Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Academia as a Bulwark Against Conservatism (Part I)

Clarissa has a post on the issue of academics being politically liberal. Rather than deny the claim she takes it head on with no apologies. This is part of her charm and it works, I find, because, from getting to know her, I realize that, in practice, she is far more nuanced. According to Clarissa:

To the contrary of what many conservatives fear, progressive professors don't use the classroom to voice their political convictions. We simply don't need to. When I come into the classroom, looking chic, fashionable and professional and begin to share my knowledge with the students, my way of being is the best argument there could be against female subjection. I don't have to proclaim feminist slogans in the classroom. I bring my point across just by existing. In the same way, I make my students reconsider their dislike of immigrants. And of intelligent, knowledgeable, educated people. The list can be continued ad infinitum. (The dislike of people who use expressions such as ad infinitum could be added to the list).

Every literary text we read in class, brings the students closer to progressive values. For some unfathomable reason, there don't seem to be that many great writers who advocate accepting things the way they are, resisting all change, and trying to revert to some imaginary paradisaical moment in the past where things used to be perfect.

We teach our students to think for themselves, identify gaping holes in any argument ... to analyze and operate with facts. We are not always successful, of course, but when we are we end up creating more open-minded, intelligent, progressive people.

Conservatives exist on campus, of course. They are treated by everybody with compassion. Not because of their political beliefs, but because they are those hapless academics who never manage to publish anything. The conservative academics' CVs are very light on publications not because ... there is some bias against their so-called ideas in liberal publishing houses and journals. Rather, the very nature of research calls for the creation of something new, for progress, for a rejection of old certainties. A piece of research is always judged, first and foremost, on the basis of whether it contributes anything new to the understanding of the subject. The definition of a conservative is "Favoring traditional views and values; tending to oppose change." It is self-evident, I believe, why this kind of person will not be able to transform their area of expertise in any significant way by their research.

In essence I agree with Clarissa though I would frame it somewhat differently. If Clarissa would allow me, perhaps I could be her good cop to her bad cop in the struggle for the hearts and minds of our conservative students. 
First let me be clear what, by conservative, I am not attacking. I do not wish to attack mindless bigots, who desire to keep women down and suppress immigration for the simple reason that such people are not worthy of engaging in discourse with. (This is not to say that I have not from time to time given in to such temptations.) If I am going to talk to someone it is because I fundamentally respect them and see them as intelligent, open to being convinced by what I have to say. Now even very smart people can come to believe some patiently absurd things. I may attack conservative ideas, but to do that I must respect conservative people. 
Let me also say that there is a place for conservative ideas in society and that all of us, even us liberal academics rely on them. By conservative I mean a defense of the establishment as having value merely because it is the establishment; if we have done something a certain way then we should continue to do it this way simply because this is the way it has been done in the past. Society is built on agreed upon traditions, many of them unwritten, to act in certain ways because this is how it has been done in the past and absolutely refuse to change. For example every month I rely on the university to follow through with its dead letter, non-living contract, with me to send me a slip of paper with a dollar sign followed by numbers. I then hand this slip of paper to a bank, which relies on societal traditions to add those numbers to my bank account. I then take another slip of paper with numbers and hand it to my landlady as "rent money." This process relies on the fact that our societal traditions about paper money and checks are absolute. The moment anyone involved begins to even question this or thinks that this process can be renegotiated then the system would collapse and I would be out of work and on the streets.  
(To be continued ...)  


Clarissa said...

" The moment anyone involves" - "Anyone involved", maybe?

Happy Birthday, good cop! You are probably the only conservative academic I like and respect. :-) So many happy returns and everything.

Izgad said...


Though I must admit that I have yet to publish anything and lack a CV that anyone would take seriously. :)

Clarissa said...

You have various kinds of teaching experience which many other candidates will lack.

Izgad said...

We would make for a very good reverse Hannity and Colmes. You could be the pittbull liberal and I the emasculated conservative. :p

Clarissa said...

This is too funny! I'm beating my head against the computer in laughter.

What is it that they say about Aspies not having a sense of humor?

Simon said...

I don't think that you are conservative in any way. You are a libertarian. In contrast, liberals are often (not always) unthinking proponents of government involvement. Even true conservatives challenge the status quo, such as what is happening in Wisconsin. Regarding publications, economic conservatives have published a lot regarding the pernicious effects of many liberal government policies. The problem is that it is published in economic journals and, while the correctness of the arguments are beyond challenge, they proposed policy changes are considered politically impossible.