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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Sunday, October 16, 2005

Conservatives in Academe, Again

Posted by John Holbo on 10/16/05 at 08:22 PM

Another John Tierney column on academe. (It’s from some paywalled outfit called the NYTimes.) I’m snipping from Althouse. What she quotes is all I’ve seen. [Anyone with access want to click the ‘send this article to a friend’ button? I consider myself your friend and wouldn’t be averse to knowing what I’m talking about.]

This much I know: the column is about underrepresentation of conservatives. It traces the trouble to “the structure of academia, where decisions about hiring are made by small independent groups of scholars,” and our own Mark Bauerlein is quoted:

They’re subject to the law of group polarization, derived from studies of juries and other groups.

“If people are engaged in deliberation with like-minded others, they end up more confident, more homogenous and more extreme in their beliefs,” said Cass Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago. “If you have an English or history department that leans left, their interactions will push them further left.”

Once liberals dominate a department, they can increase their majority by voting to award tenure to like-minded scholars. As liberals dominate a field, conservatives’ work comes to be seen as fringe scholarship.

“The filtering out of conservatives in the job pipeline rarely works by outright blackballing,” said Mark Bauerlein, a conservative who is an English professor at Emory. “It doesn’t have to. The intellectual focus of the disciplines does that by itself.”

Suppose, he said, you were a conservative who wanted to do a sociology dissertation on the debilitating effects of the European welfare state, or an English dissertation arguing that anticommunist literature from the mid-20th century was as valuable as the procommunist literature.

“You’d have a hard time finding a dissertation adviser, an interested publisher and a receptive hiring committee,” Bauerlein said. “Your work just wouldn’t look like relevant scholarship, and would be quietly set aside."

I gather Tierney’s conclusion is the that lefty academics, by cocooning themselves, are hurting themselves as well as their institutions and, by extension, everyone. (You don’t influence public opinion in a vibrant, healthy way by floating off in a little bubble with a few like-minded friends.)

I have written about this at length, so let me try at brief - no, wait, that’s crazy: just a bit less long. Just for once. Let’s google up some stats. First hit is here. “Bias Revealed Among Ivy League Faculty/Professors Voted 84% for Gore, 9% for Bush.” First, it is indeed striking how blue-shifted academia is, relative to the relatively red average voter. Second, it is striking how the fact gets framed. Imagine if, the morning after Bush’s reelection, newspapers trumpeted the news: America biased in favor of Republicans! Since that would be rather silly, why shouldn’t the survey results be reported like so: Gore wins landslide mandate from academics?

Broadly, there are two styles of argument for political ‘bias’ in academia, on the basis of such survey results: an argument from diversity; an argument from merit. You can argue it is unhealthy for academia and America for academics not to ‘look more like America’; alternatively - or in conjunction - you can argue that the academic blue-shift must be a result of political discrimination in the hiring process. (Conservatives are not dumber than liberals, ergo the departure from the views of the average American can only be the product of a non-meritocratic process.)

There is a simple response to the merit argument I have never seen addressed by its proponents: the left-skew is apparently robust across departments. Being on average to the left of the average voter isn’t just for English professors; biologists and physicists fit the profile as well. Mark’s argument - quoted above - is prima facie plausible for English departments but not for many others, in which it isn’t likely research will have a discernably partisan cast. So at the very least there must be more to the story. I would be curious to see some measure of how far lefter denizens of English departments are, if at all, than those of philosophy, history, biology, physics, economics, law, business. Does anyone know if such a breakdown exists? The report on the survey in the linked article is vague about this point.

Putting the point another way, the merit argument is about path dependence. But it makes a debatable assumption about what juncture is critical - namely, ‘decisions about hiring made by small independent groups of scholars.’ You could throw in grad school admissions as another likely node, but it is less plausible that grad students are vetted for politics. Also, here is another node: cocooning isn’t just for academics. Republicans, who have been waging culture war against lefty academics for a generation, have plausibly polarized themselves against academia at least as violently as academics have polarized themselves against Republicans. Republicans may respond that they didn’t start the feedback loop, but I don’t think it could be maintained with a straight face that they aren’t doing their part to maintain it. That is the only point that matters for purposes of causal explanation of the survey results. The hypothesis that conservatives and academics mutually self-select to stay apart does not seem to me at all frivolous.

You can argue about it if you like.

