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The joy of not knowing very much

A few posts ago, a reader suggested that I’d “squeezed all the available juice out of DIW” (KC Johnson’s blog Durham-in-Wonderland, that is) and I might find some fresh material on David Thompson’s blog. The first thing I read over there was on an old familiar theme—liberal academics and their uncontrollable urge to indoctrinate. Not only does it pull two lefty-professor quotes from an editorial Johnson wrote in 2005, it uses them in the same mindless way. It’s KC lite—tastes a little better, but still unfulfilling.

Thompson writes as if he knows about higher education and he’s building a case against its liberal elements. Like anyone who’s been to school and can read a paper, he knows something about it. The problem is that his case depends as much on not knowing things as it does on knowing them. It’s a problem for me, I should say—I may be coming at it with the wrong standard. If the blog is meant as nothing more than entertainment with a political slant, then I guess he has a pretty good formula. The post I’m looking at probably wrote itself once he had the quotes, and like-minded readers get a nice little buzz off the righteous indignation. To have that impact there has to be an appearance of reasoning. A lot of actual reasoning with real-life complexities and ambiguities would be counterproductive, though—more effort for less effect. Thompson’s not an academic decision-maker, so I suppose he might as well write whatever he wants. Still, his criticism is supposed to sound smart but it makes a virtue of ignorance, and that really bugs me.

The theme of the post is “classroom political advocacy.” Thompson starts by invoking a scene from the documentary Indoctrinate U. about a professor who faced “a campaign of harassment by left-leaning colleagues.” That sounds like a matter of professional intolerance, not classroom advocacy, but it makes the point that bad things are happening to good people in the halls of learning. Cut to “[a] recent post on classroom advocacy at Crooked Timber, a site popular among left-leaning academics….” Thompson picks out three passages from the comments, arranged from ridiculous to reasonable. The first is from a person who thinks the world as we know it will end if McCain is elected, and since the other side doesn’t play fair why should his side? The comment starts with a disclaimer: “I’m not an academic nor a purist.” But never mind that—the site is still popular with left-leaning academics. And that’s the basic strategy: Pick up statements from here and there, brush off the reservations and qualifications and clarifications, then post them under a banner that says “leftist academic.”

The context for the next pair of quotes—the ones from Johnson’s editorial—is “Grover Furr of Monclair State’s English department,” and “Rhonda Garelick, an associate professor of French and Italian at Connecticut College.” In other words, left-wing professor from a certain kind of department—neither seems to have a public reputation, so the names are irrelevant. In effect it’s about the same as “popular with left-leaning academics,” though less a matter of guilt by association, and it adds a gender and a department. [After posting I see that Furr is somewhat notorious, though not with anything like the name recognition of, say, Ward Churchill.]

The problem isn’t that the quotes are taken out of their textual context, it’s that all context beyond that it’s from the pen of Dr. Lefty is treated as irrelevant. Readers are free to follow the links and soak up all the context they want, and it seems to me that anyone who’s curious or who wants to understand the problems that Thompson is exercised about would want to do just that. Garelick and Furr are both articulate people writing from personal experience (especially Garelick—Furr’s discussion-group post is pretty dry), so whether you’re pro or con there’s more to be gleaned from their writing than how outrageously wrong they are. But to really understand what they’re trying to communicate would require careful reading with the judgmental filters turned off, and I don’t want to be responsible for any harm caused by unprotected exposure to dangerous and offensive ideas. We are, after all, talking about an unreconstructed feminist and a man who disdains conservatives in favor of Marxists. Some plain old realism wouldn’t be so much to ask, though—a vaguely realistic model of college instruction that puts the political issues into perspective, some scepticism towards friendly sources like Indoctrinate U., and a better model of the relationship between what’s thought, said, or written and what’s done.

Garelick turns out to be the richest target, especially after Thompson spices her up to suit his taste. In his view, she “loftily dismissed students who objected to her use of French lessons to express at length her opposition to the war in Iraq.” I’m not sure what makes her dismissal lofty—maybe any opinion printed in the New York Times is by definition lofty. It’s a tone that’s more from his imagination than from the page, in any case. A purer figment of his imagination is the idea she went on “at length.” He returns to it a couple of times in the comments—first referring to French lessons “interrupted with lengthy screeds on the alleged evils of capitalism, ‘imperialism,’ ‘hegemony,’ etc.” and later to the “agitprop monologues” of French professors who “indulge their own political vanities at enormous length.” This is probably just a fact of life—left-wing professors drone on and on when they’ve got the indoctrination bug. She might have done just that, for sure, but all she says is that she “broached the topic of Iraq.”

