Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A Defense of the Loony Left

by Joe Miller

Okay, actually, I've no desire whatsoever to defend leftists. Nor would I dispute the claim that in American universities (at least in the humanities and the social sciences), the faculty lean noticeably to the left. I'll happily admit that I am a liberal--a neoliberal to be more precise. When it comes to economic policy, I believe very strongly in markets; indeed, I think that the market is the best method around for allocating scarce resources. I happen to think that markets don't do this perfectly, and I also think that efficiency--while a value--is not the only morally significant value, so I am willing to sacrifice some efficiency for a bit of economic justice. Safety nets are good ideas; safety nets that are nonpaternalistic are even better, so I much prefer, say, the Earned Income Credit to Food Stamps. In terms of social policy, I'm actually much further left. I figure that if you want to have a wedding at which you marry two women, a man and your pet rabbit while smoking peyote, worshipping the sun god, leaving the engine idling on your Hummer and reciting all your favorite bits of The Communist Manifesto while dancing around a burning cross and showing off pictures of your harp-seal hunting expedition, then more power to you. I'll probably decline your invitation to attend (unless you have crab cakes), but I won't try to stop your party.

Okay, you say, get to the point already. So I see, via Liberty Corner and Volokh, that noted public intellectual, Sean Hannity, offers the following observation:
Kids are indoctrinated. They'’re a captive audience. What can be done to remove these professors with these radical ideas from campus?
You've just got to love that Sean. Never met a question that he wouldn't beg. Knocks straw men down with one hand tied behind his back (see Colmes, Alan). Ad hominem attacks? Of course he wouldn't stoop to such tactics, and if you weren't such a pretentious shit trying to look smart with your poseur Latin maybe you could manage to read all the way through a sentence without betraying your unending ignorance.

Michael Berube amuses himself by providing a reductio ad absurdum (two Latin phrases in one post! I'm overeducated!) of Hannity's question. (It's good practice for a professor since Hannity manages to make undergraduates look like sparkling wits.) Berube's response focuses largely on academic freedom, a point to which regular commentator Tom of Liberty Corner takes exception:
Academic freedom seems to be fine for leftists as long as they hold the academy in thrall. More parents would send their children to schools that aren't dominated by leftists if (a) there were enough such schools and (b) the parents could afford to do so.
...
"Academic freedom" is not a license to waste the money of taxpayers, parents, and students on propagandizing. Academics -- like politicians -- aren't owed a living, in spite of their apparent belief to the contrary. It isn't a violation of "academic freedom" or freedom of speech to say "The junk you teach is worthless, and besides that you don't teach, you preach. Begone!"
Tom spends a lot of his post quoting approvingly from a review of David Horowitz's The Professors, a book that rather charmingly lists the 101 most dangerous professors in America. I'm really not sure what to say about Horowitz except maybe to remind him that you are talking about college professors in the humanities and social sciences. We can't be that dangerous. Why? Because no one freakin' listens to us in the first place. Hell, a big chunk of my students don't listen to me in class and I get to give them a bloody grade! Why anyone else would listen to me is a total mystery. I mean really. Who's reading this? Mom. The kid who has a paper due on academic freedom in 26 minutes and is currently cutting and pasting this into a Word document and hoping that no one notices. Otherwise? Bueller?

Besides, on a semi-serious note, how hard is it really to find 101 lunatics in any field? And how many college professors are there out there? There are about 150 of us just in my single medium-sized regional university. I suspect that it wouldn't be all that hard to find 101 screwy right-wing professors to fill the pages of a book either. I could always just start with the biology department at Bob Jones University. "Welcome to paleontology 101. Look at this human tooth discovered in Turkey; it belonged to Noah. And this mark here? We think it means Noah was eaten by aTyrannosaurus." (Okay, this didn't wind up being semi-serious after all.)

