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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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Is your carbon footprint stepping on the global poor?

A couple of the reasons given by the U.S. for not ratifying the Kyoto treaty to reduce green house emissions is that it would do very little to stop big global polluters, such as China, and would have a big negative impact on the American economy. This interesting graphic represents the carbon footprint of each state as equivalent to some nation in the world. Seems clear that the U.S. has a significant ability to affect the global environment.

This map also suggests that state regulation on environmental issues can possibly be quite effective. The battleground is never too small to make a difference. You can check out the figures used for calculating the map here.

As to the negative impact on the economy: here's a graphic that represents each state as comparable to the GDP of some nation in the world. Figures are explained here. Given the low levels of foreign aid that the U.S. gives to the world, then, perhaps, a little give is called for in the name of global justice?

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Is the Supreme Court Logical?

In comments to the last post regarding the recent Supreme Court school integration ruling, Dennis asked whether the "reinterpretation" of diversity to support a colorblind worldview was intentional or not. Mark Tushnet, who teaches law at Harvard, points out that the arguments used in the case were developed by a small public interest law foundation in California called the Pacific Legal Foundation. It arose several years ago with a mission to develop a libertarian heavy law movement, championing private property and capitalism.

This is just one example of how developments in legal theory and practice are usually, at their foundation, about political movments and struggle, rather than simply drawing out the logical implications of the law. Anyone who has a passing familiarity with legal realism or critical legal studies already knows this.

But it would seem that conservatives have had a better time of it in the past few decades of organizing think tanks, foundations, and intellectual groups to engage in the stuggle over the meaning of the law. Liberal groups seem only now to be recognizing this dimension of the political battle over meaning.

This has been George Lakoff's argument over the past few years and forms the basis of his argument about the need to learn how to "frame" ideas. Some worry that is line of thinking is more thought manipulation than moral politics.

Is there a role for philosophy to engage the struggle over the meaning of the law?

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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Does the Supreme Court Hate Racial Equality?

Reading much of the commentary on the Court's recent decision in Parents v. Seattle School District, one gets the impression that the answer to this question is: absolutely yes! Many are taking this decision to signal an end to school desegregation efforts and the beginning of the Court's dismantling of affirmative action.

Its important to recognize that school integration has not been particularly successful over the last forty years. The Civil Rights Project at UCLA (formerly Harvard) points out that Black and Latino/a students today attend more segregated schools than they did 30 years ago. Part of this is due to white flight to the suburbs, and also to strong resistance from local communties to school integration efforts. One only needs to look at photos from the struggles in Boston to remember that there never really was a heyday of racial integration in American schools.
Parents is not the first time that the Court has put serious obstacles in the way of ensuring that public education reaches communities of color and working class students. It ought to be put together with the 1973 case, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodiguez, in which the court ruled: 1) education is NOT a fundamental constitutional right in our country and 2) students are not entitled to recieve a materially equal education. In other words, states can arrange laws how they want to fund schools and poor districts do not have rights to equal funding with rich districts.

But the really signficant result of Parents is the redefinition of "diversity." In his opinion, Justice Roberts argued that the reason to strike down the school desegration plans in Seattle and Louisville was because they used race as the single factor in determining whether diversity was being achieved in the school districts. Roberts suggested that such a use of the idea of "diversity" simply amounts to treating people differently based on skin color. He held that if diversity is going to be something that government has an interest in supporting, then it must mean more than just race but also involve "exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints."

This language is very suggestive. I think what Parents really represents is a kind of conservative reappropriation of the language of diversity. Diversity is no longer a term used for talking about the need for racial justice or the efforts needed to change power relationships that would allow a wide range of people to participate in the decision making processes of American society.

Instead, the language of diversity and inclusion now is about making sure that everything is "fair and balanced". Everyone's opinion is to be listened to and no one is to be criticized. Students deserve to have a diverse learning environment, which means that "liberal" and "conservative" points of view need to represented on all issues, and perhaps even creationism alongside evolution instruction (after all creationism is a viewpoint in our society--so a diverse learning environment would be one in which this is taken seriously). The way Robert's language works, a diverse school could be one that has a variety of Christian denominations represented, even if the students are all white or upper class with nary a black or brown working class face in the bunch.

This interpretation of diversity is behind the kind of efforts of David Horowitz's Students for Academic Freedom movement, which holds that diveristy means that conservative points of view need to be raised in the discussion of all social, political, or ethical issues or else a kind of silencing or abuse is occuring that robs students of their academic freedom. Diversity here means having more Republican professors in the English department.

It is Justice Steven's dissent in this case that really highlights how the language of diversity is being reinterpreted. He writes:

"There is a cruel irony in the chief justice's reliance on our decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The first sentence in the concluding paragraph of his opinion states: 'Before Brown, schoolchildren were told where they could and could not go to school based on the color of their skin.' This sentence reminds me of Anatole France's observation: 'The majestic equality of the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal their bread.' The chief justice fails to note that it was only black schoolchildren who were so ordered; indeed, the history books do not tell stories of white children struggling to attend black schools. In this and other ways, the chief justice rewrites the history of one of this court's most important decisions."

Stevens reminds us that the struggle for diversity in the past have been about power and reshaping social, economic, and political institutions so that elites cannot dictate the life expectations of others. How we use language and concepts such as race, diversity, and inclusion, is part of that struggle.

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