Wednesday, November 1, 2006

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What's Liberal About The Liberal Arts? -- a review

I'm one of the many participants in John Holbo's Liberalpalooza 2006 -- i.e., a blogathon about Michael Bérubé’s What's Liberal About The Liberal Arts?

My (lengthy by blog standards) take on the book is below the fold:

UPDATE: Comments are down here -- but this review has been cross-posted over at The Valve, so say what you think over there.

What’s Liberal About The Liberal Arts? By Michael Bérubé. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

As a professor who hails from the conservative side of the political spectrum, I truly loathe the debate about liberal bias in the academy. It’s one of those questions that rears its head every year or two, at which point the same stale arguments are trotted out and not much of note is said.

About the only thing I like about this debate is how it forces both sides of the political spectrum to subvert their traditional arguments and appropriate the other side’s rhetoric. Conservatives wind up arguing that the bias problem is a structural one – and therefore the way to fix it is through some kind of ideological affirmative action program. Liberals, when confronted with the numbers, nevertheless insist that the academy is a strict meritocracy with no old-boy networks whatsoever – and that aspiring conservative academics should quit whining and pick themselves up by their bootstraps.

It is to Bérubé’s credit, then, to say that I enjoyed reading What’s Liberal About The Liberal Arts. Actually, to be more specific, I really enjoyed one of the books Bérubé has written. What’s Liberal About The Liberal Arts is really two texts – one about what it means to be a professor, and one that responds to the conservative critique of the academy. The first one is great; the second one is slapdash.

Bérubé’s explanation of the actual craft of teaching American literature is an utter delight. He accessibly relates the difficulties of coping with obstreperous students in seminars, or why gender is a salient factor in teaching My Antonia. Bérubé’s excellent, pithy summation of how to evaluate a paper will be familiar to many a professor:

All I ask is that their interpretations be plausible, and my criteria are lawyerly and austere. One, I read their essays to see how well they handle textual evidence, that is, how well they support whatever claims they make by reference to the material in front of them; and two, I want to know how well they anticipate and head off possible counterarguments. That’s it. Meet those two criteria in my classroom, and the field of interpretation is open.

Bérubé’s discussion of Rorty’s non-foundationalist approach was also useful in shining a light on what is often reflexively labeled “post-modernism” in colloquial discourse. As What’s Liberal About The Liberal Arts presents it, Rorty’s philosophy is more the intellectual successor to the pragmatist tradition in American thought than a child of Foucault or Derrida. These sections make me want to buy Bérubé a beer to see whether he thinks Rorty’s anti-foundationalism meets its match in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments.

As Bérubé intended, these chapters are also the best rejoinder to the conservative accusation of liberal bias subverting the aims higher education. University research and teaching is a profession, with a set of rules, norms and practices that are not connected to one political ideology or another. This is the “procedural liberalism” that Bérubé discusses – though he is hardly the first. Even if the academy is overwhelmingly populated by substantive liberals, the professional norms evinced by Bérubé should serve as the most important bulwark against political corruption. It is for this reason, incidentally, that liberals should not fear institutions that are both professionalized and predominantly conservative – like the United States armed forces.

The chapters that explicitly address the conservative critique are more of a mixed bag. What’s Liberal About The Liberal Arts devotes a lot of pages to debunking David Horowitz and his ill-informed jihad against the academy. In these sections, Bérubé gets points for marksmanship – he does a great job of shooting a big fish in a small barrel.

Look, Horowitz is a guy who got bored with studying English literature because there was “nothing to research that was interesting anymore.” He’s now pissed off because Harvard professors don’t assign his books in courses and convinced that he’d be a Harvard department chair is he was liberal. In other words, it’s very hard to take his rantings about the academy seriously. As Michael pointed out in his blog, “Mr. Horowitz himself is not very appealing”. The best way to inoculate commentators and politicians against Horowitz’s crusade is simply to expose them to greater doses of Horowitz.

Horowitz’s prominence in the text underscores the fact that there are thornier questions about the sources and effects of liberal bias that Bérubé either elides or treats in a cursory manner. He acknowledges that, “there’s really no question, then, that campuses are teeming with liberal faculty, especially when campuses are compared with the rest of the country.” This is explained away as a matter of personal choice – liberals are more likely to pick a job that’s not terribly remunerative but has lots of security and flexibility. Here Bérubé commits an error similar to what Thomas Franck did in What’s The Matter With Kansas – he assumes that people are guided strictly by their material preferences. Surely, just as middle-class Americans might identify more strongly with the GOP's cultural values over the Democratic party's economic program, conservatives might value living the life of the mind ahead of the monetary rewards of a non-academic career?

As for the effects of liberal bias, Bérubé admits that this is not a good thing within his own discipline. The absence of traditional conservative scholarship creates the Millian problem of “dead dogma” – without being challenged, some tenets become accepted as given when they shouldn’t be. The other problem, which Bérubé does not discuss in detail, is one of power. In almost every social setting, those with less power tend to exaggerate the extent to which they need to please the more powerful to advance in life. So it is in the academy. Bérubé maintains that undergrads do not read is essays in Dissent or The Nation. That’s probably true – but I bet they read his blog, and I have to wonder if some potential English Ph.D.’s fear the ideological gap between them and their instructor, and choose to take a pass? This problem is not Bérubé’s fault, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

On the whole, Bérubé thinks the liberal bias problem is overblown – and therefore the conservative opposition must be masking a more sinister agenda – the academy, like Social Security, is an existential affront to conservatives:

on some level, the American right attacks universities not because they don’t work but because, by and large, they do….

America’s cultural conservatives may despise us for the obvious reasons—our cosmopolitanism, our secularism, our corrosive attitude of skepticism about every form of receive authority—but the economic conservatives, I think, despise us precisely because we work so well.

As an economic conservative, there are a few flaws in this line of argumentation.

Bérubé implies that American universities work so well because of Liberals Like Him. However, as he points out elsewhere in the book, it might be precisely those parts of the university that “conservatives heartily endorse” – basic science and R&D in nanotechnology or agribusiness – that’s providing a lot of the value-added. Furthermore, it’s worth pointing out that even though the state plays a significant role in tertiary education in this country, its role is considerably smaller when compared to other countries. Maybe, just maybe, it’s the competitive, non-state aspects of the American university that make them such a global attractor. True, for these parts of the university to work, they do have to adhere to Bérubé’s procedural liberalism – but this is an insight that is hardly original to either Bérubé or the left side of the political spectrum.

I'd recommend the book to those interested in seeing how humanities professors go about their work. As a refutation of the condservative critique, What's Liberal About The Liberal Arts leaves something to be desired.

posted by Dan on 11.01.06 at 03:39 PM


"...I truly loathe the debate about liberal bias in the academy. It’s one of those questions that rears its head every year or two, at which point the same stale arguments are trotted out and not much of note is said."

The current edition of the journal "Critical Review" has some interesting pieces on bias in media and in the social sciences. Have a look. Maybe your opinion will change.

Here are a few articles:





For the record, I do not work for the journal but I am a subscriber.

posted by: E.M. Daniel on 11.01.06 at 03:39 PM [permalink]

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