Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Department Conservative

So it's come to this: our department conservative has decided to leave for greener, less liberal pastures. I'm not sure if he was our department's only conservative; there's another professor who seems fairly conservative to me. But, he fancied himself to be the sole conservative in the department. And he acted the part: ranting about Hillary Clinton in his lectures, posting complaints about liberal academia on his office door, even wearing the bowtie. It's sad to see him go though. It's always sad to see your department lose one of its livelier characters.

He was unhappy for some time. Many of the older professors in the department are sixties throwbacks and he apparently had problems with four in particular. He hasn't named names, but I know who he's referring to. They're all great scholars but perhaps a bit stuck in the summer of '69. They'll probably be retired within a decade. You can never tell with academics though: they tend to stay on forever. Our conservative character, who is leaving to teach at another university, is 71. The younger academics are less interested in fighting the culture wars; actually, I think this is true of younger people in general.

Anyway, his complaints about the history department boil down to two main themes:
1. The emphasis here is on research instead of teaching. The irony is that the four older professors in question are also extremely dedicated to teaching. But, he's right. Our department has remade itself as a ''major research center''; what this means is that we pressure new hires to do research and not to focus too much on teaching. Professionalism over pedagogy. Those of us who are grad students take up the slack. In other words, the students are getting ripped off, not that they care. Most infuriating to me are the young academics who join our department, promptly take a research leave, return from sabbatical a year later, and leave the department for another university- never teaching a single class.

2. The leftward tilt of the department inhibits thought. This is, I think, a valid concern throughout academia. Let's face it- too many academics are unreflectively liberal. The point was hammered home to me listening to some of our grad students talk about the department conservative's departure. One of them actually said to me, ''Well, of course, conservatives aren't happy in history. Contemporary historiography has come to reject nationalism, and nationalism is the backbone of conservatism''. Sheesh. Burke wept.

Things came to a boil for the department conservative over two incidents. In the first, some sort of department ''statement against the Iraq War'' was posted on the department door for people to sign. He thought this was inappropriate. It sounds that way to me too, although this was before my time so I didn't actually see the thing. I probably wouldn't have signed it myself, mostly because you can say I'm not a joiner.

In the second incident, a fellow professor sent him a typed letter saying that they could no longer be friends at a time in which the United States had tipped over into soft fascism. I did see this one: our conservative scallywag posted it on his door. It struck me as a bit silly. If the United States is now a fascist country, why would the department character with the bowtie be your first target for resistance? I just chuckled at it, but apparently, our department conservative no longer felt comfortable in the department. I'm not sure how I might respond in a similar situation. People are entitled to be friends with whoever they want to, but after forty years in a department, it's got to hurt to be treated that way, especially if you already feel out of place.

He eventually responded by leaving for the other university and doing a long interview with the student newspaper detailing his complaints. We have a handful of students who really get off on the idea that academia is overwhelmingly liberal because it makes them feel like rebels for voting for McCain. It's all pretty infantile, but they were more than willing to humor the department conservative's persecution complex. In fact, they put him on the cover. They've published editorials in past years lauding him and saying how refreshing it is to have a professor who complains about Hillary Clinton in class. I'd imagine the fellow will be a guest on Fox News by the end of the month.

Honestly, I'd find it more refreshing not to hear about other people's political opinions at every turn. You might notice that a theme in this whole story is that profs in my department can be a bit touchy with one another and could stand to handle their differences in a more adult manner. A sub-theme would seem to be the bizarrely American idea that all human life-forms can be divided into three groups: Liberal, Conservative, and Independent. Academia could use a lot less of profs being unreflectively liberal, but that doesn't imply that it needs more unreflective conservatives. Of course, you'll notice that many conservative critics of academia have actaully been calling for more apolitical professors for some time now. But, you'll also notice that conservative critics of academia have changed absolutely nothing in over four decades of criticising.

What academia could use right now, as the larger culture gets sucked into the mass delusion of popular politics, is people who are smart enough to see through the vacuous dogmas of right and left, most of which are infantile and anti-intellectual. To be honest, I can't stand Hillary Clinton or John McCain, and I'm increasingly convinced that academics should be of no real party or creed. After all, in the humanities we study the human soul, which takes myriad forms of expression, politics perhaps being the least significant and the most narrowing.


The Pagan Temple said...

I don't know if you've ever noticed it on my blogroll, but there's a blog there by a guy (Beakerkin) who claims to be a Homeland Security agent, and he's always going off about universities and their "Bolshevik network". He claims communists have infiltrated universities to the extent that their numbers there are much greater than would be the case if reflective of their actual numbers in the population at large. I don't know enough about the subject to know whether I believe that or not, but its an interesting idea. He claims that their influence on curriculum and the way its taught is pervasive. When you hear about guys like Bill Ayers and Ward Churchill, its easy to buy into it.

rufus said...

You know, the stuff about bolshevik infiltration of universities is like anything else on the Internet- there's a grain of truth there, but that's about it. Camille Paglia had the best explanation of it- sure there are academics who imagine themselves to be radicals, but the university is really a place that rewards lilly-livered company men- not bomb throwers. The real 60s radicals burnt themselves out long ago and the people in academia now really know how to play by the rules. They're milquetoasts. It's worth noting that Ward Churchill was drummed out of the profession and Bill Ayers has stuck to teaching incredibly boring pedagogical theory. Also that they are two academics out of thousands.

