Thursday, June 20, 2013

Are Universities Too Liberal to Provide a Real Education? Sounds Like Conservative Sour Grapes to Me

Over at Narratively, Natalie Axton reports on a theory promoted by many conservative thinkers, both inside and outside of academia, that says that liberalism dominates academia to such an extent that these schools can no longer provide a real education, since they can't provide the kind of balance necessary to produce real debate. The the article makes the straightforward and convincing case that the best critics of specific policies of academic institutions will come out of the Right (self-proclaimed outsiders generally do), but the more sweeping argument falters, and the broader it gets, the more utterly it fails. She even cites unschool advocates who promote traveling and a lot of self-selected reading as worthy replacements for a college education. I could rant for hours about the flaws in the philosophical underpinnings of unschooling (it's not scalable, people who truly want to learn should read things they didn't pick out themselves, classroom discussion can't be replicated in any other setting, etc.), but I'm most irritated by a particularly tired argument repeated in the piece.

The conservatives Axton quotes lost me when they trotted out one of their more tired criticisms, the old trope that liberals are hypocrites for advocating tolerance and then being intolerant of conservative ideas. I've heard this line of argument many times before, and I always find it unpersuasive; it denotes an understanding of tolerance that is so limited it's downright deceptive. Tolerance doesn't mean an idea will be adopted. It just means it will be studied and weighed. Liberals in academia, in my experience, are more than willing to tolerate conservative ideas. They just don't buy into them. Liberals can tolerate the study of monarchy, too. You don't hear a lot of people going around claiming liberals are intolerant of monarchic ideas. In my experience, the only reason conservatives complain that liberals are intolerant of conservatism is that they feel conservatism is fundamentally correct, and that anyone giving it a fair hearing would ultimately conclude the same. It's a kind of rhetorical trap; either you will prove you are tolerant by agreeing with me, or I will call you a hypocrite for being intolerant. The third option, that conservative ideas, especially on social policies like gay marriage and women's reproductive rights, have been weighed carefully and found to be objectionable or outdated by the majority of the general public, is not considered. Certainly liberals share the same notion that their ideas are so correct that anyone who hears them should share them. When liberals even hint at this, they're derided for being snooty and condescending. But the conservative version is equally condescending and more than a little juvenile due to its "gotcha'" quality. While the assumption that one's own ideas are correct is completely understandable (as Wittgenstien pointed out when he wrote, “If there were a verb meaning 'to believe falsely,' it would not have any significant first person, present indicative.”) but liberal tolerance does not dictate a conservative education. It just demands that ideas get a fair hearing. It doesn't even mean that the ideas which rise to the surface will be True with a capital T. The implicit assumption is that liberal tolerance will produce ideas which are popular. Combined with the notion that people are essentialy decent, this should produce a positive outcome. If, on the other hand, one holds that people are "fallen" or essentially rotten in some way, then it should also come as no surprise to conservatives that liberal ideas are more popular at universities; from a conservative perspective,  the fallen people have made the evil, liberal ideas into the popular ideas. 

Not that liberalism holds the universal sway over academia that the article seems to imply. In fact, libertarianism is alive and well on college campuses. I'll bet Ron Paul would have defeated Mitt Romney at a lot of schools, and I'd also guess that libertarian ideas about legalizing marijuana would defeat liberal compromise positions or a more progressive limited-legalization-with-taxation scheme at most ostensibly "liberal" universities. I was particularly struck by this quote: "Part of the argument at Minding the Campus is that political ideology in the form of race, sex, and gender studies has captured the humanities and social sciences and that as a consequence, American students spend their time practicing identity politics instead of learning history, philosophy and literature." I would argue that the best defense of the study of Western culture, and of Western culture itself, involves learning the role identity politics has always played in history, philosophy, and literature. It wasn't called "identity politics" two hundred or two thousand years ago. If some student escapes from a university without knowing the roles race, sex, gender (and, I'd add, class and sexual identity) played in history, philosophy, and literature, he cannot count himself an educated person, and stands as a testament to the persistence of white, male, straight, upper-class privilege. I understand and share the opinion that there's a lot about Western culture that deserves to be protected (though I may disagree with conservatives, and even with libertarians, about what deserves that protection). Any attempt to excise the study of race, sex, and gender from the studies of history, philosophy, and literature will not defend Western culture any more than building a base consisting solely of white, Christian males will defend the Republican Party. Complaining about the intolerance of a changing world is just petulance. A higher education has to tolerate a recognition of a changing reality.

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