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December 3, 2003 [feather]
Profiling the conservative student

Michael Berube, an English professor at Penn State, has penned a fascinating profile of The Conservative Student for The Chronicle of Higher Education. The representative conservative Berube describes takes the form of a disgruntled and disruptive individual who took a literature course from Berube during the fall of 2001; throughout the essay, Berube consistently scrambles the considerable difference between reasoned dissent and unreasonable disruption, so much so that by the end of the essay, he has rendered student conservatism as simply a type of behavioral dysfunction:

Over my 20 years in teaching, I've had many conservatives in my classes. I think I've even had a few Stalinists, too. I've had many intelligent, articulate students who behaved as if they had a right to speak more often and at greater length than anyone else in the room; I've had versions of Reese Witherspoon in Election and Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series, who knew the answers to every question ever asked; I've had my share of blurters with very little sense of social boundaries, a few of whom may genuinely have had some degree of Asperger's syndrome, with various autistic or antisocial symptoms. To all such students --›indeed, to all students, those with disabilities and those without --›I try to apply the standard of disability law: I make reasonable accommodation for them. The challenge, though, lies in making reasonable accommodations for students whose standards of "reasonableness" are significantly different from yours. Few aspects of teaching are so difficult --›and, I think, so rarely acknowledged by people who don't teach for a living.

The entire essay is written in this vein. On one level, it is accommodating and empathic, a genuine effort on the part of a self-proclaimed leftist professor to acknowledge the ethical and pedagogical complexities of teaching students whose politics depart radically from his own. On another level, the essay is condescending and patronizing, not to mention intellectually dishonest. To confuse--wilfully and systematically--conservative beliefs with aberrant behavior, as Berube does here, is to suggest on some level that conservative students (outspoken ones, anyway) are not only wrong, but sick. Berube does not use the disability comparison lightly: he has written at length about his son's Down Syndrome, and is one of the key figures in the emerging field of disability studies. When he says outspoken conservative students are best handled as disabled students, he knows what he is saying and he means it.

It sounds as though the particular student Berube describes was disruptive. But as the essay unfolds, Berube loses track of a crucial distinction, that it was not the student's conservatism that was disruptive, but his disruptive behavior that was disruptive--the talking out of turn, the monopolizing of class discussion, the increasingly extreme stance as class provocateur. When Berube equates that sort of behavior, which is hardly the private property of conservatives, and which is so common among students as to be barely worth mentioning, with student conservatism; when he illogically presents one difficult student who happened also to be a conservative student as a telling exemplar of the "problem" of conservative students; when he goes so far as to announce that he has never seen a conservative student penalized for his beliefs and even speculates that perhaps conservative tales of professorial liberal bias stem from disruptive conservative students' failure to understand that their professors were penalizing them for their attitude problems and not for their beliefs; when Berube makes these arguments, he has gone way too far.

It's hard to know, ultimately, what the point of Berube's essay is. If it's a piece about handling difficult students, it should discuss a range of problems students can cause, and should not be oriented around questions of political difference. If it's a piece about what happens when students differ politically from their professors, it should, again, acknowledge the range of problems that can arise when teachers and students clash; it should acknowledge, too, that it is not always the students who are in the wrong in such situations and that sometimes there are indeed conservative teachers who clash with liberal students. Berube's resolutely anecdotal approach suggests, however, that his piece is far more narrowly motivated and far less evenhanded than either of the above possibilities.

The title of Berube's essay, "Should I Have Asked John to Cool It? Standards of Reason in the Classroom," tells it all: what was wrong with "John," ultimately, was not his etiquette, but his thoughts. John's beliefs were unreasonable. Berube recounts how, when John argued that the Japanese internment camps were justified, he "was flummoxed. I rarely challenge students directly in the course of class discussion, but I was so stunned that I almost blurted out, 'You've got to be kidding.'" The problem with John was that he thought in ways Berube found irrational and offensive. Rather than acknowledge the profound challenge this posed for him as a teacher, however, Berube casts himself as the longsuffering teacher-who-is-never-wrong and describes John as part of a lunatic fringe, as one whose anti-social antics and crazy beliefs nearly ruined his course:

...the class had been completely derailed. John was confirmed in his isolation and sense of opposition, his classmates took to eye-rolling and head-shaking at his remarks, and, by the time we got in December to Colson Whitehead's 1999 The Intuitionist, a whimsical allegory about racial uplift and the history of elevator inspection, John was complaining that there were no good white characters in the novel. By that point, even I had had enough, and I told him, via e-mail, that his complaint was not only unwarranted on its face but thoroughly beside the point: In this class, I said, we are not in the business of pursuing reductive identity-politics enterprises like looking for "positive images" in literature, regardless of what group images we might be talking about.