What strikes me as more interesting are the diversity arguments, because they are, at once, extremely tricky to make, overlaid with confusing layers of irony, and potentially valid. (Nothing attracts me more.) The trick, in a nutshell, is balancing a value of diversity with one of meritocracy. On the one hand, in a democratic society, it seems that every sigificant group and constituency and perspective and value deserves to have its academic advocate, to make the most of and for it. On the other hand ‘significant’ - in a democratic sense - is a ‘by the numbers’ affair. Do we want to say that every idea that can afford a lobbyist gets a professor? No. Academics are not supposed to decide their results by convening a focus group. You might object that the duty of academics is precisely to champion ideas that CAN’T afford lobbyists; intellectuals should be champions of the underdog. But this doesn’t make sense either. Unpopular minorities may need protection as a matter of principle. The same does not go for ideas, which may be unpopular for good reasons, hence deserving of total exclusion from academic representation.

Academia has to be meritocratic, so there is something inherently incongruous about obliging academic inquiries to culminate in opinions exhibiting a scatter pattern that approximately overlaps the range of extra-academic opinion. Where is it written that we are not allowed to get anywhere, except back where we started? Still, this progressive point doesn’t seem satisfactory as a full excuse to flout public opinion systematically, especially not in the humanities as opposed to the natural sciences. Or rather: concerning questions of value, not fact. A hoary distinction, yes, but is it not worth something?

What is needed, then, is some principle - or philosophy of value and/or philosophy of education - explaining how to balance values of diversity and merit; a coherent, convincing way of saying: academia has a duty to look like society, and has the privilege of telling society how to look. This principle of balance is by no means self-evident. What complicates the matter further are dueling applications of what I have termed the principle of poetic justice as fairness. That is, it somehow feels fair to hoist your opponent on his own petard. And it is. But you have to make a point of not riding the petard home yourself - like the guy in Strangelove - resulting in intellectual Mutually Assured Destruction. To wit: conservatives delight if they can wrongfoot lefties into disregarding diversity as a value. They find it amusing that lefty academics, usually sensitive to path-dependence as a route to social injustice, might have a blindspot concerning academia itself. But it is no MORE unfair for lefties to respond in kind: if you deride diversity-as-value as corrosive relativism, eating into the foundations of the Judeo-Christian tradition, you are hardly in a position to whinge about a little lack of diversity; and if you take the line that people get what they deserve in this society, the market usually shakes out fair, why worry about a little path-dependence between friends? (It obviously can’t be a problem.)

Since two wrongs don’t make a right - although they do make any number of good jokes - we lack a positive philosophy of what the face of academia should look like.

This seems like enough recycling of my own old opinions in response to an op-ed I can’t read behind a paywall. What do you think? Do you think humanistic academe - the English department - would be healthier if it had a healthier right-wing?


I’m sorry, I can’t let the assumption that “an English dissertation arguing that anticommunist literature from the mid-20th century was as valuable as the procommunist literature” would be stigmatized pass.  Is there more scholarship being done on Ralph Ellison, George Orwell, Lionel Trilling, and Mickey Spillane, or on Thomas McGrath, Abraham Polonsky, Alfred Maund, and Martha Dodd?  Opposition to/disillusionment with Communism is the theme of canonical mid-century U.S. fiction, and authors who hold that position are genuinely valued --nearly no one shakes their heads and tut-tuts sadly over Ellison’s anticommunist inclinations any longer.  Again, apologies for addressing a remark tangential to your main question.

By on 10/17/05 at 04:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks Josh. (Haven’t heard from you for a while. Drop a line, tell us how you are.) No apologies necessary, of course. I wondered about that particular generalization myself, but (as a philosophy prof) did not presume to pronounce. I also wonder whether it really is so hard to do a sociology dissertation on negative effects of the European welfare state. Questions like this are highly relevant, of course. Having abstract principles is all well and good. But determining the facts on the ground is also necessary.

