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Past Valve Book Events

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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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

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Daniel Drezner On Michael Bérubé - All The Words!

Posted by Daniel Drezner, Guest Author, on 11/02/06 at 08:20 AM

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.

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 Frank 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 conservative critique, What’s Liberal About The Liberal Arts leaves something to be desired. 


Comments

"Bérubé commits an error similar to what Thomas Frank did in What’s The Matter With Kansas – he assumes that people are guided strictly by their material preferences.”

That is not an error that Thomas Frank committed in What’s the Matter with Kansas. In fact, Frank says people are guided by other reasons to vote Republican, and they end up getting doubly screwed, on the cultural value positions and economically.

I doubt Berube commits the error either, but I’ve yet the chance to read it.

By on 11/02/06 at 11:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

“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?"

Not freemarketers, for whom the economy is perfect and monetary success is an index of worth. Not Christianists, a large proportion of whom despise secular learning. Even the neocons, who are highly intellectual, seem to have drifted toward positions of power and influence.

Some of the paleocons, especially those of a Catholic background, are less anti-intellectual than fundamentalists and charismatics and less money-grubbing than freemarketers, and some of those who identify with the planter elites of old Virginia do seem to have intellectual interests.

Even several of my liberal friends successful in academia ditched the field as soon as they topped out. The tops aren’t very high. One went into international business from Chinese studies, and one went into AI from philosophy.

By John Emerson on 11/02/06 at 12:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I might say that refuting Horowitz or Tom Delay or Rush Limbaugh, intellectually speaking, is “shooting fish in a barrel”, but those guys are the ones making things happen on this issue, whether or not nice conservatives deign to admit that they know them. One of my reasons for generally refusing to debate nice conservatives is that their thug friends are always somewhere in the background, but we’re not supposed to talk about them.

And the response is always Al Sharpton and Sen. Bird (D, KKK - W. VA). Even though Sharpton doesn’t hold office and has only local importance for Democrats.

By John Emerson on 11/02/06 at 12:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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?

It seems not:

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.

By John Emerson on 11/02/06 at 12:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Not freemarketers, for whom the economy is perfect and monetary success is an index of worth.”

This is a horribly inaccurate statement. I think you’re misunderstanding the idea that value is subjective (the “value” of a thing is determined by what a person will pay to acquire or accept in trade for it) applied to wages.  Also, freemarketers don’t think that laisse-faire markets produce the ideal outcomes, but that the side effects of interventions produce worse outcomes, but I’m hoping that was hyperbole.

By on 11/02/06 at 12:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“Bérubé commits an error similar to what Thomas Frank did in What’s The Matter With Kansas – he assumes that people are guided strictly by their material preferences.”

That is not an error that Thomas Frank committed in What’s the Matter with Kansas. In fact, Frank says people are guided by other reasons to vote Republican, and they end up getting doubly screwed, on the cultural value positions and economically.

Correct, but a minor clarification is in order. Frank does allow that the people of Kansas are voting for the GOP for cultural reasons, but he also suggests that they are not only deluded, but perhaps full of false consciousness for doing so. So Frank does, to some degree, privilege materialist preferences in his book; it forms the baseline for his judgment of what a thinking person’s “interests” truly are.

By Russell Arben Fox on 11/02/06 at 01:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The standard average median modal freemarketers I’ve known have been very materialistic and success-oriented, success being defined mostly in terms of money.

That’s the most plausible real-world interpretation of freemarket ideology anyway. There are abstruse developments of economics according to which everyone is maximizing utility one way or another and various intangible utilities are concocted in order to make everyone seem rational and to make the economic system seem just, but the actual existing market that’s being taken as an ideal does its work by assigning dollar values to things exchanged. (You can quibble about the exact formulation there if you want). The other “markets” ("the child market") are fictional.

By John Emerson on 11/02/06 at 01:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s a murky passage toward the end there.  Cropping slightly to bring out the claim I think you’re making:

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.[...] 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?

I think you’re saying that, because students fear professors, it’s not enough for professors to respect them (in the ways Bérubé describes elsewhere in the book).  Apparently, professors must go further, and ensure that they appear neutral or moderate (personally, or as a collective).  This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense—but I can’t see what else you’re claiming.  You’re certainly not alleging direct coercion here, only self-coercion by the less powerful.

Can you draw out your meaning here, and make a practical recommendation?

By Vance Maverick on 11/02/06 at 01:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John,

You’re still missing the point.  A freemarketer may value monetary success highly, and most do, but this doesn’t preclude also valuing intellectual stimulation - the modal liberal isn’t a professor either.  Dan’s point is that the difference in conservatives vs liberals in academia is unlikely to be primarily due to differences in preferences regarding risk, workload, and intellectual stimulation between the two groups.  This is consistent with the observation that the less politicized disciplines (engineering and physical sciences, for example) have ideological distributions closer to that of the general population.

