Little Scope for Politics

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a recent article discussing the results of yet another study of why there aren’t many conservatives in academia. David Horowitz tours the country making the standard right-wing argument that leftist professors are indoctrinating students. The hard core ideological professors might be busily trying to indoctrinate their students. The other 99.9% of professors try to teach their students something about their subject. The students ignore the indoctrination attempts and the earnest attempts to teach, instead choosing to drink more beer and hook up more often. It’s a fun game where everyone gets what they want.

The debate over the politicization of academics has been hot at least since Tenured Radicals, which is the first book I read on the subject. This debate highlights one important difference between professors and academic librarians–that for librarians there’s little scope for politics. This is a good thing. Don’t get me wrong. I like politics, at least in theory. I read a lot about politics. I teach a writing seminar focused on politics. I follow campaigns. I even have an opinion about the Democratic primaries, but I won’t share it with you. I think most of the conservative scare about students being indoctrinated is malarkey, and I doubt any of the hundred “most dangerous professors” that Horowitz names are at all dangerous. But in a previous life I encountered the zeal of the political prophets and I didn’t like what I saw.

Fifteen or so years ago I entered graduate school in English at the University of Illinois. Because the program was one of those grad student mills that put the bulk of the teaching labor on the graduate students… sorry, that’s too harsh. I mean because learning to teach two sections of rhetoric while taking a full course load is very important training for the life of the itinerant adjunct that seemed to be the future of so many of the graduates because so few of them got tenure track jobs (that’s more diplomatic, I think), everyone entering the program went through a week long teaching boot camp, led by upper-level graduate students. I remember very well how a considerable portion of the discussions during that boot camp concerned not how to teach writing but how much trouble we were all going to have overcoming the conservatism of our students with our radical politics. Basically, they were trying to help us indoctrinate the students with leftist politics. Instead of teaching writing, the goal of many of the grad students was to teach the undergraduates how wrong they were about politics and how right we all were. I was pretty far left myself, but something struck me as wrong about the whole enterprise. First of all, it doesn’t work. Second of all, it’s a betrayal of a higher ideal than politics. The university is the church of reason, not the church of partisanship.

Years later I was working in the writing clinic on campus while in library school, and I recall that during a staff meeting one of the lily-white, suburban-bred, writing studies grad students went on at length about how she used her rhetoric classes to to politicize her students and show them how the bad education they had received in inner city Chicago was the fault of an unjust system. She got no argument from anyone, including me, about the unjustness of the system. But mainly she wanted to teach them to be angry. I thought that was easier than teaching them to write. She also said she more or less spent the class validating their poor writing because it was an authentic expression of their culture and because they were such victims. Standard English, after all, is just the idiom of the oppressive elite. I’m sure they appreciated all this anger and validation when they tried to write job application letters after college.

It was always the grad students, never the professors. The silliness of this grad student culture was one of the reasons I left the English department. The quotidian practicality of library school was refreshing after such nonsense.

Teachers have an opportunity to politically indoctrinate students, even though only the worst ones ever try to do it. One of the nice things about being a librarian is that the job offers little scope for politics, which is why nobody cares much that librarians in general probably skew more left than professors. It just doesn’t come up. There are plenty of political issues regarding libraries, but ultimately library research is good or bad regardless of your politics. The radical historian and the reactionary historian might interpret the historical record differently, but their research shouldn’t be determined in advance by political concerns. Scholars are supposed to hold a standard of research and evidence that transcends their political views, which is why books like Bellesiles’ Arming America cause scandals.

An important part of the job of academic librarians is teaching research skills and helping students avoid the sort of pitfalls politicized “scholarship” can lead to. There’s very little difference between a professor deciding to misquote letters and make up statistics to support an argument about guns in America and a student who says, “I’m writing a paper on X and I need five sources that prove my thesis.” If students are making arguments we disagree with, we don’t refuse to help them. We don’t provide students with sources on only one side of an issue. We want students to explore a subject in depth and form conclusions based upon the evidence, which is what most teachers want.

