Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Politics in/and the Humanities

Emory English professor Mark Bauerlein has written a piece for the online magazine Inside Higher Ed titled "An Anti-Progressive Syllabus." Bauerlein complains that the humanities today are characterized by partial, polemical discourses on social theory and politics. English departments, for one, have replaced disciplinary study of "actual" literary texts with anti-discipilnary models of social and cultural criticism (this is also the argument of Bauerlein's 1997 book Literary Criticism: An Autopsy).

Bauerlein surveys the literary theory anthologies he's been exposed to as a student and then as a professor of literature and concludes: "The problem lies in the sizable portion of the contributions that bear a polemical or political thrust. These pieces don’t pose a new model of interpretation, redefine terms, outline a theory, or sharpen disciplinary methods. Instead, they incorporate political themes into humanistic study, emphasize race/class/gender/sexuality topics, and challenge customary institutions of scholarly practice. When they do broach analytical methods, they do so with larger social and political goals in mind."

But then Bauerlein makes this unusual concession: "The problem isn’t the inclusion of sociopolitical forensic per se. Rather, it is that the selections fall squarely on the left side of the ideological spectrum. They are all more or less radically progressivist. They trade in group identities and dismantle bourgeois norms. They advocate feminist perspectives and race consciousness. They highlight the marginalized, the repressed, the counter-hegemonic."

Bauerlein's solution to this putatively "radically progressivist" slant in the humanities? Not to question the role of sociopolitical commentary in humanistic inquiry but to forge a reprensentative "range" of political viewpoints in the humanities curriculum: to wit, merely adding to our syllabi texts by conservatives and neoconservatives like F. A. Hayek, Leo Strauss, Francis Fukuyama, Irving Kristol, and even the loathsome, scholar-hating David Horowitz. (The full list of readings may be found in the link above.)

Confused? I was, upon first reading this decidedly partial piece. On the one hand, Bauerlein bemoans the humanities' drift toward sociopolitical commentary in the wake of 1960s and '70s social movements and the culture wars of the 1980s and early '90s. The basic point of his book Literary Criticism is to caution scholars against such "excesses," in part because they run roughshod over disciplinary methods of inquiry. I'm far from agreeing with Bauerlein on this point (I'm a self-described interdisciplinary [Bauerlein would call me anti-disciplinary, I'm sure] researcher myself), but I do respect his intellectual beef with those who use research objects (literature, history, etc.) to confirm or academically legitimate their political beliefs.

Where Bauerlein's essay loses me is this idea that somehow assigning conservative and neoconservative authors will "correct" the "imbalance" that he claims is endemic to the humanities curriculum. Bauerlein offers a set of materials that he says will correct "liberal bias" in the universities. But note: by saying these specific texts and authors will do this or that for humanities scholarship, Bauerlein is no better than the political propagandist who tells us exactly how to read. This is unapologetic, dogmatic prescription: "Gramsci on Tuesday? Try some Hayek over the weekend! A unit on Angela Davis and social activism? We'll be looking at David Horowitz for an 'alternative' viewpoint next go-around. Trust me: with this regimen, you'll feel politically balanced by the end of the term."

Nowhere in his piece does Bauerlein acknowledge that the academy, and humanities departments in particular, are among the preciously few spheres for funded, dissident critical thinking in this country. Not once does he question exactly why the likes of Hayek, Strauss, and Fukuyama are taken seriously as shapers of public and foreign policy (often to disastrous ends, as we can see with neoconservatism's flirtation with evangelism in George W. Bush's war in Iraq), whereas Marx, Gramsci, and feminist philosophers are taken seriously only in the academy.

What I'm trying to say here, in response to Bauerlein's reading list, is that 1) there are very good reasons -- historical, political, social, financial -- why there appears to be a so-called "liberal bias" in the U.S. academy, and 2) no sort of dogmatic political prescription (left, right, or otherwise) belongs in a classroom setting. Bauerlein is guilty of the very thing he purports liberals of perpetrating. A though I'm a liberal myself, my principles bind me to persistent critical thinking in my pedagogy, and I hope never to sink so low as Bauerlein's "fair and balanced" (Fox News, anyone?) syllabus.

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