Mill, Mao and Socrates

Harrison Fluss and Landon Frim describe three basic styles to teaching in the current politically charged environment.

February 6, 2017
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The alt-right is characterized as a movement of white resentment. It is usually seen by liberals as drawing from the ranks of the white working class, left behind by an increasingly globalized economy. And yet within the highest echelons of academe, this resentment is being given the air of scholarly sophistication.

Enter Jason Reza Jorjani. Pictured alongside the alt-right leader Richard Spencer in a recent piece in The Atlantic, Jorjani's profile is growing in the white nationalist movement. This is to the discomfort of students and professors from his alma mater, the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He graduated with a Ph.D. from the philosophy department, and concern has risen over his recently published book Prometheus and Atlas -- ostensibly based on his doctoral research. The book juxtaposes bizarre claims about aliens and ESP with racially charged language about the greatness of “Aryan” civilization.

A Question of Free Speech?

This scandal has largely been viewed through the lens of free speech. Jorjani himself has invoked the possibility that Stony Brook would publicly denounce him or revoke his degree and promised a lawsuit that would, in his words, be “a crusade for the cause of academic freedom.”

Of course, this is all to distract from the real pedagogical and political issue at hand. Far-right and fascist groups often use appeals to free speech as a distraction from the actual content of their views. The odiousness of their beliefs is hidden behind a typically insincere championing of civil liberties -- precisely those civil liberties they wish to deny others. When it comes to Jorjani, Stony Brook never threatened to revoke his degree. Indeed, it was Jorjani himself who leaked private departmental minutes to artificially touch off this controversy.

But all of this does bring up a larger question relevant to academe in general: How should we, as instructors and scholars, approach the rising tide of right-wing extremism in the wake of Donald Trump's electoral victory? The phenomenon is undoubtedly real, as evidenced by the recent rash of bullying incidents in high schools, specifically targeting minority students. However, at the college level, the issue is not merely one of direct harassment or physical intimidation but rather one of ideas themselves.

Ideas matter, and they matter because they have real political effects. The ideological assault against equality takes place in the realm of ideas first. The concept of a liberal arts education is, to be sure, grounded in those very principles of universalism and humanism that today are most acutely under attack by the right.

There is historical precedence for this. The Third Reich was not brought into existence by street thugs and window breakers alone. What became a mass movement was prefigured by decades of intellectual labor by professors such as Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt and authors such as Oswald Spengler and Ernst Jünger. In a trickle-down manner, from the lecture hall, to the newspaper, to the propaganda pamphlet, what seemed at first to be a refined critique of reason and progress turned into the fodder of brownshirt fascism.

Today, it is the responsibility of professors and intellectuals to actively counter those positions most corrosive to the ideal of a humane and tolerant society. But how do we do that if we want to maintain an open classroom and free inquiry in academe at large?

Of late, some people have convincingly argued that neutrality is not necessarily a classroom virtue. Rather, teachers should develop pedagogical strategies to directly counter the racism and sexism endemic to our society and currently on the political ascendency.

Sam Miller, for example, criticizes the “marketplace of ideas” model of education, where the instructor is merely a neutral arbiter among various opinions. In fact, such neutrality might reinforce student prejudices, as it gives the appearance that all ideas are of equal value and even that truth itself is a matter of personal choice or taste. The right to one’s opinion is mistaken for the ability to create one’s own set of convenient facts.

The marketplace ideal, in its most vulgar form, is exemplified by those who advocate “teaching the controversy” when it comes to evolution vs. young earth creationism. Yet contrary to common opinion, political and social questions are no less a matter of truth than scientific ones. A belief in the divine right of kings or in racial superiority is just as baseless a superstition as is the belief in a flat earth.

Power Differentials

However, while there are structural inequalities in society, de facto power differentials exist in the classroom. As instructors, we come to class with greater institutional authority simply by virtue of our professional role, and we ought to be sensitive to this fact. We do our students no favors when we freeze them out of classroom discussions merely because we find their politics repugnant.

Nonetheless, power differentials are not a simple binary; they are a sliding scale. The sort of authority that a middle school teacher has over their student is qualitatively greater than that of the college professor teaching a class of undergraduates. And those undergraduates -- even if many are legally adults -- often have less autonomy than the graduate student enrolled in a doctoral seminar. Consequently, the sort of pedagogical strategy used when promoting humane values in the classroom will necessarily be different depending on the sort of classroom one finds oneself in.

No one is arguing that the life of a graduate student is luxurious. Long hours as a teaching assistant, meager compensation and the lack of union representation amount to a quasi-spartan existence for most. Nonetheless, in the institutional hierarchy of the university, graduate students exercise qualitatively more autonomy and power than undergraduates. They set their own research agendas, seek out their advisers of choice and pursue terminal degrees. This positions the graduate student as something more akin to a colleague than as a total subordinate to their professors.

It is patently ridiculous, therefore, that Jorjani is complaining about censorship merely because his views were allegedly criticized in a faculty meeting or his work may undergo further scrutiny. At this level, it should be entirely expected that one’s research should be frankly challenged, especially when it is blatantly indefensible and lacks rigorous argumentation.