By John Holbo on 10/17/05 at 05:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A really fascinating post, John.  It make me wonder whether it’s not really a matter of ‘in the red corner, in the blue corner ...’ (how distracting it is for me as a red-flag waving Brit that the US insists perversely on inverting the natural colour scheme.) What I mean is (forgive me for simplifying things, perhaps distortingly so) that ‘left’ and ‘right’ may not be just a matter of two groups with a different set of policy preferences.  It may be that for the left the value judgments are predicated upon a debate provoked by binaries such as relativism/absolutism, liberalism/illiberalism and so forth; where for the right they are predicated upon the more straightforward binary ‘right’/’wrong’.  In other words, this point:

They find it amusing that lefty academics, usually sensitive to path-dependence as a route to social injustice, might have a blindspot concerning academia itself...

is well made, but the follow-on

...But it is no MORE unfair for lefties to respond in kind: if you deride diversity-as-value as corrosive relativism, eating into the foundations of the Judeo-Christian tradition, you are hardly in a position to whinge about a little lack of diversity...

surely couches rightist discourse in leftist terms.  The issue on the right isn’t ‘diversity’ I think.  The problem for rightists is not that all these liberal professors are blind to the irony of their own position, but rather that all these liberal professors, people of influence and power, are wrong—that they believe wrong things (contrary to the will of Jah, or whatever the criterion happens to be) and that it would be better if people in positions of authority were mouthpieces for what is right, regardless of considerations such as the political make-up of the country at the time etc.  In other words, when faced with a corruptor of the young like Socrates you don’t try and argue him into an aporia, you take the executive decision to poison him; since protecting the morals of the young is so much more important than all this chat and toing-and-froing so beloved of the vacillating left.

Apologies if this is stating the obvious.

By Adam Roberts on 10/17/05 at 08:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree that Bauerlein’s examples are very bad.

There’s something I haven’t seen mentioned so far.  There is no mystery about why academia in the U.S. would be “left” leaning in the sciences as well as the humanities.  Current conservatism is at war with science.  From young earth creationism to intelligent design to anthropogenic climate change denial to repression of stem cell research to the government’s attitude towards scientific review in general, there’s no question about why most scientists would be voting for Gore.  As for the social sciences, the same goes—although I assume that there may be enough ideological free-market economists to balance the numbers a bit.

By on 10/17/05 at 09:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich’s enormously common-sensical comments shows how wrong I can be; for I was arguing that it was the rightists who judge according to criteria of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, where here he demonstrates that leftists do this too.  My problem is that I agree with him that it’s hard for an honest lefty to look at Intelligent Design et al without going “but that’s wrong!” But it starts to look like we’re saying ‘hey, don’t blame me if it turns out that leftwing views turn out to be true‘.  The correlative of which is ‘hey, your rightwing views are invalid, because, you know, they’re wrong ...’

By Adam Roberts on 10/17/05 at 09:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, science is not supposed to be intrinsically left wing.  If you have anything like a scientific view of what is true and what is not, then you have to say that evolution is “true” and that intelligent design is wrong.  But that doesn’t mean that science is left wing politically.  It’s more that conservatives have decided to support certain right-wing antisciences, and driven scientists to support of “left” (actually US-liberal) politics in self defense.

There’s a reason why the “reality-based community” tag has gotten so popular.  When attention to reality starts to get described as a left-wing characteristic, then scientists become leftists by definition.

By on 10/17/05 at 10:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that outside the humanities and outside the liberal arts (in applied departments such as business, engineering, veterinary or accounting) the skew is much less. Within the liberal arts, economics can be pretty conservative.

There a lot self-selection by conservatives. Many conservatives are very practically-oriented, and they shy away from “liberal arts bullshit”. There are also many Bible Christians among them who are hostile to secular education as such. (Tom DeLay says that Baylor and Texas A&M are too corrupt and secular for good Christians to send their kids to. Baylor and Texas A&M!!) And for an ambitious, talented guy going for the top dollar, academia is almost never the best place to go.

There’s a lot of aggressive know-nothingism among conservatives. A lot of them are suspicious of someone who read novels all the time, or someone who spends all their time on medieval history. It’s not just gender studies and multiculturalism that make them uneasy.

I have long-standing gripes about disciplinary narrowing in the humanities via methodologization and the enforcement of paradigms, and it wouldn’t surprise me if conservatives are squeezed out of many departments by these methods. This is something that I’d like to see discussed in its own right.

However, I think that it’s a mistake to think that this is the kind of thing conservatives are talking about today. Horowitz and the others want to root out liberal and leftist opinion wherever they find it—in movies, in the universities, in the music biz. They find whichever arguments seem that they might work, and use them weapons. (One thing that they MIGHT do is encourage conservatives to get PhD’s in English and History, but I just don’t see that happening.)

