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Alan Kors and the unbearable sadness of educating

It’s a culture-war commonplace that the Left has dumbed-down higher education with its namby-pamby political correctness, hostility to the Western canon, race- and gender-obsessed pseudo-scholarship, etc. What I’m finding, though, is that nothing dumbs down a professor like the culture war. Exhibit A is KC Johnson’s Durham-in-Wonderland (DIW), where a facade of PhD-quality analysis masks a hodgepodge of shortcut reasoning and simple-minded literalism. Recently I came across an article that can serve as Exhibit B—a piece by history professor Alan Kors in the May issue of the New Criterion, “On the sadness of higher education.” [That link won’t get you the full text, but the Wall Street Journal has it.]

It’s not surprising that DIW plays well to the anti-intellectual crowd, since Johnson is telling them exactly what they want to hear. I don’t understand how anyone who’s pro-intellectual can swallow the academic-culture side of DIW. It’s especially disconcerting that conservative academics—an embattled minority, or so they say, but presumably still pro-intellectual—are so pleased by Johnson’s dogged prosecution of the “loopy left” that they don’t care how many corners he cuts or how much he caters to ignorance to do it. As long as he’s nailing the guilt-presuming purveyors of bias and relativism, there seems to be no expectation that he should rise to a higher intellectual standard himself.

I’ve been browsing the academic blogosphere trying to understand this disconnect. A link from DIW led me to Erin O’Connor’s blog Critical Mass, where it seemed I might find a more reflective version of Johnson’s general perspective on academia. Her tone is less strident and her interests are more flexible. On the other hand, she describes her blog as “a running chronicle of cant on American campuses,” so the focus is not on what’s typical or representative, it’s on what’s outrageously or pathologically extreme (like the Aliza Shvarts scandal at Yale, which was her main topic during the latter half of April). Even if the targets are chosen from across the political spectrum, it’s a focus that’s good at generating horror and scorn but not so good at fostering understanding. And as far as I can tell, O’Connor’s radar is consistently aimed to the left—maybe she thinks that’s where cant always comes from. DIW is chock-full of right-wing cant, though it’s easy to be oblivious to it if you’re energized by the rhetoric or fooled by the smoke screens (this can’t be a right-wing blog, I support Obama!).

O’Connor posted a long excerpt of Kors’ article, adding a little commentary that highlights his role as co-founder, with Harvey Silverglate, of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). It’s an organization that seems to have a lot of credibility, and not just with the conservative set. I’m sympathetic to their stated cause, and as far as I can tell they’re above-board and effective in pursuing it. But I’m not impressed by the one-sided attention to the lacrosse case on their web site or by Silverglate’s pontification on the subject. I left a comment on O’Connor’s post wondering about some of this and suggesting that for Kors and Silverglate, as for Johnson, ideological considerations trump intellectual standards. The responses were pretty routine, though J.A. DeLater gets some brownie points for metaphorically linking career academics to cockroaches because “[they] can tolerate much higher levels of toxic radiation than humans.”

I tried to post a follow-up comment but apparently the dog ate it. For the record, I’ve attached it to the end of this post. I had the same experience with DIW a few weeks ago. I can’t see any good reason for rejecting either comment—it seems most likely that Johnson and then O’Connor decided that it was easiest to duck the challenge (but I would think that, wouldn’t I?). Given his laissez-faire comment policy and the trivializing insinuation he’d put into my mouth, it was especially questionable coming from Johnson. But nobody owes it to me to post my comments, and it’s possible one or the other was lost through an error or a glitch. [O’Connor’s explanation, which I have no trouble accepting, is that it was knocked out by her spam filter]

When I read all of Kors’ article, it seemed like the product of a split personality, and that O’Connor’s quote only represented one side. In the first part of the article, he looks back at his formative years as a scholar, gracefully evoking the atmosphere of committed intellectualism that drew him in.

The academic world that I first encountered was one of both intellectual beauty and profound flaws. I was taught at Princeton, in the early 1960s—in history and literature, above all—before the congeries that we term “the Sixties” began. Most of my professors were probably men of the Left—that’s what the surveys tell me—but that fact was never apparent to me, because, except in rare cases, their politics or even their ideological leanings were not inferable from their teaching or syllabi. Reasoned and informed dissent from professorial devil’s advocacy or interpretation was encouraged and rewarded, including challenges to the very terms of an examination question. In retrospect, professors who must have disagreed fundamentally with works such as David Donald’s Lincoln Reconsidered (with its celebrated explanation of the abolitionists’ contempt for Lincoln in terms of the loss of status of their fathers’ once-privileged social group) assigned them for our open-minded academic consideration. My professor of Tudor-Stuart history, emerging from the bitter Oxbridge debates over explanations of the English Civil War in terms of class conflict, assigned Jack Hexter’s stunning Reappraisals in Social History to us. When I opined to him somewhat apprehensively that Hexter appeared to have exposed the tendentious use of statistics in my professor’s own prior work, he replied, “You’re absolutely correct.” These were not uncommon experiences in Princeton’s classrooms, and I knew, then and there, that I wanted both to do history and to teach.

