I got lots of interesting feedback on yesterday's post about enforced conformity in the academic humanities. A particularly interesting missive comes from a reader who writes to note that the elephant in my post's virtual living room is the tenure system:
I think it's interesting to note that - as you've covered many times on your blog - the tenure system, designed to insulate the academy from the pressures of conformity, has devolved exactly into that state of its own volition. This begs the question, again: why bother with tenure at all? Surely the competition - measured through some combination of teaching performance, research acumen, and publishing ability - would purge the academy of the worst offenders of the current system. If we cannot agree that the university system exists to produce an educated public equipped to handle the litany of horrors and troubles that is everyday life, then whatever else we agree on after the fact is of no importance to me.
He's right. In its present form, the tenure system--in the academic humanities anyway--does less to protect "academic freedom" than it does to reward conformity and perpetuate a closed, insecure system of often unearned, frequently abused privilege. There is very, very little original thought in academic English departments. There is, instead, a whole lot of posing, imitating, regurgitating, and redundancy. This is wilfully overlooked in order to preserve the collective ego: those who have passed through an English department, even briefly, know that everyone is "brilliant" and everybody's work is "pathbreaking" (except for that of those who are on the social or methodological outs). Tenure rewards the endemic posing and calls it scholarly legitimacy. In conflating research with repetition, in calling ventriloquized readings and mimed theoretical positions original, the tenure system within the humanities ensures that promotion is an inherently intellectually dishonest enterprise. I don't see how the tenure system can be excised. But it ought to be.
Yes, I do have tenure. Yes, I would give it up gladly if the system were reformed along more ethically responsive and responsible lines. Yes, there are plenty of people who say they would not have voted to tenure me if they had known I would become the author of a weblog as offensive to their political sensibilities as Critical Mass is--which proves my point about conformity, and which is one reason why I mistrust the tenure system so deeply and why I hold even my own tenure to be awfully cheap. I have a job for life if I want it--and that in itself is a wonderful thing. But I know all too well the terms upon which I received it: it was a prize given to me not for independence of mind or professional excellence, but for my perceived participation in a narrow and punitive monoculture; it's a prize a lot of people would like to revoke now that they see Critical Mass is one of its results. That's not the logic of a system that takes seriously the idea that tenure encourages and protects free, independent thought.
September 29, 2003
Burke on Brooks
In the comments section at Crooked Timber, the always canny Timothy Burke sums up the central hitch in David Brooks' New York Times op-ed on what professors tell conservative students who are thinking of pursuing an academic career:
No one gets asked about their politics in interviews in the humanities. Of course not. To speak of having a žpoliticsÓ in such concrete terms is already seen as a sign of unsophistication. But scholarship by aspiring academics is read politicallyůnot in terms of someoneŪs party affiliation, but as a composite picture of theoretical and social affiliations that have a discrete political alignment to them. A candidate who was žreadÓ as being a conservativeůsay a budding literary scholar who regarded Northrup Frye, Matthew Arnold and Edmund Burke as guides toward an anti-historicist strategy for textual interpretationůwould run into serious trouble in the vast majority of English Departments no matter how intelligent, productive or pedagogically gifted they were. The tripwires here arenŪt generally as obvious as saying, žI voted for BushÓůthough Brooks is completely correct in thinking that this would possibly be one of the three or four most disastrous things an aspiring humanities scholar could say during an on-campus interview.
What Brooks misses, of course, is that this isnŪt just about conservatism. Virtually anything that departed from a carefully groomed sense of acceptable innovation, including ideas and positions distinctively to the left and some that are neither left nor right, could be just as potentially disastrous. Like a lot of right-wing critics of academia, he generally thinks too small and parochially, and too evidently simply seeks to invert what he perceives as a dominant orthodoxy. If they had their druthers, Horowitz and Pipes and most of the rest of the victimology types would simply make the academy a conservative redoubt rather than a liberal one. The real issue here is the way that each successive academic generation succeeds in installing its own conventional wisdom as the guardian at the gates, and burns the principle of academic freedom in subtle, pervasive fires aflame in the little everyday businesses and gestures of academic life. The line behind Brooks of people who could rightfully claim that an important perspective or methodology is largely unwelcome within the academy is fairly long.
We all know the numbers. Registered Republicans are rare indeed on most campuses. They are the unicorns of the academic humanities. Nonetheless, the litmus-testing that takes place at every level in that particular academic subculture is conducted far more subtly, and far more invidiously, than most realize.
Brooks wrote me last week asking if I would be willing to "chat" about his proposed piece. I wrote back saying I'd prefer to respond to his questions in writing, and invited him to send me some (none came). I wanted a chance to think the issue through and choose my words carefully. At the back of my mind were the issues Burke raises above: that gatekeeping in English departments almost never takes the form of explicit political gatekeeping; that I do not know, nor do I care to know, the politics of students who express interest in going to graduate school in English; and that I do not address their questions about their prospects from that standpoint. I tell them about the economic reality of graduate school, I tell them about the deplorable job market, I tell them about the petty maneuvering and rampant careerism that characterizes the profession at every level; I tell them to go out and read examples of the sort of work they will be expected to produce and ask themselves if that is the sort of writing they feel called to do; I tell them to sit in on a graduate seminar to see what the discussion is like and to get a taste of grad student culture. I have never had occasion to say to a student, "As a conservative, you will be derided for your politics and will experience a level of discrimination that may ultimately mean that this profession is closed to you."
On the other hand, I have often had occasion to say to students that the things that draw them to advanced literary study--a love of learning, a love of literature, a deep desire to share those loves with students through teaching--are not the things that drive most English professors, and have next to nothing to do with what they would be expected to do in graduate school and beyond. The student who enters grad school intent on becoming a traditional humanist is the student who will be labelled as hopelessly unsophisticated by her peers and her professors. She will also be labelled a conservative by default: she may vote democratic; may be pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, and anti-gun; may possess a palpably bleeding heart; but if she refuses to "politicize" her academic work, if she refuses to embrace the belief that ultimately everything she reads and writes is a political act before it is anything else, if she resists the pressure to throw an earnest belief in an aesthetic tradition and a desire to address the transhistorical "human questions" out the window in favor of partisan theorizing and thesis-driven advocacy work, then she is by default a political undesirable, and will be described by fellow students and faculty as a conservative. She will become untouchable, mockable, and literally unsupportable. She will have a hard time finding people to work with, a harder time getting good letters of recommendation, and may feel that she is being drummed out of the work she is called to do by people who are using that work for profoundly other, self-serving ends.
As Burke points out, this is at least as much about conformity as it is about politics, and I have long believed that if the tables were turned, and most of the people in academic gatekeeping positions were conservative, a similar kind of exclusionary scenario would result. It's the culture of academe--or at least of the academic humanities--that is the main problem. If you don't have to be a conservative to get labelled--and reviled--as a conservative, then "conservative" means something other than "conservative" in the academic circles I am discussing here. It means something more like "non-conformist," which, ironically, often translates into either "traditional humanist" or "person who questions prevailing orthodoxies of any stamp" or both. Certainly, left-wing politics are central to this problem--the people who are labelling the "conservatives" in their midst are by definition on the left. But what they are labelling "conservative" is more often than not not conservative per se, but simply different from them. You could say this is an indication of just how far left campus leftists are. Or you could say that it shows how brutal and brilliant the system of academic peer pressure is: how better to embarass a free-thinking liberal into becoming--or seeming to become--a lockstep ideologue than by threatening to call her a conservative? In English departments, "conservative" is as dirty and shameful an epithet as one can imagine.
