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Tuesday, November 21, 2006
Dave Maier on Michael Bérubé - A Bunch of Picky Philosophy Points
Dave Maier has a long post about Bérubé’s book, focusing on the problems you can get into, being a Rortyan.
My first gripe concerns the cutting of philosophical corners. It’s understandable that people, especially non-philosophers, try to deal with the issue of realism and relativism in the moral/political context without first deciding what to say about scientific or commonsense facts.
I agree with that. I think those accused would mostly deny making this mistake - but I think they mostly are. But actually I don’t think Bérubé is a model offender. Cutting corners in the classroom, i.e. simplifying for the kids, is more defensible than cutting them in certain sorts of straight scholarly argument, by trying to treat certain issues as springboards into discussion of something else. When properly they are only suited to being bogs, to bog down in.
MB applauds Rorty for not claiming that what he says (about truth and knowledge) is true, but saying instead merely that it’s useful to act as if it were true. MB says this on his own behalf in other places, seeing this as a virtuous consistency, necessary to foil the traditional realist accusation of self-refutation. (Is Rorty’s pragmatism “really true”? If we answer “yes,” the familiar thought goes, then we affirm and renounce its truth in the same breath, a contradiction; but if we answer “no,” then, Rorty feels, there’s no problem.) Again, this is skepticism; and the problem with skepticism is that it makes hash of the notion of belief (and with it of meaning; of this more below). It is true that in particular cases we may intelligibly advocate acting, for instrumental reasons, as if something were true that we do not in fact believe to be the case. But this cannot be our general attitude. It makes no sense to argue passionately for a particular view, and then, when familiar muddles cause the conversation to grind to a halt, or spin its wheels uselessly, to cut the Gordian knot by saying, “oh well, I wasn’t saying my view is true.” Of course you were. If you weren’t, then I was wrong to take you as believing it, and now I am more confused than ever.
I agree. I just gave a conference paper on Rorty and Dewey and pragmatism where I talked about a related Rortyan tic. He does this weird thing I call ‘imminent critique’ - or ‘soon you will have been critiqued’. (More coloquially, this anti-foundationalist anticipatory retrospective mood might be glossed: ‘all your bases will have been belong to us.’) He doesn’t give you reasons to believe him. He invites you to consider the possibiity of a future when ‘we’ will no longer think this way, i.e. by which time the person he is disagreeing with will, ex hypothesi, have had their paradigm shifted. But the fact that my paradigm might shift - true enough - doesn’t give me a reason to shift my paradigm. Life must be lived in a forward direction. So preaching paradigm shift in this meta-sort of way is not just intellectual weird but rhetorically unmoving. (I mean: Galileo didn’t just shout at the Pope ‘did you ever consider that someday you will have had your mind changed about astronomy?’ Lenin didn’t write an essay: ‘What is to have been done?’ [have had been done?]) The fact that he finds himself obliged to address us in this mode very much has to do with a tension between what Dave recognizes as his Pyrrhonism, and his progressivism. It’s a hard hortatory row to hoe. But Rorty is a pretty good philosopher all the same, it’s true. Also, Bérubé managed not to pick up this anticipatory retrospective habit during his time with the master, although he did maybe catch a case of thinking there’s virtuous consistency in what seems to be a species of irrationalism, as Dave says. (Not that irrationalism is always bad, but it never makes sense.)
I think Dave’s post will be very interesting to folks who are a little interested in all this stuff. Roughly: how analytically-trained philosophers tend to scratch their heads a bit at this stuff.
Sunday, November 19, 2006
Bruce Robbins on Michael Bérubé - Liberalism as Dirty Word
Bruce Robbins is a professor in the department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He’s also sort of pals with Bérubé, so you can factor that in. For that matter, ‘the management’ once sat next to him on a bus and talked to him at some length. Clearly it’s a rich tapestry of factors. - the management
Could I try out one view of Michael Berubé’s book I haven’t heard mentioned? Sure, he’s speaking for academics in the humanities and social sciences whom non-liberals would properly see as liberal. And sure, these people (myself included) are a majority in our departments. But do they see themselves as liberal? Maybe on the phone at home, when reluctantly answering some pollster’s questions in a tongue they know to be alien. But at work, I don’t think so. In literature departments (I teach in one) “liberal” is more often than not a dirty word.
For example, Berubé’s liberalism means secularism. But secularism is by no means English department dogma. On the contrary, the big fashion these days is to declare oneself post-secular; it’s everywhere. This unbending to religion should not be a surprise. After all, the critique of Enlightenment rationality is what English departments were founded on. You can still get more or less automatic assent, if not necessarily wild cheering or a reputation for originality, by rising to denounce any of that rationality’s assumptions or moving parts. Remember, Nietzsche is still the biggest philosopher in this neighborhood. Not a democrat, and not a liberal.
