Friday Ephemera

Rebellion, Revisited

The issue of classroom political advocacy crops up here quite often and Evan Maloney’s documentary, Indoctrinate U, illustrates just how far advocacy can go, and how corrosive to probity it can be. A key scene in Maloney’s film concerns psychology professor Laura Freberg, who faced a campaign of harassment by left-leaning colleagues and was told, “We never would have hired you if we knew you were a Republican.” Freberg’s students later admitted they’d known she was a “closet Republican” precisely because she didn’t use the classroom to air her political views.

A recent post on classroom advocacy at Crooked Timber, a site popular among left-leaning academics, has prompted some interesting comments: 

There’s really just the media and you, the universities, between civilization and chaos, and you are natural enemies because reality is liberal and media is corporatist. […] If we lose to McCain, at some point you can say goodbye to your pretty little university system. […] I’d say meet in darkened caves in the middle of the night if that’s what it takes to get out the truth.

Some take a more nuanced view:

I expect my students to respect my statements in class as authoritative (although not necessarily correct), and so I have a responsibility to limit what I say in class to what is warranted by my expertise. Since candidate preference is not a matter of expertise, it would be remiss of me to indicate a preference for a specific candidate when teaching. However, this doesn’t apply to my non-teaching related interactions with students at the university where I teach.

It’s not all bad, of course.

Indoctrination only makes sense if you believe reasoning won’t actually win over the students.

But even if we set aside the not insignificant issue of whether professors of, say, literary criticism have any business trying to “win over” their students and mould their political outlook, reasonably or otherwise, there is another problem. Is the student-professor relationship sufficiently equal and reciprocal to ensure evidence and reason prevail? Is there no pressure on students to defer, to please? Can we simply assume that improper leverage will never be brought to bear – for instance, in terms of grading or more subtle signs of displeasure? And isn’t there an unavoidable air of… predation?

Despite such concerns, some educators make great efforts to justify telling students how they should vote and seem untroubled by the implications of growing political uniformity across much of the humanities, where bias is most common and has the greatest scope. A view made explicit by Grover Furr of Monclair State’s English department: 

[C]olleges and universities do not need a single additional “conservative”… What they do need, and would much benefit from, is more Marxists, radicals, leftists – all terms conventionally applied to those who fight against exploitation, racism, sexism, and capitalism. We can never have too many of these, just as we can never have too few “conservatives”.

Rhonda Garelick, an associate professor of French and Italian at Connecticut College, loftily dismissed students who objected to her use of French lessons to express at length her opposition to the war in Iraq:

[F]rankly, I feel increasingly compelled to look beyond my syllabuses and to devote myself more to teaching “wakeful” political literacy: the skills needed to interrogate all cultural messages.

One fairly common assumption among left-leaning educators is that academia should be some kind of “corrective” to capitalism, bourgeois values and mainstream culture:

The Adversarial Campus Argument… says that the campus must contest the mainstream, that higher education must critique U.S. culture and society because they have drifted rightward… Several points against the Adversarial Campus Argument spring to mind, but a single question explodes it. If Democrats won the White House in ‘08 and enlarged their majorities in Congress, and if a liberal replaced Scalia on the Supreme Court, would adversarial professors adjust their turf accordingly? Would Hillary in the White House bring Bill Kristol a professorship or Larry Summers a presidency again?

Hardly, and it goes to show that the Adversarial Campus Argument isn’t really an argument. It’s an attitude. And attitudes aren’t overcome by evidence, especially when they do so much for people who bear them. Think of what the Adversarial Campus does for professors. It flatters the ego, ennobling teachers into dissidents and gadflies. They feel underpaid and overworked, mentally superior but underappreciated, and any notion that compensates is attractive. It gives their isolation from zones of power, money, and fame a functional value. Yes, they’re marginal, but that’s because they impart threatening ideas.

The problem is that adversarial role-play, like that of Furr and Garelick, has little to do with reason, refutation or how the world actually is. It does, however, have a great deal to do with how those concerned wish to seem. In order to maintain a self-image of heroic radicalism - and in order to justify funding, influence and status - great leaps of imagination, or paranoia, may be required. Hence the goal posts of persecution tend to move and new and rarer forms of exploitation and injustice have to be discovered, many of which are curiously invisible to the untutored eye. Thus, the rebel academic tends towards extremism, intolerance and absurdity, not because the mainstream of society is becoming more racist, prejudiced, patriarchal or oppressive – but precisely because it isn’t.

Update: In the comments below, I wrote:

“Radical” academics aren’t driven to greater extremes and grander, more lurid claims because society is becoming more sexist, racist or whatever. The caricatures they become are a result of their own narcissism and a need to be oppositional, or be seen as oppositional. As mainstream society in general becomes less fixated by race, gender, sexuality, etc, so peddlers of grievance and victimhood must search out - or invent - something to oppose. Overstatement and escalation are all but inevitable.

By way of further illustration, KC Johnson highlights the “scholarship” of Barbara Barnett, formerly a student at Duke’s infamous English department and now teaching “Research and Writing” and “Media and Society” at the University of Kansas:

[Barnett] produced an article in Communication, Culture & Critique, in which she advances the all-but-incredible thesis that Duke’s official response to the [lacrosse team “rape”] case was overly concerned with such issues as due process and right to a fair trial. Oblivious to how much of the media, most Duke faculty, and the Brodhead administration itself initially approached the case, Barnett contends that the University’s actions insufficiently employed the race/class/gender framework.

Barnett identifies herself as a true believer almost from the start of her article. “20%–25% of college students report that they have experienced a rape or attempted rape,” declares she - thereby suggesting that college campuses have a rate of sexual assault around 2.5 times higher than the rate of sexual assault, murder, armed robbery and assault combined in Detroit, the U.S. city with the highest murder rate. For those in the reality-based community, FBI figures provide a counterweight to Barnett’s theories: not 20%-25% but instead around .03% of students are victims of rape while in college. Duke’s 2000-2006 figures, which use a much broader reporting standard than the FBI database, indicate that 0.2% of Duke students “report that they have experienced a rape or attempted rape.”

A detailed debunking of Barnett’s methodology ensues.

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