Saturday, July 14, 2007

Are professors really just liberal bullies?

According to a new Zogby poll, a significant number of Americans think that most college professors are politically biased. Considering that more people who identify as "Republican" think that bias is a serious problem, we might assume that they think the bias is of a "liberal" bent.

Conservative scholar Victor Davis Hanson tries to explain this bias, which he feels is leading to a massive miseducation of American students today. He gives a familiar story: up until the 1960s, higher education focused on "classical issues" about eternal truths embedded in history. Toward the end of the 1960s, liberals took over colleges and universities and started to impose a "theraputic" agenda on education. This included the creation of programs such as women's studies, ethnic studies, peace studies, and popular culture studies that are all intended to make students aware of the the awful things about the society they live in--race, class and gender inequalities, etc.

For Hanson, the problems with the new higher education are: 1) it forces students to accept a liberal party line on a variety of social issues. Student must simply "accept" their professor's "preconceived notions"; 2) it forces students to accept relativism--the idea that there is no such thing as eternal Truth. Since Truth and Reason don't exist, the only way to get people to do things is not by rational persuasion, but by force. Only power matters--(and white, heterosexual, capitalist men have had it too long, according to this "liberal" view, so they are the bad guys); 3) it forces students to ignore vocabulary, grammar, syntax, rhetoric, as tools by which people can form ideas and lay them out in a public forum for discussion and debate.

Ultimately, Hanson believes that we ignore classical disciplines such as history, literature, philosophy, and language at our peril because if students have no knowlege of the eternal truths that lie within the thread of humanity's hisotry, they will be incapable of judging the present according to any decent standards.

I admit that I teach in both what Hanson would call "classical" and "theraputic" disciplines. What I find is that students already come to those classes with a belief in relativism and a lack of history, language, literature, and critical thinking. I spend most of my time trying to convince students that an opinion is not something sancrosanct and that they ought to have a way of providing reasons and evidence for what they think. I can't count the times I hear someone say "Well, who's to say what is true, right, moral, etc? What right does anyone have to tell me what to think?" Perhaps they find these attitudes reinforced in some of their college classes, but I think they come to the university with these views already. Trying to convince students (who are not Christians--they seem to have no problem grasping this point) that there might indeed be some ethical standards that we can all agree upon and are not dependent on your culture is one of the first and hardest task of the ethics and political philosophy courses I have taught.

What I find interesting is that Hanson's distinctions suggest some kind of essential core to the "theraputic" disciplines--they are all alike in their message (America and white men are bad). It is as if there is nothing within those fields that allows them to impart wisdom of any sort. Its curious that most of the fields he mentions are heavily influenced by the social sciences, such as political science, sociology, and anthropology. One way to read his article would be to say that it merely displays professional envy by someone in the humanities who has made a career out of interpreting works that few people now (or ever) really paid that much attention to. Its not clear to me why the "classical" disciplines can't be taught dogmatically, as gospel that you have to accept. Indeed, I wonder what would happen in one of Hanson's classes if a student disagreed with one of the "eternal truths" that supposedly lie within the great works of Western history, literature, and philosophy. (And its not at all clear what those might be--its not as if Western culture speaks with one voice and has had only one message in the course of some 4000 years of recorded history)

But the political dimension of this article can be tied up with the results of the Zogby poll. It seems that older, white, conservative people might feel that the university does not reflect their understanding of knowledge any longer and is being overrun by liberal elitists who do not have faith in American democracy, truth, and morality.

What role does the university play in our American democracy? What kind of knowledge should it pursue?

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At 2:49 PM , Blogger chris farrell said...

It's hard to say the subjects like math and physics have a liberal bias.

As far as Liberal Arts goes, if it wasn't run by liberals, you would have to change the name to "conservative arts" or something.

No, seriously, I think you get more liberals in history and sociology because they tend to think more than conservatives.
I don't think that anyone doubts the value of studying the classics and history. If universities are falling down on their job of teaching those things, it is not a liberal or conservative issue, it is a fundamental issue of watering down a real education.

At 11:14 PM , Blogger Dennis said...

My experience as a student lines up pretty well with what you said: Students bring preconceptions to the classroom, and classes in the so-called "therapeutic" disciplines are very diverse.

I had a few thing to say about Hanson that weren't as nice as you.

At 11:20 AM , Blogger crallspace said...

It's never been any surprise that those who spend their life immersed in knowledge, fact-finding and examining don't often turn out to align themselves with today's so-called conservatives.

That's why half-baked folks like David Horowitz are not much more than a laughingstock, unless it's a crowd of misinformed young neo-cons.

At 12:14 AM , Blogger Dennis said...


I'm always amazed at how subtle you can be. The criticism of VDH here is pretty harsh, but wrapped in layers of nice soft words.

I also think Hanson's divide between "classic" and therapeutic" is a pretty false one, especially based on the way professors who teach both tend to teach their classes. It's entirely possible - as you have demonstrated - to teach very diverse material in very similar ways. To me, this suggests that there is something to get out of both the "classic" and "therapeutic" disciplines. It also suggests the divide between the two isn't fundamental, or epistemological, or anything else but arbitrary and historical.

Hanson lacks imagination.



I'd qualify your statement by suggesting that more liberals tend to congregate in the humanities because either A) they care more about getting a broad education than conservatives, who are more likely to be in it for the money; or B) liberals actually think society can be changed, and that it should be, whereas some conservatives seem to think they should just look out for number one since society is fundamentally corrupt.

The second option corresponds pretty well with the idea of original sin.

At 9:50 AM , Blogger Michael Faris said...

While I'm fairly late at chiming in, I thought I would add my two cents. I'd agree that the binary between classical humanities and "therapeutic studies" is pretty false, especially since (I assume) every field of the humanities is currently dealing with this split within itself.

For example, in Literary Studies, there are a variety of camps, but we could ignore subtleties for the sake of argument here and focus on two: 1) New Historicism, which takes a Foucauldian/Historical Materialist approach to literature (and even texts that are not traditionally called literature), and 2) more classical readings, which could be represented by Harold Bloom, who called the New Historicists scholars of ressentiment.

I agree with you that students come to school already believing in relativism, at least to a degree. But while in college I haven't had a single professor profess outright relativism. In most English classes, it's about making the better argument, and if we return to New Historicism, it's about understanding when and how our cultural beliefs and habits formed through a study of historical cultural texts.

What I find interesting about conservative rejection of relativism is that many conservatives equate the work of situating oneself culturally and historically and admitting one's bias as loose and free relativism (anything goes).

I'm afraid I'm going to start rambling (or already have) and lost grasp of what I wanted to say. So, I'll close by saying that this discussion also reminds me of the "Crisis in the Humanities" issue of New Literary History (Winter 2005), in which Harpham and others discuss what the role of the humanities in the university is or should be. It's worth a read if you haven't read it.


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