlook-—not to liberal personnel, but more deeply to liberal values and pedagogies...

The only reaction I can think of that is appropriate to Bauerline is to echo the Monty Python innkeeper's reaction to the German tourists: "Don't mention the war!" Bauerline's "substantive points" seem to be: "Don't mention that Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder!" "Don't mention that Thomas Jefferson slept with his slaves!" "Don't mention that Sally Hemings's options when Thomas Jefferson came a-callin' were... limited!" "Don't mention that Thomas Jefferson tried to swiftboat Alexander Hamilton!" "Don't mention that George Washington thought Alexander Hamilton was an agent of influence of France's Jacobin dictatorship!"

The key is, I think, that Bauerline believes that inculcating respect for the throne and the altar--whether warranted or not--are the proper aims of education.


Bauerline on Berube:

:

The chapters contain lively characterizations of students, careful expositions of American fiction, and, in contrast to the regret cited above, blithe vilifications of conservatives. Yes, conservatives are, to Bérubé, a more or less deranged and ignoble crew. Some thoughtful “arts-and-humanities” conservatives are out there, he observes, but their kind is fading. In their stead, we have angry, hypocritical figures unhinged by the presence of liberals in classrooms. Their criticisms have reached a “fever pitch,” and are “hysterically overblown.” Their “mind-bending charge[s]” strike the profs as “surreal.”

But these insults appear mainly in the opening chapters of the book and don’t advance the core issue, which is how the tenets of liberalism enhance education. For that, Bérubé relies on lengthy demonstrations of his classroom practice. He counsels students to read closely, gather evidence, consider counter-evidence, address claims that dispute their deepest beliefs, and treat opponents with respect. Open your minds, face verbal challenges, keep complacency at bay, and play fair, he presses. These are the protocols of John Stuart Mill, and one has no difficulty believing that Bérubé runs a stimulating, reasonable classroom.

The strengths of the presentation, however, point to a weakness in Bérubé’s argument and to contemporary liberalism in general (in educational contexts). The procedures he details are evenhanded and rousing, but the ensuing liberal tenets of liberal education are just that: all procedural. They lay out how to argue and how to disagree, how to relate to one’s own beliefs and how to relate to others’. True to Bérubé’s neopragmatist outlook, classroom liberalism bears upon attitude and conduct.... The real debate lies not over debating tactics, but over course content.... Bérubé barely touches upon these, leaving What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? with a hole at the center....

[A]n assigned essay topic that was claimed by a conservative student to be anti-American, a claim rightly judged by Bérubé a silly exaggeration. Still, the tendentiousness of the question is plain. Here is the final sentence:

Analyze the U.S. constitution (original document), and show how its formulation excluded [the] majority of the people living in America at that time, and how it was dominated by America’s elite interest.

And here is Bérubé’s comment:

If students of American political science are not introduced to the contradictions underlying the foundation of a revolutionary democratic nation that practiced slavery and restricted the vote to landowning men, they are being miseducated.

What Bérubé considers good history registers with conservatives quite differently. They note the emphasis on exploitation and hypocrisy, along with no chance to argue otherwise. The Founding’s positive side is glossed over.... And as for miseducation, the historical significance of the Constitution isn’t primarily that it legalized “exclusion” and “class domination,” but rather that a group of men acculturated to exclusion and domination should have conceived a system of government and a set of rights from which free and oppressed people have drawn inspiration for two centuries.

The assignment, then, asks undergraduates to take a partial and politically loaded viewpoint on the Founding. If we want full historical context, by all means bring in the inequalities and injustices of the time, but let’s not obscure the extraordinary moral and political breakthrough represented by the document.

That Bérubé accepts such assignments as straightforward history goes a long way toward explaining why conservative criticisms appear unbalanced or cynical. The liberal outlook, especially regarding race and gender, has seeped into and saturated the curriculum so much that questioning it looks not like a new venture into the marketplace of ideas but like a violation of civility. This makes it almost impossible for conservative reformers in higher education to question, much less alter, the curriculum.

It’s a frustrating impasse. Liberal approaches to the curriculum are so embedded that conservative attacks look suspect on procedural grounds. Say that multiculturalism as commonly practiced is incompatible with the training of erudite students and you offend the other parties. Describe “diversity” as a coercive and illusory term that will be remembered as nothing but a curious example of the mores of the early twenty-first century and you become an unprofessional crank. The substance of your criticism is waylaid by its impropriety.

When substantive points are recast as lapses in decency, outsiders have no chance of gaining a seat at the table. Someone as professionally aware as Professor Bérubé should recognize that, and he has at other times done so. But here, he overlooks the situation, because, I think, the aggressive actions of David Horowitz and others have raised the threat level. What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?, the major statement on the issue by a major academic voice, never outlines the most important aspect of any educational program, its curriculum. On the evidence of its arguments, we may safely assume that in spite of all the publicized assaults from the outside (such as the Academic Bill of Rights) and all the humiliating episodes on the inside (such as Ward Churchill), the humanities remain tied to a liberal outlook-—not to liberal personnel, but more deeply to liberal values and pedagogies.

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