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Feb 14, 2004 3:30 am

More on Campus Intellectual Diversity

I also wanted to add a few comments about the KC Johnson post that Dave noted earlier.

I was at this year's AAC&U meetings and saw Stanley Fish's talk. It was about as entertaining a piece of rhetoric as I've ever heard at a professional conference. I was there with a group of 5 other St. Lawrence folks, including my dean and president, and all agreed that it was a brilliant talk. Of course, as one colleague put it, "he's totally wrong of course, but it was a brilliant talk." The context was AAC&U's push for bringing "civic engagement" into liberal education. The idea being that the work that's done in the classroom has to be connected to "real world" concerns about democracy, participation, etc.. Fish eloquently argued that all we should be concerned with is truth, qua academics, and nothing else. (Disclaimer: my campus has had several AAC&U grants and has been a participant in many of their events. I'm on the organizing committee for an upcoming one this fall.)

I'm sympathetic, of course, to Fish's position, especially when a concern with "civic engagement" becomes using the classroom for political advocacy (a trend that has become very explicit pedagogy among a few colleagues here). There is a line, I think, between trying to get students to understand that classroom knowledge should matter for making the world a better place and making advocating a particular vision of what constitutes that "better place" part of one's pedagogy or part of what it means to succeed in the course in question. I don't object to the claim that the classroom is, in the broadest sense, a political place and that none of us can be truly unbiased as teachers. What I do object to is when this point becomes a rationalization for claiming a monopoly on the moral high ground (my own definition of "political correctness"), or for evaluating students based on their conclusions not their arguments.

One can have a strong point of view in the classroom but not engage in advocacy and not grade students based on their politics. If one views "civic engagement" as being about helping students to connect their learning to developing a concern about the broader world and the potential role they might have in improving it (whether through politics, education, or even business), then I'm all for it. Of course, my reading of "civic engagement" is not the same as many of those involved in the AAC&U project, hence the link to the issues of intellectual diversity and advocacy pedagogies.

For me, the issue of campus intellectual diversity isn't to be addressed by hiring more non-Leftists. As Duke political scientist Michael Munger put it:

"The solution is not to have 15 Republicans and 15 Democrats in one department. If everybody forced students to write papers based on a faculty member's particular perspective, that's still not diversity," he said. Rather, he said, the classroom, not the department, must be depoliticized.

That last sentence is the key: those of us who resist Leftist orthodoxy must continually ask our colleagues to check their premises and continually challenge their claims to a monopoly on the moral high ground. We have to turn our differences into debates over the means and not the ends. We need to find our shared values and then engage over the best ways to achieve them. No one, I think, likes poverty. We'd all like to reduce/eliminate it. How we do so, however, is another story. And to the extent we can never let our Leftist colleagues forget that we care too, perhaps we can make some headway toward diversifying colleges classroom by classroom, rather than by changing hiring practices in ways that threaten both academic freedom and our sense of justice.

It's difficult for me to make too compelling a case that libertarians are victims of political correctness on college campuses when I've not only never had a problem on my campus with such things, but I've been continually rewarded for my work both in the classroom and in my discipline. To throw out a somewhat more provocative claim: campus conservatives and libertarians are not always very good at being good colleagues and, as Rod suggested earlier, they aren't often good at actually conversing and listening to their Leftist colleagues. This doesn't mean you have to kiss up to them, but it does mean you have to know something about their interests and conversations and be willing to be a part of them. And, at places like mine, being a good teacher helps a lot!

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