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Higher ed bias: another take

This isn’t yet available on-line for non-subscribers, but in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Stanley Fish has a typically interesting and slippery argument against attempting to impose political balance on the university. (Here, while I’m at it, is an older column on the same subject that is available on-line.) There is "no correlation," Fish argues, between electoral politics and "the politics of academic disciplines." The liberal/conservative or Democratic/Republican divides do not, for example, track the hotly-contested divide between quantitative and qualitative political scientists. There are conservatives and liberals in both quant and "qual" camps (I’ve never heard anyone say "qual" before, perhaps because we "quals" are beneath quant contempt).

I don’t disagree with this. My allies on curricular or disciplinary disputes are not always those who vote the same way in elections. Of course, if I could only look for academic allies among those who voted the way I did, I’d be a lonely and isolated middle-aged man, mumbling to himself in his office, instead of the powerful and respected institutional pillar that I am. (Uh, I am sitting in my office blogging, so perhaps I’m further gone than I thought.)

Of course, it may be that academic politics matter more than "real" politics to us academics. I remember the dilemma faced by employees of Boston University who couldn’t decide whether it was more important to get John Silber out of BU by electing him Governor of Massachusetts or to spare the citizens of the Commonwealth the fate that they were suffering on Commonwealth Ave. And there’s the old adage about passions running high when the stakes are low.

But it strikes me that what’s most interesting in Fish’s argument is the claim that nothing of intellectual significance can be predicted by looking at a person’s partisan affiliation. If the same argument holds for every other aspect of a person’s background (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation), then Fish is making a very strong argument against affirmative action, not just for conservatives, but for any other ostensible source of diversity. If poltiical affirmative action politicizes the university, wouldn’t race- or gender-based affirmative action racialize or "engender" the university?

David Horowitz may be more clever than I thought. Could he be using the red herring of academic diversity to maneuver academics into abandoning the diversity argument at the core of the contemporary case for affirmative action?

What think you, gentle (and not so gentle) readers?

Discussions - 2 Comments

Dr Knippenberg,

Very interesting analysis. A few thoughts, none of which, I am sure, will be news to you. First - David Horowitz, bless him, is not a real subtle guy. If he says he wants to use legislative action to force intellectual diversity, that’s what he wants. Any happy by-product of academic leftists looking like hypocrites is exactly that; particularly since they are singularly untroubled by political hypocrisy. The real development is how Horowitz’s crusade has forced Dr Fish to paint himself into quite a philosophical corner.

Dr Fish’s new thinking seems rather out of step with the postmodernism with which he is so often associated. One of the lynchpins of po-mo thought, derived from Nietzsche in particular, is that there cannot be disinterested study. Study which claims to be "objective" - and you will never see that word without scare quotes in the academy - is either naively unaware or consciously deceitful. This was dumbed down, in the sixties, into the maxim "All politics is personal." While this assumption was limited to the wearing of dashikis or the not-wearing of bras in popular politics, it took on a more sinister dimension in the academy.

The thinking goes like this: if I am a conservative historian, I cannot possibly do an objective study of, say, Ronald Reagan. I have too much invested in Reagan. Ditto the Rise of Towns in the Twelfth Century, or the struggle between Sparta and her neighbours. In fact, I cannot do an "objective" study of anything. To be fair, po-mo leftists apply this maxim to themselves as well. In their hands, however, it does not serve as a critique or as a useful caution, but as license. Because objective study is mostly considered to be impossible, advocacy - often naked advocacy - has become accepted, and even preferred. A Marxist analysis of the Rise of Towns or a Foucaultian explanation of the practice of exorcism has the virtue, in po-mo thinking, of both being honest about its biases and useful to whatever movement it serves.

By severing voting - the practical expression of politics - from what a professor does in the classroom, Dr Fish creates a curious tension. Which is it to be? What are we to believe? Is disinterested study impossible because all personal expression, scholarship included, can only be understood relative to our lived experience and the conscious or unconscious political framework we have adopted? Or can one leave one’s politics behind in the classroom? He appears to want to have it both ways. Theory- driven research is OK because all politics are personal, but this bond magically dissolves at the lecture hall and objectivity, or at least disinterested tolerance, takes over.

I have had professors whose politics I find disagreeable indeed, but who have treated me fairly and evaluated my work without reference to their politics. But according to the post-modern ideology dominant in academe right now, this should not have been possible. The real tension Horowitz is exposing, or perhaps even creating, is not between two systems of quotas, racial and ideological. He has forced Fish to either accept a pretty serious inconsistency, or to begin chipping away at the long accepted dogma behind all theory-driven work - that all scholarship is interested and ideological so one may as well be upfront about it. This perspectivism is a far cry from what professors like Fish, when confronted with the Academic Bill of Rights, now want to claim goes on in the classroom. At seminar, apparently, all is fairness and consideration - pay no attention to the political affiliation of faculty, or the ideological advocacy in their published work!

I have heard that research is essential to teaching. I have yet to hear that research and teaching proceed upon two epistemologically distinct frameworks! To square this circle someone on the left is going to be forced into making such an argument. That is a far more dangerous inconsistency for them to be caught in than the matter of racial vs intellectual quotas. For this Horowitz is to be congratulated...

Preferences for the sake of racial diversity are immoral and academically worthless. Preferences for the sake of intellectual diversity are completely defensible and undoubtedly an academic plus. We should not in any way confuse the one with the other. They are two utterly and completely different issues.

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