So is there a real point to be found buried under all the flippancy? Maybe. Look, the academy hasn't always leaned to the left. There was a pretty lengthy period in which universities were dominated by reactionaries, folks who decided that anything unorthodox really shouldn't be taught at all. These are the institutions that rejected Galileo, refused Hume a position on the faculty, banned Descartes, and resisted Newton. Why did some of the most respected universities in Europe act so stupidly? Because in each case those in charge decided that "the junk you teach is worthless, and besides that you don't teach, you preach. Begone!" Unfortunately, in each case, the worthless junk turned out to be, well, true.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not at all saying that I think there is a chance in hell that history will vindicate Marx or Lenin or that someday future academics will all look back and say, "How could 21st C academics have resisted the siren song of Derrida (sorry Jimi) for so long?" My point is that however strongly I feel that post-modernism is, to use a technical phrase, a gigantic pile of steamy crap, I don't have any way of knowing that to be true. It'll be bad enough if history records me as being on the wrong side of the post-modernist debate. Far worse if I turn out to be my century's equivalent of Cardinal Bellarmine.

This, of course, is Mill's point on On Liberty (you knew I had to be getting here sooner or later). Since we cannot really be certain in advance who is right and who is wrong, we really must permit all speech. In a university, an institution that is dedicated to uncovering Truth in all fields, however esoteric (or we were before the post-modernists showed up. Damn you French intellectuals!) , it becomes even more important not to censor open inquiry. Indeed, policies like tenure are needed precisely to avoid having professors who voice politically unpopular opinions from being run out of the academy. We need those opinions, even if we're sure that they must be wrong, if for no other reason than to force us to continue to defend our correct beliefs.

Do I think that there are a lot of really bad professors out there? No doubt. Are there a lot of professors who have tenure who probably should never have received it? Again, no doubt. Should we as a profession strive to ensure that those who preach rather than teach do not receive tenure at our institutions. Absolutely. Should we fire professors because we think that their conclusions are wrong. No way. Indeed, unless we allow free and open dissent, how will we even know which conclusions really are wrong?

11 Comments:

Blogger Rick said...

Personally, I have only encountered one example so far at Pembroke, and it was a slight one. It happened to be in the Poli Sci dept. and no discussion of the subject was allowed. Granted it was not a debate class, but still opinion should not be presented as absolute fact. This doesn't seem to be a problem in our Philosophy department; I am allowed to talk(or type)after all :)
Consequently, should Creationism or Intelligent Design be allowed to be taught in schools by academic freedom standards? So far the courts seem to be ruling no on the subject because its entirely subjective (and religious overtones). But isn't it subjectivity vs. objectivity that we are discussing here? My viewpoint (so far) is that parents should teach their children on subjective matters and teachers should educate on objective facts (ok, blurry lines thrown in for class DISCUSSION sake). Teacher's should be able to say whatever they wish _outside of class_ or with other professional academics, but I think some self-regulation is necessary in the classroom. (Except for our classes of course) ;)

12:30 PM  
Blogger Thomas said...

Joe,

You end on this note: "Should we fire professors because we think that their conclusions are wrong. No way. Indeed, unless we allow free and open dissent, how will we even know which conclusions really are wrong?"

Let me be quite clear that it's not the "conclusions" to which I object, it's the effort to advance certain political views -- of whatever stripe -- especially where those political views amount to obiter dicta, pronouncements that have nothing to do with the subject at hand and everything to do with a professor's uncontrollable urge to indoctrinate his or her students on a particular issue. Teachers are, after all, paid to teach students about how to think, not what conclusions to reach by thinking. (There are, of course, conclusions that flow properly from the method of a discipline, but that's not what's at issue here.)

Students who go to Bob Jones University already know what they're in for. Students who go to the University of Texas (partially at my expense) have a "right" to expect that they'll learn about how to "do" science (for example), without being subjected to unscientific rants that (for example) ridicule religion. Religion is not a fit subject for science, and vice versa, as I have explained in these posts:
http://libertycorner.blogspot.com/2005/01/atheism-religion-and-science.html
http://libertycorner.blogspot.com/2005/01/limits-of-science.html
http://libertycorner.blogspot.com/2005/01/beware-of-irrational-atheism.html

Similarly, I would expect a professor of political science to explain how politics is "done," but not to express an opinion about a current political issue, even by invoking a historical "parallel."

The same standard applies to all subjects, from analytical geometry and anthropology to women's studies and zoology. Courses such as women's studies, it seems to me, were devised for the purpose of indoctrination and ought to be verboten in any university that takes seriously its obligation to teach students how to think and not what to think. (Again, there's nothing wrong with showing how the method of a discipline, when applied to facts, leads to certain conclusions, but that should not be done with the objective of advancing a particular political agenda.)

