Tuesday, September 30, 2003

STOP-GAP POST: I've been pretty busy the last week or so, and will be really busy over the next couple of days as I return to the UK and move into my new room at Oxford. Which means no posting for a bit.
Before I go, though, let me recommend you read Brett Marston's thoughtful post on the problem of whether one should divulge one's own political agenda or opinions when teaching. I don't really have much to add to what seems to me the thoroughly sensible and admirable position set out by Brett. On a merely personal note, when I was teaching this summer I found myself occassionally invoking recent and current events and controversies when discussing certain points of political philosophy in class. These comments were meant to be thought-provoking -- or, in some cases, humourous; they weren't intended as advocacy, and I hope that I was able to keep them suggestive and playful, and not aggressive, or dogmatic. I tried, at any rate. I'm not sure if I was always able to treat all issues of political controversy that came up fairly -- there were times when my own beliefs and biases probably came through to some extent, I'm sure, and times when I wasn't succesfully in being impartial or even-handed in responding to debates between students representing different points of view. But I did strive, both to treat a variety of positions and opinions fairly, and to act as a provocative (but not confrontational -- generally, unless the conversation showed signs of becoming dull) devil's advocate in some cases (so that I found myself, for instance, defending Marx against the criticisms of many of my students, despite being an anti-Marxist myself). At the same time, I did express my own opinions in some cases. I didn't try to hide my special affection for Berlin; and while I defended Marx against some criticisms, I also acknowledged my own disagreements with him on points I think crucial. I think that one shouldn't be aggressive or even assertive in expressing one's own views; but one also shouldn't be disengenuous in hiding them -- when one does feel strongly about something, to the extent that one knows one's judgment is likely to be influenced, one should acknowledge one's own perspective and opinions openly. But I think one should state or present one's opinions, not seek to argue for them -- and certainly not impose them. One may explain one's views, if they are questioned; one may present them as one possible perspective to students, and explain why one is partial -- or indeed devoted -- to them. But one should never, I think, seek to impose them, or act as a missionary for them.
The one time when I did show my hand when it came to contemporary politics was outside the classroom, during a little get-together I hosted for my students towards the end of the class (between the penultimate and last sessions). Most students in the class hadn't come, or were no longer present, when one of the students asked me, point-blank, if I were personally involved with contemporary politics, and sought to sound me for my own opinions. I didn't come out with a full disclosure (I didn't mention this blog, for instance). But I did try to foster a discussion of contemporary politics, during which I did voice some of my own opinions. I didn't feel too badly about that; but I did feel somewhat badly about going along with -- agreeing with and encouraging -- the overwhelming, perhaps even unanimous, consensus of the class when it came to the Bush administration and the war in and occupation of Iraq (highly negative). I late felt that I should either have committed myself less when it came to bashing President Bush, and/or acted more as a devil's advocate when it came to discussing the war. But, it was outside of the class-room, and I felt that I, like the students, could relax and not serve the aims of pedagogy for the evening.
For a classic statement on the tension between the duties of teaching and scholarship, and the service of politics, btw, I recommend that the reader go out and peruse Weber's 'Science as a Vocation'.
And now, I'm tired, my fingers are cramping, and I have a plane to catch tomorrow; au revoir.

