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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

More Burke On Bérubé and Bauerlein

Posted by John Holbo on 11/12/06 at 10:14 PM

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):

Not having read Berube …

1) Why on earth should there be a conservative “project” in the humanities? We conservatives in academia don’t want some Borgian political consensus driving all our research; we want as scholars to follow our own lines, perhaps informed by our political leanings, but subject to professional standards, and judged on their professional quality rather than on their politics; we want as teachers to be able to express our political views to our students and colleagues without being hounded out of the profession (and without in turn attempting to indoctrinate our students); we want as students to be able to express political opinions without fearing that we will be downgraded for them. We even want to be able to blog on Easily Distracted without resorting to anonymity, from genuine fear as to the professional repercussions. We want a Millian negative freedom, to be free from the dictatorship of left-liberal academic society.

2) That said, I think what conservatives outside of academia basically want is a nationalist American intelligentsia. This doesn’t have to reduce to a party-line basis—just a sense that academics love this country, and appreciate it and champion it. In other words, we want a normal intelligentsia—such as Turkey has, or China has, or Germany had in the nineteenth century, or America had fifty years ago. Not uncritical, but loving. For comparison: the Russian intelligentsia may have opposed the tsars (or the Communist party), but they loved Pushkin and Russian culture with a passion, and they have never stopped loving the Russian people. Even the Popular-Front style appreciation of the American people of a Woody Guthrie seems faint nowadays in academia. Liberal nationalism would be just ducky.

3) The comparison of conservative complaints to affirmative action is just silly. No serious conservative has ever called for a jobs quota for conservatives. They *have* noted that the statistical arguments used by liberals to argue that racist hiring policies exist, and need to be remedied by affirmative action, would equally well prove that politically discriminatory hiring practices exist in academia, that could with equal justice claim the remedy of affirmative action. They have also noticed that the word “diversity” is now an obvious euphemism for skin color, genitalia, and preferred venue of singles bar; that it makes an ugly conflation between such inessentials and the character of one’s mind, and that, in the ideologically monolithic campus of today, it somehow fails to prize diversity of opinion. We are trying to point out the various internal contradictions, and euphemistic blind spots, in your policy and vocabulary; the point is to induce you to abandon your policy and vocabulary, not to seek to imitate it ourselves.

4) You should consider the overwhelming liberal political affiliation of academia a problem. It may not be susceptible to a simple solution, but it is a problem—and, yes, one that can be stated in simple, sociological terms. I will give you a comparison: at West Point, I have heard army officers consider the recent slide in political affiliation by officers (and, to a lesser extent, enlisted men) toward the Republican Party. They know the reasons why—the institutional affinities between army culture, conservatism, and the Republican Party, the tendency of any institution to reproduce itself—but they are not complacent. They think it is bad for their profession to be so significantly divorced from the average of American society. They don’t have easy solutions, but they know it is a problem to be addressed—a bug in their profession, not a feature. Academics could learn something from the self-reflection of the military profession.

5) If my ambitions are fulfilled, you will see a conservative intellectual project emerge one of these days. I’ll drop a note if publication threatens.

6) The best of current scholarly practice has no obvious ideological bias, and is perfectly presentable as a model for conservative scholars. I’ve mentioned Ronald Witt before; he is a scholar of Renaissance rhetoric, and his work (so far as I can tell) has no direct relevance to any modern political debate. I fancy his politics are liberal, but it just doesn’t matter for his scholarship. Witt is an exemplary model for a scholar of any political persuasion. I’ve just been looking at Harvey Mansfield on Machiavelli—I know he’s a conservative, but I just don’t see that it has that much to do with his analysis of the subtleties of Machiavellian thought. (Although I do notice that he pays attention to Machiavelli’s conception of manliness—his current work clearly derives from decades-old professional study.) Russell Kirk did a critical edition of Justus Lipsius back around 1940—ideology just doesn’t seem to play a role. For a slightly different model: Thomas Farrell, *The Norms of Rhetorical Culture*, is a brilliant work of philosophy and analysis—whose exempla self-avowedly derive from his liberal politics. He quotes Jesse Jackson and Mario Cuomo at length, in part to encourage liberals to embrace his rhetorical views. I’d like to quote George Bush’s Second Inaugural when I get to that part of my book on rhetoric—with, I think, as much justification as Farrell. My politics, as his, I trust will not get in the way of professional competence. Let me not name people or movements whose work does not come up to these high standards. My point is that the best practice of liberal academics is a perfectly valid model for conservative academics. We simply regret that it is not universal practice.