Most reprehensible is the teacher who penalizes a student for expressing an opinion or coming to a conclusion that is not in accord with the teacher's political views. Were I in charge, I would frog-march such teachers off campus.

Therefore, when a professor steps over the line repeatedly -- and at my expense -- he or she should be disciplined. Not for his or her opinions but for indoctrinating students instead of teaching them.

Anyway, it's always a pleasure to read your blog. This post is especially witty. You have caught the blog-bug. Keep it up.

Tom

1:14 PM  
Blogger Thomas said...

P.S. I forgot to rant about campus speech codes, which inhibit and punish the free expression of opinions by students. (Free expression doesn't include disruptive behavior, of course, one example of which would be obnoxious speechifying in a classroom.) You've undoubtedly seen the story about the "affirmative action" bake sale at DePaul University:

http://www.cnsnews.com/ViewPolitics.asp?Page=\Politics\archive\200602\POL20060223a.html

2:41 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Tom,
hahaha!
I just read the article at the link you posted. What a great idea! I love the irony of investigating the students for harrasment without even considering that their Affirmative Action policy might violate their harrasment policy.

5:16 PM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...

Tom,

Similarly, I would expect a professor of political science to explain how politics is "done," but not to express an opinion about a current political issue, even by invoking a historical "parallel."
...
The same standard applies to all subjects, from analytical geometry and anthropology to women's studies and zoology.

The only real issue that I would see here is kind of a theoretical one. Actually, it's pretty abstract in that it's related to my more views about what certain disciplines do. See, I think that there are several different sorts of methods for addressing questions about the world. Different sorts of questions require different sorts of methods. Thus some questions require the scientific method, while others require the engineering method.

Some subjects, however, aren't really suited to either of these things. Those subjects require what I (being vain about my subject) call the philosophical method, which is, as I see it, a set of arguments for what are usually pretty abstract claims that frequently do not admit of any sort of empirical observation. Thus I might ask the question, "What is justice?" That's an important question to ask and to answer, but one which science can't help us address.

So getting back to your point, my worry is that your comments--that professors should teach facts and teach students how to think while leaving the drawing of conclusions up to students--is a suggestion that will work nicely for questions that use the scientific or the engineering method, both of which apply to questions about which there actually are observable facts. Disciplines that require the philosophical (philosophy obviously, but also religion or English or art, or maybe history) method, though, may not be able to use that approach.

How, for instance, would I confine my discussions just to facts? I'm currently teaching just war theory. There aren't any facts to teach. Indeed, even trying to confine myself just to saying what it is that Walzer says about just war theory may prove problematic since it's possible to disagree about what Walzer's argument for something actually is.

In my classes, then, I try to walk a line. At the intro level, I do argue for certain things. But I choose what things to argue for based on what the students in my class seem inclined to accept. Whatever position most of them seem to want to take, I argue the reverse. That leaves me in the odd position of arguing for both Marxism and anarcho-capitalism in the same course. On the last day of class, I allow students to ask about my own positions. I figure that I'll have done my job correctly if they have no idea what I actually think on that last day.

My upper-level courses are different. There I do actually argue for my own position. There is, however, no pressure (other than the force of reason) to agree with me (at least I hope not. I suppose that my student can leave anonymous comments here if they want to disagree). Indeed, our best classes are the ones in which people do disagree with me. I do know for sure that I don't grade down based on whether I agree with the content of a paper.

I guess what I'm saying is that I don't think that it's impossible for a professor to discuss actual political questions, to voice an opinion, and still have the course be perfectly fair (both in appearance and in fact) to students of all persuasion.

Most reprehensible is the teacher who penalizes a student for expressing an opinion or coming to a conclusion that is not in accord with the teacher's political views. Were I in charge, I would frog-march such teachers off campus.

This is tricky, though. How exactly do we draw the line between determining whether a grade has been assigned because I disagree with the opinion or because it presents what is, in my professional opinion, a crappy argument. Just a quick example: suppose a student writes a paper on the morality of gay marriage and the argument in the paper is that the Bible says that homosexuality is wrong. Philosophically, that's a crummy argument. It's a naked appeal to authority with no effort being made to demonstrate that the authority in question (a) exists, (b) actually wrote the text in question, or (c) is worth being listened to in the event that (a) and (b) obtain. It's also the case that I'm an atheist, so I think that the fact that the Bible says something is completely meaningless. There are lots of things that the Bible says that I accept, but I accept them for other reasons.