By John Emerson, first poster on 10/17/05 at 10:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I thought of a good illustration of what I mean, the comment thread starting here (which I also linked to a day or so ago on the thread about John’s essay).  If the government were being run by people like Jodi, scientists would be voting for the other party, and everyone would be saying how right-wing they are.  Rejection of science can be either premodern or postmodern, and either right or left wing, in any combination (i.e. there can be a premodern left and a postmodern right).

By on 10/17/05 at 10:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

What bothers me about these discussions is the way that how one votes for the president becomes indicative of one’s entire political worldview.  A more interesting sociological study would give college professors a true survey, with questions separating out various issues: Do you support stem cell research?  Are you pro-abortion?  Do you believe the federal gov’t has a responsibility to help out the poor?  Would you like to see communism replace capitalism?  Would you prefer to live in a Luddite treehouse rather than a sweet three bedroom townhouse with stainless steel appliances?

I suspect that we’d begin to see *in what ways* college professors are left-leaning.  From my experience talking to fellow grad students, adjuncts, and professors, I’d bet that a lot of us vote Democrat even thought we might be anti-abortion or pro-capitalist.  In part this is because the contemporary Republican Party has swung so far to the right that even pro-business types vote Democrat to distance themselves from venomous Christians, Know-Nothings, Flat-Earthers, racists, and zombies on the Right.

Which is to say that voting for Gore is not indicative of groupthink or homogeneity.  It’s largely just a sign that one “wedge issue” was important to that voter.  And the Left is in ruins in part because of its real ideological diversity: from pro-business, dynamist progressives to anti-captalist Luddites and everything in between.

By on 10/17/05 at 10:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I realize now a couple things in the post are unclear. Just to mention one (before someone picks on this): when I point out how both sides help themselves to ‘poetic justice as fairness’ tactics I don’t mean to suggest everyone currently engaged in the debate is clueless. I link to Kieran Healy’s post, for example, and I don’t think he’s confused. He’s merely engaging in a respectable petard hoist.

Rich, I thought about linking to the discussion of Chris Mooney’s book over at TPM re: what might explain academic natural scientists being predominantly lefty at this point in time. I’m just not sure to what degree scientists taking offense at Republican (or Bushite) anti-scientism actually causes academic natural scientist leftiness.

John Emerson, I agree with you about Horowitz and for that reason I prefer to set him to one side in assessing the merits of Bauerlein’s claims. I think there is a certain temptation not even to talk about Bauerlein-type criticisms, lest these turn into ammo for Horowitz. But I think it would be a mistake not to talk, mostly since I think that some versions of his groupthink complaint are simply valid (though, per above, his examples may not be well chosen on this occasion). I think you agree about the groupthink, at least potentially.

By John Holbo on 10/17/05 at 11:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It makes little difference, it seems to me, how a tenured – or tenured wannabe – professor or graduate student registers to vote. I suspect that, Republican or Democrat, grad students and profs on the whole don’t vote very often anyhow. I knew tenured professors who professed to be Republicans when I was in grad school, and on the whole, they were lazy, pedantic, self-absorbed, priapic alcoholics tied up in departmental petty corruption to about the same extent as those who claimed to be Democrats. The issue is not about party affiliation.

More at http://mthollywood.blogspot.com/2005/10/ill-be-philip-rahv-and-you-can-be-mary.html

By John Bruce on 10/17/05 at 12:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I would like to hear of any books that discuss the tradition of anti-communist literature--not discussions of works by people who came out as anti-communists, but discussions of anti-communist literature being praiseworthy as anti-communist. Are Ellison, Trilling, and Spillane praised AS anti-communists, or on other grounds? How often is “The Middle of the Journey” assigned in classes.

Let’s also pick a better list of pro-communist figures than marginal figures such as Polonsky etc. How about Tillie Olson, Pablo Neruda, Arthur Miller, Bertholt Brecht, Dalton Trumbo, du Bois (after 1945) . . .?

Humanities professors take these figures as serious writers. Is there any book that allows strong anti-communist statements of the century, such as Witness or Darkness at Noon or Lonely Crusade, the same space? How many hiring committees would be receptive to a candidate who made Chambers an important writer and a noble character?

By on 10/17/05 at 12:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The Bruce is back!

I notice his blog now features a shiny new bit o’ ‘buzz’, courtesy of yrs truly, culled from this comment.

“He doesn’t get irony so he won’t see the humor in this whole situation.” - John Holbo

The human tragedy of it is: if he had only attributed the motto to John Holbo, Nobel Prize Winner ... he would have discovered irony and thereby refuted me. Alas, it is too late.

