Interview with Donald Lazere about Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias

Donald Lazere’s new book is Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias. I interviewed him via email about his book.

JW: Your book’s title is provocative, but is it true? Do you really believe that higher education should have a leftist bias? Your pedagogical model is Gerald Graff’s Teach the Conflicts, and you are committed, in your book and in your teaching, to give “a fair hearing”(103) to conservative arguments, even to the point of requiring students to research them. Where is the leftist bias in your vision of pedagogy?

DL: Thank you, John, for posting this exchange. My title is tongue-in-cheek, which was more evident with my original title: Two Cheers for Political Correctness: Why Higher Education SHOULD Have a Leftist Bias, which Palgrave Macmillan inexplicably changed. My central argument is stated at the beginning of the book:

For many years I have been making the case that the ceaseless conservative attack against bias and political correctness among leftists in both education and media disingenuously stands the truth on its head: the far greater bias pervading American society is conservative, but it is not widely perceived as a bias—just as the normative, natural order of things. It is only leftists’ attempts to provide minimal counter-balance to the bias of business as usual in media and education, through critical pedagogy in the latter–that is publicly “marked” as biased. These public perceptions of where bias in education or media lies are largely controlled by conservative propagandists through semantic framing and rhetorical agenda-setting, which serve to limit attention to issues of political bias only to overt, ad hoc, and sensational instances of political correctness—the Ward Churchill Syndrome—while the constant biases of business as usual are not considered worthy of notice or subject to criticism. Likewise, most of the recent criticisms of liberal or left bias in higher education have fixated on the humanities and social sciences, whose influence is blown out of proportion to that of every other aspect of both secondary and higher education that serves the interests of corporate society’s business as usual.

 

JW: To some extent, your message to conservatives is, I think your views are ignorant and idiotic, so why won’t you engage me in an intellectual discussion of them? Do you ever feel pressure to water down your critiques in order to get the other side to respond to you in a friendly manner? And is that pressure to tone down your rhetoric even more intense in the classroom, where students are often timid and easily intimidated by a professor’s strong views? You write about the “difficult balance”(176) of trying to express your own ideas while encouraging students to speak out, but is it possible to be successful at doing things simultaneously?

DL: Your account here is totally inaccurate. Repeatedly throughout this book and much else that I have written, I distinguish between conservative intellectuals, whom I am inviting to engage in good-faith dialogue, and the know-nothing conservatism of the Republican party attack apparatus, media like talk radio and Fox News, and the conservative mass base. My notion of teaching the political conflicts is to elevate student thought from that of mass political discourse, on the right or left, to study of conservative and liberal or leftist sources and arguments at an intellectual and scholarly level.

You’re pulling the same trick here that conservative polemicists do in evading this distinction: pretending that my criticisms of know-nothing conservatism apply to intellectual conservatism. When I try to engage with conservative intellectuals, trying first and foremost to persuade them to acknowledge this distinction and dissociate themselves from the anti-intellectual right, some do, but it’s amazing how many others are unwilling to make even this minimal gesture. Why might this be? In Up From Conservatism, Michael Lind says a conservative intellectual journal editor explained to him its support for evangelicals like Pat Robertson: “Of course they’re mad, but we need their votes.” It would appear that conservatives at the higher levels regard the “Republican base” as the equivalent of what Lenin called “useful idiots” on the left.

As for classroom practice, mine involves introducing students to these very questions and to the opposing lines of evidence and arguments about them on the right and left, prompting students to research the strongest sources on both sides and to evaluate them judiciously, in open-ended dialogue.

 

JW: You argue, “Whatever political biases university faculty members in the humanities and social sciences may have, individually and collectively, are in general the consequence of their years of independent study…”(102) That statement seems to me completely wrong. Surely professors and graduate students are not blank slates who become liberal because of the innate intellectual superiority of leftist ideas. There is self-selection going on. Conservatives are less likely to major in the humanities, go to grad school, and seek an academic career, and I think part of the reason is that they feel out of place as a minority. Do you agree with me that self-selection is a real phenomenon, and do you think that it’s a problem? Should academia do anything to try to encourage more conservatives in the humanities?