In grad school at Harvard, while a few dates left in the midst of dinner on discovering my free- market and hawkish politics, and while I did get thrown out of a party for opposing, when asked, Eugene McCarthy’s view of Vietnam (this should have been a warning), the classroom remained open and, by design, intellectually pluralistic. In our graduate colloquium, we read the major historiographical debates, in works theoretical and monographic, and critical acumen was acknowledged in the force of an argument, not in its political provenance…. In the midst of the “cultural revolution” of the early 1970s, I co-founded a College House and lived warmly with students who mostly ranged from liberal Democrats to true believers of the New Left. They loved to discuss everything, and they did so in good faith and (almost) always ad rem. My students, whom I still meet frequently outside of class, still love to discuss everything, and they still do so in good faith and without ad hominem distractions from real conversation and debate. Critics of higher education who blame students for today’s catastrophes are categorically wrong about agency. It is the faculties (both the minority of zealots and the majority of cowards) and the administrations (both the minority of ideologues and the majority of careerists with double standards) who are to blame.

The academic world I so loved revealed itself best in an undergraduate course I’d taken on the history of Europe in the twentieth century. When the professor, a distinguished intellectual of the Left, returned the midterms to the hundred plus or so of us who were in his course, he said that we’d saddened and embarrassed him. “I gave you readings that allowed you to reach such diverse conclusions,” he explained, “but you all told me what you thought I wanted to hear.” He informed us that he would add a major section to the final exam: “I’m going to assign the book I disagree with most about the twentieth century. I’m not going to ask you to criticize it, but, instead, to re-create its arguments with intellectual empathy, demonstrating that you understand the perspectives from which he understands and analyzes the world.” I was moved by that. The work was Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, and it changed the course of my intellectual and moral life. It also showed me immediately how I wanted to teach as an intellectual historian. Each year, I teach thinkers as diverse as Pascal and Spinoza, Hobbes and Butler, Wesley and Diderot. I offer courses on intellectual history, and the goal of my teaching is to make certain that my students understand the perspectives and rich debates that have shaped the dialogue of the West. I don’t want disciples of my worldview. I want students who know how to read deeply, how to analyze, how to locate the essential points of similarity and divergence among thinkers, and, indeed, how to understand, with intellectual empathy, how the world looks from the diverse perspectives that constitute the history of European thought. I know that I am not alone, but I also know, alas, that I am in a distinct minority in my pedagogical goals in the humanities and the so-called social sciences.

Even with his admirable determination not to treat those times as a golden era—he acknowledges and deplores the racism, sexism, snobbery, and intolerance—there’s still some rose-coloring. If I wrote about my time at Reed College in the early 80s it would probably be colored in much the same way. I remember it as high-minded time and place, with some fine, challenging, dedicated teachers. What I see around me and what happens in my own classes never seems to rise to quite the same level.

Johnson has worked hard to portray a contingent of Duke professors as threats not only to students but to the integrity of the university. Those associated with African & African American Studies (AAAS) and Women’s Studies, especially, have been criticized for sacrificing academic standards to their extremist political agendas. I take the concern seriously, if not the rhetoric—it’s intellectual poison for professors to get into the business of indoctrination. Reading DIW did get me thinking about the issue, but I’ve waded through plenty of the alarmist rhetoric Johnson’s thrown at it and come up with virtually nothing of substance that’s either constructive or insightful. In three paragraphs that evoke a free-ranging dialog of ideas—an intellectual climate that’s not simply tolerant but actively seeks out challenging alternatives—Kors conveys more about the fundamental academic values at stake than Johnson has managed to fit into a few hundred thousand agenda-driven words.