Aw geeze, I’ll leave his link up so you can go read his post. 

He’s still running around trying to make people see that the Valve is made of blog, like he’s Charlton Heston delivering the bad new about Soylent Green.

Poor guy. (Has anyone had the heart to tell him Acephalous got an Instapundit link so his traffic is through the roof?)

By John Holbo on 10/17/05 at 12:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John: “I’m just not sure to what degree scientists taking offense at Republican (or Bushite) anti-scientism actually causes academic natural scientist leftiness.”

I don’t think that it should cause scientist leftiness in any permanent sense, for most meanings of the word “left”.

However, the causes of anti-scientism are more likely to be on the right than the left for the medium term.  The right’s two big clients are religion and business.  Whenever religion makes a claim about the world (and most religions do), it puts itself into conflict with science.  Science is inevitably going to win those battles unless it is suppressed.  And business is finding science to be increasingly unpleasant: it causes both regulation, and the disruption of existing oligarchic arrangements.  Despite a fringe of anti-scientism on the left, there don’t appear to be any well-organized interests with the same power as the two above.

By on 10/17/05 at 01:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry to let your perfectly reasonable comment get sandwiched between Bruce bits, Mark. I’ll let you take that issue up with Josh on the merits. But it strikes me that there needs to be some clarifying of the stakes. Josh objected to your claim that “an English dissertation arguing that anticommunist literature from the mid-20th century was as valuable as the procommunist literature” would be stigmatized. I think you, Mark, are now wishing to emphasize that the assymetry is not so much a matter of WHO you are allowed to write about but rather HOW. You could write about Chambers as an important figure; obviously the story can’t be told without him. This is Josh’s point. (There’s an ambiguity in ‘value’, in the quote from you. Valuable for telling the story of the 50’s, or valuable as literature or politically admirable?) But your point is that you couldn’t be strident or passionate on his behalf. You would have to turn up the scholarly sobriety when he was onstage, lest you be accused of chunking out partisan “National Review” boilerplate, not anything properly scholarly or critical? Whereas you could be strident and enthusiastic about, say Neruda without risking parallel criticism? (I’m putting words like ‘strident and enthusiastic’ in your mouth. Perhaps you prefer others?)

I haven’t read Chambers so I can’t say whether “Witness” holds up, except as a document that was at the heart of events. I’ve often read little snippets, from Chambers’ journalism as well. They get quoted because they are highly memorable, in a curmudgeonly sort of way.

I’ll shut up, since I’m not the one to answer. I do think it is quite interesting trying to specify what sorts of scholarly attitudes/projects are, effectively, taboo.

By John Holbo on 10/17/05 at 01:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John Bruce needs to do his research.  He writes, “For that matter, it seems to me that it was a similar insight that drove Erin O’Connor to leave a tenured post at Penn.”

But when you go to the Penn English Department Webpage, it seems that O’Connor is teaching a Dickens class and an Irish Lit class this semester.  So I don’t think she’s left her tenured nest quite yet.  There are no courses listed under her name for the 2004-05 academic year, so I imagine she went on leave rather than leave her position.

By on 10/17/05 at 01:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So the argument would go something like: “sure Eliot, Yeats, Pound and Wyndham Lewis were all really right-wing, and all get studied today, but they don’t get studied on the grounds of their right-wingedness; whereas an author like, I don’t know, Ayn Rand, whose right-wingedness isn’t really separable from her writing, doesn’t get studied at all.”

By Adam Roberts on 10/17/05 at 01:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My remark was about a tradition of anti-communist writing getting some credit as a serious, principled, and high-quality one from humanities professors. I do not believe that a dissertation in that direction would thrive. I do not believe an academic publisher would welcome it. Regnery, Encounter, Ivan Dee, yes, university presses, no.

The “who” treatment of that question was raised by Josh, not by me, and the anti-communist figures he chose are largely addressed not because of their anti-communism, but on other grounds. The pro-communist figures he chose were lesser ones--proving nothing about their neglect--and my alternative list just picked out major ones.

I will repeat the question, which is a genuine one, not a rhetorical one. Are there works written by humanities professors that regard anti-communist literature (not just literature written by anti-communists) as acute, sophisticated, and of high literary quality? Has any humanities scholar given Chambers time and attention?

I presume everyone will agree that we have no shortage of study of progressivist literature, from Parrington onward, much of it favored for, precisely, its progressivism. We also have lots of work, too, trashing anti-communist writing--see the first chapter of Ross’s No Respect for a popular example.