September 26, 2003
Bake sale doesn't sit well
In response to my post yesterday on SMU's censored anti-affirmative action bake sale, a reader writes:
I am a 22 year-old African-American college student attending a small private college in Central California, and I believe that the bake sale demonstration by UC Berkeley's College Republicans clearly presented the unfair advantages minority students are given when it comes to college admissions and job placement. I am against affirmative action in some aspects of what it stands for.
As a college student, I would like to believe that I was accepted because of my educational background. And as a working citizen, I would like to believe that I was hired by a company that believed that I was truely qualified for the position that I applied for. With affirmative action, how will I ever know the truth?
By continuing to allow affirmative action to be used in school admissions and job placement, people that support affirmative action are sending a message that minorities need a 'boost' over whites or qualified applicates just because they are minorities. Sending a message like that makes it harder for minorities to prove that they are qualified and they truely deserve to be where they are.
On the other hand, prejudice still exist in our unperfect world. Thou affirmative action may give minorities an unfair advantage over whites, it is still giving minorities a chance to prove themselves in an environment that was mostly dominated by whites.
Now, more minorities are applying to universities and corporate jobs, becasue they know that affirmative action will protect them from prejudices and discrimiation that would have kept them out.
Until someone presents an alternative to affirmative action in a non-colorblind society, people that are totally against it can not completely whitewash everything that it represents. I may have mixed feelings about affirmative action, but I also know that I have to work just as hard, if not harder, to prove that I am just as smart and qualified as the next person. Just because I am black doesn't mean that I don't deserve all that I have achieved.
When I apply to law school next fall, I want the universities that I apply to to know that I have worked just as hard to get where I am, and I deserve a chance. Not becasue I am a minority and looking for a hand out, but becasue I earned it
This is not a perspective that gets much play when affirmative action is debated. It ought to. Thanks for writing in.
Suing the censors
Administrators at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo dug themselves into a nasty procedural, legal, and ethical hole last year when they went after a conservative white male student for posting a flyer that offended a group of black students. FIRE got involved, and as a result the case of Steve Hinkle, who was sentenced to write letters of apology to the offended students and threatened with expulsion if he failed to comply, was all over the media and the blogosphere during the summer.
Usually when the bad press starts and administrators have no place to hide, they back down. Not so with the intrepid folks at Cal Poly, who defended their decision to punish Hinkle for totally legitimate behavior by simply accusing FIRE and Hinkle of lying about the facts. When FIRE posted transcripts of the seven-hour hearing to which Cal Poly's disciplinary vanguard subjected Hinkle, it became eminently clear who was doing the lying. But still the admins held out, motivated at this point either by extremely poor counsel or extraordinary powers of psychic denial. All the while, they were digging themselves ever deeper into that procedural, legal, and ethical hole I mentioned above. And yesterday, they hit bottom.
Yesterday, FIRE legal network attorney Carol Sobel and the Center for Individual Rights filed suit against the president of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and all other administrators who were involved in prosecuting Hinkle. Coordinated by FIRE, the suit seeks to clear Hinkle's record, to confirm that the school's decision to punish him for his protected expression was indeed unconstitutional, and to win punitive and other damages. Hinkle's legal team also filed for a temporary restraining order that would prevent Cal Poly from enforcing the policies they invoked to punish Hinkle.
The Cal Poly administration is no doubt deeply offended by Hinkle's latest "disruption."
September 25, 2003
Cooking up a hostile environment
Last year, conservative student groups at Berkeley and UCLA held anti-affirmative action bake sales to make a point about the false economics and falser ethics of affirmative action. At Berkeley, for example, you could buy chocolate chip cookies priced according to a sliding race-based fee scale: cookies were $1.50 for whites, $1.25 for Asians, $1.00 for Latinos, 75 cents for Chicanos, 50 cents for Native Americans, and 25 cents for blacks. The events were--predictably--denounced as racist grandstanding by offended students, faculty, and even state legislators. They caused upset, outrage, and--here I speculate--no small amount of sympathetic indigestion in those who found the sale's concept difficult to stomach. But as dismissive and anti-intellectual as those denunciations were (and it is anti-intellectual to simply label that with which one disagrees racist, rather than take the time to frame a cogent argument against it), they spoke to the fact that the sales were allowed to take place on their respective campuses, and that they did spark something like the debate they were meant to spark.
Administrators at SMU aren't about to allow such a debate to take place on their campus. That's why they shut down an analogous bake sale organized by the Young Conservatives of Texas, a student group that set out to protest affirmative action by charging white males $1 for a cookie, white women 75 cents for a cookie, Hispanics 50 cents and blacks 25 cents. The sale had been going for a grand total of 45 minutes when a black student complained. Administrators shut the sale down, saying that it posed a danger to itself and others. "This was not an issue about free speech," Tim Moore, director of the SMU student center, told the Dallas Morning News. "It was really an issue where we had a hostile environment being created."
Hostile environments are, of course, whatever we want them to be. And on campuses, they are whatever certain officially aggrieved groups say they are. In this case, the "hostility" of the bake sale was lodged in what offended students were pleased to describe as its (implicitly racist) "ignorance." "My reaction was disgust because of the ignorance of some SMU students," said one black student. "They were arguing that affirmative action was solely based on race. It's not based on race. It's based on bringing a diverse community to a certain organization." For this student, a viewpoint that differs from his is not only threatening, but ignorant and wrong, a lie. No matter that this very point can be--and is being--hotly debated on campuses, in the media, and in the courts, and no matter that there is a profound irony embedded in the student's claim. Affirmative action as it is presently practiced is absolutely about race (and to a lesser degree, sex)--that's why we don't see affirmative action for political conservatives or fundamentalist Christians on campus. Those groups are under-represented in higher education, too--but they aren't organized by skin color or chromosomes, and the "diversity of viewpoint" they conceivably bring with them is neither valued nor welcome at many schools. The "diverse community" that this student so righteously references, and that SMU's administration so protectively manages, is one based on censorship of viewpoints (and, apparently, foodstuffs) that don't conform to the particular political orthodoxy of SMU's campus culture.
Don't look for anyone in SMU's administration to appreciate this point voluntarily. Don't look, either, for them to realize that by shutting the sale down, SMU has helped the Young Conservatives of Texas make an even stronger point about the true logic of "diversity" that exists at their institution and at many like it across the country. The media are now spreading a message about institutional hypocrisy and double standards surrounding politics and race that readily tops the message the bake sale--whose total profit was $1.50--was originally meant to send.
Hat tip: readers Fred R., Gabriel R., and Michael S.
September 24, 2003
Duke gets it mostly right
It's that time of year: fraternities across the country are giving parties with potentially offensive themes, and the potentially offended are predictably taking offense. Last year, the University of Texas, Texas A&M, the University of Virginia, and the University of Tennessee all made the news when students wore blackface to frat parties or when the frats themselves threw parties with racial themes. As I wrote last year, these episodes have a stylized, almost ritual quality. Fraternities pick themes--such as Texas' infamous "ghetto party"--that are certain to outrage just about everyone on campus, and then play dumb when just about everyone is indeed outraged. Then the protests begin: coalitions of students and faculty form, denouncing the frat in question as racist, and demanding everything from punishment (of the fraternity) to demonstrations of commitment to diversity (from the administration). Favored punishments include mandatory sensitivity training for the fraternity or even for the whole campus, letters of apology from the offenders to the offended, and suspending or even shutting down the campus chapter of the offending frat. Favored demonstrations of commitment to diversity include increasing minority admissions and hiring, stepping up minority recruitment, creating ethnic studies programs and majors, and establishing a diversity course requirement.