7) Yeah, it really is a problem with military and diplomatic history, and Grimsley is just off-base. I’ve heard all sorts of military and diplomatic historians say the exact same thing—no professional respect, difficult to get hired, most elite universities aren’t interested (and I’m sorry, but OSU ain’t Harvard), disinterest and hostility from professors and grad students—the *only* person who says otherwise is Grimsley. I have some interest in teaching military history myself, and it’s always a delicate question as to whether to include that interest in my resume. It’s an old story, but let us mention a graduate department of history of some note—now in the top twenty, although perhaps in the top thirty at the time of this story—which, when offered the chance to hire John Keegan (*the* name in modern military history), declined—generally, said my informant, from disinterest in military history, per se. And one does hear, again and again, of professors of military history with oversubscribed classes, massive and enthusiastic student interest—whose departments fail to replace them when they retire.

8) You say that conservatives ought to have presumptive respect for their liberal peers. Let us say we do; let us also say that each of us has experienced repeated violations of professional practice by our colleagues; let us also say that we read books that our common sense tells us fail to meet professional norms, almost always when accompanied by some expression of left-liberal ideology—and, indeed, that our critique of the profession in general proceeds from our experiences from the first day we entered college. I think that the profession has forfeited the presumption of respect long since. I confess, when you talk about the presumptive respect professors owe each other, I hear the tone of French officers reaffirming the conviction of Dreyfuss for the honor of the army. In the critics of this honorable profession, I hear Zola.

9) Just this evening, at a dinner after a colloquium, of professors and graduate students, voting came up. I was asked directly if I had voted for a particular Democratic senator; I said no. Someone else then said, laughingly, “Of course there aren’t any Republicans at this table.” “Yes, there are,” I said. And there was an awkward pause. The two graduate students opposite me did not happen to speak with me again—although it could simply have been the accidents of conversational dynamics. The elderly professor to my side and I had a pleasant conversation—I could not but think that he remembered it was possible to have civil conversation with a Republican, while the younger generation did not. And this is constant, always hovering in the background—the presumption that all academics are liberal, the casual denigration of Republicans and conservatives, the fear of social ostracism or professional blackballing. How can we trust the professionalism of our liberal peers—to review our books fairly, to hire us and to grant us tenure—when we are not even sure they will talk to us if we reveal our political persuasion? How many of us will dare to enter the profession in the first place? Persist after the first few years of such dinners?

Conservative programs for academia are all well and fine. I rather think there are a variety of fields of study, and critical theories, that contain (explicitly and otherwise) embedded left-liberal political presumptions, and that it would be well and fine to prune these from the professional core. I rather like the idea of a core curriculum, great books, and a serious appreciation of Western Civilization. Some history courses mentioning the good things that have come out of Europe and America wouldn’t hurt. But these just don’t matter. How can we even get there when we’re afraid to state our beliefs? I once told a friendly fellow graduate student that I was a Republican; he said “Don’t tell anyone else if you want to get a job.”

11) So what is “the substance of conservative disciplinary or professional practice in the humanities?” In its essence, the best of current scholarly practice, which should not be considered to have a political affiliation. (And which I associate more with older scholars, who were educated before the humanities became so ideologically uniform.) But it just doesn’t matter. Conservative theorizing about professional and disciplinary doesn’t matter worth a damn while we are afraid to speak our minds, for fear of losing our jobs, never getting published, never having a civil conversation with our colleagues. Never mind the scholarship: first treat conservatives like human beings. And don’t expect conservatives to presume that liberals are possessed of professional virtues, with “Of course there aren’t any Republicans at this table” echoing in our ears.

I have to say, I think Withywindle sort of loses it a bit further down:

The academic profession, as it now stands, has forfeited all respect; I do believe it should be brought down. I am with Horowitz: the malfeasance is too great to rely on professional self-discipline to cure it. The academic profession, as it should be, is a wonderful thing—and its practice is still embedded in the habits of many admirable individuals, who embody the invisible church of the profession, intermixed with the corruption of the visible Church.