No, I’m not crazy about this. But there are sides of the deep anti-liberal bias in English departments that I have more time for. The active discussion about Burkean conservatism where I live–and you should know that there is one– centers on whether Burke wasn’t after all the true leftist, given that the people to his left never had the qualms he had about British imperialism and that his version of agricultural organicism, though it didn’t stop him from welcoming enclosures, certainly offered a better defense of India than anything else in the British public sphere. I personally have my reservations about Uday Mehta’s argument for Burke as anti-imperialist hero, but it’s certainly a strong one. Adam Smith is also having a resurgence these days, in part because it has become clear that he was not a Smithian, in part because he didn’t approve of colonialism, and in part because of his Theory of Moral Sentiments, which has been taken to underlie today’s humanitarian compassion. The fact that we’re thinking in this way about Burke and Smith is not a “victory for the right"– it’s just doing what we do, thinking through the heritage of thought and feeling as vigorously as possible and looking for what will serve us.
I’ve had the word ‘liberal’ used in my vicinity with unmistakable venom merely because I wanted my fellow lefties to consider making common cause with liberals over this or that issue, if only as a way of getting something done. Therefore I could only be a closet member of the fraternity… (Which I suppose I must be on some level since I did like almost everything about Berubé’s book.) It will perhaps amuse readers of The Valve to consider that this insinuation hurt, since like those around me I too took an instinctive distance from various liberal premises (possessive individualism, contracts, consent, indulgence for market capitalism, and so on). But there we are, not liberals at all, at least to ourselves.
The point of all this is to suggest the following: to the extent that he is addressing those who are disciplinarily closest to him, Berubé may not be defending the liberalism of his colleagues so much as trying to get them to think of themselves as liberals.
Something which I continue to think of as both good and bad. Good: this means trying to get them to think of themselves less exclusively as academics and more as citizens. And trying to get them to give us a break on all very tiring critiques of Enlightenment rationality. Bad: this means, for Berubé as for his teacher Richard Rorty, getting them to feel prouder of their country. Compare, say, Walter Michaels on inequality in America’s system of higher education with Berubé’s qualified but much more patriotic account: “The United States is the only country in which half the population enters college (though only half of that half manages to graduate, and we’re gradually scaling back on our fitful efforts to expand the franchise to the poor)...”
I’m not sure what difference if any the thought of Berubé’s local choir as not converted at all will make to the readers of this blog. But I suppose this is the way to find out.
Sunday, November 12, 2006
More Burke On Bérubé and Bauerlein
It was a bit rude of me to link to Tim Burke’s post, below, then try to distract everyone by writing a long post myself. So let me link again, adding that Burke is having a very lively and interesting conversation with a conservative named Withywindle, who writes (I’ll just give you his long, first comment under the fold):Continue reading "More Burke On Bérubé and Bauerlein"
Saturday, November 11, 2006
Kotsko on Bérubé
Adam Kotsko’s contribution to our Bérubé event is up. It says stuff you actually haven’t read six different people saying already! (There’s also an article on this ‘a liberal education?’ question in some local newspaper called the NY Times. That might be interesting.) Here’s the start of Adam’s post:
Turn with me, if you will, to page 133 of What’s Liberal? There we find the following:Even America’s elite conservatives know this [namely that the US university system is the best in the world]. They may talk a good game about liberal indoctrination here and leftist domination there, but when it comes time to send their own kids to college, do you imagine for a moment that they’re looking over the brochures for Olivet Nazarene University....?
As many readers know, Olivet Nazarene University is my alma mater and that of several regular commenters here; my co-blogger Anthony Paul Smith also went there for two years, though he had the good sense to transfer to and graduate from DePaul University. Hence I took this reference as a “shout-out” to The Weblog, primarily since I have no idea what else could’ve motivated it, unless Bérubé is a huge Chicago Bears fan. In point of fact, at least one of “America’s elite conservatives” did look over the brochures for Olivet Nazarene University—Dr. James Dobson’s son went to Olivet, and there are all manner of amusing and vicious rumors about that upstanding young man for those who are interested. This may be an exceptional situation: Dr. Dobson himself is Nazarene and is in fact the holder of an honorary doctorate from Olivet (I was playing in the band on the excruciating occasion of its conferral); I feel like he also went to Olivet in his youth, but can’t confirm that presently.
In any case, the reference to Olivet has the clear implication that an education at Olivet is inferior to that at a mainstream institution. Much as I hate to defend Olivet, I don’t think that is necessarily the case. First of all, a motivated student will be able to get a good education anywhere, even if the options as regards subject matter will be somewhat constricted. In terms of vocational-oriented programs, Olivet does very well—their nursing and education programs have strong reputations, their social work program qualifies graduates to skip directly to the second year of an MSW program, and engineering graduates seem to have a high rate of job placement. In terms of more “pure” academic programs, Olivet until recently had a very high rate of placement in graduate programs in theology, not only at seminaries but at reputable institutions such as Vanderbilt or University of Virginia. (Sadly, they have since decided to revamp the religion program into a more practically-oriented vocational program for aspiring ministers in the Church of the Nazarene.)