Depending on whether the school is public or private, and depending on whether school administrators understand the civil rights violations they could potentially commit if they set out to prove their sensitivity to minority concerns by punishing certain students for their expression, the school's response will at that point range anywhere from public commiseration ("What those frat boys did sure was awful! We at Sensitive State University deplore it!") to legally questionable punitive action. Too often, university administrators jump at the chance to pillory a (usually white, always male) student in the name of diversity. Fraternities are, symbolically, speaking, the last bastions of unrepentant wealthy white maleness on campus, and as such they are attractive targets for every campus' self-appointed sensitivity police. Fraternities, of course, understand this as well as anyone--which is why they throw such parties in the first place. If contempt is always already coming your way, you might as well court it.
This year, Duke is kicking off the annual ritual of outrageous call and outraged response. The occasion: a September 13 party at Sigma Chi fraternity organized around the theme "Viva Mexico!" Timed to "honor" Mexican Independence Day, the event featured invitations designed to look like expired green cards, t-shirts bearing the image of a drunk Mexican, and a mock border patrol checkpoint at the entrance.
Predictably, there were people who understood the party as a racist act: as one Mexican-American senior told the Herald-Sun, "Everything that I am -- my family, customs, culture and language -- was violated. ... The stereotypes of drunk Mexicans and border crossing were hurtful. ... Durham and the United States know the importanct of Latinos, so why doesn't Duke?" The language of violation (as if one person's expression could rape another), the evocation of hurt feelings (as the equivalent of rape), and the leap to blame Duke for the behavior of a few transient Duke undergrads, are classics of their type. So are the protests that followed the party. At a recent demonstration, according the the Herald-Sun, speakers asserted that the party proves Duke's longstanding neglect of the campus Latino population, and further added that it demonstrates the "pervasive ... intolerance" for minorities on campus. Speakers also noted that in 1994, concerned students were turned down when they asked the fraternity and sorority that sponsor an annual "South of the Border" party to change the name of the event.
Predictable, too, is Sigma Chi's response. "[The party] was designed to be a light-hearted celebration of the Mexican tourism scene," wrote the chapter's president, Marc Mattioli, in a letter to the editor section of the Duke student paper. "In no way was it intended to imply a political or social statement about Mexico, Mexican-Americans, immigrants or immigration policy. Obviously, it did not come off as such." According to one report, Mattioli is himself half Puerto Rican, and the fraternity's social chair is half Columbian. The chapter has apologized and is going to do some "educational programming" around the issue.
Not as predictable, and for that reason hopeful: the Duke administration is stating up front that there will be no punishment for the fraternity or for individual students.
Less hopeful, but still entirely predictable: the Duke administration is bending over backwards to (at least seem to) accommodate the various demands of the protesters. They want better recruitment of Latino students and faculty, more institutional support for Latinos, and a Latino studies program. In response, Duke president Nan Keohane is convening a committee for the express purpose of recruiting a more diverse faculty and staff (she deflected the demand for a Latino studies program by reminding the protesters that Duke is currently creating an America Studies program that will do the same sort of work).
A cynic might say that Keohane has appeased the protesters pretty effectively: calling a committee is hardly a call to action, as anyone who has ever served on a committee knows. In so doing, she makes her school look responsive and sensitive without actually having to do much or fund anything. But at the same time, she accepts the accusations, fraught assumptions, and skewed expectations of those she is appeasing. Instead of challenging, for instance, the assumption that "diversity" is a matter of skin color, rather than a matter of philosophy, she upholds it. Instead of questioning the idea that a school is by definition neglecting a minority population if it does not create all manner of special programs for that population, she plays into it. Instead of seeking to draw a distinction between the institution's commitment to fairness and free inquiry and the individual expression of a very small number of students, she accepts the flawed logic that equates the poor taste of a group of twenty-year-old frat boys with the racial climate of the entire school. And instead of pointing out that sensitivities are not amenable to regulation--that one person's joke is another person's slur--she has allowed the rigid identity politics of the protesters to stand, even though those politics are clearly undercut by the ethnic origins of the fraternity's officers.
Keohane is right not to entertain the punitive fantasies of those who would censor or censure offensive expression on Duke's campus. But until she and other administrators across the country address the false logic that underpins those fantasies, the fantasies--and the many failures of comprehension they reveal--will remain.
Hat tip: reader Fred R.
UPDATE: This is the sort of behavior fraternities should be getting punished for.
September 21, 2003
Ralph Luker thinks he may have found the next Michael Bellesiles. Christine Heyrman, who directed Michael Bellesiles' dissertation and once shared with him the same editor at Knopf, is also a winner of the Bancroft Prize, the history profession's most prestigious award. And the book for which Heyrman won that prize, Southern Cross, is looking like it might be riddled with the same sorts of thesis-driven manipulations, ellipses, and omissions that marred Bellesiles' handling of evidence in Arming America.
Luker has not had much luck getting Heyrman to answer his concerns publicly, and this week he made another in a series of attempts to convince Heyrman that she should do so: "Really, Christine," he wrote on his blog at the History News Network (scroll down to the 9/17 posting), "all I care about is that you show some real professional pride in your Bancroft Prize winning book. Get Random House and UNC Press committed to a revised edition of it; don't misuse ellipses this time around; use comparable data; and do the additions correctly." Luker circulated his post via email, forwarding it to historians across the country.
Among them was Yale professor Glenda Gilmore, who is perhaps best known to the general public for the flap she caused last year when she published this piece in the Yale Daily News (scroll down to read the 297 comments posted by readers, and keep in mind that as harsh as they are, they were cleaned up considerably, at Gilmore's behest). Andrew Sullivan gave Gilmore a Sontag Award for her trouble--and she responded with an email that attacked him personally in ways that did much more to discredit her than him.
Gilmore did not appreciate receiving Luker's email. She of the ad hominem attacks found his public call for a response from Heyrman uncivil, and asked to be removed from his mailing list. And in so doing, she revealed something awfully telling about attitudes toward accountability in academe. Luker's exchange with Gilmore perfectly captures the way the ideal of "civility" may be invoked in today's ethically compromised and politically partisan academy to avoid responding to legitimate questions and to dismiss the person who (so rudely) insists that scholars ought to be publicly accountable for the veracity and soundness of their work. Gilmore's own professional conduct indicates just how selective and self-serving the invocation of civility is. Luker's reflections on what is at stake for Gilmore, for the Yale history department, and for the history profession itself are well worth reading.
September 20, 2003
The poetics of retraction
Every year, across the country, there are regular dust-ups on campus about what the student newspaper decides to print. Every year, across the country, individuals and groups take great offense to the tone, or the content, or the editorials, or the photography, or the cartooning, of the student paper, and raise hell in their insistence on restitution. The form this insistence takes can range from demands for apologies to demands for punishment and censorship. It's common practice for outraged groups of students to steal entire press runs of papers that print stories or opinions that offend them. It's also common practice for university administrations to look the other way when that occurs.
The periodic, almost ritualized outrage about the politics and ethics of students newspapers expresses the tense standoff between the advocates of free speech and the would-be censors who populate every campus. When print runs are stolen or when a coalition of outraged students demands that a paper be shut down, or insists that its staff be forced to apologize--or even to attend sensitivity training--for causing offense, student publications become a lightning rod for clarifying one of the defining schisms on campus today. The gap between those who see the campus as a bastion of unfettered inquiry and those who see it as a utopian experiment in social re-ordering, between those who believe in free expression and those who believe in protecting sensitivities, is uniquely and disturbingly visible in such moments, not least because student publications are one of the few campus entities that will publicly and vociferously defend freedom of speech and freedom of the press when the sensitivity police set about trying to censor them, or even shut them down.