When Johnson talks about the ideals of his profession, he seems to be referring to respect for due process and adherence to the faculty handbook—he doesn’t show any particular interest in the values that Kors highlights, so I probably shouldn’t expect his criticism to be guided by them. It’s harder to fathom why Kors lovingly wraps his souvenir only to toss the package out the window in order to grind his culture-war axe. He’s editorializing, not bouncing ideas around in a seminar, so it’s true that in the end scholarly neutrality has to take a back seat. But where is the spirit behind “read[ing] deeply,… locating essential points of similarity and divergence among thinkers,… [and] understand[ing], with intellectual empathy, how the world looks from the diverse perspectives that constitute the history of European thought”? If that’s the attitude that best serves students in the classroom, how is it that the readers of the New Criterion are best served by ditching it?

Turning to the contemporary university, Kors finds what seems to be an entirely new species of professor—careerists who mean no harm but are at the mercy of a reflexive ideology:

To understand why and to understand one of the few vulnerabilities of universities to actual accountability and reform, one must understand the hierarchy that predicts academic institutional behavior: sexuality (in their language, “sexual preference”) trumps neutrality; race properly conceived easily trumps sexuality; sex properly conceived (or, in their language, “gender”) easily trumps race; and careerism categorically trumps everything. From that perspective, the careerists who run our campuses have made a Faustian bargain (though they differ on which is the devil’s portion)….. From diverse motives of ideological sympathies and acute awareness of who can blackball their next career moves, they have given over the humanities, the soft social sciences, and the entire university in loco parentis to the zealots of oppression studies and coercive identity politics. In the latter case, it truly has been a conspiracy, with networking and common plans. In the former case—the professoriate and the curriculum—it is generally, with striking politicized exceptions, a soft tyranny of groupthink, unconscious bias, and self-inflated sense of a mission of demystification. Most of the professors I meet are kind, indeed sweet, and certainly mean no harm. It is profoundly sad to see what they have become.

One thing Kors and Silverglate have in common is ready access to the pathos of the decline and fall of the academy. Kors’ “profoundly sad” conclusion echos a remark Silverglate made about Duke chemistry professor Steven Baldwin—that it was “unbearably sad” that Baldwin ended up apologizing for the scathing criticism of Duke’s administration and some of its faculty in his October 2006 op-ed.

Kors’ facile reduction of a large segment of the university to a simplistic ideology brings the Baldwin incident to mind in other ways. According to Johnson and Silverglate, what happened after Baldwin’s op-ed was published was that left-wing ideologues—the group Kors is lamenting—ganging up on him because he dared to buck their agenda. That may or may not be what happened, as far as I can tell. What’s striking to me is that those who take Baldwin’s side are determined to reduce the incident to that one single thing, no matter what. They’re horrified by Robyn Weigman’s charge that Baldwin used “the language of lynching,” but they can’t seem to imagine any legitimate objections to Baldwin’s suggestion that certain (unnamed) colleagues should be tarred and feathered and then run out of the academy on a rail. That starts looking a lot like a self-serving delusion when you realize that the only trace of this onslaught against Baldwin that’s come to light is two letters—Weigman’s published response and Kerrie Haynie’s personal email—and the latter doesn’t fit the narrative of shrill pc outrage at all.

No professor at Duke was a more outspoken advocate of the university in loco parentis than Baldwin. Personally, I’m almost as bothered by his paternalistic certainty that we should all be treating our students as “our kids” as I am by his enthusiasm for summary justice. The parental overtones of the op-ed don’t seem to have been much on Silverglate’s mind, but it’s still ironic that he seems to find the philosophy laudable—he certainly doesn’t make any object to it—while Kors finds it deplorable.

It would be pretty fruitless to try to refute Kors’ sweeping conclusions, especially since they’re drawn from personal experience. I’ll pull up a few texts associated with the lacrosse case, though, to suggest that he’s chosen to face down a flock of cardboard cutouts instead of taking up the other side’s perspective as a challenge.

In the Social Text article that figured in my last two posts, Robyn Wiegman, Wahneema Lubiano, and Michael Hardt have quite a bit to say about the university in loco parentis. They see the university before the revolutions of the 60’s as an analogue of the patriarchal family. The student revolutions forced an end to that paternalism, but according to the authors the parental model has made a comeback in a somewhat different guise, serving the business interests of the institution, not the political interests of any of its faculty.

