The general argument and specific claims of Michael Berube’s What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? are as comfortable for me as a well-worn chair. I’ve been reading them at his blog for some time, adopting and using many of his arguments in my own thinking about academic institutions. Trying to sum up my views in an upcoming essay, I was almost dismayed to find how closely I had followed a BÃ©rubÃ©an line. While writing the essay, I’d deliberately delayed reading What’s Liberal, but it didn’t help much. I was left with a few mumbles of my own at the end about the relation of academic freedom to open-access publishing. No doubt this concord would be seen among some conservative critics as evidence of “groupthink”, while ironically also underscoring the extent to which I tend to get appended to lists of odiously moderate sell-outs who have abandoned the left that BÃ©rubÃ©’s name often figures on more prominently.
What is left to say about the book that hasn’t been said already at the Valve or elsewhere?
The first issue that occurs to me concerns the mystery of what a conservative (or at any event, non-liberal) humanities might look like, and of the failure of most of the critics of academia who complain of groupthink, political bias and so on to describe in any kind of affirmative or realized terms the kinds of intellectual projects that they specifically see as excluded in the contemporary academy.
BÃ©rubÃ© appropriately complains of a collapse in categories in many conservative jeremiads, that the “political” is reduced in its dimensionality to Republican and Democratic party registrations, or to a checklist of superficial public-sphere talking points.
In fact, and BÃ©rubÃ© is quite good on this point, the conservative indictment of academia now directly reproduces, almost parodistically, the crudest arguments in favor of affirmative action and diversity with regard to other kinds of identity. This is not necessarily a surprise: for years critics of identity politics, such as Micaela di Leonardo, have noted the extent to which identity-based claims in the American public sphere have been linked to factions and interests on both right and left since the early 1970s. The complaint that critics both inside and outside of academia make, from Mark Bauerlein to David Horowitz, is that academics in the humanities lack an appropriate sociological resemblance to the larger American population, that their views of various hot-button issues should somehow align with the larger poll indicators.
BÃ©rubÃ© does a good job of explaining the intellectual constitution of the humanities at present, and of critiquing the affirmative-action logic of some conservative critics. To me, the next gauntlet to throw down to the critics, at least those who come from within academia, is to sketch out a program of “conservative” scholarly and pedagogical practice in the humanities. What I largely hear from Bauerlein, O’Connor, Johnson, and many others is a complaint. What I do not hear, for the most part, is what their alternative scholarly praxis might look like, or even whom their models might be. Is Helen Vendler, for example, a good practicioner of the kind of literary criticism that Bauerlein and O’Connor see as unfairly excluded from English Departments? If so, how uncommon in some generalized sense is the kind of criticism that she practices? Is it really as despised and exiled from disciplinary norms as they imply? Is Helen Vendler treated badly by her colleagues, or shunned? Why does she just go about her business and keep producing criticism if the opposition is so steadfast. Equally, is military or diplomatic history really as endangered a form as Johnson habitually complains that it is? Mark Grimsley at Cliopatria has done a very good job of suggesting how complicated that argument actually is.
Every time I push back on the assumptions about the actual character of a given discipline, I tend to be unsatisfied with the responses. More importantly, I rarely get any affirmative sense of the kind of scholarly practice that the critics themselves would like to be defined by. In some sense, I’m perpetually dismayed by the professionalism of the critics who come from within academia, in two senses of the term.
The first is that I think we’re all obligated to demonstrate the standards we demand in others in ourselves. BÃ©rubÃ©’s book is a great model of this: he doesn’t merely write about debates over academia, but tries to give an affirmative sense of his own scholarly, intellectual and classroom practices. Is Bauerlein’s scholarly writing a model of the literary criticism he wishes to see more of? Does he really think Negrophobia, for example, is hugely unrepresentative of work in literary criticism? It certainly isn’t a work which stands against the ascension of historicism within English Departments.