PITY THE PLIGHT OF THE YOUNG, BRIGHT RIGHT: I've been very interested to read the many responses on the blogosphere to David Brooks' piece on the plight of conservative aspirant academics. I tend to agree with Jacob Levy (whose post on this topic is, among many very good ones, especially well-balanced, thoughtful, and convincing) and Henry Farrell's response (which has produced a most interesting exchange of comments), that Brooks exaggerates and to some degree mischaracterizes the obstacles faced by conservative would-be academics (a point also made by the Invisible Adjunct and forcefully and well argued by David 'What, me worry ... about tenure?' Adesnik)
Speaking from personal experience: I know several conservatives who have been able to get into fine grad programs in poli sci, despite their far from concealed political views. I tend to think that Henry is at least partly right that many conservatives go the think-tank/ political magazine route because it's more attractive than the academic rat-race -- I'm reminded of Todd Gitlin's (I think) quip that the Right has captured the country, while the Left's been capturing the English Department. (Also, a purely personal gripe: it's really difficult to get a think-tank gig if you do the history of political thought and are liberal or leftist. Conservative think-tanks, such as Heritage, AEI, the Liberty Fund, etc. -- often make room for a certain number of people studying the history of political thought, while liberal think-tanks -- what comparatively few there are -- are more policy-centric.)
This certainly isn't to deny that academia is heavily tilted to the centre-left, and it can be mighty lonely to be a conservative in the academy -- or that, shamefully, some conservatives do indeed wind up suffering for their beliefs when it comes to tenuring. This last is, I think, unacceptable when it occurs. But there are worse things than loneliness -- and a certain amount of loneliness, or at least apart-ness, is I think good for academics and intellectuals. Indeed, it comes with the territory.
Nor, from my admittedly somewhat removed vantage-point, did Yale, my own alma mater, seem a hostile place for conservatives. There were a good many conservatives -- or at any rate iconoclasts who challenged liberal and leftist opinions -- available for bright young conservative students to embrace and sit at the feet of -- not just Donald Kagan, whom Brooks mentions as the lone standard-bearer for the Right at Yale, but others -- admirable teachers and scholars such as Frank Turner, David Gelernter, Charles Hill, Norma Thompson (admittedly, and regretably, denied tenure by the poli sci department -- though I tend to think this had more to do with the views of the department on what the discipline of poli sci should and shouldn't include, than purely political/ideological considerations), Steven Smith -- just to name the ones I myself studied under at various points.
It's also true that certain topics and approaches towards which conservatives tend to gravitate are unfashionable in the academy these days, and this can hurt conservatives. But, again, it goes beyond simple ideological prejudice. It's difficult to get a job if you do traditional intellectual history or political theory or literary scholarship, focussing on the Western canon, in part because such scholarship has been done already -- there are an awful lot of books out there on Rousseau's political thought, or Shakespeare's sonnets, or the emergence of Romanticism, considered from a traditional, textual, pre-post-modern perspective. Much more of that sort of thing can be done -- and I, for one, am hoping to do some of it -- but it's understandable that academics should want to explore fresher fields (unfortunately, academia being institutionalized and thus inherently small-c conservative, what passes for cutting-edge work often amounts to work that follows the fads and falls within the orthodoxies of the past few years -- hence the continued, albeit waning, hegemony of 'post-modern' 'theory' in many departments, e.g.)
Understandable, but not, I think, right (I am, of course, an interested party here). Erin O'Connor makes some telling points -- as does Tim Burke, whom she quotes -- about how those who take a more 'traditionalist' approach to the humanities -- even if they (we) aren't politically conservative at all -- find themselves having to swim against a sometimes overwhelming current of opinion or assumption.
Of course, while some conservatives rightly complain that their careers have been blighted by liberal/left bias, others' careers are blighted by their own. While there are some very good and original conservative thinkers in academia, there are many others whose work is tiresomely predictable, reflexive, unoriginal and uninspired -- who spout the predictable line and render predictable interpretations no less (and no more) than any leftist ideologue. Since such mediocrity or partisanship doesn't have the pseudo-virtue of novelty or being 'up-to-date' going for it, it is easy to see how conservatives who do poor work would fair even more poorly than leftists and liberals who do poor work. The fact that more left-leaning mediocrities seem to get academic jobs than right-leaning ones is certainly unjust; but that doesn't mean that the many right-leaning mediocrities who don't get jobs, should. We need to be careful, when evaluating complaints of bias, to distinguish those who have been unjustly punished for their beliefs from those who alledge that they have been unjustly treated, but whose misfortune is that they have actually been treated justly. As Jacob Levy rightly reminds us, the job of scholars is to pursue and foster knowledge, not to write policy briefs, or spout partisan pieties; those who do, on the left or right or center, are simply not doing the job of an academic well, and there's no reason they ought to be hired (incidentally, Jacob is a good example of someone who practices what he preaches: having been familiar with some of his scholarly work before I read his blogging, I suspected but couldn't confidently tell that he's a libertarian -- and found my own problems with libertarianism as a movement in no way interfered with my appreciation of, or agreement with, much of what he wrote about political theory).
And, of course, there are many conservatives who are perfectly deserving, who don't get into grad programs, or, more often, don't get hired or tenured, not due to bias, but simply because there aren't enough positions available in the humanities and social sicences, and leftists, liberals, and conservatives alike often aren't able to get the positions to which they aspire, and to which their abilities would, in a better, less over-populated academic world, entitle them -- a point Virginia Postrel makes, with characteristic acuity.
One final thought: it seems to me that there is an overwhelming tendency -- which I've noted here before, and no doubt will again -- in the academy and outside it, among intellectuals and non-intellectuals, to claim the status of victims, to protest against unjust treatment and claim the mantle of an unpopular (and, so the thinking often goes among intellectuals and academics, thus subversive, thus virtuous and intelligent and sincere and admirable) minority. This seems to me as self-indulgent as it is self-pitying, as facile as it is, very often, false, and as ignoble as it is obnoxious -- regardless of who's doing it. (A point made well, and less rancourously, by Jacob Levy in his post linked to above)
I will say this, though, about the conservatives in particular. Liberals and Leftists have tended to make causes and careers of championing the (supposed) underdog, speaking out for the down-trodden, assuming the best and taking the sides of the victims. Conservatives have, in general, roundly, and sometimes rightly, criticized and mocked them for this (as have some perceptive and lucid liberal and leftist thinkers, such as Bertrand Russell) -- and have, for the most part, not shown the same solicitude for life's losers and heretics. It therefore seems to me that for conservatives to seek the sympathy allegedly owed to victims comes off more strongly as an act of bad faith, and strikes me as, ultimately, more embarrasing for them; even if they know nothing else, they should know better than to start sounding the whining tones of the 'school of resentment'.

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