As various historians of the U.S. university have noted, the reemergence of parental logics in the aftermath of student revolts has been accomplished primarily by legal, not moral or ethical, debate. Kinship obligations manage the imaginary realm in which the university’s need to protect its students from mental health problems, addictive behaviors, and violence to the self or others arises from its need to protect itself from its students and their increasingly litigious parents. It’s a complicated negotiation: the cultivation of students as “our kids” functions in order to safeguard the university from the violence and abuse that our kids might do to themselves and to others, with the specter of lawsuits constantly looming in the background. …

The good parents of today’s university live in the student service sector. It functions as the relay between demands for the university to address the students’ needs as members of specific groups (whether gender, racial, ethnic, national, or sexual) and the institution’s investment in the renewed cultivation of the parental model. Under the auspices of student services, the new publics that accompanied student revolt can be corralled back into the cultivation of the student as the institution’s child and as its future donor. … To say, then, that student services becomes the means to acknowledge the importance of race and gender in the form of consigning them to the realm of student life is to mark the way that the force of student rebellions has been managed, in much the same way that the primary discourse mobilized by these agencies—of social justice, fairness, and equity—has been reproduced in the service of empowering those who were once its targets.

In this context, it is important to note how the early historical ties between student centers and the intellectual projects of race and gender studies have been disarticulated in this process. On many campuses, in fact, there is growing antagonism between the two entities. In the relation between women’s studies and women’s centers, for instance, it is often the stance toward sex and sex publics that generates a rift, especially when scholars who work in queer studies, human rights, and sex trafficking do not follow the reigning discourses of women’s empowerment that so closely analogize sex and oppression. University administrations have found a certain relief in the constituency languages that student services provides, in part because these languages displace the problem of attending to the knowledge challenges that rigorous attention to the study of gender and racial formation raises.

The only way I could really evaluate this analysis would be to work through some examples, taking into account the practical problems of managing a community of thousands of post-adolescents who are making their first steps into adulthood and independence. Right now all I want to point out is that what Kors portrays as a unit with a common purpose—the professors of “oppression studies” and the parental administrative apparatus—looks from the other side like two distinct things that are more and more at odds, despite their common roots.

The distinction between the corporate interests of the university and the political and intellectual interests of its faculty is an important one. History professor Claire Potter (aka Tenured Radical) sums it up well—she clearly isn’t a fan of the university’s “‘rights free’ zone.”

Johnson may have been correct that Duke did not handle the lacrosse case well… but this was not a symptom of the university’s liberalism as an institution—quite the reverse, in fact. It is the flip side of a university governance process, almost ubiquitously shared among institutions of higher education, that more or less declares the campus a “rights-free” zone. This elimination of civil rights in university processes is neither a liberal nor a conservative issue: it is a question of whether the private sphere—whether that be Walmart or Harvard—can make its own rules to protect its own interests as an institution. The law says they can, and they do.

Potter’s analysis is emphatically borne out by Elliott Wolf’s “Dude, where’s my rights…” series in the Duke Chronicle (there are annotated versions of the articles on his home page). Wolf documents eight years of steady erosion in respect for due process in the Duke Judicial Code. It’s first-rate student journalism that picks up on an issue central to the lacrosse case but without getting mired in lacrosse-case tunnel vision. He sums up his findings in the Coupe de Grace (his term):

Since 1999, the Office of Judicial Affairs has watered down or eliminated
every major due process right afforded students facing adjudication; it has so broadened
its policies and procedures that almost any student could be summarily subjected to
judicial action for any reason; it has eliminated all representative student involvement in
making and enforcing undergraduate policy; and lastly, it has begun colluding with local
law enforcement in ways that arguably undermine students’ basic constitutional rights.

Wolf’s last piece for the Chronicle, a covert look at the Student Affairs-Industrial Complex, meshes nicely with Wiegman, Lubiano, and Hardt’s observations about the “student services sector.” The overall impression I get from Wolf’s coverage is that student affairs (judicial or otherwise) is its own little fiefdom, largely independent of the faculty.

Kors works himself up to a fever pitch with a string of rhetorical questions about the “almost insoluble problem of time” faced by professors intent on indoctrination: “How, in only four years, can they disabuse students of the notion that the capital, risk, productivity, and military sacrifice of others have contributed to human dignity and to the prospects of a decent society?” etc., etc. He follows that a couple of paragraphs later with the statement of purpose that, in his opinion, would constitute “truth in advertising” for the leftist “academic enterprises” that have a grip on higher education:

Let colleges and universities have the courage, if they truly believe what they say privately to themselves and to me, to put it on page one of their catalogues, fundraising letters, and appeals to the State assembly: “This University believes that your sons and daughters are the racist, sexist, homophobic, Eurocentric progeny or victims of an oppressive society from which most of them receive unjust privilege. In return for tuition and massive taxpayer subsidy, we shall assign rights on a compensatory basis and undertake by coercion their moral and political enlightenment.”

