Friday, July 04, 2008

Tenured Radicals? Not so much.

According to the NYTimes, the tenured liberals in American academia are now reaching retirement age and being replaced by a generation that is more politically moderate: that is to say as sick of the arguments of the 60s generation as I am. This article corresponds with what I’ve found in grad school: the rising generation of scholars isn’t terribly interested in fighting political struggles. They’d rather (get this!) study and teach. Of course, tenured professors are also being phased out in favor of temps, who are more likely to keep their politics to themselves anyway. When your job security depends on getting 500 overly entitled teenagers to wuv you every semester, challenging them becomes something less of a priority.

Besides, polling academics about who their political opinions is a lousy way of telling what university classrooms are actually like, probably for the same reason that polling Department of Motor Vehicles workers on who they vote for might not tell you much about the everyday atmosphere at the DMV. I cringe when I read these fevered fantasies on the Internet about thousands of Maoist professors “indoctrinating” helpless waifs, not so much because they’re a nonsensical attack on what I do, but because they likely dissuade the sort of conservative-leaning scholars who should, by all means, enter the academy from doing so. Someone needs to tell them to come in, the water really is fine.

An anecdote: about a year ago, while discussing the French elections with my dissertation director, she made the comment: “Well, given my politics, I would probably have voted for Segnolene Royal, but I understand why people voted for Sarkozy.” What was interesting, at least to me, was the realization that I have no idea what her politics are, in spite of having worked with her for three years and taking a few of her courses. This, I think, is admirable.

I hope and assume that my students have no idea what my politics are. The best professors I ever had were ones that led you to question your own assumptions about everything, including politics, and suggested that there were better, more thoughtful, ways of looking at the world; but never led us towards any specific doctrine. Looking back, I am not surprised to consider that, among all of the fondly remembered profs, I couldn’t guess their political leanings. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but I can only think of two professors who wore their politics on their sleeves in the last seven years of higher education. Admittedly- and this is a real caveat here- I went to a very traditional university and am now at a very blue collar state university. Individual experiences, particularly at UC Berkeley, could vary widely.

It’s a hard thing to pull off political aloofness in teaching history: when you draw connections between historical and current events, you seem to be “politicizing” the curriculum; when you don’t make any such connections, students complain that they can’t see how these things apply to their world. I tend not to draw such comparisons, if only because I don’t think that history repeats itself- after all, the context is always changing. As for sharing my politics with the students, I think it would be as gauche and inappropriate as discussing my sex life with them. It’s really a question of professionalism more than anything else. Also, I'd imagine that they don't care.

I do make it clear that I expect them to be able to argue their own opinions logically and give supporting evidence, but that my own opinions don’t really figure into the grading. There is a widespread belief that we’re all communists in academia anyway, so inevitably, I will get a few papers blathering unthinkingly about “the oppressed people of color who were cruelly exploited by the capitalist white man”, hoping to get an easy A. It doesn’t work.

And, to be blunt, the more “educated” I am, the less I find myself actually giving a shit about politics. History records immeasurable failed state initiatives (at least in the last two centuries) and misguided political doctrines. It’s hard to relate when people tell me that this election or that bill is the most important event of our lifetimes. No, it’s really not. Trust me; we’ll do fine with either President McCain or President Obama. Life goes on. It’s all becoming a bit like watching sports: interesting, but it's really hard to be a team booster.

To be honest, I need love and culture to live, they occupy my life and my thoughts in the same way that religious ideas occupy some people's lives. When I'm walking down the sidewalk, in full Rufus-mode, one mental track is always Claire-related, and there are usually three going on language/culture/history stuff. Strangely, considering how often I talk about it here, I find most political discussions to be enervating and boring. Art elevates and politics lowers. Maybe the way to say is that art widens your view and increases your empathetic response to the world, while political allegiance does exactly the opposite. No wonder there's so little good political art!

I hope to be increasingly apolitical in the future. Maybe that's why my favorite professors always seemed so aloof...

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