The situation looks one-sided, enough so that an institutional bias is at work, and young, aspiring scholars aren’t going to buck it.

By on 10/17/05 at 03:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Are you suggesting that such “acute, sophisticated, and [of] high literary quality” anti-communist literature qua anti-communist literature exists? Because if it didn’t…

By Jonathan on 10/17/05 at 03:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I for one praise Spillane because he pioneered the business of blowing away beautiful naked women with high-caliber ammunition. His politica and religious (Jehovah Witness) beliefs are quite secondary to his awesome artistic accomplishments.

By John Emerson, first poster on 10/17/05 at 03:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think Adam and Mark are right: we study Eliot, Yeats and Pound for qualities external to their personal politics; we study Ellison and Trilling on the same grounds.  (Orwell...different story.  I think his anti-communist work’s been appropriated for different ends.) But I don’t see many readings of works in which the author’s clear intent was propagandistic; i.e. someone like Mike Gold. 

That said, Alan Wald does a little of both, first in his book on the NY Intellectuals, then, from the other direction, in his book on the mid-century literary left...but he’s clearly able to write both about the anti-communism of the NY Intellectuals and the work they praised and the “literary left” and the work they did.  And most of the treatments of mid-century works (two of the best belonging to my advisor, Michael Szalay, and the Valve’s own Sean McCann) don’t espouse the politics they examine so much as demonstrate the way they were in play.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 10/17/05 at 03:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mark, the best way to find out anything in the world is to Google it.  So when I just googled “Whittaker Chambers” and “syllabus,” here’s what comes up:

--A Georgetown American Studied class:

--A Tufts syllabus:

--A Northeastern State U syllabus:

--A Samford syllabus:

--A Penn State syllabus:

--A U of Utah syllabus:
http://www.poli-sci.utah.edu/~dlevin/04 - 20th cent AMPOLTHO.htm

I could go on and on.  But it seems that Chambers is alive and well and living in various syllabi at major and minor colleges and universities around the country.

By on 10/17/05 at 04:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Selectivity (self- or other, or both—no reason to think they’re, um, exclusive) does not have to be strong for its effects to be profound over time. Self-selectivity arguments need not be self-serving either (like if you’re dumb as a sack o’ hammers everything looks like a bag o’ nails)—such deny any serious tenure to the argument (and on the other side we can all agree to discount collusion, right?). Some skew may pervade across disciplines, but even within social sciences, skew is less pronounced for Econ (e.g. Klein & Stern [pdf]). Should the skew becomes so pronounced as to be entrenched, as may be the case in more polarized departments, insularity then may follow and intellectual diversity suffer (as underdogged disciplines wither or scatter), which justifies Bauerlein’s thoughts on groupthink without playing into Horowitz’s wedgie issue. Merit operates within the kind of diversity that is wanted, which isn’t political; but then, funding is, damn it. Which is the balance you’re seeking?

By nnyhav on 10/17/05 at 05:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I want to have a discussion on the Valve some day about what it feels like to be a politically progressive who deeply admires writers who were flagrant political reactionaries.

There’s something masochistic about it, isn’t there?  (And maybe something sadistic at the same time...)

By Amardeep on 10/17/05 at 07:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, that should be “a politically progressive person.”

By Amardeep on 10/17/05 at 07:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So I didn’t read every comment to see if someone has done so already, but the complete text of the new Tierney article pops up here:


Presumably if that goes down someone could assemble the piece in its entirety from excerpts on various weblogs.

By Dan on 10/17/05 at 07:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think it’s fair to say that the dominant viewpoint among academic economists is one of support for views that would normally be called conservative (free(r) markets, private ownership, balanced budgets and so on). That doesn’t translate into support for Republicans though, because Republicans, from Reagan on and especially the current Administration, are seen more as advocates for big business than as supporters of market economics.

By on 10/17/05 at 07:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

On Luther’s syllabi and their inclusion of Chambers:

In fact, not a single one of them gives Witness much space in the course. The Georgetown and Northeastern courses include a short excerpt, a few pages. The Tufts, Penn State, and Samford courses don’t include any of it at all. The Utah link I could not open, but notice that it isn’t a humanities course, it’s a political science course.