I’ve come across this idea before—near the end of one of the earliest comments I got on a lacrosse-case post, for instance:

Why should I increase my law practice dramatically to earn more income to support the salaries of faculty members who think the constitution does not apply to their students? I don’t like that it comes down to money but it is a consideration. I understand the faculty believes I have raised a racist and sexist child who desperately needs their education.

The person who wrote that is too articulate and thoughtful for me to dismiss, and I can see how someone who’s remote from university life could end up with the impression. It’s nutty stuff coming from a professor, though. Kors’ dire portrait goes far beyond reasonable concern about the cumulative effect of subtle, unconscious bias combined with the apparent willingness of a few professors to flirt with the line between education and indoctrination, and perhaps cross it. That may be a real problem, but in the context of the whole array of social and intellectual influences the students are navigating, it doesn’t justify the hyperbole. And if Kors is right about what an honest mission statement would look like, Duke is doing a miserable job of it.

It could be that I missed the memo laying out this brave new world of undergraduate education—I’ve never really been in the loop. But for what it’s worth, I’ll outline a few of the ways that Kors’ story clashes with my own experience. I’ve taught traditional music theory classes—thoroughly Eurocentric, if we have to use the word. I also taught Introduction to Jazz, a class that was cross-listed under AAAS. I’ve never imagined that I could arrange, much less coerce, any moral or political enlightenment from the students in my classes. I’m sure it would backfire if I tried, and I’d feel completely ridiculous in the process. If a student of mine has ever felt that they were being judged on some kind of political correctness it was either a misunderstanding or a failure on my part to live up to my professional commitments. I’ve never gotten an overt or covert message that I should teach to an approved ideology. In fact I’ve had closer to the opposite experience—in five semesters teaching Introduction to Jazz, which is a fairly large survey course, I never heard a thing from AAAS about what I should teach, or, for that matter, about anything else. From my experience if there’s a problem it’s the hands-off attitude, not pressure to conform.

As for as my own priorities, I can’t imagine wasting time and energy on indoctrination when I could be digging into the artistic and historical feast of, say, Louis Armstrong’s Dinah (check out the video!), Duke Ellington’s Black and Tan Fantasy, or Charlie Parker’s Ko-Ko, or guiding a class through the quasi-mathematical discipline of sixteenth-century counterpoint. I can’t imagine talking about Beethoven in order to dismiss him as a dead white male any more than I can imagine talking about the blues in order to trivialize it as salacious and primitive. I would hope to challenge students with either attitude to reconsider (last year I put up some thoughts about teaching classical music and the blues as well as a long post about my experience with Introduction to Jazz). I’ve never felt that I was out of step with my colleagues about any of this.

That’s just me, and I’m not denying that there’s a basis for Kors’ complaints. There’s no shortage of anti-Western sentiment in the humanities—some but not all of it is thoughtless and reflexive (it’s not too much for the edifice of Western civilization to bear, as far as I can tell). The clash of values has been heated in music departments—professors are great at turning big ideas and ideologies into a pretext for a turf war, so there’s been pettiness on both sides. But for many of us, if there’s a problem with today’s more inclusive concept of what music is worth studying, it’s that we’ve ended up with an embarrassment of riches.

Kors says, “I fight for intellectual pluralism, for legal equality, and for fairness simply because it is my duty to bear witness to the values I cherish, with no expectation of success.” It would be nice if he didn’t just bear witness but actually put those precious values into practice for the general public to see, instead of insulting them in order to fire up the anti-intellectual enemies of his enemy.

[O’Connor has now responded to this post, or at least complained about it. Her counterargument, if you can call it that, boils down to the observation that Kors is the kind of person that sensible people believe and all I’ve done is throw sour grapes at him. Natually I had to write a followup, too.]

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The comment of mine that wasn’t cleared on was rejected by the spam filter on Critical Mass:

DeLater’s impression of present-day academia, even more than Kors’, seems like a comic-book version of reality as I see it. It’s great for nursing grudges and fruitless to argue with.

I read all of Kors’ article after posting my comment. The earlier part, which I liked, is a description of an intellectual climate in which professors fostered intellectualism over ideology and valued independent thought on the part of their students, even encouraged students to follow lines of reasoning that challenged their professor’s political convictions. So it seems that his ideal for the university is very close to mine. I was thinking about that kind of intellectual openness when I commented (tongue in cheek, more or less) about my own relativism.

It’s exactly those values that I can’t reconcile with Johnson’s criticism. His argument is often circular and serious challenges are studiously avoided. And it thrives on false choices like the one implicit in TG’s challenge—to criticize it is not necessarily to make a “pro-Duke 88 argument.” This comment thread isn’t the place to spell the issues out in detail. If you’re interested in the basis for my opinion, go here. But don’t bother if you’ve got the controversy neatly packaged up and you want to keep it that way.

