Rethinking the Culture Wars - I

Donald Lazere writes that liberal and conservative academics should have a common agenda in defending educational values.

August 22, 2006

One obstacle to reasonable public and scholarly dialogue on the alleged political biases of liberal or leftist professors has been the tendency of David Horowitz, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and many of their allies to fall into various versions of the ad populum fallacy, to the effect that there is something wrong with professors because they are out of step with the majority of the American people, who (at least in public institutions) pay their salary through taxes. Thus Larry Mumper, the Republican introducing Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights” in the Ohio legislature, asked in an interview with The Columbus Dispatch, “Why should we, as fairly moderate to conservative legislators, continue to support universities that turn out students who rail against the very policies that their parents voted us in for?” The implication is that professors and their students should tailor their political views to follow the latest public opinion polls or election results.

Politicians like Mumper, along with many media blowhards and members of the public who revile professors, appear to have little more familiarity with the nature of humanistic scholarship than they do with that of brain surgery -- though they would not presume to tell brain surgeons how they should operate, even in a tax-supported hospital. The former field is at the disadvantage that it addresses public issues on which everyone does and should have an opinion. There is a difference, however, between just any such opinions and those derived from standards of professional accreditation (upwards of 10 years graduate study for a Ph.D. and 7 more for tenure), systematic scholarship, and academic discourse. That discourse is based on the principles of reasoned argument, rules of evidence and research procedures, wide reading and experience, an historical perspective on current events, open-minded pursuit of complex, often-unpopular truths, and openness to diverse viewpoints.  (For a fuller, excellent discussion of the differences between popular and academic discourse, see “From Ideology to Inquiry,” by Anne Colby and Thomas Ehrlich). This also means that academic discourse should stand independent from government pressure and public opinion, in a similar manner to the ideal of a free, independent press. That is why taxpayers should be willing to support the autonomy of the academy, within reasonable limits, whether or not it agrees with their personal views.

I have spent 30-some years in conservative communities and state universities, teaching lower-division English argumentative writing and literary history courses that are general education requirements for students in business or technological majors, many of whom would not have chosen to take any such courses and  resent them as increasingly costly obstacles to the most direct path to a high-paying job. Most such students are conservative, not in any intellectual sense, but in the sense (which they admit) of fearfully conforming to the political and economic status quo, to the attitudes that will be expected of them as compliant employees, and to the necessity of looking out for number one in the “Survivor” sweepstakes of the global economy. Such students are not likely to welcome the cognitive dissonance forced on them by humanities courses demanding Socratic self-questioning of their sociopolitical or religious dogmas, and they are wont to express their resentment, if not in complaints to Horowitz, in the course evaluations that have been debased into consumer-satisfaction surveys in which the top-ranked teachers provide the fewest demands and the highest grades.

Now, we might expect both liberal and conservative scholars and other intellectuals to agree, at the least, in opposition to all of these forces that are detrimental to humanistic education. Conservative disciples of Plato, Matthew Arnold, Leo Strauss, and Allan Bloom decry the contamination of both elite education and enlightened government by the ignorant masses and “philistine” (in Arnold’s term) commercial interests. Conservative intellectuals from the early formulators of neoconservatism like Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer to recent figures like spokespersons for the National Association of Scholars, Lynne Cheney (when she ran the National Endowment for the Humanities), and even Horowitz have positioned themselves as champions of high academic standards, the humanistic traditions of Western Civilization, and Arnoldian disinterestedness -- against the alleged debasement of those principles by academic and cultural leftists. Shouldn’t they be equally outspoken against the debasement of higher education by turning it over to public opinion polls, partisan legislation, job training and other service to corporations or professions, and student-consumer popularity contests, as well as by ever-mounting tuition and declining financial aid restricting access to the wealthy and white (except for varsity athletes, of course)?