That gap is not visible at Mesa State College, where the student paper recently caved in, completely, abjectly, and absolutely, to the outraged accusations and demands of Native American students. Last weekend, Mesa State defeated the University of Dakota's Fighting Sioux football team. And last week, The Criterion, the student paper, ran a story about the game entitled "Mavs scalp Sioux 31-24." The word "scalp" was not well received by Native American students on campus. "This really hits home big-time with us," a psychology major who is Lakota Sioux told the Associated Press. As a student of Cree descent explained it, "The person who wrote this has no idea what goes into that word." Outraged students cried foul, and the paper agreed that in choosing a verb that associates Native Americans with scalping--indeed, that appears to threaten them with scalping--it committed a heinously offensive, deeply insensitive, and racist act (worth noting: white students at the school don't seem to have raised a protest about the fact that they are the ones cast as the evil scalpers by the headline).
The editor-in-chief of the paper and the News editor are publicly eating crow while at the same time subtly seeking to pass the blame for the unforgivable word choice onto others at the paper:
"It was definitely not intentional," editor-in-chief Natalie Gaffey said Thursday. "I think the bottom line is, even big papers make mistakes. Ultimately this is a learning experience for us."
Gaffey wrote the story about the game, but a sports editor wrote the headline, she said. News editor Megan Fromm said she and Gaffey proofread the paper and didn't catch the controversial word.
"To use that word is offensive and even as a person who isn't of any minority descent ... it's offensive," Fromm said. "It's something that never should have happened, but that doesn't excuse it."
Fromm and Gaffey said they didn't blame students and faculty for the outrage.
"They should get mad," Fromm said.
The headline was written to be colorful, not to offend. It passed as colorful and inoffensive when the editors proofread it. But now--because they have been informed by individuals whose genetics give them authority to decide when something is racist--the editors disavow the header as an obvious and inexcusable example of racist expression. They have now effectively announced that they answer to the special interest groups on campus, and they have indicated, too, that as white people they do not have jurisdiction over their word choice: that when someone who is "in a position to know" says a word is unacceptable, then that word most certainly is.
Lest you think I over-read and over-reach, consider the response by the paper's faculty advisor, also quoted in the AP report:
The faculty adviser to the paper, Morris Brown, also apologized to the Indian student club. He said the paper would print a front-page retraction.
Brown cited his status as the only black professor on campus as reason for the club members to believe his apology.
"If I were white, yeah, you could be skeptical, but as a black man and a brother, I know how you feel," Brown said. "If I were Caucasian, I wouldn't expect you to listen."
Professor Brown has just taught everyone who works at the paper, and everyone who attends the school, that not only are white people inherently racially insensitive, but that they are also inherently insincere. By citing his skin color as verification of the sincerity of the paper's apology, he has effectively announced that his two editors should not--indeed cannot--be taken seriously on their own because they are white. Prediction: the rabid racism of this gesture, which far outstrips that of the headline that caused the controversy in the first place, will go unchallenged and unremarked.
September 17, 2003
When it comes to diversity, the University of Virginia is one of the more politically correct--and hence procedurally fraught--campuses in the country. The school has (an almost certainly unconstitutional) speech code designed to protect the woundable sensibilities of just about anyone on campus who is not straight, white, and male. And now, in response to a prolonged push for some sort of "diversity requirement" (a push that received a great boost last winter when the current student body president, Daisy Lundy, was mysteriously assaulted on the eve of her election by an unidentified and still unapprehended white man who told her that "No one wants a nigger to be preisdent"), the school plans to institute mandatory diversity training for all students. Soon, you won't be able to register for courses at UVa until you complete an online course on how you ought to think and feel about race and racism. UVa is effectively making conformity to a particular political and social orthodoxy a condition of enrollment at the school.
The newly formed Individual Rights Coalition, a student group dedicated to tracking, publicizing, and protesting UVa's violations of students' constitutionally protected freedoms, explains on its website:
On May 31 of this year, in response to acrimonious allegations that our student body is hopelessly mired in ignorance and racism, our Board of Visitors mandated an online "diversity training" program to be imposed upon all undergraduates at the University. Students will be blocked from registering for classes until they have completed this "training", making it mandatory in the strictest sense of the word. As a justification, administrators claim that students must be "trained" in certain values of sensitivity, diversity, and multiculturalism in order to ensure smoother and friendlier discourse around grounds. It is not allegiance to the flag they want -- it is allegiance to a way of thinking.
The desired long-term effect of this soon-to-be-implemented diversity training program is the improvement of race relations around grounds. The intermediate goal, however, is to re-educate private citizens in their views on matters of race, ethnicity, and social dynamics. This effort comes not through open debate in the free marketplace of ideas, but through coercive impositions at the hands of those in power. A captive audience of students will be forcefully subjected to a message that is labeled "neutral, but is in reality crafted specifically to alter their core personal and political beliefs so that they conform to administrators' ideas on diversity and multiculturalism. The proposed method of thought reform is truly frightening and indeed antithetical to the deepest principles of liberal education. Instead of presenting their ideas to be critically evaluated and discussed in an environment of intellectual openness, administrators will preach their views from a powerful bully pulpit that is literally unavoidable. By abusing the considerable state-endowed power that they wield over students, they seek to circumvent the process of free debate and heavily privilege their opinions and their way of thinking about diversity above all others. This is not how hearts and minds are won in a free society, and it is absolutely despicable, no matter what goal is named to justify it.
The way to educate people, to increase their awareness, or to expose them to alternative viewpoints is by discussing and arguing in the public forum, not by using government authority to compel people to attend indoctrination sessions. With the blessings of free speech and a free press to support the dispersion of ideas, the means of ženlighteningÓ the public need not rely upon coercion. If the views of administrators are as meritorious as they claim, let them prevail through the trials of open debate. Let people be convinced through the process of reasoned discourse, not via compulsory attendance policies and mandatory "training."
It's an eloquent dissection of the abusive intolerance that lies at the heart of UVa's apparently good-hearted and progressive program. My own feeling is that what happens at such training sessions (particularly the coldly impersonal online ones, where there are no "trainers" present to badger and hound dissenting participants) is not "indoctrination" so much as it is education in cynicism that may in the long run be just as bad. Most people aren't going to change their beliefs simply because they are compelled to jump through an electronic hoop of this sort. But most people will decide to compromise themselves in order to get past this requirement and get registered. Most will decide that it doesn't matter all that much that the school is attempting to dictate belief, and most will decide that it's no big moral deal to give the online test the answers it obviously wants them to give in order to pass. Beliefs about race may not be altered by a superficial and transparently agenda-driven online program. But the belief that one's conscience is sacrosanct, and that institutional attempts to impose on one's conscience--however obvious, however well-intended, however poorly conceived--are inexcusable and must be resisted will inevitably be eroded. UVa's mandatory diversity training is more likely to teach lessons in moral expediency than in racial tolerance.
The Individual Rights Coalition is sponsoring a petition that can be signed by students and faculty who oppose the new mandatory training. Online petitions are of limited value (as James Taranto unrelenting demonstrated last winter with his withering lists of the false names people were posting to the Not In Our Name petition). But the idea of creating a place where people can register their discontent is worth pursuing--I hope the folks at freeuva.com come up with a credible and effective way to enable concerned members of the campus community to voice their opposition.
UPDATE: John Rosenberg has much more.
UPDATE UPDATE: I am assured by the people at freeuva.com that they will be verifying all "signatures" on their electronic petition. Here's hoping the administration takes this group's position as seriously as it does that of those thr group opposes.
September 15, 2003
To punish or promote?
