October 24, 2003

No Nothing

Having read some of the stories from the trenches at Erin O’Connor’s site, I continue to feel some of the same ambivalence I experienced in reading David Brooks’ original lament about the lack of conservatives in academia.

All the qualifications that a month’s worth of online conversation have produced still strike me as important: there are institutional variations and disciplinary variations, universities and forms of inquiry that are much more open to or even dominated by conservatism. There is a looseness even in Brooks’ original piece about what is meant by conservatism that clearly needs to be picked apart: the ideas of the religious right are much less welcome in most academic circles than libertarianism or big-business Republicanism, and possibly for much more legitimate reasons, due to deep incompatibilities between the bedrock premises of the modern university and religious fundamentalism.

I would also re-emphasize my original thoughts in response to the stream of unhappy people writing to O’Connor, that thinking about this in terms of conservatism is thinking too small, that what we are seeing here is just one small piece of a much larger pattern of intolerance and narrowness within academic life.

At the same time, I would hold to my original feeling that it's pretty fair to say that conservatives in the humanities and most of the social sciences are rare and tend to be targets of abuse at most institutions when they do exist.

However, like Baraita, I remember being struck by one of O’Connor’s correspondents, who complained of liberal intolerance that was particularly directed at his choice to teach the history of the Renaissance through primary materials. This story really baffled me, and made me worry about how the general story of persecution of conservatives (or any other outlier persuasion within academic life) is told through anecdote, and how any given anecdote, looked at closely, may raise more questions than it resolves.

Taking the case of O’Connor’s correspondent, it is totally incomprehensible to me how practicing historians could find general fault, let alone ideologically malicious fault, with a course syllabus built largely or exclusively around primary materials. I’ve built syllabi like that, and I have colleagues here who’ve done it. I’d go so far as to say it’s a standard pedagogical strategy for historians everywhere, though certainly less common than syllabi built largely around secondary materials. So at least on the surface, there’s a simpler explanation for the mistreatment this writer described: he had the misfortune to be in a department of exceptional idiots.

Appealing as that explanation might be, I began to wonder whether there wasn’t more to the story. Why did O’Connor’s correspondent regard this tale as evidence that his conservatism was the source of the animus towards his syllabus? There’s nothing intrinsically conservative about the pedagogical idea behind it: radical, liberal and politically indifferent historians use the same approach at times.

For me, what I wonder is whether the syllabus was perceived as conservative because it was announced as such, that the logic behind its design was not a pedagogical one (teach primary texts because it’s an interesting way to teach history) but a polemical one (teach primary texts because the bulk of scholarship is judged to be politically or intellectually bad, trendy, leftist, etc.). O'Connor's correspondent said he didn't frame his syllabus as such, but he also says that his colleagues trooped down to the bookstore and divined somehow from his texts that he was in fact a conservative, which just seems surreal to me. Let's suppose he said that he was doing things this way because he flatly rejected the current state of things in the historiography on the Renaissance and didn't want to use that scholarship in his classroom. I do feel there were other self-declared conservative voices who spoke up during the Internet-wide debate over Brooks' article who more or less have said things of this sort. Certainly some conservative jeremiads against the academy, most notably the Young America Foundation's surveys of college curricula, pretty much amount to this sort of argument.

If that were the case, I would have a problem with O’Connor’s correspondent, though I hope I’d be polite about it if I were his colleague. At that point, I’d judge him to be an academic who was not living up to an important professional standard. I consider it my obligation to know what is going on in the scholarship in the fields I teach: it’s irresponsible to allow yourself to fall into a know-nothing posture in which you refuse categorically to read or engage prominent, common or normative modes of scholarship, however much you might disagree with their premises, themes, methodologies or arguments.

That’s a venal sin by comparison to doing the same thing in the classroom. Refusing to teach a text to your students merely because you disagree with its scholarly approach is an act of pedagogical malpractice, and to my mind, a pretty serious one at that. It’s one thing to judge a work so shoddy or weak that it’s not worth teaching, or to come to the conclusion that an important book in your own field won’t make good grist for the mill in the classroom because it’s too arcane, difficult, embedded in a scholarly debate or something else of the sort. It’s another thing to say, “I’m going to teach only primary texts because I categorically reject what passes for the state of knowledge in my field”. You’re entitled to feel that way (if you’ve done your homework) for yourself. You’re not entitled to inflict that belief on your students if they’re coming to you to learn about the subject matter as a whole.

In one class or another, I have taught Edward Said’s Orientalism even though I ultimately have enormous problems with both its central argument and its evidentiary logics. I have taught Gann and Duignan’s Burden of Empire even though I find it painfully disinterested in the harmful impact of European colonialism at many points. I have taught Cheikh Anta Diop’s work, even though I categorically, emphatically disagree with Diop’s vision of African history. I teach scholarship I like and scholarship I don’t like, if it is scholarship that many others rely on and regard as important, or that provides an important point-of-view. I may even teach scholarship I find actively reprehensible in some way. Sometimes I say so, sometimes I don’t, depending on the drift of the classroom discussion. But I teach it because the students are entitled to know about it. If I teach from primary texts, it’s because I think that’s a pedagogically exciting, useful thing to do, not because I’m trying to prevent my students from seeing a body of scholarship I disdain.

I partially endorsed Brooks’ original cri d’coeur about conservatives in academic life because I think these minimum professional obligations go unmet by many academics, in fact, more often by the academic left. However, I recoil from any conservative expression of dissatisfaction with contemporary academe that simply seems to want to invert the orthodoxies and expel its enemies from the syllabi and the departments, that indulges itself in know-nothingism, in blanket raving against the texts and pedagogies of others. The obligation to cast a wide net has to fall equally on everyone. That's good intellectual practice overall, but it's especially important in the classroom, where you have a sacred obligation to expose your students to the tensions and contours of debate within a given area of knowledge.