"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Two Bits of Financial Advice

From a non-financial elder:

When in college, don't use credit cards to pay for what you can't pay off by the end of the month. Credit card companies are predators, luring you into living on credit at up to 28% interest. It can become an addiction. Just say no.

Instead, put $100 per month into an untouchable account that pays decent interest, religiously, without compromise. Or start with $50 and raise it to $100 when you can. Never think of it as available. When you're my age, you'll be rich.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Indoctrination on Campus II

This is my response to a comment on the previous posting sent by a former student of mine who writes anonymously. The anonymity makes it difficult to respond as effectively as I might if I knew the context of our previous conversations. However, I’ll try my best. The real issue is not the linked website itself but the fact that in liking it I seem to associate myself with a political agenda of which the writer disapproves.

[I]f not “ideological,” then what kind of indoctrination are you committing? Am I to understand that you are teaching the “true doctrine,” while those leftist-college professors are teaching the “false?”

I would not claim to know “true doctrine” in the sense that a Marxist believes Marxism to be true. C.S. Lewis’s distinction (in The Abolition of Man) between propagation and propaganda is useful here. I believe in the reality of certain universal values that cannot be proven but that must be assumed in order for any value judgment of any kind to be made. This is true of literary values as of moral ones. And I believe that part of my role as a teacher is to propagate the espousal of those values.

By contrast, much of the teaching of humanities by leftist professors abandons belief in those fundamental universal values in favor of the one or more of the fashionable dogmas of the day (or rather of the sixties, when these people were uncritically absorbing them)—Marxism, feminism, post-modernism, Freudianism, socialism, etc. Then, like modern Manicheans, they divide the world into the sons of light (true believers like themselves and most of their students) and the sons of darkness (those few who must have recourse to the linked website in order to gain a hearing).

If so, such rigid thinking and faith in one’s own ability to discern the truth resembles the worst excesses of dogmatic Marxists or religious fundamentalists.

Of course I completely disagree with this statement. First of all, the "worst excesses" of dogmatic Marxists and religious fundamentalists have been the wholesale disruption of cultures and the murder of millions of people. Surely I am not accused of that.

But to the point: What makes my thinking rigid? I have never claimed that I know or could possibly learn the whole truth about anything. I do claim to believe, and to have good reasons for believing, that there is such thing as truth and that we ought to strive for it. I do not believe that American popular culture or Freudianism or Marxism or feminism or post-modernism or post-colonialism or any other –ism has all the answers. If believing this—and being willing to discuss counterarguments at length and often with anyone willing to be reasonable—makes me rigid, I guess I am rigid.

I say there are some universal absolute values and that it is mankind’s calling to strive to adhere to them. If you disagree, then on what grounds do you disapprove of dogmatism and rigidity?

Of course literature is about life, just as is any humanistic and social-scientific scholarly enterprise. That is exactly the point many of the students on noindoctrination.org fail to recognize: that the teaching of a subject, even in the choice of topic to study or questions to answer, is inherently political and moral. They complain that literature courses are too oriented to postcolonial studies, as if there is some non-biased place from where one can study and teach literature. (As one professor eloquently responds on the website, that may work for studying neutrinos, but not for nuclear families; but even neutrinos enter the realm of morality, as critiques of science, including your own musing on the compatibility of scientific and religious thought, have rightly pointed out).

Certainly humanistic studies have a political dimension. My reason for linking the site was to offer an alternative to those students who feel their teachers to be demanding nothing but blind faith in one particular political agenda.

I admit that the title of the website is a little misleading. The argument is not between doctrinal and non-doctrinal teaching. Any teacher worth his pay has a point of view and wants to share it. The argument is between better doctrine and worse, truer and less true or totally false. There is no position of total detachment or objectivity from which one may judge anything. Any judgment at all is founded on underlying assumptions. But there is a difference between dogmatism, whether left or right, and Socratic free inquiry, which itself is founded on the shared assumption of fundamental universal values like truth, goodness, justice, kindness, and intellectual honesty. If it is rigid and dogmatic to say that, I suggest that the burden is upon my accuser to suggest what kind of teaching he or she would approve of that is not based upon these values.