Collection development offers some scope for political bias, and I suppose there are slipshod librarians who refuse to buy conservative books or subscribe to conservative journals because they don’t agree with them, just as in the past there were plenty of librarians who wouldn’t collect radical literature. If we’re true to our mission, however, we don’t refuse to collect material because of its political view, whatever that is. Academic standards of reason, truth, and evidence are more important than promoting our political views. The best scholarship transcends the partisan hack work that emanates from the right and left in this country, because it’s based on higher standards of truth and evidence. The best teachers don’t try to indoctrinate; they try to persuade based on the evidence. The best librarians help supply the evidence. And, after all, if we’re right, the evidence should demonstrate that.

American Rhetoric

As the fall semester approaches, I’ve been thinking more about political rhetoric. In my writing seminar, we mostly read political philosophy, but we also study rhetoric and analyze popular arguments as well. (My students last semester analyzed popular politics on the class blog, which I think is pretty good.)

Recently I came across the American Freedom Campaign, an effort by several groups to define “American” as including an opposition to torture or the suspension of habeas corpus. It’s hard to believe, but some powerful Americans seem to support these things. Not the American Freedom Campaign, though. Here, for example, is the “Freedom Pledge” they’d like you to sign:

“We are Americans, and in our America we do not torture, we do not imprison people without charge or legal remedy, we do not tap people’s phones and emails without a court order, and above all we do not give any President unchecked power.

I pledge to fight to protect and defend the Constitution from assault by any President.”

And they also say that, “under the pretense of the ‘war on terror,’ the White House is dismantling the Constitution, concentrating power in the President and undermining the rule of law. THIS IS UN-AMERICAN.”

In addition to its appeal on other grounds, it’s interesting for the way it plays with some traditional American political rhetoric. What is American? Is it everything that has happened in America? Or only the best parts of the American tradition? Or perhaps that which is unique to America?

Many people criticize America for its past slavery, for example, but slavery wasn’t unique to America. Creating a written Constitution that more or less enshrined classical liberal goals was unique, as was creating a country based on the ideas of liberty and freedom. (For a great book on the distinction between American “liberty” and “freedom,” read David Hackett Fischer’s outstanding book Liberty and Freedom. He uses liberty more in the sense of “freedom from” or what Isaiah Berlin would call “negative liberty” or Benjamin Constant would call the “freedom of the moderns,” while freedom is more like the civic republican notion of political participation and self-government, what Berlin might call “positive liberty” and Constant the “liberty of the ancients.” Fischer does a remarkable job of showing the power of these concepts in American history.)

So is the deplorable history of slavery and racism “American,” or instead are the ideas of freedom and political equality that inspired the founders and led to the eventual end of slavery more “American”? Can both be “American”? Only, I suppose, if “American” is taken in the least meaningful sense of “things that happened in America.” If “American” means those things unique to America, then the term becomes more meaningful, and not just politically. “American” then would include jazz and blues music, for example, but not racism or sexism, which are hardly confined to the United States.

There’s the old saying, “as American as mom and apple pie.” That’s just silly. I don’t know where apple pie originated, but I’m pretty sure there were mothers before the United States existed. But what could be more American than Robert Johnson, or Thelonious Monk, or Johnny Cash, or Wild Turkey, or the rule of law enshrined in a written constitution?

The American Freedom Campaign is plotting a different rhetorical course, though, one where “American” has a powerful political meaning, in this sense one of “a nation of laws.”

I think the American Freedom Campaign’s tactic is both more true and more useful than either a negative anti-Americanism or an overbroad definition of “American.” Defining “American” as whatever happened in America guts the term of any political usefulness, for the left or the right. Thinking of the history of America as the history of slavery, genocide, and oppression (as a friend of mine does) also reduces the power of the term “American.” American and Un-American could be politically powerful if used in effective ways. Reminding people that freedom, liberty, equality, and the rule of law are American, and their opposites un-American, can be persuasive in a way that hostile political rhetoric never can be.