Last year, Brooklyn College history professor KC Johnson made national news when he went public with his department's attempt to sabotage his tenure case. Johnson was a prolific and respected scholar, a fine teacher, and a dedicated departmental citizen--but he also dared to question the procedural ethics of certain senior colleagues, most notably those of Philip Gallagher, the department chair.
Johnson fell afoul of Gallagher when he questioned his conduct during a hiring search. Instead of urging the committee to recruit the best candidate for the job, Gallagher had written that the search committee should concentrate on hiring a woman, ideally one of those rare women "we can live with, who are not whiners from the word go or who need therapy as much as they need a job." When Johnson this objected to this doubly discriminatory logic (which managed both to suggest that male applicants should be ignored because they are male and that most female applicants are likely to be emotionally incompetent), he alienated Gallagher so thoroughly that he launched a campaign to sink Johnson's bid for tenure and so to fire him.
Since Johnson's teaching, service, and publication records were impeccable (Gallagher himself had written, in a formal review, that Johnson was "exemplary," "impressive," "little short of electrifying," and that he "has helped the department to create a new definition of scholarly collegiality"), Gallagher determined--in consultation with a college lawyer no less--to pursue Johnson for lack of collegiality, a foggy category that essentially enables a department to villify and oust people for all the wrong reasons. (Johnson has published a detailed summary of his case here.)
Gallagher failed famously in his attempt. And when CUNY chancellor Matthew Goldstein overturned Brooklyn College's negative decision and awarded Johnson tenure, I wrote that we should not be willing to let the affair end there: Gallagher was still in the position of authority that he had so egregiously abused; the individual who had engineered the vindictive and immoral attempt to destroy Johnson's career was still sitting pretty his chairmanship. He ought to have been fired, but it looked as though he was not even going to get a slap on the wrist.
Last week, however, things changed. Gallagher was removed from his position as the chair of Brooklyn College's history department. But don't imagine that he was fired, or even simply demoted to the daily round of teaching and committee work that is the lot of those professors who do not enjoy the power and the perquisites of an administrative post. No, Gallagher was promoted to a new administrative post. In the words of BC provost Roberta Matthews, who sent out a memo to CUNY faculty announcing Gallagher's new appointment,
As many of you know, I have spent the past year working with the Office of Graduate Studies, the Office of Graduate Admissions, and through them the Graduate Deputies. Together we have begun to: identify those procedures in the Graduate Division that should be reviewed; assess the quality and viability of existing programs; and examine areas where there may be opportunities for the introduction or growth of programs with high interest that are consistent with our academic mission. It has become clear that this is a critical area, especially as the University begins to develop its new master plan, and we lay the groundwork for a new Brooklyn College Strategic Plan.
I am pleased to announce that Professor Philip F. Gallagher has agreed to take on a new assignment leading this initiative. He is uniquely qualified to conduct a review designed to strengthen the academic curricula and programs of our Graduate Division. As our budget becomes more dependent on tuition, it is vital for us to achieve healthy enrollments in all our graduate programs. Professor Gallagher has been a long-time chairperson, a Graduate Deputy, and, most importantly for this assignment, the former chairperson of the joint Administration-Faculty Council Task Force on Rules and Regulations in the Graduate Division, whose report in 1994 was the blueprint for a number of important procedural and governance changes in the Graduate Division.
Matthews casts Gallagher's new appointment as a great responsibility, and as a step up for Gallagher professionally. Citing his work as history department chair, she suggests that Gallagher earned the new appointment at least in part by his stellar performance as the leader of his department.
Gallagher is not the only person Brooklyn College has appeared to reward for his atrocious conduct during the KC Johnson case. But there are some cracks in the celebratory veneer here that suggest that the new appointment is motivated at least in part by the need to do damage control without seeming to do it, as well as by the desire to retain the services of an experienced administrator who has shown himself to be receptive to Matthews' controversial and potentially destructive plans to revamp the school's curriculum. Since when, for example, does a department chair step down one week into a semester? And what does it mean when that chair steps into a job that was never publicly announced, but whose existence was declared in the memo that named him to it?
I'll post more as more becomes available.
UPDATE: Reader Brian O. has this to say about Gallagher's tactical promotion: "It's called "kicking him upstairs," a classic military move. You declare the rout a victory, pin a medal on the losing general, and promote him!" That sounds about right.
September 12, 2003
Pomp and circumstance
This week's Chronicle of Higher Education features a long and insightful piece by University of Michigan law professor William Ian Miller. Miller's subject is academic pomposity, and his article is an excerpt from his promisingly titled forthcoming book, Faking It. You need a subscription to read the whole article, alas. But here are some excerpts that give the general gist and tone of the piece:
Role playing, performing our parts, is what we do; we can hardly blame one another for playing roles. Suppose, however, the role is flavored in such a way that the player can be described as pretentious. We all pretend, but that does not make us pretentious, or even pretenders in a bad sense, or in the way of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Pretension can take the form of adopting a style of something you aspire to be, and may eventually be, but are not yet --›thus the grad student who postures as a prof. A variant version has the middling prof posturing as a prof of importance. He differs from the grad student because his case holds no promise of the pretense's ever converging with reality. The third in the series is the prof of importance who postures as a prof of importance.
So distasteful is the style, given democratic assumptions, why on earth would any American adopt it? Here is one reason that transcends the cultural: I have found over the years that students tend to confuse pomposity with knowledge, nastiness with smarts. Students thus force otherwise indifferently kind and modest teachers into being mean windbags to get the respect they crave. It may be less that pompous power generates toadies than that toadyism generates pompous power.
Pretentious people seem to inhabit the role in a unique way. They are fully immersed, but not in the manner of people who lose themselves in a role out of exuberance, dedication, addiction, or simplicity. One of the peculiar forms of this pretentious style is that though these people never put the role aside, they also never seem to relax into it.
There is no way to separate the sociological from the moral here. .... Pomposity seems to be an occupational hazard of academics more than of most professions ....
Much of the article is devoted to charting the pompous academic's ways and means of appearing to be more modest than he is, and to framing the problem of the pretentious professor as one that has clearly defined historical and philosophical roots.
Perhaps it says something about me that I found Miller's attempts to place professorial pretension in a historical and philosophical context less interesting and compelling than I did his rare willingness to simply come right out and say that the professoriate is by nature and by culture a deeply self-impressed, troublingly pedantic lot. Giving the inflated airs of intellectually dishonest academics (for pretension and pomposity are forms of intellectual dishonesty) a history and a context are, I suppose, part of the work of the person who documents it. But at the same time, that work comes dangerously close to sounding like rationalization--particularly when Miller suggests, as he does in the quote above, that it is somehow students' fault when professors fail to treat them with proper respect and fail to inhabit their discipline with proper modesty.
Nevertheless, it's invigorating to see the bloviating that is so common in academe called what it is, and it's doubly so to see that essential act of honesty appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. It will take much more than an article to bring Miller's point home to those who most need to grasp it (to those about whom he writes). Academics' peculiar affection for satirical campus fiction shows just how far a conviction of one's inherent superiority to everyone else can go to make even the cruel, slow skewering of a David Lodge, a Richard Russo, or a Malcolm Bradbury feel somehow complimentary; likewise, their blithe ability to dismiss the problem of academe's ideological uniformity as so much conservative whining shows how deep feelings of personal entitlement and contempt for difference run among America's faculties.
One of the biggest reasons why academics are so prone to posturing is that they are not really accountable for what they say. There is an element of the playground bully in the prof who stands before a class of eighteen year-olds alternately pontificating about poetry and politics. Miller's piece calls for an accountability that has been lacking, and, crucially, it makes that call from within the academy. Miller can't be dismissed as an outsider who does not know whereof he speaks. He knows all too well.