The second is that I think people who want to be accounted as professionals have to have a presumptive respect for other professionals. I think that’s an extremely deep historical practice within modern Western professionalism as a whole, and has a lot to do with the accomplishments of the professions (as well as, admittedly, some of their biggest ethical headaches). Complaints should either be specific and empirical, responsive to things actually said and done, or they should be extremely general, self-inclusive (and accordingly humble) in their complaints. When Gerald Graff complains about the scattered nature of most liberal arts curricula, I buy it, because he describes a general set of problems which he himself struggles with and to which he sees, as a professional, no easy or immediate solution. When BÃ©rubÃ© talks about the classroom, he tells you exactly what he does in his classroom, and about how difficult it can be to negotiate important professional challenges. Contrarily, when ACTA tallies up the Ward Churchills, you don’t get any sense that the report-writers know what it is to teach, to write syllabi, to produce scholarship, or to engage in professional debates. Professionalism is ultimately a commitment to write from the inside-out about the world of one’s work: even the harshest indictment of another professional comes with a sympathetic appraisal of the institutional environment and everyday challenges within which failure or malfeasance take place. BÃ©rubÃ© models that constraint. I think it’s an appropriate model for even the most strident academic critics of academia to take up.
I am like BÃ©rubÃ©: I crave the presence of conservatives (of many varieties) within the professional and scholarly worlds I inhabit. I think that presence would be good for scholarship, and good for the intellectual development of students. But like BÃ©rubÃ©, I want to know more about what conservativism in the humanities actually looks like. Is a conservative literary critic just one who writes standard-issue historicist or high-theoretical criticism but who is against abortion, votes Republican, and believes in the war against Iraq? If so, let’s get real here: the complaint is not about liberal bias in academia, it is against liberals period, a mode of political war masquerading as a high-minded concern for institutions. If it’s really about institutions, it’s time to get back to talking about what our institutions should be, with an insider’s appreciation for the genuine difficulties facing any program of reform. If a critic is for “core curricula”, for example, stop treating that term as a fetish and start getting real about the strengths and weaknesses that come with its actual implementation.
I have concentrated so far on the critics of the academy who come from within its ranks, because I think BÃ©rubÃ©’s book is something of a litmus test for those critics. A table has been set: anyone who is serious about institutional reform, and about a professional conversation about the content of professionalism, has to roll up their sleeves and set down to the table with a good will. Bauerlein, in his response to the book at the Valve, can’t seem to make up his mind which way to leap. Most of his response is of the person who is willing to sit down at that table, but then there’s the complaint that BÃ©rubÃ© “caricatures” conservatives. Fine. Then tell me what academic conservatism within the disciplines looks like, about where and how it is or could be practiced, about whom Bauerlein has in mind as a non-caricature, and what a non-caricature looks like if it is not a hagiography. What is the substance of conservative disciplinary or professional practice in the humanities? That discussion shouldn’t have to wait until ten fathoms deep in the comments thread.
There is a deeper issue that I think is important which BÃ©rubÃ© touches on far more lightly, largely in Chapter Three of his book. O’Connor, Bauerlein and other academic critics often protest when they are mentioned in the same breath as David Horowitz. Like BÃ©rubÃ©, I think that protest would be more powerful if the academic critics could take a breather every once in a while from their pursuit of liberals to make clear their opposition towards certain kinds of populist anti-academic jeremiads. BÃ©rubÃ© takes the time out to make clear which kinds of “liberal” practice, both inside and outside of academia, that he is opposed to, after all. Would it be so hard for Bauerlein to similarly roll his eyes in a public fashion at the intellectual antics of Candace de Russy, for example?
However, popular resentment of academia and of expertise generally is a very real thing, and I think it is in many respects both understandable and legitimate. BÃ©rubÃ© mentions the favorable terms of academic employment by way of suggesting that at least some resentment stems from envy, which is fair enough. There is a bigger and deeper history to consider, and I think it is the next major place that the defenders of academia need to go to.
One of the things that Paul Berman said in Terror and Liberalism that I think still holds considerable water, Iraq War notwithstanding, is that the defense of liberalism, particularly procedural liberalism, has to date been largely an emotionally chilly and refined affair, a set of values articulated by elites and defended by them. Berman’s remedy to this state of affairs was to argue for going to war. Mine is to turn to the work of translation, with a big helping of historically-sensitive humility on the side.
