Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Right-Wing Education Fetish

Reading conservatives lament the state of education in America, one comes away with a sense that two thousand years of accrued knowledge has been cast aside in some kind of Maoist attempt to brainwash the nation's youth. Apparently American schools and universities are awash in a sea of liberal guilt. The academic left, which functions as an auxiliary to the Communist Party, is hard at work manipulating impressionable young minds with Marxist propaganda about diversity, privilege, sustainability, and the unholy triumvirate: race, class, and gender. Washington Post columnist George Will, who was himself educated in the late Pleiocine period, is the latest to sound the alarm. His column of April 3 begins:
The real vocation of some people entrusted with delivering primary and secondary education is to validate this proposition: The three R’s — formerly reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic — now are racism, reproduction and recycling. Especially racism.
Say what you will, but at least the new three R's actually begin with the letter R, so there's been progress on the spelling front. I must also profess confusion about the last one: are we really going to include recycling in this rant? In the raging right-wing anti-progressive outrage over white guilt and abortion, recycling makes the final cut for the threesome? Or was Will, having already decided to disguise his pretension with a clever-but-folksy opening play on the three R's, struggling to find another left-wing R word to make the list complete? "R-r-r-radical, revolution, rappers, rights, race! (no, I used it already), rutabega, recycling... recycling!" Deadlines are tough.

Will is airing a tired complaint. Conservatives have whining about academia for decades. Heather MacDonald has been venting the same effluvia every few weeks since the 1990s, like in this particularly nasty piece where she targets a high school student. What a classy journalist. And the National Association of Scholars, an ultra-conservative organization determined to expose, root out, or counterbalance liberal bias in academia, dates back to 1987, when Reagan was still in office and it was still morning in America. They are going strong today, funded by wealthy conservatives. The same day Will published his column, the NAS turned their guns on Bowdoin College. They have produced what I'm sure is in the authors' minds an exhaustive report on the cancerous liberalism that has spread to every part of the once-proud liberal arts college. Slowly but surely, they claim, academics are destroying the legacy of the Western canon and the foundation of liberty and freedom throughout the galaxy, or something on that scale.

Not so. Reading the report, one becomes more and more aware of the vacuity of its authors. And as offensive as they are, eventually it is difficult not to be embarrassed for them. Consider, for instance, their indictment of gender studies (p. 17):
Not noticing is more serious than the Bowdoin community realizes. Bowdoin ought to
teach students the discipline of reasoned argument and the habit of mind that reflexively looks
for reasoned argument. Regrettably, Bowdoin too often fails to cultivate that. For example, the
2012–2013 Bowdoin College Catalogue explains:

Courses in Gender and Women’s Studies investigate the experience of women and men in light of the social construction of gender and its meaning across cultures and historic
periods. Gender construction is explored as an institutionalized means of structuring
inequality and dominance.

Here Bowdoin flatly announces that gender is a social construct, the sole purpose of which is to
subjugate women. Is gender, according to this view, entirely a social construct? “In light of the
social construction of gender” seems to say so, and at the very least it forecloses any interest in
other possibilities, such as biology.
If you're going to try to criticize something, at least learn the terms. Had the authors of the study availed themselves of even one introductory text in gender studies, they might perhaps understand that gender is, by definition, a social construct. Biological distinctions do not go unacknowledged—they fall under the category of sex and Bowdoin covers that subject too... probably in the Biology Department.

Three pages further, the authors take on gay and lesbian studies in an equally foolish critique
One First-Year Seminar offered fall 2012 but struck from the list because too few Bowdoin students signed up for it was “Queer Gardens,” which:

Explores how the garden in Western literature and art serves as a space for desire. Pays
special attention to the link between gardens and transgression. Also considers how
gardens become eccentric spaces and call into question distinctions between nature and
culture. Examines the work of gay and lesbian gardeners and traces how marginal
identities find expression in specific garden spaces. 

Courses like these illuminate an important pedagogical problem. Critical thinking has to be thinking about something in particular, whether it is Euclidian geometry, the characters in Middlemarch, the tactics of the Civil Rights movement, Native American stereotypes, the sexual life of colonialism, or modern Western prostitutes. As indicated by this list of required courses that are designed to teach critical thinking as well as by official statements, Bowdoin has adopted the position that any subject is as good as any other when it comes to learning how to think critically. But “Queer Gardens” does not teach critical thinking as well as Plato’s Republic. We can say this with confidence because “Queer Gardens” has at best a very limited community of discourse and no canon of works that embody exemplary achievement in the difficult dialogic task of critical thinking.
I can understand the knee-jerk reaction of a traditionalist dismissing queer theory and coursework—I disagree and I think it probably stems from latent homophobia, but I get it. The logic here, on the other hand, is befuddling. They are contending that gardens as a space of desire, transgression, and expression "has at best a very limited community of discourse and no canon of works"? Have they read the Bible? It seems not. They have read, however, the professor's complete course description because they selectively cut the final two sentences. A quick glance at the original source, the Bowdoin course catalog, gives us the "Queer Gardens" course description in full:
Explores how the garden in Western literature and art serves as a space for desire. Pays special attention to the link between gardens and transgression. Also considers how gardens become eccentric spaces and call into question distinctions between nature and culture. Examines the work of gay and lesbian gardeners and traces how marginal identities find expression in specific garden spaces. Reconsiders one of the founding myths of Western culture: the idea of a lost Eden. Authors and gardeners may include Marvell, Lanyer, Pope, Seward, Dickinson, Burnett, Carroll, Sackville-West, Nichols, Jarman, and Pollan.
Uh oh... turns out this IS a course about Western culture referencing the Judeo-Christian origin-myth with canonical names scattered among the list of authors. Better, I suppose, to omit those unfortunate facts and press on to proclaim (ironically, as it turns out) the importance of the "dialogic task of critical thinking."

There's at least two hundred other moments of distortion, dishonesty, and stupidity on display in the report, so in the interest of time I'll skip to the conclusion:
What does Bowdoin not teach? Intellectual modesty. Self-restraint. Hard work. Virtue. Self-criticism. Moderation. A broad framework of intellectual history. Survey courses. English composition. A course on Edmund Spenser. A course primarily on the American Founders. A course on the American Revolution. The history of Western civilization from classical times to the present. A course on the Christian philosophical tradition. Public speaking. Tolerance towards dissenting views. The predicates of critical thinking. A coherent body of knowledge. How to distinguish importance from triviality. Wisdom. Culture.
Utterly ridiculous in all its pseudo-grandeur (full of sound and fury, if I were to get canonical), the list reveals all one needs to know about its authors. There is no educational vision here, just the right-wing fetish for a pre-1960 world before the Great Society, the Civil Rights Movement, and Feminism ruined America. Like other fetishes, this one is laden with irrationality and delusion. In itemizing the qualities of "intellectual modesty, self-restraint, hard work, virtue, self-criticism, [and] moderation," they seem to have confused college with an episode of Little House on the Prarie. They desire a course devoted to Edmund Spenser, while earlier in the report they single out a professor for his focus on James Baldwin. They believe a vast survey on the entirety of Western Civilization will provide "a coherent body of knowledge." They want Bowdoin to teach "Culture" but they despise multi-culturalism. They see no connection between a diversity of student and faculty identities and the "tolerance towards dissenting views" they demand. They flee complexity in the pursuit of better learning. For all their talk of critical thinking, they see the history of the West as an altar before which students should prostrate themselves.

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