September 10, 2003
Speaking of speech codes...
University of Virginia alum and FIRE executive director Erich Wasserman has a few choice words to say about speech codes at his alma mater. Noting that former UVa president, law professor and director of UVa's Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Freedom of Expression Robert M. O'Neil has proudly--and falsely--bragged about how UVa does not have a speech code, Wasserman issues a firm and damning correction in the form of an op-ed in the Cavalier Daily:
Robert O'Neil of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression asserts, "I've always been proud that this institution never adopted [a speech code] because any change in student conduct rules has to originate in the [University] Judiciary Committee."
O'Neil should know better. The University has numerous speech codes in force right now. The University's restrictive speech codes chill constitutionally protected expression and legitimate the punishment of students and faculty for their thoughts.
Here are some examples of speech codes on the basis of which University students and faculty may be expelled or terminated for uttering, writing and, ultimately, thinking, no matter what the forum:
The "University of Virginia Policy on Discriminatory Harassment" prevents members of the University community from:
"Directing racial or ethnic slurs at someone," "telling persons they are too old to understand new technology," "teasing or mocking a person with a disability," "ridiculing a person's religious beliefs," "persisting in requests for dates after being told they are unwelcome"and "sending unwelcome e-mail containing sexual jokes."
Under these policies, the University would outlaw Richard Pryor, Eminem, and Voltaire's presence on grounds.
The "U.Va. Sexual Assault Education Office" says:
"Harassment... comes in many forms, such as teasing, innuendo, inappropriate sexual comments, street harassment... obscene jokes or e-mail messages, sending pornographic photos, sexist graffiti, etc. More serious episodes tend to involve groups of men who denigrate women by rating their sexual attractiveness, whistling and shouting lewd comments."
The University's Office of Equal Opportunity Programs identifies "problematic behavior" in its "Sexual Harassment" policies:
"Jokes of a sexual nature, "suggestive comments about physical attributes or sexual experience," "gestures of a sexual nature" and "sexually suggestive e-mails."
These policies are vague and overbroad and can be used to pursue a student who makes a single comment or joke.
One of the strange things about campus speech codes and the debates that arise about them is how few people--particularly administrators--seem to understand what a speech code is. Wasserman's primer is exemplary. Here's hoping the UVa admins read it, realize that the codes they wrote to prevent lawsuits may actually be inviting them, and move to make necessary changes.
IU's administrative double standards
IU undergrad and author of Twilight of the Idols Nick Blesch has some interesting comments on the administration's decision to uphold business professor Eric Rasmusen's right to free expression after he posted comments on his website that struck members of the campus community as homophobic and intolerant. Blesch points to an Indiana Daily Student editorial written by Charlie Nelms, Vice President of Student Development and Diversity, defending Rasmusen in terms that glowingly evoke the principles of free speech and open, unfettered inquiry:
T]he University's decision to allow him to continue to publish his remarks while a review is underway is consistent with what it means to live in a democratic society.
In a large, diverse community of learners, each of us must be allowed to speak, and each of us must in turn take responsibility for our own words and actions.
The idea of freedom of expression is an easy one to state, but harder to live: we must support the right of those we oppose the most to say what they wish. But we must also speak out for the causes of universal and equal human rights. In the end, truth will win the day.
And then Blesch notes that Nelms seems to have a different standard when the offensive speech in question touches on race rather than sexuality. In the past, Blesch points out, Nelms has publicly mocked and castigated those who would defend racially offensive expression in the name of free speech. Blesch has got all the links and relevant quotes. Read them and decide for yourself whether Nelms is a hypocrite or whether he has had a crucial change of heart.
September 8, 2003
More on Rasmusen
Anger and outrage at Indiana University business professor Eric Rasmusen is reaching new heights now that his webpage has been restored to its original home on an IU server. Rasmusen's recent posts on how he believes homosexuals are more likely than heterosexuals to molest children, and are therefore less likely to make responsible teachers, doctors, and elected officials, drew enough complaints from offended faculty and students that the business school dean asked him to take his site down. Rasmusen did so, moving his site to Geocities while university lawyers determined whether his postings fell within the parameters of IU's policy on free and open expression. They determined that the postings did (a good move, considering IU's obligation to uphold the First Amendment), at which point Rasmusen moved his site back onto IU's servers, where it ought to have remained all along.
Rasmusen describes the whole affair as an exercise in free expression whose outcome he knew in advance: "I wanted to give people time to read the policy and understand it," he told the Indiana Daily Student. "I wouldn't really call this a victory, but I'm glad to help stimulate discussion on campus." He also points out how one thing his website did is flush out the censorious mindset of the faculty and students who were offended by what he posted. "Rather than e-mailing me with counterarguments to my position, various people seem to have tried to get IU to shut me down," Rasmusen told the school paper. "The result? My Web log still exists and has over 10 times the number of readers it used to have. The lesson: intimidation can backfire."
Now Rasmusen's would-be censors are coming creepily close to demanding a speech code at their federally funded state school. It's the punitive wish of people whose self-righteousness is such that they can never imagine being on the wrong end of such a code themselves, and thus cannot imagine just how damaging--to the private self and to the public sphere--such attempts to regulate expressions of belief inevitably are.
Here's what one Indiana student has to say about the school's determination that Rasmusen has the right to post his beliefs on his university site:
Senior Jada Barbry said she believes the decision to let the site back on the server is hypocritical to IU's diversity mission, and she plans to take action with others who share her view.
"It's in direct conflict with IU's promise that this is a fair playing ground for everyone," Barbry said. "You can't protect students from harm when you make it OK for a professor to outwardly express his hatred."
Her sentiments--which might be chalked up to emotional naivete and to an ignorance of the First Amendment--are echoed by those who are old enough to know better. Here's what an academic advisor in the business school had to say:
Joe Boes, an academic adviser in the business school, disagrees with the University's decision and said he wonders if the outcome would have been the same if the outrage against homosexuality concerned a different group of people.
"This is so unfortunate and it's like someone punches you in the stomach and the wind is knocked out of you," Boes said. "Would this be the same if you replace homosexual with black, Jewish or Hispanic? I don't think the legal council [sic] would still allow this on a public IU server in those cases."
Reading between the lines, some interesting assumptions emerge. Both Boes and Barbry see the problem as one that can be fixed by simply suppressing the views that offend them. The lesson they take away from the Rasmusen affair is not that the proper response to offensive speech is more speech, but that IU is not properly responsive to the needs of the campus gay community. Neither grasps that free speech is a content-neutral proposition, and that IU is obligated to protect the utterances of all the members of its community (even those of conservatives). Thus, Barbry sees the school's decision to uphold the principle of free expression as a sign of institutionalized inequality on campus, while Boes confuses the school's defense of Rasmusen's rights with a failure to appreciate the embattled social status of gays and lesbians. Implicit in all of their reasoning is a strong desire for a speech code at IU, one that would forbid future comments like Rasmusen's and would punish anyone who said or wrote anything that fell afoul of the code.
Boes, Barbry, and those who are thinking--or just vaguely longing--along the same lines may find recent events at Shippensburg University instructive. Shippensburg has a policy forbidding racist, sexist, and homophobic speech. And it is getting sued for it. And it is losing. According to the UPI report,
A federal court has ordered the president of a state university not to enforce provisions of what the court termed the school's "speech code" on the grounds that its provisions inhibit free expression in ways that do not withstand First Amendment scrutiny.