{ 6 } Comments

  1. Debrah | May 21, 2008 at 11:03 | Permalink

    Debrah skimmed my post and decided to take it personally. You can read her comment over at her place.

  2. RRH | May 27, 2008 at 18:54 | Permalink

    I think you and I have very different definitions of “intellect” and “extremism”. You seem to think that the 88ists at Duke are (1) intellectuals and (2) not extremists. You seem to think much of KC Johnson’s commentary is (1) anti-intellectual and (2) extremist.

    I invite you to witness the latest effort of a Duke professor to prove that he’s “an intellect.”

    There, Prof. Tim “Spirit of the Lynch Mob” Tyson blabs about his estimate of the amount Duke paid in its confidential settlement with the three indicted players. Not content with that, Prof. Tyson also claims that prosecutors put Darryl Hunt on trial while knowing he was innocent, and that a jury of racists convicted him on “no evidence”.

    I’m sorry, but I have to wonder about your definitions when you find people like Prof. Tyson to be either intellectual or not extreme.


    ~   ~   ~

    “Extremist” is a sloppy word that I probably let myself get away with more than I should. But I don’t think of Johnson as an extremist—if I gave that impression either I’ve changed my mind or I wasn’t expressing myself well. He doesn’t seem to mind feeding ammunition to extremists, which isn’t something I admire. I’ve tried a number of times in a number of ways to explain what I feel is anti-intellectual about his criticism, so I’m not sure what I can add to that.

    Where we really disagree is about what it means to talk about “88ers” and “people like Prof. Tyson.” I don’t think either is very useful, which is why I’ve studied the statements and work of a few professors who’ve been knocked around on DIW and written about them individually. So I’m comfortable saying that Mark Anthony Neal is a better writer and a truer intellectual than Johnson. That, I should say, is judging each by their blogging, and Johnson primarily by DIW. Probably I’d conclude the same thing about some others among the 88, but I’m making no claim about all of them except that it’s silly to make sweeping claims about the “Group.”

    You can read for yourself how I react to Tyson.

  3. R.J. O'Hara | May 28, 2008 at 19:50 | Permalink

    “Wolf’s last piece for the Chronicle, a covert look at the Student Affairs-Industrial Complex…”

    Wow, many thanks indeed for that link. It’s an important piece and I hadn’t seen it.

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    Glad to help—it’s good stuff.

  4. Recovering Academic | May 29, 2008 at 09:41 | Permalink

    “I take the concern seriously, if not the rhetoric–it’s intellectual poison for professors to get into the business of indoctrination.” And so forth.

    I attended a forum at Duke in February ‘07 entitled “Shut Up and Teach?” in which a panel of six Duke faculty (W. Lubiano, M. A. Neal, and C. Piot among others) complained that someone was trying to silence them simply by criticizing what they say.

    During the Q&A afterwards Duke faculty members made the claim (summarizing) that all white students at Duke are racists predicated simply by the color of their skin and their assumed “white privilege” and they need to be taught the error of their ways. They baldly admitted this should be the goal of the so-called Campus Culture Initiative (which has apparently suffered an unlamented demise). Sounds like intent to indoctrinate to me. (There’s a nasty name for people who look at you and judge you as a person based on the color of your skin.)

    I’d give you a direct transcript of their remarks but they were so ashamed of what they were doing that they refuse to provide one and prevented any video or audio recording except for their own copy which is apparently locked away in the catacombs under Duke Chapel never to be seen again.

    I was a university faculty member for 14 years and I can absolutely confirm what happens to faculty when they have a difference of opinion with the prevailing groupthink.

    ~   ~   ~

    It’s not like intolerance and pettiness was unknown in academia until the radical left moved in. And did I say somewhere that the “Shut up and teach?” forum was a model of open-minded debate, or that every bit of left-wing political activism on campus is tolerant and benign?

    This is how it always seems to go, though. “I saw this thing once, and…” The lacrosse case has not been marked by conspicuous tolerance from any side, and I don’t have any patience with people who insist that the problems are caused by those nasty folks over there.

  5. Recovering Academic | May 29, 2008 at 16:51 | Permalink

    I take the concern seriously, if not the rhetoric–it’s intellectual poison for professors to get into the business of indoctrination.

