Thursday, January 12, 2006

# Posted 8:17 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

ACTUALLY, WE NEED MORE LIBERAL EDUCATION ON CAMPUS: Thus argues Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale. Jim laments the rampant conformism that leads top undergraduates to become part of the American power establishment.

Well, given that Ralph Nader finished ahead of George Bush at the Yale polling station in 2000 -- with 64.7% voting for Al Gore -- I think Jim doesn't need to worry too much about campus conformism preventing undergraduates from questioning the American status quo. (Although you might say that Kerry's 84% in 2004 suggests that Yalies are becoming less open-minded.)

But Jim is right that no one should underestimate conformism on campus. After all, why do so many undergraduates at Yale and elsewhere embrace the same exact left-wing cliches if not for the formal and informal influence of both fellow undergraduates and an almost uniformly liberal faculty?
(6) opinions -- Add your opinion

That's a knee-jerk response to a thoughtful essay that defends not liberals but only liberal education (you know, David, the kind that conservatives defend!. It would be nice to think that David understands the difference, but even if not, can give us one instance of my using the word "liberal" in any other but the classically conservative way, let alone suggesting that Yale students need to be more "liberal" in the dumber sense? The essay says, "We don't want our political movements to become places where activists 'suck it up'" rather than think. Hello?
Neither liberals nor conservatives have any credibility left. Most big liberals have done too well by a system of deepening inequalities to be able to bring themselves to oppose a system that they can't quite bring themselves to defend. So they're paralysed. And conservatives cannot acknowledge, much less resolve, the yawning gap between their claim to defend moral values and their slavish support of corporate capital and its employment and mass-marketing methods; so they've simply dropped the phrase "free enterprise" and shifted to "free markets," which, as Daniel Bell observed 30 years ago, no longer make free men. Each side clings to its half-truths until they become lies that leave it right only about how the other side is wrong. That's no longer enough. The point of my piece is that we need to shed the binary left-vs.-right lenses we've settled for and put in clearer civic-republican lenses. That's the view from which I wrote the piece. Water carriers for "movements" can't process it.
Good evening, Jim. Glad to have you back on OxBlog!

I may grant that your essay is thoughtful, even if you do say so yourself. Although given your comparison of academic conformism to the mafia and to morally blind soldiers, I'm not sure you can get away with calling my response kneejerk.

Also, you are correct that you only use the word liberal in the context of liberal education. But come on man, every target in your essay is a liberal bugbear: Bush, Enron, the Catholic Church (mostly).

And what about all your talk of the need for liberal education to challenge the "overclass" and "investment combines"? Or your reference in the comment above to the GOP's "slavish support of corporate capital"?

You are pretty insistent about avoiding any overt partisan education identification, but all of the buzzwords are still there.

I look forward to your response!
One of main roles as teachers is, to paraphrase Max Weber, to present students with uncomfortable facts - facts that run contrary to their "party opinions" - and to teach them how to think consistently about their value commitments. A liberal education, in theory, does that.

That often means questioning settled truths on the right and the left. Often, however, this involves exposure to more "radical ideas." Most students aren't exposed to critiques of capitalism, for example, in any meaningful way until they reach college. It shouldn't be surprising that as they play with such ideas they might "question authority" more than they will later in life.

• One reason, I suspect, why students trend leftwards is simply demographic. Think about the average age of a college student and the kinds of concerns that are likely to be most pressing to them.

• Another is that the campus environment exposes students to a lot of new experiences - intellectual, interpersonal, and so forth. I suppose an analogy here might be with the "urban effect" that tends to make people more "liberal", e.g., why people who live in cities tend to skew "left" on issues like gay rights compared to people who live in urban and suburban settings.

If more professors were conservative, would that make a difference? Certainly. But let's please not go down the road of Horowitz. When we went down that road on the other side (the left) in the 1960s and early 1970s, it destroyed many departments and disciplines.
Hi Dan! I think it's interesting you say that "most students aren't exposed to critiques of capitalism" before coming to college. Although I wouldn't say my classmates and I knew much about Marx as freshmen, an overwhelming proportion of us believed that the government ought to spend far more to improve the living standard of the poor. The justification for this was often precisely that the market wasn't fair to the poor.

What my classmates and I had very rarely been exposed to, however, were any intellectually substantive critiques of the welfare state. The situation was pretty much the same across the board with other liberal issues.

The UN? Indispensable. Abortion? Privacy! Religion? Opiate! And so on.

If the minds of students need to be opened to new ideas, I would say that those ideas tend to be the ones that are popular in Red states, not among red diaper babies.
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David - that's not a critique of capitalism, as I think you recognize. I have in mind Marxism, utopian socialism, etc. etc.

I'm not sure I follow you entirely about the ideas popular in Red States. That the UN is possibly not a good thing? That it is ineffectual? I wonder what sort of introduction to IR course you had at Yale. That sounds like fairly typical stuff in the IR courses I've been involved with. One debates the good, the bad, and the ugly. One raises the difficult counterfactuals of peacekeeping and peacemaking. And so on.

When I taught core-curriculum western philosophy, we covered most of the stuff you mention: parts of the Bible, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and so on and so forth. That's basically what one does in a core liberal arts education, so I think you're making my point for me.
Post a Comment