On Thursday Judge John E. Jones III, of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, enjoined Shippensburg University President Anthony F. Ceddia from enforcing the code's "overbroad" prohibitions against "acts of intolerance," "subordination," speech that "provokes" or "intimidates," and the requirement that everyone on campus must "mirror" the administration's views on "social justice" and "cultural diversity."
Jones let stand two sentences the court found to be "aspirational" rather than operational, and thus not binding on the students. He also denied the university's motion to dismiss the case, allowing it to proceed to trial.
Read more at FIRE's website.
September 7, 2003
Indiana gets it right
Last week, the dean of Indiana University's business school asked business professor Eric Rasmusen to remove his weblog from its home on the school's server. Rasmusen had written a post expressing his belief that homosexuals are more likely than heterosexuals to molest children, and are therefore less likely to make responsible teachers, doctors, and elected officials.
On his website, Rasmusen wrote that one "reason not to hire homosexuals as teachers is that it puts the fox into the chicken coop," adding that "male homosexuals, at least, like boys and are generally promiscuous. They should not be given the opportunity to satisfy their desires. Somewhat related is a reason not to hire a homosexual as a doctor even though you would hire him as a lawyer: you don't mind if your lawyer has a venereal disease such as HIV or hepatitis, but you do mind if your doctor is in a class of people among whom such diseases are common."
Quite predictably, the post angered people at IU, and led to demands that Rasmusen's web page be barred from university servers. Their logic was succinctly expressed by business school academic advisor Joe Boes, who told the Daily Student that Rasmusen's commentary fell beyond the bounds of free speech because it intimidates gay students: "I respect other people's opinions, but when they are expressed on IU's server, I do not think it is appropriate. ... When [students] are exposed to this type of opinion it pushes them further into the closet," he said. "This is an unfortunate incident, but Dean [Dalton] is handling the situation appropriately."
While Rasmusen moved his website off Indiana's servers and onto geocities, debate about the validity of IU's actions began to heat up in the blogosphere. UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh--who had written the post to which Ramusen's controversial posting was a response--pointed out (with characteristic reserve) that IU had "apparently" violated Rasmusen's academic freedom. University of Toronto political science professor Henry Farrell disagreed. And Volokh disagreed back. (Readers who are familiar with Critical Mass will know that I think this one is a no brainer--fair play to Farrell, but Volokh owns this issue.)
The good news is that IU's dean did not consider his job to be done when he got Rasmusen to move his website (he was clever about how he did it, by the way: by all accounts, he "asked" Rasmusen to move the site, and Rasmusen graciously agreed to--no censorship there, just lots of misguided pressure dressed up to look like mannerly peacekeeping). University lawyers were consulted, and they determined that Rasmusen was entirely within his rights--as a citizen and as a state employee--to post what he did. "Certainly there are going to be times when there is going to be information that some people might disagree with, but that doesn't mean that information is illegal or violates policy," said a university spokesperson. Rasmusen's website is now back up at its original university address. You can read the full text of Rasmusen's original post--the one that 365gay.com calls "gay hate postings"--here, and you can read Rasmusen's follow-up post here. "I am pleased that Indiana University has the sensible policy that complaints from people who dislike a professor's views are not reason to shut down his Web site," Rasmusen said.
This won't be the end, though. IU's coordinator of gay, lesbian, and transgender support services told the Bloomington Herald-Times that Rasmusen should be prepared for some intense backlash: "I just expect there's going to be a huge negative response to it," he said. "I hope there is." That's fine if there is, and Rasmusen ought to be expecting it. As long as everyone involved can say his piece without fear of censorship or punishment, IU's marketplace of ideas remains intact.
UPDATE: Ted Hinchman has some thoughts on the ethics of academic freedom. His main point: Rasmusen may have been within his rights to post what he did, but he was nonetheless unprofessional to use a university server to sound off in an incendiary way on a subject far removed from his area of expertise:
Blogging on the university server is rather like festooning your office window with outward-facing placards.› It's using the university as a vehicle for your personal views, not merely as a resource.
The prof at IU was wrong, then, in more ways than one.› His post, wherever published, was morally offensive (in multi-faceted ways).› Published on IU's server, it was also unprofessional.› If you speak on university servers, you speak as a university employee.› And you have a professional obligation -- beyond any moral obligation -- to speak responsibly.
As long as one isn't coercing him, I don't see why one couldn't criticize such a blogger for being unprofessional.› Of course, his dean probably couldn't make this criticism except coercively.› But couldn't his colleagues?
They certainly could, and they certainly will. A crucial point: if they use their own university sites to do so, and if they criticize Rasmusen for being a homophobe rather than for using his university site for other than strictly professional purposes, they will, by Hinchman's logic, be guilty of behavior that is every bit as unprofessional as he says Rasmusen's is.
September 5, 2003
The right freshman reading project
In response to the flap about UNC Chapel Hill's choice of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America for its freshman reading program, the Charlotte Observer put out a call for alternative readings. Anyone frustrated with the ongoing left-wing slant of summer reading programs at Chapel Hill and elsewhere could write in with suggestions for books that they felt would be better choices, and many did. On August 24, the Observer published a list of some of the titles readers had submitted. The link to the story is now dead, but here is the list:
Raymond Werts, Charlotte: "The Closing of the American Mind," Allan Bloom; "Alien Nation," Peter Brimelow.
Fred Ray, Asheville: "Gulag: A History," Anne Applebaum.
Bobby Axsom, Mooresville: "Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News," Bernard Goldberg.
Paul Jaminet: "The Road to Serfdom," F.A. Hayek; "Life at the Bottom," Theodore Dalrymple.
Larry McRae, Boone: "Capitalism and Freedom," Milton Friedman; "Civil Disobedience," Henry David Thoreau.
Andrew Balet, Ypsilanti, Mich: "Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts about the '60s," Peter Collier; "Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus," Dinesh D'Souza.
Tom E. Arnold: "1632," a novel by Victor David Hansen, free download from the online library at www.baen.com.
Danny Brooks: "The Great Libertarian Offer," Harry Browne; "The Terrible Truth about Liberals," Neal Boortz.
Brian O'Connor: "Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought," Jonathan Rauch; "The Dark Side of the Left: Illiberal Egalitarianism in America," Richard Ellis.
Thomas H. Preacher: "Beyond the Melting Pot," Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan; "The Shadow University," Alan Kors and Harvey Silvergate.
Harold R. Cadmus, Denver: "The Prince," Machiavelli; "Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt: Toward a Secular Theocracy," by Paul Edward Gottfried.
Walter Raffel, Matthews: The Bible; "History, Law and Christianity," John Warwick.
Paul Sedan: "Wealth of Nations," Adam Smith.
Steve Gilmore, Charlotte: "A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America," Shelby Steele; "What's So Great About America," Dinesh D'Souza.
Martin Davis, Charlotte: "Eat the Rich," P.J. O'Rourke; "The Conservative Mind," Russell Kirk.
David Cunningham, Charlotte: "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are So Rich and Some So Poor," David S. Landes.
Jay Lutz, Statesville: "Final Days," Barbara Olson; "Deadlock," Washington Post.
Norman Powell, Lenoir, and Edward Phifer: "Atlas Shrugged," Ayn Rand.
Marshal A. Jones: "The New Thought Police," Tammy Bruce.
David Cunningham, Charlotte: "The Federalist, or The New Constitution: Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay"; "The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages," Harold Bloom.
Brad D. Williams, Charlotte: "Second Treatise of Government," John Locke; "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin."
Philip van Hoy: "Conscience of a Conservative," Barry Goldwater; "God and Man at Yale," William F. Buckley.
Gerry Anderson: "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order," Samuel Huntington; "Commanding Heights," Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw.