    Kors works himself up to a fever pitch with a string of rhetorical questions about the “almost insoluble problem of time” faced by professors intent on indoctrination…

    It’s nutty stuff coming from a professor, though. Kors’ dire portrait goes far beyond reasonable concern…

    As for as my own priorities, I can’t imagine wasting time and energy on indoctrination when I could be…

    Fever pitch? Nutty stuff?

    In your article above you ridicule even the suggestion that faculty would find the desire or time to indoctrinate students. I pointed to a group of faculty who stated exactly that agenda and wanted to make it a mandatory part of the curriculum. They claimed to be intellectuals but by your assessment they must be poisoned intellectuals. If they’re willing say that in public what must they be saying in the classroom where they have ultimate power over their students or in private to each other? In my career I heard a few of those discussions so I know they take place.

    It could be that I missed the memo laying out this brave new world of undergraduate education–I’ve never really been in the loop.

    You did miss the memo. Get in the loop, go read the curriculum proposed by the CCI, and tell me what you see.

    … people who insist that the problems are caused by those nasty folks over there.

    A very succinct description of the attitudes expressed by the faculty panelists at that event. Sorry if I reacted to being called an inherent and unrecoverable racist by people who don’t know me.

    In contrast, I absolutely agree with your evaluation of Duke and other schools as having implemented a “rights free zone”. The next step is to figure out why that’s been done and who it is that would want it and why. (Cf. Larry Moneta and “water buffalo”)

    ~   ~   ~

    Yes, I did actually mean what I wrote, and I know that my opinion about indoctrination may put me at odds with some of the faculty who spoke at the “Shut up and teach?” forum. I can’t really argue about what was or wasn’t said at the event—you were there and I wasn’t. But given the way you exaggerate what I’ve written here, I don’t find you to be a very credible witness. For instance, I didn’t “ridicule even the suggestion that faculty would find the desire or time to indoctrinate students.” What’s ridiculous is the idea that if the typical university was forced to be honest it would have to admit that its true mission, as an institution, is indoctrination. Individually, professors can and a few will do all sorts of wacky, misguided, unethical, and irresponsible things.

    I trimmed the quotes to cut down on sprawl.

  6. Recovering Academic | May 31, 2008 at 18:07 | Permalink

    Kors said

    Being careful, on the whole, to keep the natural and physical sciences, mathematics, and a variegated Column A of departments (sometimes psychology, sometimes philosophy, sometimes linguistics), and the professional schools that relate symbiotically to practical America relatively free of political agendas—though even in these cases, the barriers to crude politicization may break down—the careerist administrators have kept largely intact those disciplines where added value might be measured.

    Neither he nor I am claiming that all areas of the university are politicized. He does say

    From diverse motives of ideological sympathies and acute awareness of who can blackball their next career moves, they have given over the humanities, the soft social sciences and the entire university in loco parentis to the zealots of oppression studies and coercive identity politics.

    At Duke it’s more than just a few isolated individuals. We had 88 profs in English, AAAS, Romance Languages, and others (soft science) on the public record condemning the campus culture as a racist/sexist/classist “Social Disaster” in the infamous “Listening Statement”. Not only that but later, even when many more facts were known, most of the same group doubled-down their position in a so-called “Clarifying Statement”. They were joined by others who’d not had a chance to sign the original statement. I’m unwilling to call 100 university faculty acting in concert a few isolated “wacky, misguided, unethical, and irresponsible” individuals.

    As far as I am aware the only example of an administrator standing up for the rights of the lacrosse players was when Provost Peter Lange called out Houston Baker (Apr. ‘06). That was the last heard from Lange. Most of the administration was silent or affirmed the position of the “Listening” statement. I’ll not provide the numerous quotes from one Richard Brodhead.

    The only faculty member to stand up for the accused was Steven Baldwin of the Chemistry Department (hard science). He was immediately and publicly was slapped and silenced because he used “politically incorrect” language. Somewhat later (Jan. ‘07) the Economics department felt compelled to publish a joint statement that lacrosse players would be welcome in their classes, at least. Imagine that, an entire university department feels compelled to make a statement that all kinds of students are welcome. Does that not imply to you that there are entire departments hostile to certain categories of students?

    What was the university’s response? To appoint committees consisting largely of the 88 to address the presumed racist/sexist/classist campus culture via the Campus Culture Initiative (CCI). Did you read the report?

    Here was one of the major recommendations-

    1. Modify the Cross Cultural Inquiry curricular requirements so that one of the two required courses has a primary focus on racial, ethnic, class, religious, and/or sexual/gender differences in the United States.