DL: No, I don’t think liberal self-selection and discrimination against conservatives in academia is any more of a problem than conservative counterparts in academic fields like business administration, engineering, and agriculture or in non-academic fields like corporate management, law firms, advertising, public relations, or the military. My point about the relative independence of academics in the liberal arts is that, whatever their personal biases might be, ours is among very few professions that allow for the principle of independent thought, not dictated by employers, sponsors, or businesses that contract with faculties in applied sciences. (I quote a Heritage Foundation director: “We’re not here to be some kind of Ph.D. committee giving equal time. Our role is to provide conservative public-policymakers with arguments to bolster our side.”) In other words, with all of conservatives’ hot-air defenses of objectivity, liberal arts scholars are about the only professionals who are in a practical position to aspire to it, and I think many if not most do. Many like me also would welcome more conservatives in the profession, though conservatives tend to self-select toward more lucrative professions.

 

JW: You write about “the politics of no politics,” where teachers “blandly evade uncomfortable political subjects” in order “to be more popular with students.”(27) Are students (and student evaluations) the most powerful suppression of political subjects in the classroom, or do professional standards and the fear of colleague evaluations also sway faculty?

DL: None of the above. By “the politics of no politics,” I refer to the pervasive trait in American life, including college education, of avoiding politics in favor of personal consciousness. This trait has deep roots in American history, but has spiked sharply since World War II, the Cold War, and the apotheosis of consumer culture (with only short-lived challenges to it in the 1960s). I say in the book that it was nailed definitively by the brilliant critic Robert Warshow in a 1947 article in Partisan Review, titled “The Anatomy of Falsehood,” reviewing the widely-praised film The Best Years of Our Lives, about the troubled return of veterans to civilian life at that pivotal moment of post-war socioeconomic normalization. Warshow perceived in all its multiple plots a prime instance o
f a larger American falsehood, “which has many faces, but its chief and most general aspect is a denial of the reality of politics, if politics means the existence of real incompatibilities of interest and real social problems not susceptible of individual solutions. . . . Every problem [is presented] as a problem of personal morality. . . . A conscious effort is made to show that class differences do not matter.” Many films of that period like The Best Years were also calculated by the Hollywood studios to repudiate the Popular Front politics that had infused many movies from the thirties through the war—indeed, the first HUAC hearings in Hollywood occurred in October of the same year in which his review was published in the May-June PR. The critical perspective that Warshow voiced here had an Old Left, Marxist inflection—though Warshow and many other Marxists of that period were also fiercely anti-Communist­ic. But that perspective itself was soon to be erased from intellectual media as collateral damage of the Cold War. This kind of Marxist criticism was, however, revived in the sixties and since by New Left critics and scholars like Herbert Marcuse and Fredric Jameson, who also turned Marxist critique against Communism. The continuation of this critical perspective, then, is another defensible form of academic “leftist bias,” in defiance of conservatives who endlessly smear that perspective as Stalinist. (See the collection I edited, American Media and Mass Culture: Left Perspectives.)

 

JW: Stanley Fish has famously argued that writing classes should be about teaching grammar, not discussing politics, as you do in your writing classes. What’s your argument against Fish pedagogically, and which approach do you think prevails in most college writing classes

DL: As it happens, I reviewed Fish’s Save the World on Your Own Time, in College English.

Fish’s arguments are filled with self-contradictions, which I (in Fish’s own manner) turn against him in support of my position. In one chapter he does say writing classes should only be about teaching grammar, syntax, and style, but elsewhere he says:

This is not to say that academic work touches on none of the issues central to politics, ethics, civics, and economics; it is just that when those issues arise in an academic context, they should be discussed in academic terms; that is, they should be the objects of analysis, comparison, historical placement, etc.; the arguments put forward in relation to them should be dissected and assessed as arguments and not as preliminaries to action on the part of those doing the assessing. The action one takes (or should take) at the conclusion of an academic discussion is the action of rendering an academic verdict as in “That argument makes sense,” “there’s a hole in the reasoning here,” “the author does (or does not) realize her intention,” “in this debate, X has the better of Y,” “the case still is not proven.” (25-26)

He is sadly equivocal here about what level of course these aims are legitimate in, if not in first-year-writing. If we infer, as I do, that they belong in the advanced writing courses in argumentation that I taught, then we can respond, suppose that teachers and students determine, in fair-minded weighing of opposing political arguments, that leftist ones have the better of conservative ones. Isn’t this squarely in Fish’s academic ballpark?

