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What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?: Classroom Politics and "Bias" in Higher Education Paperback – September 17, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Bérubé, a Penn State literature and cultural studies professor, doesn't deny that college campuses are "teeming with liberal faculty" in this circuitous retort to what he sees as an intensification over the last five years of conservative complaints about liberal "bias" in academe. Rather, the self-described progressive postmodernist (editor of The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies) vies with cultural conservatives for the position of "lonely voice in the wilderness": while conservatives feel embattled in the university setting, academics, Bérubé says, are beleaguered in the country at large, where the right wing dominates all three branches of government and much of mainstream media. Universities are necessarily liberal, Bérubé asserts, as independent intellectual inquiry is fundamental to democracy. Moreover, the authoritarian right's outraged objections to "anti-American" campuses are a testament to their "disbelief that liberalism still survives." Bérubé's points about the ascendance of the right will be well taken by progressives, but the level of meandering detail he devotes to his teaching experience and his own literature curriculum may feel less relevant to nonacademic readers
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Berube, a literature professor who admits to being a liberal progressive but maintains that he is politically noncommittal in the classroom, explores the charges by the Right that America's universities are biased toward liberalism. Drawing on 20 years of teaching and recent troubling developments in academe, Berube answers conservative critics and, more fascinating, explores the dilemma of liberal teachers in encouraging open debate but opposing racism, sexism, and homophobia. Debunking stories of professors failing students who don't toe the liberal party line, Berube maintains that the real threat to open debate is conservatives seeking to squelch liberal ideas in the name of "fairness" to more conservative perspectives. He cites academic bills of rights in some states that are aimed at discouraging challenges to conservative ideas on creationism and other topics. Threats of lawsuits by students claiming that their views have been ridiculed are having a chilling effect on classroom dialogue. Berube offers a passionate appeal for preserving the best notions of the liberal-arts education, a discipline that promotes critical thinking and independent inquiry. Vanessa Bush
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Then the author moves into a discussion of some of the books he teaches, but the literary criticism is only tangentially related to the topic of classroom politics or bias, or, for that matter, liberalism.
The material on postmodernism is interesting and has a political element, but would be better placed in a primer on pomo.
Finally, the last chapter is a ringing endorsement of the sort of liberalism that has been out of fashion since the Kennedy era but that is nonetheless safe. Thus pages applauding Social Security (the folks down at the local book club will nod and smile) but no comments about affirmative action, US military adventures, gay marriage or other more current issues. Their absence is conspicuous. The far left is dismissed as either a collection of lunatics or Bush fans in disguise (voting for Nader being equivalent to voting for Bush). And, of course, none of this has a thing to do with the liberal arts or charges of bias.
First: to use "thesisless" as if "thesis" were an ordinary reifiable signifier, as if it makes sense to speak of a "good" paper as being thesisful, just chock full of thesis (uncountable noun? theses? or shall it be theseses? o dear) indicates that, unfortunately, the reviewer stayed awake in a typical, all too typical, English class, in which the teacher said something brutal, such as "I can predict your grade based on your thesis", and in which thesis was ripped from its Hegelian and dialectical context, in which you can sensibly speak only of an antithesis and an *aufhebung*: a context on which most State College philosophy professors, and some English professors (but not Berube, to be sure), are clue-challenged.
It was indeed at demi-universities such as Roosevelt University and DePaul that professors scrawled on my papers, "dis has nuttin to do widdat", "dis is not relevant", and "philosophy doesn't care about dis". It was at Princeton, where I sort of wormed my way in through the woodwork in my thirties, that Gilbert Harman wrote instead on my paper that philosophy was interested in everything.
Trivially, everything has everything to do with everything else, as Wittgenstein implies in the Tractatus when he asks how can logic, all-embracing logic, which mirrors the world, content itself with such crotchets and conveniences.
Ecologically, in 1969, underarm deodorant had little to do with the South Pole and the ozone hole.
To Berube's credit, he does note how the teacher of literature has to be interested in things like how to catch whales: everything, in fine. There is a form of reading which closes the door, in which Emily Dickinson's valves of attention are closed; Jane Austen-ism, in which Mr. Napoleon is only most inconvenient, comes to mind: I think it's a mistake, but Berube doesn't make it. It seems to be a feminist specialty, fostered however not by feminist ideology but by the elective system in which students are less forced to read the canon.