I think procedural liberalism and everyday ethical decency are closely related things. I think procedural liberalism and rugged individualism are closely related things. Everyone knows how to behave like a procedural liberal, in some fashion or another. There is a kind of procedural commitment within academia that is contained within its professional culture. But there is also a common-sense form of the same that could more effectively unite or connect academics with the wider publics that they in fact serve, or ought to serve.
To discover those equivalencies requires translation between academics and publics, and translation is an art of vulnerability. The translator does not control a text; he mediates a transaction. Yes, there are people out there who are in the worst faith imaginable signed on to a Horowitzian crusade against academia with whom there can be no meaningful exchange. But beyond that, there are many people with legitimate complaints against the professioriate, both small and large. Explaining to those people what it is that we do, how it is that we do it, and why it sometimes comes out with less-than-optimal results, is important.
On the small end of the scale, there are people who have had bad experiences as students. There are graduates and current students who resent the often-arbitrary hurdles that have to be jumped at some universities and colleges in order to receive a professional certification that merely confirms competencies that a student already possessed before. There are students, graduates and drop-outs who have had the misfortune to encounter an authoritarian teacher whom no one seems able or willing to constrain. Academics often roll their eyes at talk of students as consumers, but I think it’s a useful way to call the question of whether we are in fact serving our customers well or not. If not, in any substantial way, small wonder that resentment at our institutions pervades the civic life of many American communities. That is the price of becoming a ubiquitous precondition of middle-class life instead of the indolent privilege of a small elite before 1945.
I think there is another history to consider, one that BÃ©rubÃ© references in his final chapter. In the academic humanities, the confluence of Gramscian, Foucauldian and Frankfurt-School ideas about institutions produced a somewhat heedless willingness to see institutional life as politics, to pursue a kind of long march through civic institutions in general. This is what gave rise to a politics of language acts, of institutional procedures, of the use of civil society as a blunt instrument for transformation. Many Americans, conservative and otherwise, genuinely felt intruded upon by such transformative projects in the 1970s. BÃ©rubÃ© is right to say that it’s a sign of genuine progress that the censoring of Kirk and Uhura kissing now seems risible, and right to acknowledge the backlash from the overenthusiastic pursuit of social transformation through civic institutions which ought to have remained firmly inhibited by procedural and professional constraints, including academia.
But the problem is bound up in the strengths of academia, as BÃ©rubÃ© suggests, and not just for the humanities. Beyond the problems of “cultural liberalism” (which neatly mirror the recently-underscored problems of “cultural conservatism”), there is a problem of expertise itself. Part of what we have to work out in our translations to a wider public is that yes, sometimes we actually know things that they don’t know, that academic training works. But in so doing, we have to be vastly clearer and more restrained in describing where and how that expertise is generative or productive, and far more aware of the ways in which popular skepticism about expertise is warranted.
It’s not just a question of whether the professors in English or History are producing stuff that makes no sense, it’s a question of the powers and capacities that academics attempt to assume through expertise. And here in many ways, it’s not the humanities that is really the issue. Popular skepticism in many ways arises more from the way that social scientists and natural scientists both in and out of the academy have become absolutely integral to a whole host of political and civic processes, with very little accountability. If Kremlinologists are utterly wrong about the subject of their expertise, and help to malform policy for a generation, little matter: they reconstitute as experts on nationalism or ethnicity or organized crime. If environmental scientists urge major policy interventions that later turn out to aggravate a problem, no matter. If economists demand policy authority for their models, and turn out to understand nothing of how the real world works, then turn the dial around and start again.
There is one sense in which the popular resentment that Horowitz and others outside the academy build upon and direct substantially at the humanities is a kind of collateral spill-over from the general collusion of expertise and bureaucratic authority in the postwar era. Not that conservatives have succeeded in approaching governance any differently: Iraq is as much an eggheads’ war as Vietnam was. But this is where American academics, humanists or otherwise, have to adopt the most delicate and fragile interweaving of humility and pride possible in rethinking their relationship to a wider American public. We are both people who know and people who do not know too much. Our institutions are the generative engine of American progress since 1945 and institutions which are sometimes perilously close to breaking their part of the social contract.
But I can’t imagine a better way to begin to build that strange new structure of conversation between academics and publics than BÃ©rubÃ©’s book, and nothing would give me more satisfaction than to see all variety of conservatives and contrarians put their back to it and join the barnraising.