Radical Teaching and Repressive Tolerance

Mark Bauerlein is an English professor at Emory, and I’d describe him as center-to-mostly-right. He blogs over at the CHE and draws a fair amount of flak from the commenters. But his writing pops up at other online sites, including the Pope Center’s Minding the Campus, where he has posted an entry about the Left’s drive for educational hegemony under the false flags of critical thought and the promotion of justice. One of the more visible academic opponents of that drive has been Gerald Graff, a former president of the Modern Language Association (hardly a bastion of conservatism). Graff has suggested that when dealing with controversial subjects, teachers may wish to “teach the conflicts” — that is, present the arguments of the various sides of an issue as an avenue toward showing how society accepts or rejects various ideas. Please note that this is not a “creationism deserves equal time” argument. Someone who teaches the conflict would acknowledge that while some folks still subscribe to Bishop Ussher, the fossil record and similar scientific work has led to the prevalence of the more commonly held scientific view. In short, this approach would show why some views have gained credence while others have dwindled. It doesn’t pretend that the positions are equal — it in fact shows how we decide what the stronger position is. This is an example of what I call intellectual honesty. Graff sees himself as a liberal secularist, but he’s unwilling to treat his positions, even the orthodox ones, as postulates, which require no proof. I would suggest that’s a key difference between education and indoctrination.

But apparently that’s insufficiently hegemonic, and that brings us back to Bauerlein. He cites a critic of Graff’s, who argues

the standard premise that “views not informed by radical critique implicitly promote hegemonic values.” That is, if you don’t challenge the hegemony, the system, the Establishment, etc., you endorse it. Or, if you’re not against it, you’re with it.

This is more than just a political position, too. Without “radical critique,” Gullette says, you are professionally irresponsible: “Teachers who hold such views cannot lead useful debates.”

[…] In general, she concludes, “Much of what was ‘radical’ in 1848, 1920, 1954, 1968, and 2004 is now mainstream. Teaching students to become radicals has simply led them to become early adopters of humane values that much of American society was blind to.” If classrooms don’t address “the failures of capitalism” (where “main radical arguments today” aim), they “deserve a responsible educator’s scorn.”

In short, what we have here is the Marcusean notion of “repressive tolerance,” where some ideas (those that don’t serve the Left) are declared beyond the pale. Graff’s opponent also trots out the Marxist warhorse of historical inevitability — the ratchet leftward is inexorable, and any detraction should be repressed.

But as Bauerlein notes, the Left has had its share of failures as well:

In citing only those instances in which unjust traditions fell to praiseworthy radical protest, leftists on campus simplify the past and stack the deck.

But my larger complaint goes back to the first section of Bauerlein’s that I quoted. The idea is that all activity is political activity — that any action can, indeed must be judged on a political basis. I reject this position.

To define who we are and what we do exclusively — or even primarily — in terms of politics is to diminish who we are as individual human beings. There is no real difference between “The personal is political” and “Nothing outside the State.” For a teacher to  accept either of these positions is to abandon interest in the subject matter as subject matter, and to treat both the subject matter and the student as means to a political end, rather than as ends in themselves, at which point they become eggs that may cheerfully be broken for the greater glory of the omelet.

I contend that literature and beauty have value in and of themselves, as do people, and that an essential part of what I do is helping students see the beauty in the works they read, and helping them see the joy in making those discoveries. These days, that seems considerably more radical than any sort of study based in a group/political identity.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Education, Literature, Politics, Why I Do What I Do. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Radical Teaching and Repressive Tolerance

  1. Withywindle says:

    You can also say that the political man is the highest & most complete man, but think that to teach a student the means to be a good citizen does not necessarily entail uniformity of thought on all matters.

  2. majormaddog says:

    I’m not trying to be flip (really) but I wonder if arguing that you’re “teaching the conflict” isn’t really just another back door, like intelligent design, to get faith issues put on the same plane as science issues. You seem to deride academics on the left for lack of intellectual honesty, but forgive me if I don’t trust the folx on your side from using “I’m just teaching the conflict” as a way to get into the “creationism deserves equal time.”

    As for the “all activity is political activity” again as someone on the Left, I’ve seen all too often where the politicians on my side want to take the high road and we end up with unilateral disarmament. So maybe all activity ought not be political activity, but I’m not inclined to call the dogs off just yet, because I darn well know your side isn’t going to do so.

    • profmondo says:

      Well, once again, Graff isn’t a conservative. And I specifically noted that this was not “Equal Time For Yahweh.” Rather, it would be discussion of how the current views came into fashion, and how/why. In my own field, it would be a discussion of why things like race/class/gender have become topics that dominate the humanities, as opposed to say, the Formalist tendencies of New Criticism. Finally, I don’t think you need to worry about the Left unilaterally disarming in academia any time soon.

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