Now suppose that the student who wrote said essay goes to my dean and complains of the D s/he received on the essay. Should I be frog-marched off campus? I do in fact disagree with the student's conclusion. The paper is also crappy, as it fails to present a good argument.

If that grade is okay, though, then why isn't it equally okay when the Marxist professor gives a crummy grade to a paper on Hayek because, in the opinion of the professor, the paper fails to present a good argument? What do we mean by a good argument? Do we mean that it's an argument that someone might accept? That's surely too weak a standard. Do we mean merely that the conclusions follow from the premises? That, too, is surely too weak, as complete gibberish may well be valid but totally unsound.

It seems to me that we have to rely on the judgment of the professor to determine what counts as a good argument and what doesn't. After all, it's the professor who is the expert in the subject, not the dean or the student or even the taxpayers.

Again, I say all of this not to dispute the claim that crummy professors exist. They do. I went to grad school with a couple of people who really ought not be allowed near college students. Fortunately, I think that hiring committees agree, as they have yet to be employed despite starting grad school while I was still an undergrad. We as professors should be more diligent at spotting those who use the classroom as a bully pulpit.

But I fear that once you start marching professors out of the classroom claiming that their own views have biased their grading, then you take the first step down a slippery slope. At the bottom of that slope, taxpayers and not subject matter experts end up designing syllabi for courses.

10:20 PM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...

Tom,

Forgot to mention, thanks for the kind words. And for the very amusing link. I've always been puzzled by speech codes. Most of them seem to be either going away or already gone; a lot of universities decided after a brief experiment back in the '80s and '90s that they weren't such a good idea.

I'm not sure how a university can manage to keep a straight face if it decides to defend outrageous claims by its faculty in the name of academic freedom while punishing students for uttering certain claims.

As for me, I'm happy to let loony students say what they wish also. See my earlier post here.

10:40 PM  
Blogger Thomas said...

Joe,

To take your last comment first, I agree 100-percent with your post about "Free Speech for the Decidely Wrong." I am a Millian when it comes to speech. (Though I do draw the line at the media when it publishes secrets that might jeopardize a war effort.) My argument with teachers who preach has to do with their "dereliction of duty," not with what they say. Again, I would hold teachers of all political stripes to the same standard.

As for the issue of teachers who preach, I agree with your characterization about the different sorts of methods for understanding the world. I agree also that talking about the "real world" is, in many subjects, the best possible way to bring home an understanding of the subject. Some professors -- you're undoubtedly among them (and I mean that, sincerely) -- are able to voice opinions without directing their students toward certain conclusions. I probably couldn't do that because, as I discovered when I was a manager, I have an intimidating personality that I'm not able to soften (except around my grandchildren). Some professors are like me, and are not able to do voice their opinions without intimidating (most) of their students. And some professors have been known aim for intimidation, and then to penalize students who don't hew to the "party line."

The question, then, is how best to separate the sheep from the goats. (There's an old saying for you.) I'm looking at the problem as an outsider with a rather hard-nosed personality. What you're saying, I think, is that my frog-marching method -- even if carried out for just, documented cause -- might have a chilling effect on other professors, all out of proportion to the problem, which is confined to relatively few "bad apples." I can accept that judgment, provided that the bad apples get their just desserts (bad pun) in the press, from time to time, as a reminder that bad apples get made into applesauce. (Sorry, couldn't resist stretching the metaphor.)

Final note: In my last comment on "War, the Constitution, etc." I asked "What should I read that might convince me that there is an 'impartial morality' to which I might defer...?" That's a serious question. I'd be grateful for a recommendation.

Tom

12:44 AM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

Rick, I hate to say this...

There is not objectivity. Especially when it comes to one person attempting to impart any sort of knowledge onto anyone else. It just doesn't work that way. The human brain is incapable of just spouting "facts" without that information having been colored in some way by the speaker's experience.

I say if you people don't want other people indoctrinating your kids, don't bother teaching them. It is part and parcel of the package you requested.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Mitch,
I'm speaking more along the lines of a teacher saying that... "in the run up to the Iraq war much of the intelligence from multiple countries turned out to be faulty" instead of say..."that war criminal, George Bush, knowingly altered intelligence, that supid bastard, and outright lied to the American people so he could go to war for oil." That's what I mean by objective.

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