To the contrary of the facile equation, by some conservative and left intellectuals alike, of “the Western humanistic tradition,” with political conservatism, we liberal scholars have on our side the central role in that tradition of dissent and resistance to the authority of governments, churches, the wealthy, and majority opinion. We invoke Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightenment skepticism in urging his nephew Peter Carr, “Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there is one, He must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.” And we cite Jefferson’s model of tax-funded, free, universal public education through the university level, which, if it had been adopted nationally, “would have raised the mass of people to the high ground of moral respectability necessary to their own safety, and to orderly government; and would have completed the great object of qualifying them to select the veritable aristoi, for the trusts of government, to the exclusion of the pseudalists.” (That is, the aristocracy of merit over that of wealth and hereditary power.)

We also invoke Ralph Waldo Emerson’s exhortations for scholars and other intellectuals to “defer never to the popular cry,” to stand up against majority opinion, unjust governmental power (specifically on issues of his time like support for slavery and the Mexican-American War), and corporate plutocracy; in “The American Scholar” he speaks of “the disgust which the principles on which business is managed inspire.” We follow Emerson up with his disciple Henry David Thoreau’s “Life Without Principle” (“There is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay to life itself, than this incessant business”), and “Civil Disobedience”: “Why does [government] not cherish its wise minority?.... Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?”

This conception of liberal education as a minimal counter-force to the political and economic status quo, as well as to majority opinion, is fraught with difficulties and possible abuses, to be sure. Can we, or should we, avoid revealing our own moral or political sympathies in class? Should we, for example, teach Plato, Jefferson, Emerson, and Thoreau (or Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King) as inspirations for existential moral choices, or simply as subjects of neutral study, perhaps as representatives of a particular viewpoint or “bias,” always to be balanced against sources on “the other side,” including equal time for defenses of slavery and segregation? Moral judgments are of course less disputable in reference to such past conflicts than to present ones like the war in Iraq or affirmative action; neither conservative nor liberal polemicists have provided a clear road map for how teachers should deal with current moral disputes and public opinion about them.

In broader terms, both conservative and liberal educators have long lamented the political illiteracy of the American public in general and college students in particular. However, amid all the mutual recriminations about this and related issues in academic politics, there has been sadly little constructive discussion of the appropriate time, place, and manner for the fostering of civic literacy in either secondary or college education. My impression is that the exhortations of NAS, ACTA, and other conservative educators for core liberal arts curriculum and more requirements in history -- with which I happen to agree -- fall short of outlining a coherent curriculum and pedagogy for critical citizenship. (On the flip side, many liberal advocates of multiculturalism and diversity have failed to delineate what kind of studies American students of all ethnic, gender, and social-class groups need for minimal common knowledge as citizens.) In such a curriculum and pedagogy, students would not merely be indoctrinated into American chauvinism and simplistic “virtues,” as some on the right advocate, but would be encouraged to think critically about competing ideological or moral viewpoints (in party politics, journalistic and entertainment media, as well as scholarly sources) about American and world history, as well as about the present world.

The pedagogical approach that I personally have developed over the years applies Gerald Graff’s principle of “teaching the conflicts,” in presenting students out front with the current debates on such issues and disclosing my own left-of-liberal viewpoint on them, as exactly that -- one perhaps biased viewpoint among other possible ones, to be understood in relation to opposing ones and studied through the best conservative vs. liberal or leftist research sources that students can find, leaving it up to them to evaluate the opposing arguments, and grading them on their skill in researching and analyzing sources. I do not claim that mine is a foolproof approach, but most of my students have found it a fair one throughout the years, and I have heard few alternatives, especially from conservative educators.

There are daunting problems here in persuading the public, politicians, and students to respect academic expertise, autonomy, and the role of higher education as a Socratic gadfly to the body politic. At the same time, scholars have a responsibility to show consideration and discretion toward public opinion, and toward students who dissent from our opinions. But cannot conservative and liberal scholars at least join in endorsing these general principles, while scrupulously addressing the difficulties in implementing them, through civil dialogue? And shouldn’t some of the foundations, professional organizations, or government agencies that have channeled their resources into partisan battles in the culture wars be willing to sponsor a bipartisan task force pursuing such a dialogue in quest of resolutions to these problems?


Donald Lazere is professor emeritus of English at California Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo and currently teaches at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He is the author of Reading and Writing for Civic Literacy: The Critical Citizen’s Guide to Argumentative Rhetoric (Paradigm Publishers).


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