Friday, January 21

The Assault on Liberal Education

The Contradictions of Cultural Conservatism in the Assault on American Colleges


In March the Georgia Senate adopted the Academic Bill of Rights Resolution, modeled on David Horowitz's campaign calling for colleges to promote intellectual diversity and academic freedom on their campuses. In May the American Legislative Exchange Council -- which describes itself as "a clearinghouse of information for 2,400 conservative officeholders in 50 states, almost one-third of the 7,500 state legislators in the country" -- adopted a sample resolution and model statutory language based on Horowitz's bill, and pledged to work toward the statute's passage in the legislature of every state. Meanwhile, according to the Horowitz-affiliated Students for Academic Freedom, Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, plans to sponsor a resolution in the Senate in September echoing the language in the "academic bill of rights." Sessions's bill would accompany a similar House resolution introduced last fall by Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican.

"It's been an incredibly successful week for Students for Academic Freedom," boasts the May 14 announcement by the group's national campus director, Sara Dogan -- and a thoroughly depressing period for the humanities, as this latest conservative assault once again sabotages the very academic values that conservatives claim to champion.

Charges by crusaders like Horowitz that "the universities are totally dominated by the left" tend to focus on elite liberal-arts colleges and some urban public universities, where liberal influences are strongest. But these charges are bizarrely disconnected from the experience of those of us who teach at the vast majority of campuses, such as the half-dozen provincial schools where for some 35 years I have taught introductory English courses, general-education requirements for students in majors mostly outside the humanities.

To begin with, most students at such colleges have, as early as high school, come to regard the only purpose of schooling as vocational or pre professional training. Many consider general-education requirements a tiresome nuisance. Horowitz and earlier culture warriors like William J. Bennett, Lynne Cheney, and the National Association of Scholars huff and puff about upholding humanistic standards, but they do not dare admit that the greatest detriment to humanistic education is the commercial pressure imposed by corporations like those whose foundations pay for their own publicity offensives.

To distract attention from those pressures, conservatives seek scapegoats for the decline of the humanities, like multiculturalism, poststructuralist theory, and the fostering of student self-esteem -- all of which might deserve a share of blame, but a small one compared to commercialism. As Thoreau said in "Life Without Principle," "There is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business."

The primacy of vocational education is hardly a recent phenomenon. In the middle-class public high school I went to in Des Moines in the 1950s, the important courses were driver training, typing, mechanical drawing, and shop for the boys, home economics (i.e., domestic consumerism) for the girls. Academic requirements were skimpy, especially in history and "social studies," where courses were taught, somnabulantly, as a sideline by sports coaches -- a widespread phenomenon now as then and perhaps the most damning symbol of American cultural priorities. Students invariably refer to these courses as "a joke," and American students traveling abroad are embarrassed to find that their peers in other countries know far more than they do about American politics, history, and geography.

The main difference today from when I was in school is the worsening job and pay prospects for young Americans, compounded by skyrocketing college-tuition costs and cuts in government money for colleges and for student aid. Students work virtually full time at jobs while taking an overload of courses to avoid expensive prolongation of college, which further saps their time and energy for either political involvement or courses that will not directly help them get a job.

Conservative culture warriors would have us regard both vocational/preprofessional education and its prime mover, corporate employers, as politically neutral. The obvious facts, however, are that large corporations and their wealthy CEO's and stockholders are predominantly conservative (notwithstanding the occasional exception like George Soros and Ted Turner); that they are the most powerful political players in America, through lobbying and PR, campaign contributions, foundations, think tanks, ownership of media, and influence on them by advertising; and that in all these realms, they strongly favor the conservative wings of both the Republican and Democratic parties.

Champions of the new affirmative action for conservatives coyly evade admitting that all of the branches of universities devoted to serving corporations, the lucrative professions, and the military through job training and research -- which vastly outweigh the humanities -- also indoctrinate students in pro-management, anti-labor, anti-government (but pro-military) ideology. Students' desperation to get and keep jobs in corporations and professions pressures them into compliance with corporate ideology, so that they tend to be impervious to any liberal deviations that they get in humanities courses. As Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor noted, whoever feeds people commands their obedience.

Conservative surveys purporting to show that most faculty members describe themselves as Democrats (which is not necessarily equated with liberals, and certainly not leftists) are skewed by excluding faculties other than those in liberal education. Moreover, the high salaries -- and obedience -- of administrators and trustees, whatever their party affiliation might be, are also fed by the corporate-friendly branches of the university. Universities themselves are major corporate entities, as investors of endowments; owners of real estate; purchasers of private-sector equipment, construction, and services; and as employers of regular and contingent faculty as well as nonacademic workers often paid below a living wage. Their behavior in all these realms is often as conservative as any private business's.

