Monday, September 14, 2009

Defining diversity down

In a column that describes her fellow liberal Democrats as almost entirely clueless about the current political debate, Camille Paglia speculates that the education they received may be part of the reason:
.... Though they claim to speak for the poor and dispossessed, Democrats have increasingly become the party of an upper-middle-class professional elite, top-heavy with journalists, academics and lawyers (one reason for the hypocritical absence of tort reform in the healthcare bills). Weirdly, given their worship of highly individualistic, secularized self-actualization, such professionals are as a whole amazingly credulous these days about big-government solutions to every social problem. They see no danger in expanding government authority and intrusive, wasteful bureaucracy. ....

...[A]ffluent middle-class Democrats now seem to be complacently servile toward authority and automatically believe everything party leaders tell them. Why? Is it because the new professional class is a glossy product of generically institutionalized learning? Independent thought and logical analysis of argument are no longer taught. Elite education in the U.S. has become a frenetic assembly line of competitive college application to schools where ideological brainwashing is so pandemic that it's invisible. The top schools, from the Ivy League on down, promote "critical thinking," which sounds good but is in fact just a style of rote regurgitation of hackneyed approved terms ("racism, sexism, homophobia") when confronted with any social issue. The Democratic brain has been marinating so long in those clichés that it's positively pickled. [more]
Peter Wood, expanding on some of Paglia's argument, explains why it seems so easy for liberals to believe their opponents both ignorant and evil:
"Elite education … where ideological brainwashing is so pandemic that it's invisible.”
Independent thought and critical analysis of argument just cannot live in the same company with a curriculum in which the central premise is that all of cultural and social life can be reduced to the privileged oppressing the weak. When the terms of analysis are reduced to the race-gender-class triad, real analysis must stop. Independent ideas are instantly categorized as “bias” of one sort or another, while conformity to the stale “theory” is routinely praised as “independent thinking.” In contemporary elite education, all the intellectual exits have been blocked.

The “invisibility” that Paglia mentions is ensured by a curriculum that simply ignores what cannot be conveniently comprehended under the current ideological terms. Moreover, this has been going on for decades. Colleges can now pretty safely assume that candidates for faculty appointment who have attended American graduate schools have never seriously studied anything outside the charmed circle of ideological conformity. They need not be intentionally biased. They simply have no concept that dissent from the prevailing academic orthodoxies can arise from anything other than deep-rooted antipathy to manifestly wholesome ideas. Paglia spots this self-approval forever patting itself on the back:
“The top schools, from the Ivy League on down, promote "critical thinking," which sounds good but is in fact just a style of rote regurgitation of hackneyed approved terms ("racism, sexism, homophobia") when confronted with any social issue.”
In the current academic regime, all sorts of terms turn out to have false bottoms. “Diversity” sounds good until you realize that it means “enforced conformity”—conformity to the roles assigned to individuals as members of identity groups, and conformity to the underlying view of America as an enduringly unjust society. “Sustainability” sounds good until you realize it means “giving up individual liberty so an unelected elite can decide how best to distribute resources.” The university today spins out these terms by the dozens. “Inclusive excellence” means “there is no such thing as excellence, just different preferences among diverse groups.”

The term that Paglia spots—“critical thinking”—is the granddaddy of all this mischief. Critical thinking in a philosophically accurate sense ought to be part of any college education, but if it were rightly understood, such critical thinking would be inseparable from other intellectual gains. We also need substantive knowledge of important matters; we need the capacity to develop and think through analogies; we need to command inductive and deductive logic; we need to be able to follow and to use chains of association; and we need well-developed recall and well-furnished memories; we need to know how to respond thoughtfully to ambiguities (which can be constructive and not always good targets for critical dismantling); we need the capacity to zoom into microcosms and zoom out to the big picture; and we need the capacity to synthesize. “Critical thinking” as it is typically taught hones none of these skills. It is a one-size fits all hammer for smashing culture into the pieces that can be jammed together under what Paglia calls the “hackneyed approved terms” of contemporary cultural analysis. [more]
Elsewhere, Mark Lilla explains why colleges and universities should value ideological diversity within their faculties:
.... Over the past decade, our universities have made serious efforts to increase racial and ethnic diversity on the campus (economic diversity worries them less, for some reason). Well-paid deans work exclusively on the problem. But universities show not the slightest interest in intellectual diversity among faculty members. That wouldn't matter if teachers could be counted on to introduce students to their adversaries' books and views, but we know how rarely that happens. That's why political diversity on the faculty does matter. As it stands, there is a far greater proportion of conservatives in the student body of typical colleges than on the faculty. A few leading thinkers on the right do teach at our top universities—but at some, like Columbia University, where I teach, not a single prominent conservative is to be found.

