Politics & Policy

Typical Lib

Michael Bérubé doesn't teach the lesson he intends.

For a while now, conservatives have been characterizing universities as dens of liberalism. The accusation is clearly accurate, but it is less clear whether this is anything to be alarmed about. What difference does it make whether an English professor votes the Democratic ticket? His job, after all, is not to run the country, but to teach and to write. The political views of the man behind the counter at the corner store have no bearing on whether he’ll serve you your coffee or give you correct change, and why should it be any different for the man in the lecture hall?

#ad#In What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts, Michael Bérubé argues that it is not only harmless that departments of liberal arts are rife with liberalism, but proper and to be expected. He doesn’t see this state of affairs as contrived, but as the natural outcome of the commitments entailed in pursuing the liberal arts. The corollary is that efforts at making the liberal arts more conducive to conservatism would require altering them — destroying them, even.

The connection between, say, reading Shakespeare and supporting socialized medicine may not be immediately apparent. To make it so is Bérubé’s aim. Whatever the merits of his argument, it must be admitted that the semantics are on his side. Yet, as any good Aristotelian would point out, nothing should be concluded from homophony — which is precisely the question:  Are all “liberals” the same?

Bérubé writes in response to conservative attempts at showing why liberal dominance of higher education is objectionable. Along these lines, there have been two main reproaches: first, that, because of their liberal orthodoxies, universities are failing to educate students. This critique skewers postmodernism and relativism, warns of falling standards, and bemoans the neglect and butchering of classic texts. The second critique argues that professors are indoctrinating their students with liberal views and are punishing students for their conservative beliefs. It is a complaint much more provocative of public outrage and more likely to lead to political intervention.

The second critique is of the kind being executed by David Horowitz. Bérubé does not have much time for such things; he presents Horowitz’s criticisms as vulgar and dishonest and belittles his complaints. The Ward Churchill-type, he argues, is something of an anomaly, hardly illustrative of the liberalism ascendant in academia; there is no compelling reason — no reason at all, in fact — to guard against such things with laws.

In this, Bérubé is partly correct (about the laws, probably entirely). While there certainly is a problem of professors’ offering political commentary in their lectures, the worst offenders when it comes to indoctrination are the administrators. Yet there is a reason why one cannot find in academia Churchill’s fascist analogue (at worst, there are certain professors who have not yet written off manliness); and criticisms of same-sex marriage, for instance, will not be met with such tolerance, reluctant or not, as has met Churchill’s ravings. Bérubé would concede this point (he is not, by the way, tolerant of Churchill in his book), but he would present it as symptomatic of the underlying incompatibility of conservatism and academia:  The problem facing conservatives in the liberal arts is not an abundance of Ward Churchills, but something that runs much deeper. The liberal arts are by their nature liberal. 

A straightforward argument to that effect would take the following structure: specification of the essential characteristic of the liberal arts, followed by demonstration of how these characteristics lead to liberal political views.  Bérubé is not quite so systematic, and he offers almost nothing by way of a developed explanation of what he takes the liberal arts to be — a curious omission, given the book’s title. To the extent that he makes a clear argument, it is this:  procedural liberalism — “ensuring that wide, vigorous, and meaningful discussion” about political and ethical questions of all sorts can take place — naturally gives rise to substantive liberalism — generally put, “that humans should be considered to have equal claim to basic human rights such as food, shelter, education, health care, and political representation.”  While this procedural liberalism may be a necessary condition for the liberal arts (it would certainly have to be further specified), it is hardly sufficient.

Instead of speaking more about what the liberal arts are, Bérubé presents to the reader an extended recounting of the discussions he has led in his class on postmodernism. The aim, apparently, is to accomplish through description what is not accomplished through argument. Though postmodernism is an enigmatic and ill-defined designation, as Bérubé himself points out, he does a fine job of getting across the general idea. The reader is left with a good sense of the sort of professor who is uninterested in reality, truth, and other such antiquated ideas. Yet it is never made quite clear why becoming entangled in such confusion should be taken as a prerequisite for studying the liberal arts. 

Interjected occasionally into the classroom discussions are Bérubé’s thoughts on why reality, etc., should be abandoned. They are revealing, but hardly convincing. Bérubé is an English professor, not a philosopher, and his arguments are less than rigorous. At one point, after quoting an author’s description of what it means to be a realist, he offers the rebuttal:  “This makes sense, I think, only if you don’t consider things like gravity and slavery to be qualitatively different things.” It is a coarse formulation of an argument that has been stated, and disputed, with far more refinement and insight. Bérubé is certainly entitled to arrive at his own conclusions about these questions, but it is absurd for him to posit them as essentially characteristic of the liberal arts, especially when they have been defended with the analytical rigor proper to an undergraduate seminar.

It is almost ridiculous that a book about liberalism in the liberal arts ends up being an apology for postmodernism. Yet, while a complete political platform does not flow necessarily from metaphysical positions, the roots of political views can often be found, however confusedly and contradictorily, in fundamental principles. As a personal concern, these fundamental principles are the domain of any human being. As a professional concern, they are the domain of philosophers.

It is a fascinating and difficult question, whether for certain professions, a person’s ability to do his work well depends on his views about fundamental principles. It is usually thought that the so-called “radical conservatives” are the ones who claim that the atheistic relativist could never be a good professor. How odd, then, to find Bérubé suggesting a similar claim, except under the opposite conditions, when it comes to the liberal arts.

If the work of an English professor can be done equally well by the realist and the postmodernist, then Bérubé’s explanation of liberal dominance in the universities falls flat. If it cannot, and one’s understanding of what an English professor should do depends entirely on one’s fundamental principles, then liberal dominance in the universities is arbitrary, a sort of intellectual Stalinism. Liberalism would be prevalent in the liberal arts because it is liberals who are deciding what the liberal arts are.

Whatever disagreements one might have with his philosophical views, Bérubé does come across as a thoughtful and fair teacher. If it were not for the outrageous polemic, his book would be an enjoyable read. Alas, his view of conservatives hardly rises above a caricature, which explains, perhaps, how he can describe the “intractable” nature of the debate over postmodernism thus: “[T]here’s no way to negotiate between people who insist on the scientific evidence for evolution and people who insist on the scriptural evidence for Armageddon”; or: “[T]he liberals believe that the religious conservatives will craft social policies that will hurt gay men, atheists, and rape victims, whereas religious conservatives believe that a just and omnipotent deity will consign liberals to unending torment in hell, where they belong.”

Bérubé’s book, while interesting enough, will do little to bridge the “intractable” divide he describes. What precisely the liberal arts are is not commonly agreed upon, but they have traditionally been thought to have something to do with searching for the truth about our lives and our world. Bérubé makes clear why these words most likely sound quaint to the cynical ears of anyone inhabiting, or recently finished with, the world of academia. The prevailing assumption at universities is that any answers to this search are entirely personal, subjective, and relative. If Bérubé does not show why this assumption must be the case, at least he offers a typical expression of it.

Maximilian Pakaluk is an NRO associate editor.

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