What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and "Bias" in Higher Education Michael Bérubé | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?
Classroom Politics and "Bias" in Higher Education
Michael Bérubé

W.W. Norton & Company, 344 pages $26.95

What's liberal about the liberal arts?

The faculty, for starters. Michael Bérubé acknowledges that while conservative critics overstate the numbers, "There's really no question ... that campuses are teeming with liberal faculty."

There is a question, though, about whether that interferes with anyone's education, and about how much it matters. As Bérubé puts it, "I wish liberals and progressives had less of a presence in literature departments and more of a presence in legislatures."

In fact, the Penn State literature professor sees the debate over "academic freedom" as a political attack, directed at one of the few institutions liberals still have some say in. And by "liberalism," he means not just a set of positions on abortion or the minimum wage, but "procedural liberalism" or liberal-mindedness itself: "the idea that no one political faction should control every facet of a society." Conservatives say they want to expand the campus dialogue, he warns, but what they really want is to control it.

So, he contends, they "champion conservative students' freedom of expression while calling on traditional forms of authority -- trustees, legislators -- to straighten out unruly liberal faculty." And in the name of upholding academic standards, they've provided an excuse -- academic bias -- to any student with a bad grade.

Bérubé has good sport exposing the hypocrisy and hyperbole of some right-wing critics and tactics. (One conservative poster child for academic abuse, he reports, was a repeat plagiarizer.) David Horowitz, the former 1960s radical turned conservative pit bull, comes in for a special drubbing, but he's not alone. When one critic says faculty discrimination against conservatives is "statistically even starker than previous blackballings by race," Bérubé scoffs: "This would mean, I imagine, that on some campuses there are fewer than zero conservatives."

Bérubé maintains a wry sense of humor throughout, and while he identifies himself as a liberal, he distances himself from what he calls the "Monty Python left." (He also is critical of wayward academics who do use the classroom as a soapbox.) His amiable tone goes a long way in dispelling the right-wing caricature of academics ... even if Bérubé sometimes resorts to caricature himself.

He notes, for example, a legislative bill in Ohio that would have prohibited professors from "introducing controversial matter ... that has no relation to their subject of study." When the bill's sponsor defines "controversial matter" as "religion and politics," Bérubé concludes this is "bad news for political science ... and religion departments." But of course that's absurd: In such departments those topics would be the "subject of study," and thus permissible under the bill. (Pressed on this during an interview, Bérubé acknowledges the argument was "quick and dirty.")

In any case, Bérubé's political manifesto occupies only about half the book. The rest is devoted to demonstrating how he teaches. "[I]n some respects, my classes are everything the cultural right fears they are, and more," he writes: "We certainly do talk about race, class, gender, and sexuality." But as it turns out, bringing such topics into the classroom is: a) nothing to be afraid of, and b) just about the only way of making some books interesting.

Bérubé offers a blow-by-blow account of classroom discussions that is, well, thorough. Many readers will wonder if they really need an 18-page account of how Bérubé teaches The Rise of Silas Lapham. Wasn't reading The Great Gatsby once enough?

But Bérubé is a good teacher, and even this secondhand account may remind you of how a professor can knock the dust off a "classic" and show you something new. As Bérubé puts it, while F. Scott Fitzgerald didn't set out to write a "critique of capitalism and bourgeois individualism," his book is arguably "not only about love and the green light across the bay, but also about culture, society, and systems of value. ... [T]o suggest such a thing, I think, is only to suggest that The Great Gatsby is a great novel."

Bérubé's book may not take some conservative criticisms seriously enough. (If faculty marched in ideological lockstep, he argues, professors wouldn't have such spirited arguments. By that token, a gathering of Nader voters is a diverse group.) But often, conservatives don't take teaching seriously either, regarding professors as both sinister and lazy. Bérubé's book convincingly answers those libels. Even the Dread Horowitz, in an otherwise blistering review, concedes, "I find the class sessions he describes ... interesting, reasonable, and unobjectionable."

Bérubé does his best teaching here by example. By book's end, you may still want more conservatives on campus. But you'll believe your kid can get a fair shake -- and maybe even learn something -- from a department full of Democrats.