Undoubtedly there are [doctrinaire] professors (and high-school teachers) that crush dissent and otherwise abuse their position of authority. But let’s face it, this website is not just an innocent and unbiased place for students to fight such abuse: there are channels enough for that, including student newspapers, online professor ratings, and complaints to the administration (and I should note, that despite much publicity and many years online, that website has rather few justifiable complains, especially given its national scope); rather, like the recent scandal at UCLA, it is part of the Right’s attempt to diminish academic freedom and push the academy rightward—to shift the type of questions scholars study and the answers they find, to turn them from critics of the system into cheerleaders.

The right may wish to move the discourse on college campuses from left to right, but to say that in general such an effort is an attempt to diminish academic freedom is simply slander. It also reveals ignorance of the many instances in which conservative speakers with unexceptionable credentials have been barred from college campuses, shouted down by mobs, even physically threatened when trying to engage in rational discourse. I have not heard of this happening to liberal speakers on what few generally conservative campuses there are. The real violence against academic freedom in the colleges and universities of the nation in the last two decades has come not from the right but from the tyrannical left.

I have no desire to diminish academic freedom or to turn students from “critics of the system” into cheerleaders. But doesn’t the assumption that being a “critic of the system” is on the face of it a good thing reveal a leftist bias? What system is meant? The democracy that makes the modern college and university possible? The oppression by villainous capitalists of the naturally good but downtrodden proletariat? In what ways does whatever the word “system” refers to need criticizing? From what point of view? How is it better or worse than other “systems”? On what grounds is the “system” to be criticized? Aren’t these the kinds of questions that ought to be asked before one assumes that being a “critic of the system” is unquestionably good? Behind such a phrase are a hundred unexamined assumptions that may or may not be valid.

College should be a place where one can question such assumptions without fear of being cast into the role of demonic obstructionist or mindless cheerleader. The website offers the opportunity for both reasonable complaint and rational rebuttal, and the reader is free to side with whomever he or she pleases, or to disagree with both. Where is the villainy in that?

I wonder how you and other proponents of this and related efforts would feel about students who complained that economics and business departments—with their paeans to the wondrous efficiency of market capitalism—were inherently ideological and indoctrinating. Where are the Marxist or postcolonial critiques in courses on “International Monetary Markets” and “Marketing Theory”?

Well, such critiques are everywhere, and I have read or heard of no place where those who present them are ostracized or oppressively shouted down (unless they themselves have attempted to hijack the conversation with propagandistic harangue). They are argued with. Or is argument itself it a form of capitalist oppression? And if that’s the case, why would you argue with me? I would not have the least objection to there being a website to offer leftist rebuttals of capitalist business school teachers, nor would I accuse someone who linked such a site of trying to diminish academic freedom.

In sum, I do not blame you for morally engaging your students, nor from teaching from a certain perspective—an unavoidable, in fact essential, aspect of teaching. But I do find it ironic that you—one of the most morally pedagogical of high-school teachers, ever eager to make pronouncements to impressionable high-school students such as . . . [I’ve cut an incendiary remark here, supposedly a quotation from me, one which I don’t remember to have said and which, if in fact I did say it, has been taken so totally out of context that its meaning is entirely misleading.] . . . advertises a website and therefore aligns yourself with a movement that pretends to promote free inquiry even as it conceals a deeply politicized agenda. Is the problem really that college professors and their work are biased, or that you just don’t like the particular “truth” (or to use your language, “false doctrine”) they peddle?

I do not think the website’s agenda is concealed in the least. Nor is my own. I try as often as possible, in my teaching and on this blog, to understand and reveal my agenda, a developing thing, responsive, I hope, to legitimate argument and to the needs of my students and my audience. The problem is that many college professors promote their bias through propaganda and injustice. Many have never graduated from what I consider to be adolescent assumptions about the world they (and I) absorbed as adolescents in the sixties. Based on those assumptions, like modern Manicheans, they believe those who disagree with them to be the sons of darkness and consequently treat their questioning and disagreement with contempt. This kind of fear of disagreement is almost always a sign of unacknowledged inner doubt. To paraphrase Jane Austen (in Northanger Abbey), such doubts ought to be examined that they may know themselves.

In sum, I link the website through no secret agenda but because of my observation that it is slanted, if at all, against a deeply destructive trend of college life—not indoctrination itself, not even leftism itself, but the tyranny of the left. If you think it unnecessary or unfair, don’t read it.