When the semester was over, I wondered whether John's story was the stuff of which right-wing legends are made. Would he remember the seminar as the class in which his right to free speech and debate was trampled by politically correct groupthink (even though he spoke more often than any other single student)? He couldn't possibly contend that I'd graded him on the political content of his remarks, because he'd gotten an A for the course. But there was no question that he felt embattled, that he didn't see any contradictions in his argument about the internment camps, and that he had begun to develop an aggressive/defensive "I'm not a racist, but these people . . ." mode of speaking that would someday get him either in serious trouble with some angry hyphenated-Americans or the job Dinesh D'Souza held at the American Enterprise Institute.

Throughout his essay, Berube is at pains to present himself as a tolerant and thoughtful pedagogue, one whose example, he modestly implies, ought to be followed by other leftist profs who find themselves woefully beset by conservative students. But the contempt for John and for conservatism that drips from these paragraphs tells quite another story--one that is all the more revealing for the fact that Berube does not seem to realize just how much they say about him. Berube's argument seems to be that the conservative critique of academe is totally trumped up, the elaborate rationalization of socially inept and intellectually-challenged students who would rather invent stories about liberal bias in academe than get some manners and learn to think. In this regard, Berube's essay, for all its folksy personableness, bears a disturbing resemblance to a recent UC Berkeley "study" showing that conservatism is a type of mental disease (follow the link and notice how this account of the study mockingly anticipates Berube's association of conservatism with disability).

Berube rightly observes that many critics of academe are not teachers, and thus have no idea what sorts of intellectual balancing acts teaching always inevitably entails. But his companion suggestion, that critiques of academic bias are baseless, and that conservatives who object to the political and intellectual homogeneity of campus life are simply imagining things, simply does not follow. His own essay unwittingly but powerfully proves that point.

UPDATE: A conservative law student writes:

After reading your post on "Profiling the conservative student", a thought struck me. Perhaps one reason that the conservative student (accepting Prof. Berube's stereotyping for the moment) is so combative is because there is the constant impression from academia that conservativeness is obviously wrong and unwanted? After all, how many books in Prof. Berube's class would even be considered moderate? It doesn't seem like many. Even the first discussion between the professor and the student struck me as the professor telling the student that of course he would feel this way, the student was privileged for being white, and that if he weren't, he would feel differently.

In the end, being conservative myself, the environment is hostile and unaccepting to conservative views, which in turn makes the student more combative. If you feel like you have to unjustifiably defend your positions all of the time, then you would be a rude, combative jerk, too. Honestly, I wonder if this professor's tenor would change if he had to spend his years in an oppositely oriented, political environment?

Another reader, this one a college teacher, writes,

The most disturbing line [in the article] is: "We parted amicably, and I thought that though he wasn't about to agree with me on this one, we had, at least, made our arguments intelligible to each other."

What Berube is missing is that teaching isn't a debate between teacher and student. Of course our arguments are more compelling--they'd better be after years of practice--but what students need is our help in making their arguments stronger, better reasoned, more solidly supported. We're supposed to shoot holes in their positions even when they are our own and we're supposed to ask them how they would respond to opposing arguments and show them how if they can't, even when their positions differ from ours. ›We are not supposed to make our arguments intelliglble to them; we are supposed to show them how to make their arguments intelligble to the world, regardless of their views.

Thanks for writing.

UPDATE UPDATE: Last September, John Rosenberg had some choice comments to make on a piece Berube wrote about demographic norming of SAT scores. So did Kimberly Swygert.

posted on December 3, 2003 10:30 AM