Saturday, June 07, 2008

More "studies"

The time has come to defend my honor against the National Review's Phi Beta Cons blog. First I learn that I am a "French Studies major" (an odd way to refer to someone in a doctoral program, but a good way to belittle the author of an article you dislike). Then I discover that in "studies" programs "you generally get grad students not intelligent enough to enter mainstream fields taking on an intellectual project that is, theoretically, more demanding." I appreciate the thought, but lest the Phi Beta Cons be concerned, I am in two different departments, one of which is French Studies, the other of which is French, which I believe counts as a mainstream field. Both are plenty rigorous, further evidence that the denunciation of "studies" programs comes from those with little knowledge of what's being discussed. So, before going any further, let it be known that I am not an undergrad, nor am I incapable of getting admitted to a 'mainstream' program. In other words, to borrow from the esteemed scholar Eric Cartman, respect mah authoritah!

As for the substance of the Phi Beta Cons counter-offense: I confess that I have not read every single conservative critique of academia ever written. This does not disqualify me from commenting on the subject. I've read plenty on the topic, far more than the works I cite specifically in my article. Had I listed the lot, it would have been a list, not an article, but my blog archives contain plenty more examples, for the curious. To make "sweeping claims" on the basis of "a few examples" is pretty much inevitable in the format of an article this length. For what it's worth, while I have seen the occasional decent critique of academia from the right, such as the discussion of academics' tendency to "problematize" rather than answer a question, these are rare, so rare that this is the only one that immediately comes to mind.

I'm still left unsure as to what a conservative critique of academia would even be. The "excellent" article Robert VerBruggen points me to--Charles Murray's piece on "educational romanticism," is, according to Murray's own introduction, "the story of educational romanticism in elementary and secondary schools," and thus not an article about higher ed. Next, Travis Kavulla writes, "My impression of what conservatives are demanding is, in a word, rigor." Liberal academics, too, demand rigor, and would disagree if one claimed that they did not. What do conservatives mean by "rigor" that differentiates their rigor from that of liberals? As I pointed out in my article, academic silliness--the Dartmouth prof being the obvious example--appears silly to those across the political spectrum. Each conservative attempt at "exposing the silliness that currently has a home in academia" further removes the possibility that serious academics (on the left or right) will care what conservative critics have to say, since plucking the most absurd examples of behavior in any field and examining them out of context fails to tell you anything substantive about what's going on.

The reason this concerns me is in part that I am arguably on the right for academia, or at least for the humanities, if only because, the way the world works these days, to defend Israel as a Jewish state is to be on the right. But it's also that, looking at things from the perspective of someone who is neither on the left nor on the right enough to count fully as either (but not in the sense described in this book), looking at things as objectively as possible, I do not think the conservative critique as it currently exists benefits either conservatives or academia. Right-wing denunciations do not push academia to the right; they certainly do not make the seminar room a friendlier place for conservative students or faculty. And, from the perspective of academia, a whole range of the political spectrum represents itself as hostile but ignorant, which in turn does not help in terms of checking the more extreme cases of politically-correct blather that do turn up from time to time and require well-reasoned take-downs. If anything, the conservative critique as it currently exists pushes academia further to the left.

11 comments:

Withywindle said...

Yes, but ... you're famous now! Attacked by Phi Beta Cons! Known to the Blogosphere! Get in touch with an agent; you have a book to write.

FLG said...

I agree with some of your article, and some not so much.

Nevertheless, The Phi Beta Cons response was BS and did not really address your argument. I wouldn't worry too much about it.

Also, I agree with Withy, you do have a book to write.

Withywindle said...

On a slightly more serious note ... the attack on Studies was always with reference to Black Studies, Women's Studies, Chicano Studies, etc. (and Norman Cantor had a bad word for Jewish Studies), as institutionalizations of uncurious, navel-gazing identity politics. American Studies also has a reputation amongst English professors of my acquaintance as producing mediocre professors. French Studies, so far as I know, never emerged from this identity-politics maelstrom, so is never referred to under the generic critique on Studies. (Frankly, I've never even heard of a French Studies program before; are they common?) My dad graduated from Columbia's Russian Institute, Russian Studies avant la lettre; it, too, was not meant to be indicted by this critique. Classics is really Classics Studies--the first and greatest Studies program of them all--and that isn't indicted by the critique either. To say that you are being attacked by the critique on Studies is technically true, but a little disingenuous.

As for the validity of Studies in general ... the rap is that one ought to have disciplinary knowledge, applicable everywhere, rather than a hodge-podge of different disciplinary classes on one subject, leaving one unable to conduct a proper argument in any discipline. I find this argument powerful, if not unanswerable. But I suppose what I would say is that one ought to have an education both centered on a subject and centered on a discipline; that college, ideally, ought to provide a subject-centered education (see, Liberal Arts, Core Curriculum, etc.), to which a disciplinary education in graduate school would provide a proper complement, both of them productive of a life in scholarship where both modes are available to you. You say you are in both French Studies and French, so this may not apply particularly to you, but my general advice to anyone in a Studies program is to be aware of the lack of disciplinary focus in their education, and to try to shape their own education, as much as possible, to acquire depth of competence in one discipline and its methods. If they fail to make the effort, I think they will be somewhat disadvantaged, on the whole, as scholars.

