Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Conserva-rants: a debriefing

Since my template of how to write a conserva-critique of higher ed got responses from blogs bigger than this one, I should probably have a follow-up 'serious' post, one in which I disappoint new readers to what you understand to be a left-wing blog.

The absence of reasonable discussion of American universities from the right has been well documented. Or at least, documented--not sure if two blog-posts add up to "well-documented," especially if one of the posts is from my own blog. But that said, the problem with the conservative critiques is that they nearly all begin with the assumption that everything academics do in the humanities and much of the social sciences is worthless. If conservative critics of academia sat for a moment and considered that "Africana Studies" might just be the 'trendy' (i.e. currently-used) name for serious inquiry into the life of an entire continent, perhaps the dismissive tone could be pared down just a bit. Same goes for "Gender Studies." If gender is relevant to what you're studying--and hey, maybe you're studying why women are so dreadful at math, yet so talented at making sandwiches--then voila, you're doing Gender Studies! Some of what an outsider would expect to be ridiculous is just that, but most makes sense if you only understand it.

So why, if I'm not an angry liberal, do I care? Because there's some value to these conservative critiques, or there could be if they were done differently. The conservative onlooker is the only one vividly aware of how tied academics are to our own times. That we think to look for literary and historical evidence of sexism and racism does not necessarily mean 'now we know better!,' but might well mean that this is what people found interesting in the early 21st century, but is of little objective relevance to the study of, say, 17th century England. In this way, conservatives are, despite themselves, our best relativists. The conservative critiques should keep academia grounded, reminding academics that things were once done differently, and that the world of the 'dead white men' need not be declared 'worse' than the one in which we work. But they do not.

I don't buy most of the claims of discrimination against conservatives in academia. (If this wasn't clear, I have a blog where I call myself a "Zionist" and I'm in a French department. No one at school bothers me about this. I get far more grief from others who are pro-Israel about studying France.) But it's fair to say that the status quo in academia is to be at least somewhat on the left. Which means that for academia, conservatives are the liberals. We could be having an interesting debate, one that forced both conservative critics and left academics to question their views. But the right is so certain that academia is a joke that this cannot happen. The best way to subtly urge the author of a paper comparing Things Fall Apart to the "Vagina Monologues" that maybe enough is enough is not to offer up a rant insisting that graduate students are barely literate; that today's young women are too uncouth to be appealing to aging college professors (what better reason to yell obscenities into one's cellphone); and that it is impossible to wear non-bulky underwear and possess a brain, both at the same time. To effectively criticize contemporary society, one cannot argue that things are wrong on account of their being contemporary. It just doesn't work.


Matt Zeitlin said...

Good points all, but I really doubt that my blog is bigger than yours. Sadly, annoying 18 year old isn't does have as much pull as "francophilic zionist"

Anonymous said...

The problem with conservative critiques is that they are conservative.
What I mean by that is if you examine any idea, institution, person, etc. from within a political framework you will find what you want to find. Consider the MSM (which I don't even believe exists anymore - information is too dispersed today). Go to any conservative publication and you will read more citations of the MSM's liberal bias than you would ever have thought possible. Then go to liberal publications and guess what; ad nauseam examples of the MSM's inherent conservative bias.
When your starting point is a political position you will fail to judge by meaningful standards. The question shouldn't be "Is higher education liberal/conservative enough?" It should be "Is higher education meeting the needs of today's students?"

Anonymous said...

Just to add to my previous comment. You may dice this even finer if you so choose. Go to any pro-Clinton left wing blog and – lo and behold! the media is biased against her. Then go to any pro-Obama blog and – lo and behold! the media is biased against him.
Is it possible the starting philosophy of the critique pre-determines the outcome?

Ashok said...

Thank you for a fairly balanced, thoughtful post. I don't agree entirely, but I can't pretend, for my own part, to understand academia.