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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Diversity and dangerality

From one of my far-flung correspondents covering the Wild Wild World of Wingnuttery comes the news that the powerful Family Security Matters consortium, whose sworn mission “is to inform all Americans, men and women, about the issues surrounding national security; to address their fears about safety and security on a personal, family, community, national and international level; to highlight the connection between individual safety and a strong national defense; to increase civic participation and political responsibility; and to empower all Americans to become proactive defenders of our national security and community safety,” has finally released its Third Annual List of America’s Most Dangerous College Courses.

As you might imagine, these courses are a pretty scary bunch, and all the usual suspects are here.  “Nonviolent Responses to Terrorism,” check; “Immigration Law,” check; “Introduction to Gender and Sexuality Studies,” check.  Yes, these are definitely the courses that make your modern wingnut shiver under the covers.  The research methodology of Family Security Matters is actually far more rigorous than that of U. No., who famously compiled had his elves compile a list of dangerous professors whose “danger” was measured largely by things they’d said or written out of class; FSM, as befits its high seriousness, has a stringent vetting process for their determination of dangerality:

1.  The course must focus on the issue or issues detailed in the syllabus or class description. That is, a math course with a professor who may rail against President Bush or President-elect Barack Obama will not be considered;

2.  The course must also express an agenda far beyond any honest or accurate academic cause. That is, professors who teach courses that lie, manipulate facts, propagandize students, or express a dishonest and fact-deficient extremist view on the class topic, will be considered;

3.  Courses will be evaluated as if the reader of the course description was an incoming student. That is, they will judge the course only by the contents of the syllabus and whatever info they can reasonably find about the professor; and

4.  Courses that may be required as part of a “core” curriculum will also be considered if they offer nothing more than to stroke the ego of the professor’s fascination with silly topics that offer little academic value to students.

You can see why an introduction to gender and sexuality would run afoul of at least three of these criteria.  As Jason Rantz (if that is his real name) points out,

There is no need to take a course for an entire semester to get an introduction to gender and sexuality studies; in fact, I’ll introduce you to it right here. Gender and Sexuality Studies, whether here at Brown or elsewhere, is where confused students with a chip on their shoulders (usually hardcore Feminists and gay-rights activists) go to vent and get a degree which will not prepare them for the real world or help them get a job. An angry Gender and Sexuality Studies graduate with no job? Look out—that’s dangerous.

Occasionally, however, Mr. Rantz bends the rules in extraordinary cases, as when a professor has a website:

Introduction to U.S. Political Culture at the University of Oregon: While Professor Joseph Lowndes does attempt to at least appear fair—he offers a few conservative texts to counter the overwhelming liberal papers students must suffer through—it’s hard to take seriously an academic who, on his personal website, calls former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin “a kind of George Wallace in drag.” No fair-minded student would go to this professor for any lecture on political culture.

And as for that course on immigration law, well, Mr. Rantz doesn’t seem to see the need for courses on immigration law:

All you need to learn about immigration law I can teach you in this one sentence: it is illegal to enter our country without permission, bypassing our laws. Get in line, and we’ll welcome you—so long as you do not have nefarious purposes, of course.

You know, folks, with all the wingnut huffing and puffing about Teh Librul Professors, you rarely hear what a properly Wingnut U. would look like.  That’s why smart people like Mark Bauerlein can get away with saying, “Bérubé takes potshots at David Horowitz, but fails to deal with more serious conservatives, like, uh, a bunch of dead people and maybe E. D. Hirsch.” (That’s a rough paraphrase, but I can assure you that good ol’ Brad DeLong got the point.) First of all, the problem is way way deeper than U. No.; there is in fact an entire cottage industry of wingnut complaint about higher education, and lots of it looks and sounds pretty much like Jason Rantz’s List of Scary Courses.  Second of all, the wingnut complaint about higher education is a lot like the wingnut complaint about government:  they may say they want in, but at bottom, they hates it, they hates it, and just as Dubya appointed Heckuva Job Brownie to head an agency he couldn’t care less about, so too would the Jason Rantzes of the world teach courses on immigration law that consisted of the sentence “it is illegal to enter our country without permission” and supplemented by three hours a week of watching Lou Dobbs.  (Thanks for clearing up that confusing stuff about F and M student visas, I-129 forms for temporary workers, I-140s for longer visits, and the difference between residency and citizenship!  And thank goodness Professor Rantz’s course skipped over that silly stuff about “naturalization.” That would never help me get a job in today’s society today!) Just imagine Joseph T. Plumber as a Distinguished Professorship of Wartime Journamalism, and you’ve got your basic wingnut university.

