Russell Jacoby author of The Last Intellectuals contends on the pages of The Chronicle Review 1/11/08 that “the fate of public intellectuals today allows no neat and certain answers.” He goes on to note that the conservative critique about the Academy has arrived at the wrong conclusions, to wit: bemoaning the overrepresentation of liberals and leftists in academe.
“For starters,” he notes, “how are such political animals identified? And how much does it matter if a Republican, Democrat or Naderite teaches ‘The History of Ancient Greece’?”
Mr. Jacoby has a point, but it is certainly not as compelling as he thinks. Presumably the History of Ancient Greece should not be influenced by one’s political philosophy. And to be sure, that is sometimes the case. What Professor Jacoby overlooks, however, is that in the university hothouse everything is political including and, most especially, pedagogy.
Take his example. The quasi Marxist (real Marxists don’t admit to their leftist commitment) will contend that Athens was divided into two societies – one of slaves and the other of landholders each pitted against one another in an irrepressible conflict. The conservative will argue that arête, the striving for individual fulfillment, represented the efflorescence of individualism. The Naderite might contend that Solon, the law giver, was a reformer keen on righting the wrongs of the Establishment.
In fact, as Richard Rorty and others have admitted their job as professors is to convert, to change and alter student attitudes. Hence, their pedagogy is based on a victory which translates into persuasion.
I am less convinced by the argument of “overrepresentation” to which some conservative scholars refer than I am by ideologically driven pedagogy. I recently heard an English professor who stated definitively that Hamlet had an oedipal complex over Gertrude. When a student said she doubted the veracity of this claim, she was simply shouted down and made to look foolish. The professor in question would not allow for alternative interpretations of Shakespeare’s work.
Similarly, I heard a professor of American History argue that the Civil War was inevitable, there wasn’t any compromise that could have prevented the conflict. This, in my judgment is a plausible hypothesis, but when one student maintained that there is insufficient evidence to rely on this judgment, the instructor applied Marxist logic of class and culture conflict to suggest the case is closed.
To suggest, as Professor Jacoby does, that professors “inhabit a protected environment where they can neither harm each other nor reach outsiders,” is misguided in my judgment. The outsiders in this equation are students and, from what I’ve observed, can indeed be “harmed” by politically driven professors.