Horowitz points to university labor institutes, but how do the handful of those, and their financial backing by unions drastically weakened by globalization, compare with the ubiquitous schools and departments of business and the equally business-friendly studies in engineering, computer science, agriculture, industrial technology, medicine, advertising, public relations, and so on? Shouldn't evenhanded conservatives come to the aid of liberal students and demand an equal voice in those fields for labor, consumer, and environmentalist advocates, or indeed socialists and Marxists? Conservatives reply that students choose to take vocational courses but are captive audiences in required general-education courses. I submit that the very justification for the latter's being required is to provide liberal viewpoints that students are unlikely to get in courses for their majors -- although these viewpoints ought not to be presented in a doctrinaire, one-sided manner, as they sometimes lamentably are.

Vocational pressures toward conservatism are compounded by the myriad ways in which most students have been saturated in corporate ideology and conformity in the wider culturethrough junk food, spectator sports, pop music, movies, TV, talk radio, and fashion. Some pop songs, TV shows, and movies may have ostensibly liberal messages, but their overriding theme is still, "Buy this product of corporations," and their effect is to produce passive, compliant consumers of both commodities and politics, rather than active, critical citizens. Intercollegiate sports and fraternity-sorority life, which serve as training grounds for chamber-of-commerce boosterism, are more central to college life for many students than courses in the humanities, whatever their professors' politics might be.

Moreover, in every class I have ever taught, when anonymously polled, the majority of students have said their family and community backgrounds were conservative. An increasingly large number come from fundamentalist Christian upbringings. In courses they cite the Bible as authority for arguments such as that President Bush's policies on Iraq should be followed unquestioningly because rulers -- Republicans, anyway -- are ordained by God (II Peter 2:13-14). I have rarely had more than one or two black students in a class; nevertheless, conservative white students firmly believe that affirmative action has allowed blacks to get all the breaks.

I am delighted on the rare occasions when students who have some knowledge of intellectual conservative ideas take my courses. I bend over backward to encourage their views and to be more than fair in grading, as course evaluations and many personal testimonies affirm. But for most students, sad to say, their conservatism is in direct proportion to their self-admitted, near-total ignorance of politics, history, geography, economics, and academic modes of reasoning. Few have ever seen The New York Times, let alone The Nation, or read any newspaper or journal of opinion regularly. Many have simply been indoctrinated to parrot the beliefs that America is the freest and most prosperous country in the world (or the only free and prosperous one -- comparisons are invariably with the poorest countries or communist dictatorships, rarely with Western Europe, Canada, or Japan); that everyone in this country is born with equal opportunity to get ahead; that rich people and corporations are virtuous public benefactors; and that our country's elected officials can be trusted to tell the truth in leading us to war (although on other occasions these same students deride, with no sense of Orwellian doublethink, "politicians" and "big government"). When asked what evidence or experience those tenets are based on, or whether the students have ever studied any contrary evidence, they just stare in bewilderment.

They, and more often their parents, expect that higher education should simply reinforce conservative dogmas, which they regard as self-evident truths, not as biases. The notions of skeptical questioning of authority and received opinion, which are the humanistic heritage of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, are utterly alien to such students, as is the whole intellectual liberal tradition of cosmopolitanism and heterodoxy, which is bound to clash with the oversimplified appeals to nationalism, religion, family values, and "free enterprise" that are the stock in trade of conservative propagandists.

Professors justifiably continue this humanistic tradition when they introduce those notions through readings of, say, Plato's "Apology" or Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience"; or when they point out instances throughout history and literature of leaders demagogically manipulating the ethnocentric prejudices of the masses; or (most outrageously of all) when they suggest the legitimacy of applying a similar dose of skeptical scrutiny to President Bush's justifications for war in Iraq.

Many students understandably get upset over the cognitive dissonance between this skeptical questioning of authority and the childishly simplistic platitudes they have been conditioned by and that the Bush administration, like most throughout history, propagates to gain mass compliance -- for example, enemy "evil ones" versus an edenically virtuous United States.

Conservative intellectuals, of course, insist that they are the true defenders of liberal humanism against its abuses by tenured radical and Democratic Party demagogues; Horowitz publishes a magazine titled Heterodoxy. But they are caught in a contradiction between this claim and their complicity with both corporate philistinism, which dumbs down culture to maximize profits, and the Republican Party's time-tested policy of reducing political rhetoric to Manichean sound bites, epitomized by Richard Nixon's advice to his speechwriter William Safire, "We sophisticates can listen to a speech for a half hour, but after 10 minutes, the average guy wants a beer."