    These faculty want to make sure every student takes a mandatory course that has “a primary focus on racial, ethnic, class, religious, and/or sexual/gender differences in the United States.” I invite you to imagine the syllabus of this course without any kind of political slant or indoctrination. (As I said, it appears that the CCI will be allowed to die without action but it sure speaks to intent.)

    The other administration response was to elevate AAAS to full departmental status. Almost the whole department signed the “Listening” statement and indeed it was listed as being supported by the department as a whole. If this is not a sign of administrative approval of the actions and attitudes of those faculty then I don’t know what would be. This is affirmation of their actions at the highest level.

    The 88 and their ilk, did however take home an important lesson. That is to never go provably on record. Thus, at the “Shut Up and Teach?” event they used “plausible deniability” and I can’t prove to you what they said.

    However, I checked my notes. The section of the Q&A that initiated the discussion to which I referred began thusly:

    AA female student: When I got here four years ago, I had no idea that I was surrounded by racism all the time. I want to thank Prof Lubiano for teaching me that.

    Lubiano: (smiling, nods head)

    (crowd applauds enthusiastically)

    Well that’s one fully indoctrinated. That’s when the panel launched into a discussion that they also had to teach the white students the same thing. One faculty wondered why the curricular requirements of the CCI were such a big deal. The entire AAAS faculty was there and the other departments involved in the “Listening Statement” were in enthusiastic attendance.

    I quote again what could be a summary of that meeting

    How can [we] make them understand, with only four years to do so, that capitalism and individual- ism have created cultures that are cruel, inefficient, racist, sexist and homophobic, with oppressive caste systems, mental and behavioral? How, in such a brief period, can they enlighten “minorities,” including women (the majority of students), about the “internalization” of their oppression (today’s equivalent of false consciousness)? How, in only eight semesters, might they use the classroom, curriculum and university in loco parentis to create a radical leadership among what they see as the victim groups of our society, and to make the heirs of successful families uneasy in the moral right of their possessions and opportunities?

    I have yet to see at Duke any serious resistance to that process. In fact, about 20 years ago, the Duke administration very publicly set out to hire the most radical faculty they could find. They are now reaping the harvest of their efforts.

    And I ask again. Given that we agree that Duke is now a “rights-free zone” who has been doing that and why? Since you are reluctant to answer, historically, the removal of rights and due process is a precursor to the persecution of some group.

    What group would that be?

    ~   ~   ~

    This is a familiar experience—someone reads my blog and decides that I must have missed out on some crucial part of the story. So I get the conventional wisdom all stitched together so everything is of a piece, and full of blanket generalizations about the 88. Most of those generalizations are based on particularly damning interpretations of the “listening” statement that are held up as self-evident and indisputable. I’ve made my opinions about that ad clear enough. I don’t blame anyone for being pissed off by it. The complaint I have the least sympathy with, though, is that the ad (or some other general claim about the prevalence of racism) is a declaration that every white person at Duke is a racist. Especially when it amounts to taking it personally, it’s a reaction that strikes me as thin-skinned, insecure, narcissistic, or paranoid. I might well have choked on the little episode in the forum you describe, but it seems like something that I could object to without taking it as the last word on Lubiano and everyone else who can be lumped together with her.

    The question I’m trying to get an answer to is this: If the “88 and their ilk” are so totally beyond the pale, why does KC have to rely on exaggeration, misrepresentation, cheap shots, and outright falsehood when he wants to criticize two of the most notorious of them, Karla Holloway and Mark Anthony Neal. I know it’s a completely ridiculous question from the anti-88 perspective—I guess that’s why no one ever tries to answer it. But it seems pretty clear to me that KC decided early on what kind of people were in his “Group of 88” and is committed to reinforcing that impression no matter what.

    The Baldwin incident is a prime example of how much the self-righteous criticism of Duke faculty is running on autopilot—I’ve written about it here, here, and most especially here. It’s possible to appreciate and admire what Baldwin and the Economics Department did without pretending they’re completely divorced from Duke’s institutional and interpersonal politics, while on the other hand the 88 are completely mired in it. Both Michael Gustafson and James Coleman have articulated a more even-handed perspective on the faculty. But their credibility as rare voices of reason seems to have taken a big hit when they questioned the Wonderland narrative.

    I registered the paragraph where Kors sets aside the “Column A or departments.” But the subject of the paragraph you quote at the end of your comment—little more than a rant, as far as I’m concerned—is “Academics,” not (for instance) “humanities faculty.” And he doesn’t suggest that certain departments (Women’s Studies, etc.) should announce their intention to indoctrinate—the whole university should.

    As to the “‘rights-free’ zone,” Elliott Wolf’s articles are a great place to start.