.... I recall being at a dinner in Paris in the late 1980s with a distinguished American historian of France who had gathered her graduate students for the evening. The conversation turned to book printing in the early modern era, which she was studying, and the practice of esoteric writing, which was more widespread than she had imagined. I mentioned that there was a classic book on this subject by Leo Strauss. She searched her mind for a moment—this was before the Iraq war made Strauss a household name—and then said, "But isn't he a conservative?" In a certain way he was, I said. Silence at the table. She smiled that smile meant to end discussion, and the conversation turned to more-pleasant topics. ....

.... My brightest conservative students, brought up on hair-raising tales of political correctness, dismiss academic careers out of hand because they are certain of not being hired or getting tenure. And I can't say I blame them. Even as an ex-conservative, I was lucky to have passed through the eyes of those two needles. .... [more]
Responding to comments that he felt missed his point, Lilla wrote:
.... What's lacking, I feel (and the late Paul Lyons with me), is recognition that conservative ideas are not symptoms of something allegedly "deeper"—ignorance, fear, selfishness, maladjustment—but reflections of a certain way of looking at the human condition. There is a serious intellectual tradition here that deserves study, not for affirmative-action reasons but because it includes ideas that might have something to teach us about political life—or, to speak in a very old-fashioned way, because some of them might be true. (Like Wolfe, conservative sectarianism drives me mad, and I agree that the "politics of recognition" has no place in the university.)

I'm glad Smith got tenure easily, though I gather that was before the trench warfare of the 80s. Things are not so easy now, certainly in the humanities but even in the so-called soft social sciences. People do get informally muzzled until they get tenure, as Lyons notes when speaking of his "stealth" conservative colleague. In itself, that's not such a big deal; intellectual life is not for crybabies. (Note to deans and provosts: Engrave that on your office door.) What really matters is the kind of education our students get.

Smith has co-written a book about ideology on campuses, which I haven't read, but his remarks that "students tend to avoid classes from professors they regard as tendentious or biased" and that "those few academics who consider it their duty to convert students to the right (i.e., left) way of thinking … are remarkably unsuccessful in this quest" seem to me beside the point, even if true. Ideology doesn't work that way, and its effects can't be measured by asking people whether they perceive it. Marxists were right: Ideology normalizes something arbitrary. Because of the left-liberal consensus in our major universities, we've defined diversity down and simply don't notice that a historically important voice in our intellectual and political tradition isn't being heard. That's not good for anyone. [more]
Too late for Obama to turn it around? | Salon, NAS - The National Association of Scholars :: Articles Paglia’s Scimitar 09/10/2009 Peter Wood, Taking the Right Seriously - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education, Conservatism in Academe: An Exchange - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education

1 comment:

  1. I think there is an important point made here about critical thinking and higher education. It is a problem I have seen at my own college, where I often see my peers merely "regurgitate" what they have heard at the professor's prompting. Too often this characterizes class "discussion" in place of a more substantive evaluation of ideas and arguments.

    In my observation, however, this problem has less of a political characterization; the root problem, I believe, is relativism. The fact is that all options must be open, all beliefs validated, all things accepted; we must all learn from perspectives different from our own, but not challenge them. Critical thinking discriminates and evaluates, which is why it lacks a place in the modern classroom of ideas.


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