Undergraduates who express racism, sexism or homophobia in class ought certainly not go unanswered, and yet this must be done with an eye toward intellectual formation. We correct as we guide. But with the racist doctoral student, there is no such professional necessity to be so gentle. We can rightly call out unfounded and offensive views as such.

Serving on a dissertation committee, moreover, is not owed to anybody. Rather, taking on this role is a matter of conscience and free expression on the part of the professors themselves. Indeed, serving on such a committee is tantamount to an endorsement of the dissertation itself -- if not in terms of its content, then at least in terms of its scholarly value. Lest there be any doubt of this, the first page of the dissertation form is a literal endorsement sheet, containing a place for the committee members to affix their signatures.

If we extend this concept of power differentials one step farther, we see that when professors stake political claims in the public sphere, they are even less beholden to pedagogical niceties. Speaking and organizing against war is not primarily about teaching people but about exerting one’s political will to change the status quo, as with Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Vietnam War tribunal. This is the academic as public intellectual. Here, professors are in the position of criticizing a power structure that is hegemonic over them. If anything, it is the professor who must be protected against recrimination for acts of free expression, through mechanisms such as tenure and faculty union representation.

Truth and Dignity

We see three basic styles to teaching in this politically charged university setting, exemplified by the figures of John Stuart Mill, Mao Zedong and Socrates. Here, we do not refer to the actual biographies, political ideals or historical import of these figures but are using them as convenient heuristics to schematize three basic approaches to education.

The Millian approach is marked by the idea of fallibilism -- that is to say, the perpetual consciousness that one’s own truth claims are never absolute or certain but always open to complete revision or outright negation. This fallibilism, taken to its logical end, results in a pragmatic attitude, which asserts that truth is merely whatever is the result of free, unforced discussion. In other words, truth is reduced to a popularity contest.

In the classroom, this means that the instructor plays the dismal role of the dispassionate umpire, or the pedagogical equivalent of a CNN debate moderator in a presidential primary. In such a setting, students are reduced to talking heads and are never truly given the intellectual resources to understand, no less to coherently critique, reactionary ideas that their classmates raise.

The Maoist approach is a reaction to the Millian one. In the face of a corrosive relativism, the Maoist correctly wants to assert the objective truth. However, the imparting of this truth is done dogmatically and in an authoritarian fashion. The paradigm of fallibilism is displaced by the principle of re-education. Students with sexist or racist views are ham-fistedly corrected or simply excoriated. But here, too, the chance at real intellectual formation is denied, both to reactionary students as well as to their targets in the class.

This implies the need for a third perspective -- the Socratic. The Socratic agrees with the Maoist about the existence of objective truth and the need for re-education. In fact, Socrates himself was the chief re-educator of Western philosophy. His idea of education as recollection (anamnesis) asserts that all meaningful and lasting truths are inherent in the human mind. The point of education, therefore, is not to violently assert some dogmatic truth over and above the pupil; it is rather to draw out valid conclusions from the student’s own native set of ideas. That is accomplished not through rote memorization, humiliation or confession but instead through a dialectical process of conversation.

This Socratic conversation is of a special kind: knowledge is understood as justified true belief. Therefore, the Socratic conversation is not guided by rhetoric, manners or mere political correctness. To be sure, the Socratic professor makes use of strategic, leading questions so as to steer the student toward specific answers. However, as this is a process of justification rather than indoctrination, the professor can only Socratically lead to those places where the truth itself grants passage.

Therefore, the Socratic method is not a top-down approach, even as it is grounded in a quest for universal and objective truth. In conversation with students, the educators themselves are educated and develop ever more perfect conceptions of truth.

A possible objection to the Socratic approach in the classroom is that it permits conversation about everything, including indecent, offensive and downright threatening topics. It is quite optimistic that rational deliberation can guide us to the truth. Of course, for some students, certain topics may be too disturbing to mull over dispassionately -- hence the recent talk of safe spaces and trigger warnings. Certainly, we believe that there is a place for such sensitivity, especially for those students who themselves have suffered serious life traumas. It goes without saying, of course, that decorum does matter as well. Students who aggressively disrupt lectures, who are hostile to others or who use racial slurs merely to be evocative should be disciplined accordingly or simply ejected from the class.

Nonetheless, we do a grave disservice to our students when we simply cut off conversation and do not explain why racist, sexist and homophobic comments are wrong. We must oppose reactionary ideas but always with reasons. We should do so not primarily for the sake of changing the mind of the reactionary student but more for the benefit of the would-be victims. It is our job to put intellectual resources in the hands of students who will encounter these deplorable ideas throughout their lives.

The fact is that it’s not enough for students merely to hate bad ideas. They need to know why they’re bad and how to fight them intellectually and practically. It is our job as professors to help them to do so.


Harrison Fluss and Landon Frim are both alumni of the State University of New York at Stony Brook’s doctoral program in philosophy. Fluss is a lecturer in philosophy at St. John’s University and Manhattan College. Frim is an assistant professor of philosophy at St. Joseph’s College in New York.

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