Yet a grade and pre-wealth centered educational system continues to churn out corporate servants who have learned only to reify and "focus" and who are suckers for late-middle aged returns to conservatism because their "liberal" professors can't defend liberalism.
Berube's defense of liberalism is based on Rorty who had to do great violence to a text (Shakespeare's Measure for Measure) to make his case in "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature". Rorty presented Isabella's phrase, "glassy essence" as something which liberals can no longer appeal to but to my knowledge took no responsibility for discussion of what it means, in figurative language to be sure, to have a glassy essence which Clarence Thomas apparently violated in Anita Hill, or one which would prefer people not to die through lack of health insurance.
If liberalism is a lifestyle choice, there is no need to pursue health insurance when the going gets tough, and one has TIAA/CREF. If liberalism is a life style choice, if it cannot be argued all the way down, the conversation can always turn (in the words of New York conceptual artist, Jenny Holzer) to living long enough to have fun.
If on the other hand, liberalism is a Unitarian piety based on religious belief its shelf life depends on affiliation with a fashionable church.
What if liberalism were the whole deal? What if coherence of speaking and thought depended upon liberal decency all the way down? What if a consequence of neoconservatism was the burning of libraries while US troops protected the Oil Ministry? What if androgyne ways of thinking, concern for the environment, and rejection of the corporate/consumerist lifestyle were the glassy essence?
What if Zizek is right, and the saint is one who follows his desire only to find it in the desire of others? Zizek would be locked up were he damnfool enough to seek tenure in America, but this simply indicates, to me, the triviality of an American conversation about What It All Means, a conversation conducted by people not protected against the tragedies of life, perhaps, but one nonetheless supported by a tenured economic security: a conversation which ceases, in my experience, when that security is withdrawn (you seldom see former English profs turned car salesmen that continue to be liberal).
Simply put, liberalism cannot without strain support anything BUT liberalism, democratic socialism, and William F. Buckley's genteel conservatism. For liberalism, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly are abominations who need nothing more than the tolerance afforded them under an original reading of the United States constitution; men on whom the cops should be called if they or their followers get rowdy in a university. Students who spout their garbage should be flunked.
I paid child support for twenty years and made no effort to evade my family obligations post-divorce because I'm a liberal; I could NOT use survival of the fittest "conservatism" as do many men to excuse myself. My kids weren't the atomic and "free, self-determining" actors of economic theory, no more than my wife was, saddled as she was with their care. Yet under Berube's Rortian perspective, liberalism is just a lifestyle choice. To declare that economic liberalism was inapplicable to child support was just me being fashionable.
Given "the evolution of productive forces", anything to the right of liberalism MEANS university thought control, war as the health of the state, and homelessness. Coherence is based on dialogic tolerance in which difference is acknowledged and if possible resolved.
I have no special brief for fashionable causes thought exemplary of liberalism. For example, insofar as feminism is implied by humanism, I'm a feminist. But I see no reason for allowing women permanent victim rights oddly sorted with dominatrix feminism out of the blue as it were, even if this were to be fashionable.
The possibility of narrative, the possibility of linking A to B (getting for example from Sartre's mid-century existentialism to an acknowledgement that Simone de Beauvoir's status was a Spaniard in the Works) isn't itself just another grand narrative which pomos can just reject as potentially Stalinist.
Instead, narratives grand and ungrand depend on the possibility of coherence.
Berube, in an excellent and readable book, fails to address a concern which SDS members like me raised in the 1960s but which has been drowned out by a post-Sixties reaction. This is the theory that universities have been co-opted and are permitted to thrive as a fourth estate only insofar as they produce "tracked" grades and levels of students, some of whom have learned that philosophy and literature are interested in everything, and go on to the Senior Executive Service at the CIA, able to undermine countries in ways deeper than damnation because they see relationships...and others who can write "thesisless" with a straight face in an Amazon review, or an employee performance review, as in "Mary's email was thesisless".
The conversation dies out because it is unable to address the elephant in the living room, and this is corporate power.
In the absence of a deep, historical defense of liberalism as the reason for the existence of a possibility of discussing liberalism in the first place, students will not bother to inform themselves of usage by reading, and understanding that it's probably a solecism to say thesisless. Basically, they will make their way through a fog of unrelated signifiers as best they can.
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