More to the point, however, is the program to which I devoted my undergraduate career: English literature. Bérubé’s accounts of classroom discussions and dynamics were actually not completely foreign to me. Although the balance at Olivet would obviously tip more toward the conservative side, there were still many students who leaned liberal and were only at Olivet due to their parents’ insistence (usually in the form of refusing to offer financial support if they chose to attend any other university). Additionally, there were many who came to Olivet as conservatives and were convinced to become more liberal, simply due to the process of education itself. This may have been especially the case in the English department, as the faculty was made up almost entirely of women, and obviously highly educated women are going to have less incentive to identify strongly with the ethos of a conservative religious institution that still, when I was there, regarded the “MRS degree” as a primary goal for women students ...
Friday, November 10, 2006
Burke on The Bérubé Moment; Holbo on Hinayana-style Ecological Critique - now with extra words!
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.
The second is that I think people who want to be accounted as professionals have to have a presumptive respect for other professionals.
Pardon me for wrenching this subject around in my own way, thereby making my own contribution: ‘bias’ is a term with handy rhetorical properties, in these contexts. It designates an institutional failing yet produces the impression that it designates an individual sin. To explain: if liberal academe is ‘biased’ it is surely because when you line up the faculty you find ten Foucaultians and nary a Hayekian in the bunch. But that is not actually any reason to think there is anything wrong with Foucault. Yet once you have labeled the faculty as ‘biased’, in this way, it sounds very much like you have grounds for dismissing - or at least presuming some degree of guilt - on the part of the individual faculty members. The groupthink suspicions are real. But ecological problems are not logical problems. That’s a fallacy. The fact that all my colleagues agree with me that Foucault is right may give me a reason to think a Hayekian should be hired, hardly a reason to think that Foucault is wrong. The conservative critique suffers from ecologocentrism, you might say. The term ‘bias’, which sounds as though it discovers individual intellectual faults, but really refers to institutional imbalances, papers over this limitation.
Burke’s professionalism concern parallels this concern of mine because of how the conservative critique tends to develop. Here we might distinguish between hinayana and mahayana styles of envisioned reform. If so, then there is a bait and switch, potentially. (Mahayana Buddhism = everyone gets saved. Hinayana = everyone gets saved? not so much. The analogy will be with getting to go to college. Everyone? Or just a few. ‘Hinayana’ is considered derogatory by those the term describes, by the by.)
Take this Paul Johnson review of Roger Kimball’s The Rape of the Masters. It lodges two complaints:
First, there is a making do with “‘theory,’ which allows varieties of polysyllabic waffling to substitute for hard, detailed knowledge. To supply the need, this trend was imported into art history from literary criticism.” That is, the things these profs say don’t make sense. (I guess you could say that Johnson feels about ‘theory’ the way certain Hinayana Buddhists feel about the theory that you can just keep saying ’Amhitaba‘ over and over and that will do it for you. Critics of ‘Theory’ often feel that certain French words like ‘logocentrism’ have played a similar role in recent years.)
But what is the need that is allegedly hereby supplied? This brings us to point two:
The vast expansion of higher education in art, combined with the proliferation of museums and galleries, a huge increase in output from art publishers, made possible by the improvement in color photography and reproduction (and outsourcing of printing to Asia), and the impact of “blockbuster” exhibitions trumpeted by TV programs—all this has made it hard for art teaching of high quality to keep pace. As Kingsley Amis put it, 40 years ago, “More will mean worse."
Back to higher education. If ‘more will mean worse’ it’s very important to be clear about whether what you object to is, perhaps, the GI Bill, which allowed lots of returning soldiers to take art history classes, or whether what you object to is Foucault, because he makes no sense. Or some combination of the two. Are you building a broad platform of your own, or retreating into a lesser vehicle (i.e. a smaller, sleeker, swifter, more elite conveyance)? The MLA will always look ridiculous because it’s so big. So the conservatives can do a pretty potent ‘guilt by Modern Language Association’ thing. Plus conservatives have the dubious privilege of the permanent opposition. They don’t need to have a plan for actually governing. They don’t have to answer the Richard Scariest question: “what should 50,000 humanists do all day?’ I am quite sure that Bauerlein, for example, will say that we don’t want the elite option. But that actually needs some filling out, as Burke argues.
UPDATE: the post was sort of incomplete, as written. I left it ‘to be continued’ at this point. Now I’ve actually written the rest, under the fold.Continue reading "Burke on The Bérubé Moment; Holbo on Hinayana-style Ecological Critique - now with extra words!"