By on 11/02/06 at 02:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Russell,

Right, he says they ought vote their pocketbook, because what they’re getting for the culture war is crap. And me, I’m half a materialist too, so it doesn’t bother me where Frank’s coming from.

I have seen a lot of center-right (meaning Am. liberals on) response to the book make the mistake that Drezner makes, I suppose as some (occasionally indirect) way to say Frank’s just not in touch with the people. Unlike the center-right author, who once had a beer in the St. Louis airport or something.

By on 11/02/06 at 03:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

How much ideological diversity is there in IR? Has the situation changed substantially since “The New Mandarins,” for example?

I should also preemptively invoke IR saint Kissinger on the narcissism of minor academic difference.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 11/02/06 at 03:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s a positive correlation between conservativism and economic materialism, and top engineers make better money elsewhere than in academia. Even engineering and economics faculty are more liberal than their students, and this is probably why.

Also for this reason,many engineering profs are Asian immigrants who do it mostly for the visa. My own school had to pay engineering PhDs much more than liberal arts PhDs because otherwise they couldn’t keep them.

Sorry, but you haven’t made your case. A lot of the main conservative demographics are either unable (anti-intellectual fundamentalists) or unwilling to teach in college. Only about a third of Americans are conservative anyway.

By John Emerson on 11/02/06 at 04:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Can’t we conclude that the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are being asked to do way too much work?  Drezner’s overall point seems quite sensible, and clearly there’s no way you can simultaneously counter the lurid misrepresentations of Horowitz, ACTA et al. and take up subtler questions of how disciplines function sociologically.

But posts above (and possibly MB too) fall into the trap of taking the terms liberal and conservative at face value as descriptions of types of people.

I would also be delighted if we could avoid shoddy characterizations like “politicized disciplines.”

By on 11/02/06 at 04:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

On “politicized disciplines”: at Oregon State University, forestry and veterinary science were politicized for a long time in a conservative direction, and the former still probably is. Forestry was economically defined, from the POV of the forest products industry, and veterinary science was very inhospitable to women. (Yes, the inhospitability of a profession to women is conservative. Get real.)

Some of the conservative whining is about loss of control.

By John Emerson on 11/02/06 at 06:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As a free marketeer/libertarian and an academic, let me suggest that Mr. Emerson is, to put it bluntly, full of it.  He’s committing precisely the kind of error that confirms libertarian and conservative claims about liberals arguing in bad faith.

First of all, no free market economist I know of claims that markets are “perfect,” and *certaintly* not existing ones.  Repeat:  none.  As Matt says, the claim is only that free markets are better than all the alternatives, but they, like all else human, remain imperfect.

Second, many free marketeers DO prefer intellectual and other values over money.  If not, how do you explain all of the young people working as low-paid interns or in entry level positions in the think-tank and policy world?  Surely if they were so motivated by money they’d be out in the financial markets somewhere making 6 figures no?  Despite what you might think, Cato, Heritage, et. al. do not pay 6 figures to interns and entry level folks.

And then you’ll have to explain me and a whole bunch of other academics who think free markets work best.  My opportunity cost in dollar terms is probably higher than what I earn teaching at a liberal arts college.  Why would people like me give up the big bucks? Maybe, just maybe, other things, like the life of the mind, educating future generations, and the sorts of flexibilty etc that Berube talks about, matter more to us.

By Steve Horwitz on 11/04/06 at 09:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If not, how do you explain all of the young people working as low-paid interns or in entry level positions in the think-tank and policy world?

Long term career plans? Lack of success in other fields?

And then you’ll have to explain me and a whole bunch of other academics who think free markets work best. My opportunity cost in dollar terms is probably higher than what I earn teaching at a liberal arts college.  Why would people like me give up the big bucks?

Well, the specific whine we’re dealing with is that there aren’t very many people like you in academia. I’ve proposed a reason. You seem very aware of the sacrifice you’re making.

By John Emerson on 11/04/06 at 10:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Check out John Tierney’s article http://select.nytimes.com/2006/11/07/opinion/07tierney.html?adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1162932001-08h6ppn0lXuD89i5WaLvpw

This is why people should be concerned with the lack of political diversity (amongst others) in today’s university faculty.  As a 3L at one of the so-called top five law schools in the country, I am amazed at the lack of political discourse at my law school.  Most of classmates and professors just have their opinions validated by fellow members of our law school community.

By on 11/07/06 at 04:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Would you kindly. See Bioshock.

By on 11/19/07 at 01:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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