 

John, please allow me to conclude with some further thoughts about the issues raised in my earlier piece that you kindly posted on May 14:

That piece was about my e-mailed “Appeal to the Officials and Associates of the Center for the American University, National Association of Scholars, American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and John William Pope Center for Higher Education.” It asked them to discuss the applicability of the list in my book of “Ground Rules for Polemicists” (included in that post) to their own rhetorical practices. These included:

  • Identify your own ideological viewpoint and how it might bias your arguments. Having done so, show that you approach opponents’ actions and writings with an open mind, not with malice aforethought. . . . Summarize the other side’s case fully and fairly, in an account that they would accept, prior to refuting it. Allow the most generous interpretation of their statements rather than putting the worst light on them; help them make their arguments stronger when possible. Concede the other side’s valid arguments–preferably toward the beginning of your critique, not tacked on grudgingly at the end or in inconspicuous subordinate clauses. Acknowledge points on which you agree at least partially and might be able to cooperate.

 

  • Be willing to acknowledge misconduct, errors, and fallacious arguments by your own allies, and try scrupulously to establish an accurate proportion and sense of reciprocity between them and those you criticize in your opponents. Do not play up the other side’s forms of power while denying or downplaying your own side’s. Do not weigh an ideal, theoretical model of your side’s beliefs against the most corrupt actual practices on the other side.
  • Do not substitute ridicule or name-calling for reasoned argument and substantive evidence.

I received no response at all, or a form rejection notice, from Manhattan Institute’s Center for the American University, ACTA, and also National Review Online, which had in the past posted a couple of blogs trashing my columns in the Chronicle of Higher Education. NAS’s president Peter Wood, who has posted a couple of my previous articles on their home page, also posted this one, but it received only a few, evasive responses. George Leef, director of the Pope Center at University of North Carolina, asked for a review copy, posted his review in May, and allowed me to respond to it (see links in the Academe blog). However, his hatchet-job review ignored mention of my ground rules and in effect was a model of not following them. The posted comments on his review were even worse in assuming that his account of the book was accurate and, with no sign of the commentators having read the book, in piling on with knee-jerk derision of the straw man Leef had made of me. His review then went viral in re-postings on conservative online journals, in each case being followed by the same herd-mentality ridicule of my title and book in Leef’s distorted account of it. I sent my response to as many of these sites as I could find, asking them to post it, but few did. The director of something called the John Locke Foundation in North Carolina wrote me that he was not interested in posting any continued discussion of the substantive issues here because his readers’ attention span is too short to last beyond one day’s postings. In other words, his only aim is to throw red meat to the masses. Sic transit John Locke.

 

I know that some liberal or left publications and web journals perpetuate the same herd mentality (as does MSNBC), but I do not think that most intellectually responsible ones categorically refuse, like this, to engage in good-faith dialogue with their conservative critics. Many would welcome the opportunity. This experience was yet another sad confirmation of the results of my twenty years of trying to establish communication with conservative journalists, scholars, and even politicians. Time and time again, these efforts have demonstrated that high-minded claims like Manhattan Institute’s “We hope to foster a new climate of opinion that favors civil and honest engagement of all sides, offering an engaged debate for readers concerned with the state of the modern university,”
are a fraud. Again, can anyone find in many liberal or left counterparts the same glaring breach between professed ideals and flat refusal to practice them? So my defense of “leftist bias” includes calling out hypocrisies like this on the right.

One thought on “Interview with Donald Lazere about Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias

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