Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Adversarial Profession

The excellent Minding the Campus blog has a terrific piece by Mark Bauerlein called "The Adversarial Campus". Bauerlein discusses how left-wing academics respond to the overwhelming evidence of left-of-center bias on campus. While many deny the phenomenon and question the evidence, others take a different tack:

The denials go on, and sometimes it's hard to tell whether professors really believe in their own neutrality or whether they just hope to brazen out the attacks. One response, however, stands apart, precisely because it doesn't deny a darn thing in the bias charge. Indeed, it concedes every empirical point - "Yes, left-wing people, left-wing ideas, and left-wing texts dominate," but it adds, "And that's exactly as it should be."

It's a refreshingly straightforward assertion. I heard it at an MLA Convention session awhile back when a young man in the audience talked about getting shot down by his professor when he voiced in class a conservative opinion. One of the panelists replied by telling him to quit complaining, then enlarged the rebuke to all conservative critics. "Look," he grumbled, "conservatives have taken over every where else [this was before the 2006 election], and now they want the campus, too, the one place where liberal values can still prevail."

I'm paraphrasing from memory, but the implication was unmistakable. We need the campus to remain solidly liberal to keep conservatism from swamping the entire present. We might call this the Adversarial Campus Argument. It says that the campus must contest the mainstream, that higher education must critique U.S. culture and society because they have drifted rightward. For the intellectual and moral health of the nation, the professoriate must drift leftward. Kids come into college awash in the three idols that, in the eyes of the teaching liberal, make up the American trinity: God, country, and family. Instruction meets its mind-opening duty by dislodging their acculturation, dismantling the dangerous corollaries of each one, namely, fundamentalism, patriotism, and patriarchy/homophobia.

(Emphasis added-DD)

When I read this piece, the passages I bolded above almost leaped off the screen at me. Because they match almost verbatim some of the responses left-wing librarians have offered to myself and other critics of politicized librarianship. For example, Michael McGrorty responded to my September 2005 Chronicle essay by conceding that leftist politics had permeated the library profession. Where he disagreed with me is that he thought this was a good thing:

It is equally true that the American public have twice elected George Bush, a conservative Republican, to the Presidency. He and the conservative majorities in the Congress run the country. We of the Left have our tiny fiefdom here in ALA. I'd be willing to trade control of ALA for the government of the nation if a deal could be stuck. The way it works around these parts is that you have your elections and suck up the results. My advice for Mr. Durant is that he decide whether he wants to complain about one of the last remaining islands of opposition to Bush doctrines, or rest happy in the knowledge that his folks control the country.

(Emphasis added-DD)

See also the views of those like John Berry, who has implied that one has to be a politically active leftist in order to be a good librarian. Essentially, just as many academic leftists see themselves as part of what Bauerlein calls the Adversarial Campus, so many left-wing librarians see their role as making librarianship into an Adversarial Profession.

I have argued at length about why having a profession committed to the free exchange of ideas function internally as an ideological echo chamber is a bad thing. I won't repeat those points here. Bauerlein, however, offers a telling critique of the Adversarial Campus that applies equally well to the Adversarial Profession:

Several points against the Adversarial Campus Argumetn spring to mind, but a single question explodes it. If Democrats won the White House in 08 and enlarged their majorities in Congress, and if a liberal replaced Scalia on the Supreme Court, would adversarial professors adjust their turf accordingly? Would Hillary in the White House bring Bill Kristol a professorship or Larry Summers a presidency again?

Hardly, and it goes to show that the Adversarial Campus Argument isn't really an argument. It's an attitude. And attitudes aren't overcome by evidence, especially when they do so much for people who bear them. For, think of what the Adversarial Campus does for professors. It flatters the ego, ennobling teachers into dissidents and gadflies. They feel underpaid and overworked, mentally superior but underappreciated, and any notion that compensates is attractive. It gives their isolation from zones of power, money, and fame a functional value. Yes, they're marginal, but that's because they impart threatening ideas. The powerlessness they feel rises into a meaningful political condition.

These points are dead on. To borrow Bauerlein's analogy, is Greg McClay more likely to be elected to ALA Council now that Democrats control both houses of Congress? Somehow, I think not. Similarly, how many librarians overcome their unhappiness over low pay and long hours by believing that they're part of a profession that pushes for "social change" and is the only thing preventing the FBI from fulfilling its nefarious objective of monitoring people's reading habits? Quite a few, I suspect.

To borrow again from Bauerlein, it is clear that for many left-wing librarians, their political persona is indistinguishable from their professional identity. This is why efforts to depoliticize ALA and other professional forums are contested so bitterly.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I've heard this argument also. The Lefties feel totally justified in politicizing ALA because they perceive other institutions as being too conservative. Afterall, they're just providing a necessary alternative to the status quo, or so their argument goes.

4:41 PM  

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