Hmmm.  This brings up a point I’ve made a couple of times before, but just for the hell of it, let me give it another shot.  What follows are my remarks to Anne Neal of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni at our National Communication Association debate on “diversity in higher education” last November (for all both of you who wondered what exactly I said back then).  The final paragraph, I think, has some relevance for people who make Lists of Dangeral Courses, and for more serious conservatives in academe who really should get around to noticing that people who make Lists of Dangeral Courses are a bit of a problem for their side.


I want to open by saying something you might not expect me to say.  I don’t particularly like the rhetoric of diversity.  I’ve got nothing against ideological diversity on campus, within reason, of course: no Holocaust deniers in the history department and no Intelligent Design advocates in the life sciences, on the grounds that we have no business hiring such people any more than we should hire astrologers or faith healers.  But “diversity” is a sloppy concept.  It is contentless, for one thing, which is why the right has been able to deploy it so easily, complaining that universities foster every kind of diversity except diversity of opinion.  And for another thing, the primary reason we talk about diversity goes back to Lewis Powell’s rationale for affirmative action in the famous Bakke decision of thirty years ago (and I hope we can talk a bit more about that, because, as I point out in What’s Liberal, a good deal of conservative complaints about the political leanings of faculty are premised on a spurious analogy to affirmative action).  That opinion, you’ll recall, basically substituted the term “diversity” for the term “justice,” and made diversity the catch-all catchword for every kind of campus initiative ever since.  For example: I currently serve on a task force that is trying to make Penn State more accessible, in class and out, for students with disabilities.  (A subject you don’t often hear mentioned in these debates.) But the rationale for the formation of this task force, which is charged basically with getting people to obey a federal law, is that it will enhance diversity at Penn State.  I’ll take that rationale if I have to, but given my druthers, I would prefer to talk about doing justice to students with disabilities, just as I would prefer to talk about doing justice to women and minorities who were barred from institutions of higher learning for centuries.

That said, let me explain why I do not always trust ACTA as a player in these debates.  I actually think their goals are legitimate; they are one of many advocacy organizations in higher education, and they seek to move colleges and universities in a more conservative direction.  They make their case to trustees, alumni, legislators, and the general public, and I make mine.  But too often, the way they make that case is illegitimate.  For instance: in its landmark 2006 publication, How Many Ward Churchills?, ACTA claimed, on the basis of published course descriptions, that an astonishingly wide variety of subjects are inappropriately “politicized.” Here are two examples of the kind of intellectual work ACTA sought to associate with Ward Churchill:

Penn State University offers “American Masculinities,” which maps “how vexed ideas about maleness, manhood, and masculinity provided rough-riding presidents, High Modern novelists, Provincetown playwrights, queer regionalists, star-struck inverts, surly bohemians and others with a means to negotiate—and gender—the cultural and political turmoil that constituted modern American life.”

An anthropology course at the University of Illinois asks, “Are racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and other stereotypical ideologies of ‘the Other’ inevitable and universal, or do they have local histories and alternatives?” The course description informs students that the purpose of the class is to “challenge you to interrogate the cultural and historical foundations of the widespread ideologies that define ‘other’ populations,” which are “groups defined by ethnicity, ‘race,’ gender, health, religion, and sexual orientation.” (The professor’s use of scare quotes around the word “race” is itself a political statement, a common shorthand for indicating that race does not exist except as a social fiction.)

The Penn State course is included in How Many Ward Churchills?, I imagine, because there seems to be something rather queer going on in its examination of masculinities; the Illinois course is there because . . . well, it’s not entirely clear, because most educated people don’t see anything wrong with interrogating the historical foundations of racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism—or, for that matter, with putting “race” in scare quotes, because most educated people are aware that we’ve now learned enough about genetics to know that our use of the term race has no basis in biological fact.

ACTA is also the group that responded to 9/11 by collecting an array of statements made on American college campuses in the wake of the attacks, statements that included the following:  “ignorance breeds hate,” “hate breeds hate,” “our grief is not a cry for war,” “an eye for an eye leaves the world blind,” and “if Osama bin Laden is confirmed to be behind the attacks, the United States should bring him before an international tribunal on charges of crimes against humanity.” Again, why such statements should be cause for alarm is not clear—unless the goal is to mount a kind of campaign of vengeance against students and faculty who quoted Gandhi or opposed war as a response to the attacks.  I am reminded here of David Horowitz’s decision to include in his list of the 100 most dangerous professors in America one Caroline Higgins, a professor of peace studies who happens to teach at a Quaker college.