Horowitz himself, in The Art of Political War (2000), offers advice to conservative politicians that could have come out of Mein Kampf: "When you speak, do not forget that a sound bite is all you have. Whatever you have to say, make sure to say it loud and clear. Keep it simple and keep it short -- a slogan is always better. ... With these audiences, you will never have time for real arguments or proper analyses. Images -- symbols and sound bites -- will always prevail. Therefore, it is absolutely essential to focus your message and repeat it over and over again."

To be sure, there is a more literate level of conservative rhetoric, on the Iraq war and in general, found in reputable scholarly and journalistic sources, such as The Weekly Standard, and I always provide my students with readings and a list of publications at that level to weigh against comparable liberal ones. But many of my students are as baffled by those sources as by The Nation because they have not developed the reading and critical-thinking skills to cope with complex ideas of any ideological variety. So perhaps the major source of cognitive dissonance is not liberal ideas versus conservative ones but complex ideas versus simplistic ones. Students' resulting anxiety can easily translate into their complaining to conservative watchdog organizations about unpatriotic or coercive professors.

Richard, a student from a rural, Republican family in my American-literature sophomore survey course, comes steeped in history according to Rush Limbaugh. (For the past decade I have been amazed to see students, many of whom otherwise admit to never having read a political book -- or any nonfiction book -- carrying well-worn copies of The Way Things Ought to Be and See, I Told You So.) Richard cites a passage from See arguing that the 17th-century American Puritans "studied the Bible and found it prescribes limited, representative government and free enterprise as the best political and economic systems," and that they "established just and equal laws for all members of their community, irrespective of their religious beliefs."

Another passage, about the 18th-century "founding fathers," warns, "Don't believe the conventional wisdom of our day that claims these men were anything but orthodox, Bible-believing Christians." These passages, like a wealth of pronouncements by this model of Christian virtue, have little documentation and the most selective or erroneous evidence, such as a selection early in William Bradford's 17th-century History of Plymouth Plantation that does praise a Puritan experiment in free enterprise but is contradicted by later passages like this about the growth of prosperous farms: "And this I fear will be the ruin of New England, at least of the churches of God there, and will provoke the Lord's displeasure against them."

I praise Richard's initiative in doing outside reading, then cordially ask him and other class members to do some research on these issues. Where, for example, does the Bible prescribe free enterprise or limited, representative government, and where, especially in the New Testament, does it contradict thesefor example, in the above-mentioned II Peter 2? We read John Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity," whose vision of the Puritan community is totally socialistic, and Anne Bradstreet's poems renouncing worldly riches as leading to damnation. I refer them to Perry Miller's The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, which presents ample evidence that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was at the opposite pole from Jeffersonian democracy, with an unlimitedly theocratic government and economy and zero tolerance for dissent from the established denomination.

About the 18th-century founders, I assign encyclopedia definitions of deism, a concept virtually none of the students have heard of, along with anthology readings suggesting that it was more influential among the founders (and in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) than Christianity -- indeed that Jefferson and Paine rigorously questioned the Bible and Christian doctrine, while Franklin was benignly skeptical toward them.

Richard's response is shocked disbelief, followed by a newfound spirit of skepticism. Who is this Perry Miller, and why is he any more credible than Rush? Mightn't he and the editors of The Norton Anthology just be "bias" (the "-ed" has disappeared from participles in studentspeak), falsifying historical evidence and quotations as Limbaugh's critics claim he does?

Indeed they might, I agree, and the only way for you to find out who is telling the truth is to become a scholar, tracing the authenticity of these claims back to primary sources. "But I don't have time to do that -- I'm an agriculture major," he quite justifiably groans. Besides, he says, his last English professor taught that there is no objective truth and that texts have whatever meaning readers want to find in them. So he's entitled to believe Rush and his parents if he wants, and I'm not entitled to force any contrary evidence on him.

Thus have the chickens of deconstruction and diversity come home to roost!

It hasn't happened yet, but it is probably only a matter of time before a Richard reports me to Students for Academic Freedom or his parents report me to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni for imposing a hostile learning environment and stifling diversity of views.

I have little doubt that, beneath the pious avowals by conservatives of Horowitz's ilk that they are concerned to preserve academic freedom for liberals and conservatives alike, lies the cynical intent to unleash the most ignorant forces of the right in hounding liberal academics to death. I could, of course, be persuaded otherwise by some solid evidence that they are evenhandedly committed to counterbalancing all the massive forces of conservative bias that I have enumerated.