By all means, go join that discussion. I’m planning another contribution to our event, in which I’m going to make a version of Withywindle’s point about dinner table talk, and how there often is an ‘of course there are no Republicans here’ tone. What is the significance of that fact? But for now, go chat with Burke and co.


People ask for some positive indication of what a conservative humanities looks like, not just attacks on liberal bias. A few changes in principle would help:

1. return to the distinctions between high culture, popular culture, and mass culture (acknowledging their fuzzy borders)

2. reverse the “opening the canon” practice, and shrink the number of central works to a core and require all humanities majors to study them and all students to be acquainted with a fair portion of them

3. instead of setting that insipid and vacuous trait “critical thinking” as the main goal of humanities instruction, set tradition-centered and content heavy goals such as the “historical sense” and the old Arnoldian command to know the “best” (and why it’s the best)

By on 11/13/06 at 09:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ll just quote my response in another thread here, which this reply has confirmed:

“It’s conservatism as boundary-setting; if only we can exclude new works (to keep a canon) and most students (to preserve elitism), then we can have conservatism.  Why would anyone be interested in that?”

Although I’ll add that I didn’t really expect an additional shot at the very concept of teaching critical thinking.  There’s one way to preserve those social boundaries—what conservatism is, at base, about.

By on 11/13/06 at 10:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, I think we need more, thicker, and higher boundaries in the discipline. I also prefer a lot less contemporary literature on the syllabus. As for whether educational boundaries preserve social boundaries, I don’t think that’s the case at all.

By on 11/13/06 at 10:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, one purpose of trying to teach critical thinking within a liberal arts education is as a form of social mobility—to allow people a wider range of work possibilities.  If you don’t think that this actually works, then of course you may be opposed to it because it fails.  Describing it as insipid and vacuous implies more that you disagree with it as a value than that you think of it as a failed attempt.

For disciplinary boundaries, I’m currently arguing, on another thread here, for their utility, in what I acknowledge as a conservative argument.  However, that’s where I think that the distinction between programmatic conservatism and political conservatism really can be made.

By on 11/13/06 at 11:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Returning to an earlier state of the field is not really a positive research program for the humanities. 

Has the distinction between popular culture and “high” culture really been lost?  I don’t think so. I think everyone still pretty much knows the difference.  That’s pretty thin as a research program. 

Nor has the canon really been opened up that much.  The canon is still the canon.  An agenda based on telling people what not to study is weak.  There’s always that difference between the canon and the archive, people will follow their interests into the archive as far as it will take them.  That has never really meant that anything that’s interesting as an object of study is necessarily going to be “canonical.”

There is really no contradiction between critical thinking and a historical sense.  I’m sure T.S. Eliot would be turning in his grave to hear his approach described as “content heavy.” What an ugly phrase!  The duty of the critic is to be intelligent. 

I kind of wish the traditionalists could put on a better case.  I’m more of an old comp lit guy who sympathizes a lot with those Arnoldian ideals.  But if that’s the best they can come up with, it’s pretty depressing.  I do dislike dumb, erudite people.  (People who are erudite but can’t think critically.) I don’t care for smart people who don’t bother to learn anything either.  What I really can’t stand, though, are people who pose that false dichotomy.  As if that were a meaningful choice!

By Jonathan Mayhew on 11/13/06 at 05:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

While Tim Burke has a fine blog, the presence of Withywindle pretty much destroyed my desire to read it.  While articulate, he embodies how pathological modern American conservativism is.  In fact, his own articulateness probably hurts him, because while most conservatives who show up in threads are probably picking arguments to amuse themselves, this is wildly implausible in his case.  I had a much higher opinion of American conservativism than when Internet brought me into constant contact with it.

By on 11/13/06 at 07:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan voices something of my own reaction. A program of conservative study that says, “Ignore everything published for the last forty years except for the few things which meet our sniff test” isn’t just intellectually problematic, it fails to some extent the challenge about professionalism that I tried to lay out. I mean, I wouldn’t do that to a nouveau Arnoldian who was trying hard to figure out how to rethink or revive an Arnoldian criticism in the aftermath of the last thirty or forty years of work--don’t do it to the many people of perfectly good faith who have published since. A program that says of criticism that says, “Screw all that crap people have been writing about popular culture”, more or less, isn’t a good example of scholarly or intellectual practice. I think what Mark says is a possible beginning, but in saying it thus, he also demonstrates (to my mind) that my challenge is pretty legit--that a “conservative” project of literary analysis is at present a bit limited to “do what we used to do”. Aspirant conservative critics might protest, with some fairness, that they’ve been kept from developing a positive program that amounts to more than that. Ok. So develop it.

