Friday, January 14, 2005

What a "Liberal" University Looks Like

I'm not a big fan of Left2Right yet. Most of the posts, I could do without. I am, however, rapidly becoming a fan of Don Herzog, whose latest post titled "What's up at the universities?" is near perfect. I kinda wish he had his own blog, though his readership is probably larger in the group format than it would be if he went solo. The post is in response to some comments made by someone named Jim Black, author of Freefall of the American University, in an interview with Pat Robertson. As the title of the book and context suggest, it's a criticism of the "liberalness" of American universities, with Black making comments like:
Right. I think we are in that state, Pat. It may be a shocking word to use, but, in fact, universities have been going downhill for the past 30 years. It started in the 1960s, but in the 1970s it went underground. We thought that when the riots ended, that perhaps the dangers went away. But the dangers are now worse, because they are now ideological dangers and philosophical dangers, and ideas that crept in, especially from France. Things like postmodernism and moral relativism. Now it has seeped into every course, and in every curriculum in the university campuses.
Now I'm someone who tends to find much of value in what is considered "postmodernism," in both art and philosophy, but I can't think of a single instance in which what could possibly be considered "postmodernism" has crept into any of the courses I've taken or taught, unless postmodernism was relevant (e.g.,., in certain courses on philosophy or literature that I took way back when). The absurdity of Black's claims would likely have lead me to write shrilly in response, but not Herzog. He writes cooly and calmly, though his conclusion is the same: Black's full of something, and it ain't wisdom. In his post, Herzog relates his personal teaching experience, and in doing so paints a picture of the university classroom that I think captures what universities are, or should, be about. If it is this that Black, Robertson, and others like them find offensive, then I, for one, couldn't care less that they are offended.

Herzog's entire post is a must-read, but just in case you don't want to treck over and read it, I will give you his concluding paragraph, which sums up his view (and mine) quite nicely:
Are we politically indoctrinating our students? I'll speak for myself, and confidently, though you may dourly suspect that I'm delusional: I'm not. I couldn't care less what their politics are, though if they're just echoing what I think (or, more likely, what they think I think) in order to get a good grade or to relieve themselves of the burdens of having to think, I get pretty damned testy pretty damned quickly. My real passion is teaching them how to read and write and argue, more generally to turn them on to ideas. The promise of the liberal arts, too, is that the truth shall set you free. Is that politically neutral? Not all the way down, because there are political visions in which rational argument is a pernicious practice leading to bizarre results. I'm happy to let my students critically evaluate -- and endorse, if they like -- those visions, too. But they have to do it with arguments, not by making blunt assertions. Within that formal constraint, they can defend whatever they like. That's the name of the game.

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