Now, these ACTA pamphlets could be called many things, but “intellectually honest” isn’t one of them.  What I’ve cited here are not examples of legitimate criticisms of American higher education; they are appeals to what might politely be called a low-information conservative constituency, that is, people who can be counted on to be outraged that there are literature courses that deal with masculinities and anthropology courses that deal with the historical origins of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and so forth.

I think everything depends here on what kind of discursive community ACTA is trying to participate in.  If we see ACTA as being one among a variety of conservative advocacy organizations, and this kind of campaign as being one version of Washington politics as usual, then fine—you can go ahead and accuse professors of palling around with terrorists and chastise us for not wearing flag lapel pins.  We know how that game works; we understand its standard operating procedure.  But if ACTA wants to be a legitimate player in debates over curricula and the direction of entire academic fields, well, then it actually has to try to make the case, in a detailed and substantive fashion, that literature courses should not examine American masculinities and anthropologists should not assign books like George Fredrickson’s Racism: A Short History. [Note to people reading this on computers: check out Timothy Burke’s comment in this thread, which is what I was reading when I wrote this bit.] And ACTA will have to abandon the easy but disreputable tactic of smearing such courses with an all-purpose Ward Churchill brush.

I’ve said that I’m not opposed to the idea that campuses should be ideologically diverse places.  I believe that in many ways they already are, especially when it comes to actual research agendas and actual classroom instruction.  But I also acknowledge that fields like mine are overwhelmingly populated by liberals and leftists of various kinds, and I argue in What’s Liberal that I would indeed like to have more conservative colleagues in literary study.  It would be good for students, good for faculty, good for “diversity”—but it would not be good if it were mandated by a legislature or an external advocacy group.  And here’s why: if conservatives want greater representation on college faculties, they should go about it the old-fashioned way: they should earn it.  That means more young conservatives going to graduate school, doing the research or the fieldwork, writing the dissertations, hunting for the jobs.  As I’ve said before, I would actually like to see a world in which more young conservatives took the arts and humanities seriously—and I think it’s just bizarre the way the arts drop out of these debates entirely. 

There’s a self-selection problem here, of course: if you imagine society being divvied up into various areas of activity—the clergy, the military, the world of high finance, the world of small business, education, the environment, and the arts, say—it’s not hard to figure out where the liberals are going to tend to wind up.  There’s also a weeding-out problem: some conservatives have come to the conclusion that it’s not worth the time and effort to get a graduate degree in a field dominated by the left.  But whatever difficulties young conservatives might have in such fields, they pale in comparison to the difficulties faced by the first women who entered academic fields a generation ago, and who faced not only ideological opposition but an entrenched sexism, up to and including routine sexual harassment, which young academic women today can scarcely imagine.  It took women a generation to transform a handful of academic fields like literature and anthropology.  Conservatives could do it too—if they really wanted to.

But this last point touches on a much larger question, a question that contemporary conservatism will have to answer for itself, without any help from me.  Complaining about the preponderance of liberals and leftists in the arts and humanities and social sciences has so far allowed the right to dodge the question of how many young conservatives are actually interested enough in education in arts, humanities, and social sciences to devote six or eight years of graduate study to these subjects.  The really curious thing, however, is that there is also a preponderance of liberals and leftists in the sciences, and no one can plausibly suggest that this is due to selection bias—as if physicists are looking for new Ph.D.s who bring a multicultural approach to superstring theory and biologists are subtly biased in favor of geneticists whose work criticizes Western imperialism.  The problem here—the elephant in the room, if you will—is that there is now an entire wing of the conservative moment that is opposed to science, be it the science of climate change or the science of stem cell research or the science of evolutionary theory.  This is also one reason the Republican party has lost so much support among educated professionals with postgraduate degrees: these people are quite aware of the fact that this wing of the conservative moment fears and distrusts educated professionals with postgraduate degrees.  Call it the Palin wing, for now.  And this is one reason I say I want to see more conservatives in academe: I would like very much to see the conservative movement repudiate its anti-scientific, anti-intellectual, anti-Enlightenment, anti-rationalist wing.  I would like to see more conservatives in the academic tent, knowing how the business works, with more of a stake in the enterprise.  That would be change I could believe in.

Note: The preceding talk has been post-partisanly approved as being part of a “reasonable, cordial, and constructive exchange.”

Posted by Michael on 01/15 at 01:48 PM
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