Tuesday, March 17, 2009
How (some of) your professors see you
Lydia McGrew, my esteemed co-blogger at What’s Wrong with the World, calls attention to this moment of honesty from the late liberal pragmatist Richard Rorty:
It seems to me that the regulative idea that we—we...liberals, we heirs of the Enlightenment, we Socratists—most frequently use to criticize the conduct of various conversational partners is that of “needing education in order to outgrow their primitive fear, hatreds, and superstitions.” This is the concept the victorious Allied armies used when they set about re-educating the citizens of occupied Germany and Japan. It is also the one which was used by American schoolteachers who had read Dewey and were concerned to get students to think ‘scientifically’ and ‘rationally’ about such matters as the origin of the species and sexual behavor [sic] (that is, to get them to read Darwin and Freud without disgust and incredulity). It is a concept which I, like most Americans who teach humanities or social science in colleges and universities, invoke when we try to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic, religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own.
What is the relation of this idea to the regulative idea of ‘reason’ which Putnam believes to be transcendent and which Habermas believes to be discoverable within the grammar of concepts ineliminable from our description of the making of assertions? The answer to that question depends upon how much the re-education of Nazis and fundamentalists has to do with merging interpretive horizons and how much with replacing such horizons. The fundamentalist parents of our fundamentalist students think that the entire “American liberal establishment” is engaged in a conspiracy. Had they read Habermas, these people would say that the typical communication situation in American college classrooms is no more herrschaftsfrei [domination free] than that in the Hitler Youth camps.
These parents have a point. Their point is that we liberal teachers no more feel in a symmetrical communication situation when we talk with bigots than do kindergarten teachers talking with their students....When we American college teachers encounter religious fundamentalists, we do not consider the possibility of reformulating our own practices of justification so as to give more weight to the authority of the Christian scriptures. Instead, we do our best to convince these students of the benefits of secularization. We assign first-person accounts of growing up homosexual to our homophobic students for the same reasons that German schoolteachers in the postwar period assigned The Diary of Anne Frank.
Putnam and Habermas can rejoin that we teachers do our best to be Socratic, to get our job of re-education, secularization, and liberalization done by conversational exchange. That is true up to a point, but what about assigning books like Black Boy, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Becoming a Man? The racist or fundamentalist parents of our students say that in a truly democratic society the students should not be forced to read books by such people—black people, Jewish people, homosexual people. They will protest that these books are being jammed down their children’s throats. I cannot see how to reply to this charge without saying something like “There are credentials for admission to our democratic society, credentials which we liberals have been making more stringent by doing our best to excommunicate racists, male chauvinists, homophobes, and the like. You have to be educated in order to be a citizen of our society, a participant in our conversation, someone with whom we can envisage merging our horizons. So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. We are not so inclusivist as to tolerate intolerance such as yours.”
I have no trouble offering this reply, since I do not claim to make the distinction between education and conversation on the basis of anything except my loyalty to a particular community, a community whose interests required re-educating the Hitler Youth in 1945 and required re-educating the bigoted students of Virginia in 1993. I don’t see anything herrschaftsfrei about my handling of my fundamentalist students. Rather, I think those students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents. It seems to me that I am just as provincial and contextualist as the Nazi teachers who made their students read Der Stürmer; the only difference is that I serve a better cause. I come from a better province.
Richard Rorty, from "Universality and Truth," in Robert B. Brandom, ed., Rorty and His Critics (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), pp. 21-22.
So there you have it. You either accept liberal and secular attitudes about religion and sex, or you are a “bigoted, homophobic, religious fundamentalist,” comparable to a Nazi or a racist, or at best to an ignorant child. There is no third option, and in particular no philosophically sophisticated and scientifically respectable way of holding conservative religious views or traditional attitudes about sexual morality. A college education, then, is not about studying the debate between different sides on these questions, but about indoctrinating students into one side by painting the other, conservative side as beyond the pale, possessed of no interesting arguments or thinkers to speak of, a political obstacle to be surmounted rather than an intellectual and moral alternative to be considered.
Do all academics think this way? Even all liberal academics? By no means. But a hell of a lot of them do. If you doubt this, take a look at the comboxes of philosophy blogs where the APA petition controversy has been discussed. Or sit in on a course in ethnic studies, women’s history, or gay and lesbian history – where, as everyone knows, you will never hear that there are two sides in the debate over affirmative action, or feminism, or “gay rights.” What you will hear instead is rather: “Here are the good guys (liberals) and the bad guys (conservatives), here’s how the former have made ‘progress’ in defeating the latter, and here’s where further ‘progress’ still needs to be made.” This is liberal apologetics, politics by other means, masquerading as objective scholarship. Not that all left-wing academics realize this. The inability of some of them even to conceive of a serious argument for conservative religious and moral views – that is to say, their own bigotry and ignorance – is touted precisely as unanswerable evidence of the objectivity and rational superiority of their position. “Such ideas are beyond the moral and intellectual pale. I know that because there are and can be no serious arguments for them. And I know there are and can be no serious arguments for them because, you know, look how immoral and intellectually frivolous they obviously are!” The circle is closed. Like the fundamentalist of liberal caricature who dismisses all objections a priori as Satanic deceptions, (some) left-wing academics dismiss conservative arguments a priori as mere rationalizations of superstition and prejudice.
It is amazing how exactly Rorty’s acknowledged program corresponds to the agenda I attributed to the modern university in the second of a three-part Tech Central Station series on universities and the Left I wrote several years ago. (See here, here, and here.) As I argue in the series, that agenda cannot properly be understood except in religious terms – as the propagation of a counter-religion intended to supplant the traditional religious worldview of the West. The origins of this counter-religion, and its inherently immoral and irrational character, are among the themes explored in The Last Superstition.