By on 10/17/05 at 10:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As it happens, Mark, I taught Middle of the Journey this very semester--and, I believe, no less sympathetically than I teach any other book.  (To be honest, though, it’s reputation as a mediocre novel is well deserved.  My students, graduates and knee jerk anti-communists to a person, uniformly hated it--while nearly all loved Gold’s Jews Without Money, even though they reflexively despised Gold’s politics.) Agreed, it may not be the case now, but my memory is that the mid-century anti-communism of Trilling or Ellison was once pretty directly celebrated on political grounds--and treated as more or less the only respectable position.  Ross’s No Respect had bite because when it was published it was kicking a horse that was still on the way down.  (Plus, right though it was about the Rosenberg’s, the Fiedler line that it was their middle-brow sensibility that was at fault was just analytically lame--not to mention mere snobbism.)

I deeply admire lots of writers who were political reactionaries, Amardeep.  Doesn’t feel masochistic to me.  (No doubt CR would say that’s because I’m the carrier of a virulent political strain.) In fact, I’m inclined to agree with the diversity argument as its represented by Mark, but would just add that serious left wing writing is no more prominently represented than W. Chambers.  Most of what passes for leftism in the academic humanities is gussied up liberal pluralism--usually with a strong libertarian streak.

By on 10/17/05 at 10:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

they were lazy, pedantic, self-absorbed, priapic alcoholics tied up in departmental petty corruption

those were the days!

By on 10/17/05 at 10:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mark, if the prevailing view is these writers were mediocre, and you have good reason to believe that view is wrong, why not just make the case for it, rather than imply that everyone’s failure to see their value is due to political bias? If you’re avoiding Jonathan’s question because you think the consensus view is incorrect, it would behoove you to say so. Perhaps ideological groupthink has blinded literary scholars to these works merits, but maybe, just maybe, they are not all so far gone that they can’t be brought back by a really persuasive argument to the contrary. In my discipline, political theory, a very conservative theorist who was long ignored has experienced quite a comeback in the last 15 years, due to persuasive accounts of his contemporary relevence (I’m talking Carl Schmitt).

I’ve no stake in this; I’ve never read these people and hadn’t heard of Whittaker Chambers until 10 minutes ago, but your comment about sociology (assuming those paragons of journalistic ethics and excellenct at the NYT aren’t misquoting or misrepresenting your views) is so implausible to anyone with a passing knowledge of the discipline that it’s rather hard to take your other example seriously.

By djw on 10/18/05 at 12:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I heard CR was dead. Why do you talk about him as if he’s alive?

Well, of course you’re a carrier of several virulent political strains. But my authors are all backasswards politically as well. And even those who are slightly more orthodox, for instance Brecht, only interest me when they self-contradict.

Par exemple, ich liebe this poem by Brecht:

Der Radwechsel

I sit by the roadside
The driver changes the wheel.
I do not like the place I have come from. 
I do not like the place I am going to. 
Why with impatience do I
Watch him changing the wheel.

Fantastic, right? And the interest is entirely located in running against the grain of the politics normally assigned to BB.

The problem with Bauerlein’s statement, of course, was the phrase “was as valuable as” in “English dissertation arguing that anticommunist literature from the mid-20th century was as valuable as the procommunist literature.” That’s just noot a verb structure that gives on to strong argumentation. It’s the argument that matters, and when you’re dealing with literature, things get pretty murky pretty quickly. “Yay anti-communists!” doesn’t work any better, no, than “Up With Communists” as an argument…

By on 10/18/05 at 12:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Henry Farrell has a post up, rebutting Mark’s claim about it being a bad idea for aspiring sociologists to work on “the debilitating effects of the European welfare state”.

By John Holbo on 10/18/05 at 12:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Alas, zombies do not die so easily.

By on 10/18/05 at 09:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m sure that there are many exceptions to the exclusion of anti-communist voices, such as Sean’s (although the tendency to equate anti-communists as “political reactionaries” among some of the comments is mistaken). But in the Tierney piece I was talking about the general drift of whole disciplines, and how young people trying to enter them interpret it. If you’re a graduate student thinking about getting a job and getting published, you need to survey the intellectual/ideological terrain of the field. If the field leans one way, though having a minority leaning the other way, and the market is tight, you need to increase your odds of success as far as possible. So, a mild lean to one ideological side among the established professors is tipped farther and farther the lower you go on the institutional ladder. (I think that Farrell’s refutation overlooks this aspect.)

