Thursday, October 07, 2004

The Academic Bill of Rights: Conservatives and Critical Thinking

Graham Larkin of Stanford University has an excellent article, here (link via Brian Leiter), detailing the problems with the so-called Academic Bill of Rights. That document, crafted by "ultra-conservative" David Horowitz, is designed to produce a "more diverse" academic environment, which in this case means an environment with more conservative faculty, and more conservative readings. Larkin criticizes the document from several angles. The most damaging of his criticisms involves the document's division of the world into leftwing and rightwing. Larkin writes:

Such legislation would be a very dangerous incursion on academic freedom, for all kinds of reasons. To begin in the broadest terms, I don't think anyone should ever be forced to conform to the kind of simplistic, two-sided worldview that Horowitz is, in effect, trying to pass into law. Such Manicheanism famously led George W. Bush, in an address to a joint session of Congress and the nation on September 20, 2001, to declare that "either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." Although nominally a defense of freedom, these words are really just a heavy-handed effort to force every American citizen (if not the whole world) to acquiesce to the terms of a perilously reductive world-picture.

Faced with such radically restrictive alternatives, any free-thinking person should, at the very least, resent the lack of a third radio-button that would allow her to opt out of both choices. In a free country, the decision not to consent to the conditions of either Button A or Button B--the decision to actively abstain from any directives to declare one's loyalties, or categorize one's self, according to such limited terms--should always be available. This freedom to resist anyone else's ideological categorization is a fundamental democratic principle. It makes no difference whether the purported opposites are Bush Loyalists and Terrorists, Good and Evil, Freedom Lovers and Freedom Haters, Christians and Non-Christians, Pro-Family Values Folks and Anti-Family Values Folks, or People Who Liked Kill Bill and People Who Didn't.
(By the way, I liked Kill Bill, Volume 1 but was disappointed by the second one.)

This "reductive world-picture," so ubiquitous in American conservativism that any deviation on virtually any dimension on which a value judgment might be made (be it abortion or the Kill Bill films) is seen as a product of relativism, immorality, or some other horribly un-American sentiment, is ultimately at the heart of the motivation for documents such as the Academic Bill of Rights, and more generally, the view among conservatives that universities are hotbeads of hard-left subversiveness. Larkin himself hints at the reason for this perception when, after describing a "leftist" reading for one of his classes, which "proposes that the Louvre's ultimate aspirations to an even-handed inclusiveness belie an inescapable ritual 'script' of Western triumphalism," he writes:

In other words, I would be required to find readings that were openly anti-leftist, and which espoused conservative ideas about the neutrality of the great western museums, the sanctity of nationhood, the superiority of classic Western art, and so on. Even if I could find readings intelligently defending such notions, I doubt that they would profitably advance the thinking in the seminar, given that the leftist critique was explicitly dissecting these received ideas. Although I love museums, I designed the class in order to subject ideas and institutions to critical scrutiny--not to perpetuate their uncritical celebration.

The entire cause of conservative anger toward what they perceive as leftist propaganda in American universities can be found in that short paragraph. The conservative world-view, by its very nature, is one of the status quo. It is the belief that things are the way they are because generations of human history have sorted out the best way for things to be. In essence, history is a grand hypothesis tester, and we are the benefactors of its findings. Change is possible, and even good, but only within the narrow parameters provided to us by the historical human experiment. This contrasts starkly with what the university, at its finest, is for. The university is designed to teach critical thinking; to help the next generation learn that, and why, the lessons of history are to be approached respectfully, but critically. As Larkin notes, simply parroting the received wisdom, about museums in this case, of which students are no doubt fully aware, serves no purpose. It does not teach critical thinking skills, and it does not show students that the received wisdom can, and even should be challenged. Such challenges may ultimately result in the acceptance of the received wisdom, but if it is not challenged, and if critical thought remains untaught, what is the purpose of the university?

The conservative actually has an answer to this question. The purpose of the university, and education in general, is to teach facts, which comprise the very same received wisdom that grounds the conservative world-view. It is for this reason that conservatives find papers and courses like the ones mentioned by Larkin, and even professors like Larkin himself, so offensive. In the minds of conservatives, critical thought, when directed at accepted views, is hostile towards everything right in the world. This hostility, within their "reductive world-picture," must have come from the only other possible perspective, the leftist one. Therefore, by its very nature as a forum for the teaching of critical thinking skills, the university is leftist institution.

To counter this, Horowitz, and others like him, have proposed that the status quo be taught along side its critics, and that faculty who accept the status quo be hired to teach alongside faculty who teach critical thinking. It is their contention that universities should be forced, by law, to defend convention. It matters not that in many cases, convention is just what students already know, and what has been present in their lives throughout the course of their socialization. By virtue of the fact that critical thinking can only be seen, by conservatives, as a leftist activity, academic fairness and diversity require that the conservative perspective be taught next to it.

This explanation also shows why leftists have such a hard time understanding the conservative perception of the university. Critical thinking, in the abstract, knows no ideology. It can just as easily be used to assess leftist views as conservatives ones. In Larkin's description of his teaching of the paper critical of museums, he demonstrates this. He says:

In the class I openly critiqued the hyperbole of the first article, while applauding its attention to the fact that the museum is, indeed, an ideological space.

In other words, he applauds the critical approach to the museum that the article takes, but criticizes its excess. If the conservative "reductive world-picture" were correct, this would not be possible. There would be no third perspective, within which the leftist critique of the museum makes valid points, but ultimately fails to demonstrate its claims. The article must be either right, or left.


Anonymous said...

I think that a better conservative answer to the complaint about critical thinking might run as follows:

"Liberals claim to have a monopoly on critical thinking, but if they do not provide a rigorous defense of the conventional wisdom, then they are not really engaged in critical thinking at all. Instead, they are just beating down a strawman. To stimulate real critical thinking would require both--or even all--sides of the story at their very best."

It's also entirely wrong to say that liberals have a monopoly on critical thinking. After all, it's possible to receive a criticism, evaluate it, and choose the status quo. That too is critical thinking. 

Posted by Jason Kuznicki

Anonymous said...

Right. I didn't mean to imply that critical thinking = libera. I was trying to say, there at the end, that critical thinking is ideologically neutral. It can be used against liberal ideas as easily as it can be used against conservative ones. However, within the conservative "reductive world-picture," things are either liberal, or they are conservative, and thus critical thinking aimed at conventions, which is what you often get in universities, must be liberal. 

Posted by Chris

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