Where it's true is that, if you get together a random group of people off the street, there will be more conservatives in that group than there are in most departments. Part of this could be that conservatives don't tend to be the sort to want to spend about a decade of their lives in higher ed working towards a degree that will make them less money than a skilled plumber. And part of it is surely due to the rigid anti-university dogma that young conservatives absorb before they even get to college. It's also not exactly conducive to 'personal responsibility' to tell young people, 'if you don't get straight As, it's because your profs hate conservatives'.

But, part of the con-gap is surely due to the exclusivity of academia. People might not mean to exclude conservatives, but they ultimately have to select or reject people based on what they percieve those people's intelligence to be. If you're a recent undergrad who wants to write a dissertation on, say, 'the failures of Marxist ideology in the twentieth century', it's not clear to me that you would find someone to work on that with you and, therefore, even get into a grad program. On the other hand, if you're a recent grad from say Princeton or Yale, I'd be willing to bet you could. And I definitely should note that our department has a lot more conservative grad students than conservative profs.

The other thing is that we're talking about a generation in academia that came in during the sixties- most of those 'radicals' would have started teaching in the 70s, and therefore, be in their late 60s by now. The incoming class is certainly NOT communists- one of the things that irritates me about the know-nothings on the Internet is that they have no idea how many academics came to reject communism in the 90s- the whole point of 'postmodern theory' was to reject those sorts of 'grand narratives'. These were EX-Marxists teaching people a bit older than me that communism gave rise to state tyranny. For most academics in that generation, therefore, it's axiomatic that communism was a failure, along with capitalism, democratic liberalism, and all other forms of top-down social organization. They tend to be closer to libertarian/anarchists than Marxists. Where I would disagree with them is that I see communism as having failed much more spectacularly, and many of them don't. But, honestly, there are two groups that still give a shit about communism- Guys in their late sixties who live in Berkeley and idiots on the Internet who can't accept the fact that most people disagree with their outdated ideas without imagining that everyone who does is a 'commie'.

The grain of truth here is that academia really can be intellectually stifling. There's a rigidity that comes from putting a bunch of people together and suggesting that they're there because they're smarter than the general population. Add to that the fact that the general population has a knee-jerk hatred for academics and you get a sort of bunker mentality. It's not healthy, nor is it very productive.

On the other hand, with the sort of close-minded religious cult that American conservatism has become it's not clear to me that they're going to be the ones to fix academia any time soon. As with everything else, we're going to have to wait for the 1960s generation to die off before anything will get better.

The Pagan Temple said...

Wow. That answer would make a great blog post in its own right.

rufus said...

It's one of those topics that you don't want to get me started on.

narrator said...

I actually find the notion of "liberal academia" hilarious on two levels. First, of course academics are classical liberals - the kind of George McGovern-William Fulbright liberal - this is the very origin of the liberal arts university, an intellectual challenge to society without any real challenge to society. If you were a "true conservative" you would have little belief in the liberal arts university to begin with - conservatism implies a rejection of change, a belief in fixed values, fixed assumptions, and fixed notions of society. A true conservative would be "teaching," that is, engaging in direct cultural reproduction, not digging up facts to challenge assumptions in the most conservative nation in the Western World, and not encouraging students to do that. This is why, if you move through non-social science, non-humanities faculties, you no longer find any noticeable "liberal bias." It is not relevant.

But second, universities - especially university faculties -functionally are the opposite of radicalism. They are designed to feign radicalism while re-inforcing every bit of the societal power structure. From the admissions office to required courses to pre-requisites to attendance expectations to assignments to grades - from the notions of course schedules to the concept of tuition - from the professor talking to the class from a position of power to the professor hiring the grad student - these are the most conservative institutions on the planet (I mean, my god, these people use chalkboards and blue books).

In all my time in American education I have never met an authentic leftist - much less a radical. Plenty of fascinating, brilliant people, sure. Plenty of people who talk about change and who might even pretend (for their own benefit) that they are creating change. But in reality your typical university liberal is far more committed to defending the system as it is than almost any "conservative" who runs a business. It is university faculties which, through their total belief in credentialism block all real change.

So I wouldn't worry about it. What you've described is a bunch of cranky old men making up battles. It's no different than the old retired guys who sit around the coffee shop arguing and re-arguing what happened in that last high school football games 55 years ago. Stay, go, teach, research, it all adds up to very little without the commitment to doubting the system which makes their lives so comfortable that they can worry about this crap.

rufus said...

I guess I'd agree with most of that. I generally tell people that this idea of a wild-eyed 'tenured radical' suggests a wild-eyed radical who spent decades of their life not rocking the boat in any way in order to be tenured. It's not even clear what they'd be doing in grad school, much less on the tenure track.

narrator said...

the most famous wild-eyed radical on a North American campus, Bill Ayers, peaked in his revolutionary ways at the level of fraternity prank - planting bombs in unoccupied toilets.

You are right - exactly how radical can you be on the way to a PhD and tenure?