Ross’s book is a case in point. It was quite popular in the 90s, and was assigned in many graduate courses. Now, the historiography in that book is deeply dishonest, and the conclusions biased, but young people have to look at it as a success. When such works are presented to them, they learn an institional lesson.

By on 10/18/05 at 12:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

An added note about the need to just go out and make the case for the excellence of anti-communist writing.

That’s a fair point, but the fact is that conservative intellectuals for the last 40 years have been testifying to their predecessors in many books and articles. It is pretty much correct that conservative thought was in a shambles in the 30s and 40s. It took people such as Trilling, Kristol, Burnham, Hayek, Rand, etc. to give it some respectability, and for people such as Buckley in the 60s to expel the loony Right from its ranks.

By on 10/18/05 at 12:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mark: I’m favorably inclined to the general point Tierney is making in that piece, and even to your thought that there are legitimate projects which would get screened out of existence by market calculations and readings of the existing ideological patterns. Really, your specific examples just plain factually wrong, I think, and the reason is in part you’re too willing to see this all in terms of conventional American ideological ideas about what is liberal and conservative. You tried to come up with some examples, and you came up with what seemed to you like “conservative” research projects. The problem with academic groupthink is not nearly so well mapped against the general political landscape.

I’ve seen many successful graduate students play the “contrarian” card to great effect, securing grants, getting approval and so on. This is part of why I think you overdraw your point, and give too much endorsement to the view that there is some kind of ideological enforcement here which is specific. What I think is more to the point is the tempermental (not ideological) conservatism of most academics, which they transmit not in terms of tangible politics but as operational principles to their graduate students. Anything nail which stands up looks an awful lot like something to be hammered down, but the flip side of that is that someone who has basic smarts and competencies who dares take a contrarian position often succeeds quite well, in part because tempermental conservatism tends to pair with timidity. Someone who seems pretty sure of themselves tends to make more timid conformists wonder if they didn’t get the memo or are out of step in some fashion. But on the converse side, any student whose confidence wavers for a second is likely to get slapped down hard by the apparatchiks, not because they’re committed Democrats, but because they’re enforcers of whatever they perceive the intellectual fashion of the moment to be.

By Timothy Burke on 10/18/05 at 01:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

One cure for ideological battles in academia would be some sort of institutionally-wide confirmation criteria: i.e. data-based research. An end to ideology is what any fairly rational pedagogue argues for. That would of course offend postmod aesthetes or marxists or biblethumpers, but a bare-bones positivism would do much towards ridding the groves of intellectual noise, dogma (of left or right), and bogus disputes.

But that would jeopardize the privilege of the English Department itself, wouldn’t it.

By Richard L. Harris on 10/18/05 at 03:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You’d have to explain what that would look like in the humanities, Richard, because I’m sure I’m not the only one having a hard time visualizing it.

But that would jeopardize the privilege of the English Department itself, wouldn’t it.


By djw on 10/18/05 at 07:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s not the most felicitous way of phrasing it perhaps.  These bizarre disputes--which seem to merge aesthetics and politics--might be resolved were the political and economic utility of literature and other arts on the table so to speak.

For those in the lit. biz any such questioning of their canon (and thus their jawbs) will appear to be a type of blasphemy: I suspect those not in the lit. biz. who are sort of irked at the ease with which lit. professors and theologians are able to put forth any sort of theory or ideology with little evidence and justification, would probably agree if they actually thought the lit. biz worthy of attention at all. Seeing engineers and doctors spinning around San Mateo in their ferraris and porsches, marx and Co seem rather ludicrous and futile; and these schoolboys (Long Sunday, etc.) who think they are going to take on the corporate state and the wealthy of silicon and California with some half-baked postmod or leftist dreams even more so.

By Richard L. Harris on 10/18/05 at 09:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I sifted through another incarnation of Bauerlein’s argument in an essay at http://tlonuqbar.typepad.com/phfn/2005/05/conservative_is.html. Bauerlein wants to have it both ways: (i) the “groupthink” bit, borrowed from Cass Sunstein, subsumes the skew under general sociological principles (but Bauerlein didn’t bother to consider whether his example actually fits the conditions under which, according to Sunstein, groupthink is likely to occur); (ii) nevertheless, “something should be done”. If the skew were the result of some sort of conspiracy (but it isn’t), something could indeed be done; but if it is the inevitable result of group dynamics, then altering it will require intervention of a sort elsewhere derided as “social engineering”, but in this case apparently licit.

By Dennis Des Chene on 10/24/05 at 09:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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