Judson Jones, Mooresville: "Leadership," Rudolph Giuliani; "Guns, Crime, and Freedom," Wayne LaPierre.
Larry Gauvreau, Huntersville: "The Politics of Bad Faith," by David Horowitz; "Catcher in the Rye," J.D. Salinger.
William A. Brafford, Charlotte: "The Real Lincoln," Thomas DiLorenzo; "Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?" Thomas Sowell.
Tim Chavel: "How Then Should We Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture," Francis A. Schaeffer; "The Abolition of Man," C.S. Lewis.
Tom Shuford, Lenoir: "The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn," Diane Ravitch; "The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and
Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students," Allan Bloom.
John M. Miano: "Democracy in America," Alexis de Toqueville; "Here I Stand," Roland Herbert Bainton.
Barry Schneider, Charlotte: "The Killer Angels," Michael Shaara; "The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements," Eric Hoffer.
Tom Garrett: "Death by Journalism," Jerry Bledsoe.
Gail Greenough, Huntersville: "Who Stole Feminism," Christina Hoff Sommers.
Melba Westphal, Matthews: "The Majesty of the Law," Justice Sandra Day O'Conner [sic].
Todd Lowe, Concord: "The South Was Right!" Donald Kennedy and Ronald Kennedy; "Abandoned: The Betrayal of the American Middle Class since World War II," William J. Quirk, Randall R. Bridwell.
Jerry Long, Albemarle: "Wealth and Poverty," George Gilder.
And here are some of the comments readers sent in along with their lists:
Bobby Axsom of Mooresville: I think reading books from both liberals and conservatives and discussing them in an open and honesty atmosphere by a totally neutral moderator would be a great idea. The problem is that I feel sure, considering that both of their book choices have been liberal, we can be assured that their choice of moderators for the discussions are also liberal.
Larry McRae of Boone: Surely, reading the serious thought of a serious American philosopher would contribute more to freshmen's intellectual development than reading the shallow apologetics of an obscure professor at a third-rate university, a man obviously infatuated with Islam, or the reporting of a serious hypocrite (Ehrenreich never really lived those lives) without the background to understand the people she was meeting.
I doubt that mine, or any other suggestions, will have any impact on the ideologues who rule today in Chapel Hill, but you do have my two cents' worth.
Martin Davis of Charlotte: If Dr. Moeser really wants to educate his students, he should junk the entire curriculum and have every student study "The Conservative Mind" by Russell Kirk for four years (or five or six, as is currently popular).
They would barely make a dint in their understanding of the text, but they would be receiving a well-rounded university education, which is much more than they are currently getting at enormous taxpayer expense.
William A. Brafford of Charlotte: I can't believe you are giving us this opportunity. In passing, I should note that the problem at Carolina is not the books that are being assigned, it's those that aren't, with the resulting danger that students may never hear the arguments on both (or all) sides of many issues.
Irene Corey of Charlotte: I think it is stupid that there is such an uproar over the book. The reason there is such an issue is because people don't like to look at or face the truth about reality. ... Maybe they just want the college students to read ... a "feel good" book that no one could possibly draw any controversies on.
John Grooms of Charlotte: Considering that most of the folks who call themselves "conservative" today have turned traditional conservatism -- with its staunch belief in personal freedoms -- on its head by sticking their noses into everyone else's business,
And considering that many of these same "conservatives" use some version of ideology to cover up what's really mere selfishness,
And considering that many more "conservatives" than would ever admit it have at the core of their "ideals" at least some degree of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and homophobia, I suggest that an appropriate text for students wanting to understand the current mindset of American so-called conservatism would be "Mein Kampf " by Adolf Hitler.
John B. Harrison of Charlotte: Your observation that "social and political conservatives have written many thoughtful books" must have caused some early readers to choke on their grits. One wonders whether any liberal arts professor at Chapel Hill is aware of that fact. ... My own view ... is that students should read any book the doctors require, provided that a book of countervailing view also be required. ... Academic freedom is not properly defined as the imposition of an intellectual one-way street on students ... .
The responsibility for filling this intellectual void ought to be the chancellor's, not conservative citizens demanding fairness and balance. Nevertheless, you asked for a list, not a lecture. Herewith, mine.
Lots of good suggestions and comments here, and some crackpot ones, too. They've all been forwarded to UNC Chancellor James Mosier for his delectation.
My own sense is that addressing the university's exclusion of conservative viewpoints by turning the tables and assigning more conservative sorts of books instead of liberal ones would backfire--it would merely draw the same outcry and protest from other quarters (not least from the faculty charged with leading group discussion). I also suspect that assigning two books--one liberal and one conservative--in the name of balance would not work. Books don't fall so neatly into political slots; one person's leftist tract is another person's moderate or even conservative one.
More basically, the outcry about a doubled reading load would be loud and long. Incoming students already grumble about having to buy and read and discuss a book for no course credit while on summer vacation. Schools aren't going to have much luck getting freshmen to double their investment of time and money in what they all know is ultimately a gimmicky way of seeming to welcome them to the intellectual life of their school. Entering college students may not have much formal exposure to either liberal or conservative philosophy, but they know makework when they see it.
September 3, 2003
Back to School
I've been getting myself moved back to the U.S. after spending last year living and working abroad, so blogging has been non-existent for the past week and will continue to be light for the next few days. Posting should return to regular patterns soon. In the meantime, check out my piece in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education on the controversy surrounding UNC Chapel Hill's decision to assign all incoming freshmen Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.
Subscription is required, unfortunately. But here's an excerpt:
... The book's detractors claim that it is so much agitprop from left-wing scholars openly attempting to indoctrinate students. Its defenders cast the critics as narrow-minded fundamentalists who do not understand the importance of wide reading and spirited debate.
But almost everyone agrees with the astounding premise that it's reasonable to use the freshman reading program to stage a political debate. As North Carolina State Senator Ellie Kinnaird told The Herald-Sun, of Durham, N.C., "The program has created exactly what it intended --›discussion, debate, and a lot of political activism. ... The purpose has been fulfilled." State Senator Austin Allran suggested that the freshman reading assignment should come from the classics, to which Vice Chancellor Bresciani responded that students are expected to read the classics on their own. But the principal argument of the Committee for a Better Carolina is that the reading program should include conservative views. Zach Clayton, a student at Chapel Hill who is a member of the group, told the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer that the university should have assigned the autobiography of Sam Walton, Wal-Mart's founder, along with Ehrenreich's book. On both sides of the debate, a book's politics are assumed to matter more than its scholarly merit or literary quality.
The committee's seemingly unimpeachable plea for "greater fairness and balance" in the reading program conceals a less savory jockeying for ideological position. "It's intellectually dishonest to present only one side," says the group's founder, Michael McKnight. That's true. But couched in that demand for balance is the committee's conservative agenda. The group seeks more balance not because balance is inherently desirable, but because of the committee's interest, as its Web site announces, "in promoting conservative and free market ideas and perspectives on the UNC campus." It is protesting because Nickel and Dimed gives conservative politics a bad rap. As McKnight told The Herald-Sun, "as a Christian, I was offended, and as a conservative I was really offended. It's one thing to disagree with someone's point of view, and it's another thing to ridicule them." Tellingly, McKnight frames his complaint in terms borrowed wholesale from the liberal identity politics that he and his group oppose.
The tacit assumption by both liberals and conservatives that Chapel Hill's summer reading program is more about politics than about reading should give us pause. We ought to be asking what it means to read opinionated works as either a confirmation or negation of identity --›but instead we are fighting endlessly about whose identity gets top billing when readings are assigned.
I've written more on the UNC Chapel Hill situation here.