Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Anarchist Pontification from the Ivory Tower

Neutrality or opinion?
It is extremely difficult to examine one's beliefs if they are never called into question.
By Crispin Sartwell

I was talking to a student of mine yesterday about one of my fellow political science professors: "I've taken three classes with him," she said, "and I still don't know any of his political positions."

She can hardly say the same of me, I believe. During a given lecture, I might say something like this: "This semester we'll be building a catapult big enough to free Dick Cheney from the Earth's atmosphere and release him into the void."

There is something to be said for both of these approaches. Maintaining a studied neutrality allows students to come to their own conclusions. But then again, so does frankly avowing your opinions, as long as you do not require agreement. I try to provoke people, and get frustrated only when my students just sit there, staring blankly. If they start attacking me, I've already done what I wanted to do: make them think.

In any case, my opinions are all over the op-ed page and on the Internet, and it would be silly to simulate neutrality. A frankly avowed opinion is far more easily resisted than slightly skewed but apparently objective recitation of the facts.

At UCLA, the right-wing Bruin Alumni Association offered bounties of $100 to students to inform on their professors, in order to expose their allegedly extreme and anti-American pronouncements.

Look. If you want to sit in on my class, just ask. If you want to tape me, ask me, and I will say yes. And I promise to be just as opinionated on tape. But if you're paying someone to inform on me, you're undermining my classroom, turning it into a war zone.

Indeed, so nasty has this little ideological war become that some state legislatures - including that of Pennsylvania, where I live and teach - have passed laws setting up committees to monitor the anti-American speech of the professoriate. With a Stalinist flair, these are called "academic freedom" committees. A friend of mine who teaches in a public university has been threatened with this totalitarian idiocy, after suggesting to his class that all Americans are implicated in the war in Iraq by virtue of paying their taxes.

Well, I argued that position for a solid week last semester, in the context of teaching Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience," which makes precisely the same point with regard to the Mexican-American War. One might teach "Civil Disobedience" without any contemporary applications, simply as a historical text. But first of all, Thoreau didn't mean it to address only a certain moment. And second, if I taught the thing that way, I would put my students to sleep. I want to embody the passion that Thoreau expressed.

It is, however, worth acknowledging that the motivations of these conservatives are comprehensible. There is a leftist consensus in academia, amounting at certain institutions and in certain disciplines to something near unanimity. I cannot name a single professor at my college who I believe voted for George Bush. This, I would say, has unfortunate results.

It is extremely difficult to examine the foundations of one's beliefs critically where these foundations are never called into question by anyone else. Thus, consensus breeds delusion.


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