Anonymous said...

I commented on your article at the America's Future site.

I thought that what you described as heckling could more accurately be described as disagreeing rather than heckling, and that I didn't think you had any basis to view the Horace Mann students as being representative of conservatives.
(Besides I don't see how what the Horace Mann students did outside of class was all that different from what happens inside class in women's studies departments.)

I also criticized your argument that just because something was a Department didn't mean it couldn't be an identity club in the guise of a Department.

I think your current post misses the point. If conservative and liberal critiques of academia are directed to the lack of rigor, then conservatives and liberals agree on that point, but it does not mean that the conservative critique lacks merit.

Let me see if I have something else right. You went to the University of Chicago and don't understand what a conservative critique of academia might be? Actually in a way that might speak well of the University of Chicago, although it might also suggest the place is no longer what it once was.

There are plenty of critiques of academia that conservatives and some liberals might agree on, but for the most part it's only conservatives who are making the complaints. Just to take an example off the top of my head, if the University of Delaware has a compulsory residence hall program that indoctrinates students in leftist beliefs, then both liberals and conservatives have a right to complain, but apparently it's only conservatives who have done the complaining. Or if a Duke University professor when asked in class if he has any "prejudices" (the student probably meant preferences, but I'll let that go} says in class that he's prejudiced against Republicans, then I would say that Republicans have a right to complain. And speaking of Duke there's the notorious letter by the 88 liberal professors. How many liberals complained about that? Or let's look at speech codes. When a group of feminists tried to stifle any anti-feminist speech in academia, as was attempted several years ago, the conservatives and liberals might agree that there is a basis to complain, but it was only the conservatives (as a group) who complained.

Or if a university punishes speech simply because it offends someone, do you think the speaker is likely to be liberal or conservative? Or look at how often professors will have students read 3 or 4 books by Chomsky or Michael Moore or Eric Alterman, and not counterbalance those readings with anyone from the opposing side.

Much more has been said by others. But does that sort of begin to give you a rough idea of what a conservative might have to complain about?

AYY

Anonymous said...

Phoebe - I have all sorts of intelligent insights to bring to your attention - But Ijust wanted to congratulate you for having a lead post on bookforum.

SEK said...

I agree with the Phi Beta Cons. You don't think Horowitz, D'Souza or Sowell are intellectually honest advocates of "true multiculturalism"?

I bet you read books, too.

Phoebe said...

What does "I bet you read books, too" mean? In addition to this comment?

The Phi Beta Cons post completely misses the point of my article. I'm not exactly on their side, but I'm not against them, either. I'm pointing out how their critique appears from the perspective of those they wish to change, that is, from academia. Their sort of critiques push the field to the left, so rather than being defensive, they should look to what about their critiques they could strengthen.

What no one seems to be addressing is that the down-with-academia critique encourages conservative students to scoff at what their profs tell them, before listening to see if maybe viewing something 'through a gender lens' actually makes sense in a given context.

Phoebe said...

Furthermore, whether or not one agrees with the Phi Beta Cons critiques, it's clear enough that they stooped low, insulting my intelligence ("studies" students are weak) and implying that I am an undergraduate (discussing my "major"). In the most recent post, VerBruggen mocks me for referring to myself as "really smart." I never refer to myself as such, all I did was point out that one should not dismiss my article on account of my affiliation with something called "studies." None of these insults helped their case, or made me more inclined to truly "engage" their critique, which VerBruggen says he wished I'd done.

SEK said...

Sorry, I need to remind myself not to write sarcastic shows of support when someone's being overrun by conservative trolls.

That said, you're certainly not obliged to respond to the non-critiques of the Phi Beta Cons. I've tried to imagine what a conservative literary criticism would look like in the past and failed miserably. So did the conservatives, I should add. (Mark Bauerlein, the smartest advocate for a turn to a conservative criticism, unsuccessfully wrestled the issue a few times, but I can't seem to find them. Will look and link later, if you're interested.)

Phoebe said...

Now that my apartment is air-conditioned, I can once again react appropriately to--that is, pick up on--sarcasm.

I'd be curious to see the link.

SEK said...

It's not showing up properly on my screen for some reason, but here's Bauerlein's response to Berube's What's Liberal about the Liberal Arts?. (Given that I'm in charge of the place, I should know why it's not rendering properly. Memos have been filed into briefs about interoffice communications, believe you me.) That's not a direct response, but that's why I think you're correct: if you check out Mark's replies to to this post, you can see that even the smartest contrarians are unclear as to what the alternative to the current system would be. VerBruggen can be as condescending as he'd like, but it won't change the fact that it's not his ideological opponents who are unable to meet his demands, but his intellectual betters.

This makes him grumpy.