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
Jodi Dean on Michael Bérubé
Jodi Dean’s contribution to our roundtable is up here. A bit about ‘how to displace one’s enabling suppositions onto another’:
But, it’s not the kind of supposition of power that liberals typically want to ground their thinking in-instead, they prefer to deny their enabling suppositions, which seems to me to be why they are forced to project these suppositions onto others, and in Berube’s case, onto those he positions on the extremes of left and right in order to insert himself solidly in the middle ...
I’ll let Michael B handle himself here, but it seems to me Jodi makes a classic Zizek slip (which has been made by others before): she points out things that liberals assume as sort of obvious - namely, that liberalism is far from presuppositionless in various ways - and tries to fault liberalism for blindness to these things it perfectly well sees. More later, if I have time.
Friday, November 03, 2006
Liberalpalooza - All The Posts
If you want to see all the posts for our Bérubé What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? event - here’s a general archive link.
Dr. Virago - Inside the Humanities Classroom
The mysterious Dr. Virago has kindly contributed a long essay/review of Bérubé for our event. - the management
I think Dr. V should have called her post “Milling Against the grain at a regional, public, non-flagship university these days’. But maybe that’s just me. Anyway, her tale of reactions to Chaucer has a very Clueless-in-flyover-country thing going on. ("Well, I remember Mel Gibson accurately, and he didn’t say that. That Polonius guy did.” I’m sure you remember.)
Mark Bauerlein on Michael Bérubé - Canon Fodder
Former Valve author Mark Bauerlein has a review of Bérubé’s book at The New Criterion. He has granted permission for us to x-post it, so now it has a comment box. - the management
For many years, Michael Bérubé has been an outspoken and topical voice in the humanities professoriate. His books cover critical theory, academic employment, and the canon, and he weighs in on current events, academic and political, on a personal blog that has a steady and interactive readership. He’s an MLA insider but also a popular writer, contributing to The Nation, The Village Voice, and Dissent. He leapt into the Culture Wars in the early 1990s, and, with regular sallies into campus controversies, his career sets a different example of professorial labor. His writings don’t evince months and years spent poring over archives and assembling primary documents, and the focus on contemporary matters gives them a dated feel a few years after their publication. But, then, Bérubé’s practice exempts him from many of the vices that have bedeviled humanities professors for three decades.Continue reading "Mark Bauerlein on Michael Bérubé - Canon Fodder"
Thursday, November 02, 2006
Daniel Drezner On Michael Bérubé - All The Words!
We’re X-posting Daniel Drezner’s review of Bérubé’s book because Dan’s comments are temporarily down. Plus we like him. – the management
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.Continue reading "Daniel Drezner On Michael Bérubé - All The Words!"
Daniel Drezner On Michael Bérubé
UPDATE: Oh look! There it is, right above this post, x-posted from Drezner’s site! Well, alright then.
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.
But Daniel likes Bérubé’s book quite a lot anyway. I’ll take this opportunity to editorialize that I actually don’t like this element of the debate Daniel speaks of, although I concede it has a trainwreck rhetorical fascination, so I can never resist rubbernecking. I have termed this sort of dialectical do-se-do poetic justice as fairness. (I’m rather proud of that old post.)
Daniel makes the following critical point. Bérubé “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.” My distinct impression is that Michael’s argument wasn’t really this materialistically narrow, but I will await his clarifications.
Since my own cute attempt at pro wrestling humor is, by general acclaim, somewhat of a flop - oh well, you try to tell a joke - I’ll just emphasize that I am, on the whole, very impressed by Michael’s book. Sitting down to read, I had my mental list of clever, wise, pertinent things that should be said on the subject and, by and large, Michael got to them first - and a few others besides. Which is not to say that I have been completely reduced to wrestling jokes, oh no! But that can wait a few days.
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
Liberalpalooza 2006 - A Roundtable Discussion of Bérubé’s Book
We’re having a book event for Michael Bérubé’s What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? [amazon]. I’ve lined up a great many contributors. So many, in fact, that I’ve decided extension is the better part of valor. Rather than trying to pack it into a few days, and suffer likely comment fatigue, we’ll let it all hang out all November. Contributions should trickle in, on the general topic, and we hope contributors will be able to use the extra time to respond to each other more reflectively. I think it will probably make most sense if Michael’s book is regarded as an occasion for discussion as much as an object of review. (Because there have been several reviews already and at some point we are sure to start repeating ourselves. Don’t want that.) Mostly folks will be contributing by posting at their own blogs, rather than guesting here. If you want to participate, by all means email to tell me you’ve written something. (I don’t have any more free books to give away, I’m afraid. But I’m happy to link to anything that seems appropriate.)
I’ll take this opportunity to make a small point that doesn’t connect to much of consequence - probably not, anyway.Continue reading "Liberalpalooza 2006 - A Roundtable Discussion of Bérubé’s Book"