By Timothy Burke on 11/13/06 at 11:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, Mr. Mayhew, nobody’s tried to make a “case” for a conservative research program, only a few abstract ideas about curriculum. If you’d like to see a more extensive treatment, here’s an article of mine from a recent issue of The Weekly Standard.


By on 11/13/06 at 11:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I would also posit that what Mark is seeking can actually be found in subfields like medieval and early modern literature (my own fields).  Renaissance criticism was quick to respond to the poststructuralist turn, but much of the best criticism in the field builds on what was accomplished earlier in the twentieth century.  This is even more the case in medieval studies: resistance to theory made for a slow infusion of poststructuralist methodologies.  The result is that just about any major piece of medieval studies criticism is fully in dialogue with the sorts of approaches that Mark is advocating above.  Names like Curtius and Auerbach and Donaldson and Robertson (with important caveats) and Muscatine and the like are still presences in the field.

The engine driving the culture wars appears to be primarily nineteenth and twentieth-century literary studies, with a sideshow in Bardolatry.  The humanities described by culture warriors on the right bears little resemblance to the humanities I see on a daily basis as a medievalist--but then who gets excited about that boring old stuff?  Even the conservative critics who should be thrilled to see the interrogation that medieval studies gave (and continues to give) poststructuralism couldn’t care less.

Presentism is not just a threat on the left.

By on 11/13/06 at 11:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

1. return to the distinctions between high culture, popular culture, and mass culture (acknowledging their fuzzy borders)

I agree with Jonathan Mayhew that these distinctions haven’t been lost.

But I also think the terms and their conceptual shadows and projections are not very useful. A number of years ago David Hays and I sketched out a concept of cultural ranks that would be useful here. It acknowledges differences in complexity and sophistication in cultural productions and supplies (the beginnings of) a cognitive account of these differences. Hays’s distinction between art, entertainment, and diversion is particularly relevant and my account of jazz at the end of this essay lays some of this out for a particular body of expressive practice.

2. reverse the “opening the canon” practice, and shrink the number of central works to a core and require all humanities majors to study them and all students to be acquainted with a fair portion of them.

Again I agree with Jonathan. But I do think there’s an interesting and challenging issue lurking here. If a Martain ethnologist were to study earthan cultures, would he confine himself to the high cultural canon in those cultures that have one? I think not. Ethnologists study what is there in the culture, what people actually do, not just what some particular elite prefers.

So, why not study our own culture as our own ethnologists study the cultures of preliterate and peasant societies? Why not study all that’s there?

The study of the canon is about inculcating a certain cultural tradition in our students. And here I’m thinking particularly undergraduate students. I think this is a necessary and important component of a college education and that it cannot be satisfied by looking at pop culture and mass culture and contemporary lit. But that stuff does deserve to be studied, however, on a different basis, for different a different purpose. How do we make the distinction?

As an example of what I’d like to see come out of such an education, consider my recent post on graffiti. Graffiti is pop—if not mass—culture, and rather controversial at that. But I had an epigraph from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and quoted a passage from Thoreau, both solidly canonical. The Thoreau passage plays an important role in my argument while the epigraph does what epigraphs do, set things up in a slightly off-kilter way. Both have the effect of providing a contemporary cultural practice with a broader context. To do that you obviously need to have that context yourself, you need to know something of the canon, but you also have to be willing to be curious about contemporary practices.

3. instead of setting that insipid and vacuous trait “critical thinking” as the main goal of humanities instruction, set tradition-centered and content heavy goals such as the “historical sense” and the old Arnoldian command to know the “best” (and why it’s the best)

Take my responses to 1 and 2, combine them, and you have a response to this. The ranks theory I mention in 1 is strongly historical while also providing some tools for thinking about “the best.” But such thinking must, in the end, start with examples that have been evaluated as the best—a canon.

By Bill Benzon on 11/14/06 at 07:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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