What business does a professor of French have setting aside her syllabus to critique the war? I’m inclined to doubt that she has any business doing it. It’s a good question, anyway, and I don’t blame anyone for finding her presumption annoying or even offensive. The essay as a whole is grounds to wonder what goes on in her classes, where her priorities are, but it’s not grounds for any conclusions about those things. If, when she says she wants to “teach[] ‘wakeful’ political literacy: the skills needed to interrogate all cultural messages,” she’s sincere about the “all,” willing and able to take up feminist orthodoxy as critically as war-on-terror orthodoxy, that would make a big difference. If she’s at least ready to listen to her students as she is to lecture then, that would also make a big difference. The overall impression I get is of an attentive and responsible teacher. It’s not something I’d bet a lot of money on, but the clues are there and they clearly didn’t make a dent in Thompson’s armor of preconceptions. He found what he wanted to find—a stand-in liberal blowhard.

Thompson’s commenters take him up on the implicit invitation to sound smart sounding off, comfortable that even if they know very little, they know all that really matters. The setup is about the same as on Durham-in-Wonderland, where the posts often give the stamp of approval (Harvard PhD-certified) to irate ignorance, and the comments follow suit (with a vengeance). I saw the same sad dynamic on the Volokh Conspiracy, again engineered by a professor. Thompson chimes in in the middle of his comment thread with an opinion about the cost of liberal bias: because students are being “spared serious and thoughtful contact with opposing arguments, their own views can easily become lazy, reflexive and glib.” He and his crew do a superb job of modeling the problem.

Overall the comment thread has a clubhouse atmosphere—the reactions are not as vehement as on DIW, I guess because the evildoers are more generic and their offenses are not so fresh and outrageous. The tone is also not as vindictive as DIW tends to be, though several commenters relish the thought of suing the pants off that inexcusable professor of French (can you say faux juridicalism?). The prevailing sentiment at its most tasteless and overwrought comes from the clever fellow who’s about to send his kids “down the “large intestine of the university system” where they “may be exposed to this gibberish from incompetents who would be more benefit to society if they were waiting tables.” That’s not to say the comments are uniformly ridiculous and uniformed—they aren’t. What’s most notable, anyway, is what’s missing—there’s no inclination to either look into a mirror or take on more challenging targets than the inflatable monsters in the kiddie pool.

When I finally clicked over to Crooked Timber I was surprised to find a deliberative post questioning the ethics of devoting 45 seconds as students were gathering before class to encourage them to register to vote. That’s some perspective right there, and if you set this post and its comments next to Thompson’s, the idea that our universities need more conservatives to moderate the feckless liberal ideologues doesn’t come out looking so good. On Crooked Timber, Brian poses a real-life moral dilemma, elaborates some arguments on either side, and opens the floor. Mixed in with the usual comment-forum posturing and chatter are positions pro and con that are more reasoning that rhetoric—it’s almost like an honest-to-goodness debate. Thompson and company, on the other hand, prop up some stick figures and then bowl them down. It’s just a random comparison that, in the big picture, proves nothing. But it’s hard to take criticism seriously if the people pushing it (often pretty smugly) can tolerate that much dissonance between their rhetoric and the example they’re setting.

Thompson’s thoughts about students being spared from opposing arguments was a response to one of the few readers’ opinions with straightforward real-life implications:

I have three kids in college. In every case they have encountered a stereotypical liberal professor who indulged in the type of teaching I like to call “regurgitative learning”. They like to hear THEIR ideas, THEIR opinions and THEIR political views written down as mantra by their students. Opposing views are not acceptable and can be cause for failure.

In the same vein, another commenter with a kid in college says that “[she] told [her daughter] to lie, if necessary, to get through classes. Just give them what they want to hear…. [Her friends] all routinely lie on exams or papers, just to please their profs.” The fact that she thinks of lying as an option shows that something is seriously wrong (including her signature, “hermeneutics,” which, incidentally, is why I’ve arbitrarily made the person a “her”). Exams and papers are about knowing things and being able to reason and write—if the student has to take a position on some issue, it should be completely irrelevant whether it’s their actual opinion. Lying or not is beside the point (or at least should be). I don’t doubt that some professors are confused about this, but if it’s typical or even common where “hermeneutics” sent her daughter, then she chose the wrong school. Grades given to writing that backs up an opinion depend on overall impressions that can’t be quantified. That leaves a lot of room for misunderstanding. I suspect, though, that the more clueless and indifferent students—the ones who don’t really understand or care what it means to line up an argument in support of a conclusion—are the ones most likely to imagine that the trick is to just regurgitate. Anyway, what I’m most likely to conclude from a paper that parrots my opinion is that the student can’t think for herself, and that’s the practical problem with that parent’s advice—it might work well with a few bad professors, but the others might decide her daughter is a dimwit. It’s hard for me to believe that anyone who gives a damn about education would give such advice to their child.

I do believe that there are preachy liberal professors out there. Based on the bitter and sarcastic comments I’ve come across, it seems that they leave a lasting and bad impression. As a student I never experienced any overt campaigns of indoctrination in the classroom, and it could be that I’m unfairly downplaying the complaint because of that. But anyone who’s more interested in taking full advantage of the better professors than in fooling the bad ones should read Chris Goff’s no-nonsense effort to “dispense some advice for students who want to remain true to themselves while turning in rigorous academic work.”