A Liberal Dose of Reason
If you have not yet heard about Michael Bérubé’s What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and "Bias" in Higher Education, recently published by W.W. Norton, then chances are you also haven’t seen the author’s blog, which has been advertising the book heavily for weeks now, albeit with tongue sometimes in cheek. Over the past two or three years, Bérubé’s Web site has turned into a rallying point for those fighting off David Horowitz’s so-called Academic Bill of Rights (perhaps the finest bit of political word-magic since Stalin created the “peoples democratic republics” of Eastern Europe). The blog itself is part of what is now sometimes called the “netroots” of the Democratic Party, although Bérubé himself is slightly more disposed to working out a position on the multivalence of the signifier than on, say, ethanol subsidies.
In other words, What’s Liberal looks, at first, like a book written with a definite constituency in mind. So does Rhetorical Occasions: Essays on Humans and the Humanities, out next month from the University of North Carolina Press -- a volume of Bérubé’s pieces that originally appeared in academic journals and popular magazines as well as the blog.
So all the familiar worries about the echo-chamber effect of new (or “niche”) media come to mind. You know what to expect from a certain kind of title that has become very familiar over the past few years: the op-ed in a fat suit, the sermon to the choir, the repetitious but morale-boosting statement of why "we’re right, they’re wrong." There are right-wing and left-wing versions of such books. You see them glaring at one another across the aisles at the bookstores. Sometimes they even mimic one another’s covers – either to heighten the spirit of antagonism, or just from a lack of originality, not that the distinction matters too much.
A reader of Bérubé’s blog quickly learns that satire is one of his default modes. (Upon being listed by Horowitz as one of the academe’s “dangerous professors,” he announced that his field was “dangeral studies.”) Sitting down to read What’s Liberal, I anticipated that there would be sarcasm, and plenty of it.
Parody and irony have their uses; at times, no other tools will do the trick. But as modes of argument, they tend not to be especially generous toward an opponent. They tend to reinforce the mentality common to the “we’re right, they’re wrong”-type books, for which the line between “us” and “them” is bright and clear. Reading Bérubé, I expected fireworks. Or, more accurately, dynamite -- an exercise in cultural and political demolition.
But in fact, no. The relationship between the book and the blog is not straightforward. And while each might be an example of a public intellectual at work, the contrast between them is a reminder that perhaps we should keep in mind the expression C. Wright Mills sometimes used: “publics,” for there is more than one kind.
What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? assumes the existence of a large, smart, but ambivalent (or frankly confused) audience of people who have heard about the arguments over "bias" in higher education, but not taken sides.
The author assumes on the part of the reader both skepticism and an open mind. He is canny enough a rhetorician then implicitly to equate both skepticism and open-mindedness with liberalism itself (properly understood).
There is also a steady effort to dispel fantasies about the university as a place somehow radically different from other scenes of white-collar life. It is true that the ranks of academics includes "our occasional cranks, our poseurs, our bloviators, our pedants, and a couple of those people who are just impossible to work with,” he writes, “but in this respect, we’re very much like any other workplace -- except for the pedants, who are relatively more numerous on campus than off."
And while admitting that, yes, there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in institutions of higher learning, the differences don’t automatically correspond to attitudes toward curriculum. “It is not uncommon,” he writes, “to find that the department’s gay, pony-tailed, hemp-wearing poet insists that today’s students simply must be grounded in a series of required 'core' courses in British literary history, whereas the lone suit-and-tie Rockefeller Republican is arguing that the English major should have no requirements whatsoever.”
The book covers quite a lot of ground. It debunks some of the more heavily publicized but fact-free accusations regarding the persecution of conservative students; acknowledges the embarrassments of the “Monty Python left” of Ward Churchill and friends; and describes what it’s like to teach The Rise of Silas Lapham to undergraduates who almost never actually like the book. It also offers a pretty compelling and accessible account of what’s at stake in the Habermas-Lyotard debate over the incommensurability of discourses, with special reference to the debate over foot massages in the opening section of Pulp Fiction.
And there’s more besides. None of it seems random or episodic. All of it serves, rather, to show that higher education is much less homogenous -- or for that matter, ideology-minded -- than certain propagandists make it look. Any informed account of academe must stress on the "variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty" it shares with the rest of life in an affluent society. (I borrow that phrase from Lionel Trilling, who was either a liberal or a neoconservative depending on the angle from which you looked at him.)
"Universities," writes Bérubé in a passage that sums up an important strand of his argument, "even private universities, are thoroughly and complexly interwoven into what remains of the public sector of the United States, and their relative economic health, together with their extraordinary capacity to generate economic wealth (if you’re interested in that kind of thing), provides powerful testimony to the wisdom and the long-term structural soundness of the mixed free-market/welfare state economy. So America’s cultural conservatives may despise us for the obvious reasons -- our cosmopolitanism, our secularism, our corrosive attitude of skepticism about every form of received authority -- but the economic conservatives, I think, despise us because we work so well."
That is not a perspective that gets usually expressed when culture warriors go to battle. But I suspect (and, frankly, hope) it may get a hearing among other sorts of people. Newspaper editors, for example, and state legislators. And smart high school students, not to mention their parents.
For more on What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? -- as well as a little about Rhetorical Occasions, which covers many of the same issues at a postgraduate level -- you might want to listen to this podcast of my recent interview with Michael Bérubé.