Closing of the Scholarly Mind
Donald Lazere’s stale ’80s culture-war remix is fresh in one way. Other academics on the left use neutral sounding terms like “global citizenship,” “diversity,” or “social justice” to brand the view that higher education should guide students toward the social and political attitudes of their professors. Lazere boldly calls his book Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias.
Lazere, an emeritus professor of English at California Polytechnic State University, has a straightforward argument. Liberal education should “broaden students’ perspectives beyond those of their upbringing.” Students’ perspectives are today narrowed by our political discourse, which occupies a “spectrum whose leftward limit is the Democratic version of governance by relatively liberal, wealthy corporate and military executives.” Neither mainstream liberals nor mainstream conservatives question the “unmarked norm” of capitalism, and consequently students don’t question it either. “Isn’t there something to be said,” then, “for … preserving in the human imagination … socialist ideals,” and “mightn’t college liberal arts teachers … be indulged in this role, like the monks who preserved the manuscripts of classical humanists?” Such teachers honor the great tradition of “the liberal arts as a Socratic gadfly to the body politic.”
In “The Crisis of Liberal Education,” Allan Bloom (disclosure: Bloom, whom Lazere attacks, was my teacher) argued that universities should preserve for students serious and neglected alternative accounts of the best way of life. In Lazere’s hands, Bloom morphs into Ralph Nader, for whom the only such way of life worth mentioning is rebellion against the corporate oligarchy. Lazere’s “Socratic” gadfly buzzes only about socialism and the deficiencies of Fox News.
Lazere’s book is unintentionally instructive. We are told not to worry that college and university faculty are overwhelmingly left or liberal because students’ political views do not change much in college. Even if that’s so, the leftist bias Lazere proudly recommends and exemplifies distorts his vision of students and what they need. Teachers who follow Lazere may not indoctrinate their students, but they will not much help them reflect on how to live a good life either.
Lazere thinks his students tend to be “limited in their political views to the conservative commonplaces they have heard from their parents and peers.” I don’t know Lazere’s students, but I do know that the Higher Education Research Institute annually conducts a survey of incoming freshmen. That survey shows that more students enter college as self-identified liberals (26.8 percent in 2012) than enter as self-identified conservatives (21.1 percent). Many (47.5 percent) call themselves middle-of-the-road. Seventy-five percent agree that same-sex marriage should be legal. Some 64.6 percent agree that the wealthy should pay more taxes. So much for conservative commonplaces.
Recall that Lazere thinks that capitalism is our “unmarked norm,” which students blindly adopt. Moreover, the “capitalist status quo” is abetted by “conservatives’ monolithic propaganda campaign” against socialism, so that the left cannot get a hearing. But the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press tracks how people react to politically loaded terms, including capitalism and socialism. Among 18-29 year olds in 2011, 46 percent of respondents reacted favorably to the word “capitalism,” while 47 percent reacted unfavorably. Socialism does considerably better in this age group, with 49 percent viewing it favorably and only 43 percent viewing it unfavorably. Even when all age groups are taken into account, capitalism is viewed favorably by 50 percent of respondents, better than “socialism” at 31 percent but no better than “liberal,” which also comes in at 50 percent.
And, as the infomercials say, that’s not all. Lazere claims that students refuse to see beyond their personal experience, taking the fact that “my family never owned slaves” as conclusive evidence that racial prejudice is no longer a problem. But the HERI survey finds that only 23 percent of freshmen think that racism is no longer a “major problem” in America. Lazere complains that students and others always blame big government and never blame corporations. But Gallup’s 2013 poll shows that corporations are just as unpopular as big government, with about 60 percent dissatisfied with the influence of each.
Lazere asks to be judged only by those who have taught “the kind of students” he has “in the kind of schools” he has. Admittedly, I cannot be sure that he is exaggerating when he writes about several of his “aggressively conservative students” who “have flaunted their ambition to get on the gravy train of Republican-aligned political consultants, media, foundations and think tanks,” just because I have never heard of, much less met, even one in my long career as a teacher and student. And if Lazere says that “many” of his students picture “Western European countries as police states like 1984, with storm troopers on every corner and everyone living in shanties,” I cannot disprove it, though I marvel at his capacity to attract such students, having never met one myself. But Lazere’s book is not entitled Why Lazere, Having The Kinds of Students He Has, Should Have a Leftist Bias. So if students are not unthinkingly pro-capitalism and anti-socialism, Lazere’s case that higher education must have a leftist bias to counter the conservative bias of students fails.
I teach Marx and the American socialist Eugene Debs, and although my students resist their arguments, they typically resist on pragmatic grounds—socialism, they think, does not work. Because my students are egalitarians, few reject out of hand the argument that capitalism is unfair. Because of that same egalitarianism, students are much more inclined to reject another figure I sometimes teach, the mathematician G.H. Hardy, who in A Mathematician’s Apology says that only a “tiny minority” can do “anything,” much less pure mathematics, “really well.” For the majority, who do “nothing well … it matters very little what career they choose.” My students, even the math majors, struggle not only with Hardy’s elitism but also with his claims that the best math is useless, that uselessness is a virtue, and that mathematicians are more in touch with reality than experimental physicists. Hardy challenges my students’ preconceptions more than Marx does.
I choose Hardy, who calls students to a way of life that deliberately distances itself from politics, to suggest that even if Lazere were right that our students do not question capitalism, his vision of higher education would neglect the many other things students may not much question. If higher education should acquaint students with possibilities they have not considered, then higher education should have a Burkean bias, and a Kirkian bias, since even a good Marxist knows that capitalism undermines tradition; it should have a bias toward the teachings of Pope John Paul II, since most students, even the Catholic ones, have probably not considered the possibility that their culture is a culture of death; and it should have a bias toward high art, since democracies tend to favor popular art. But a higher education that asks students to scrutinize their prejudices about the most important questions, and to weigh answers they may never have considered, does not have a leftist or conservative bias. Such an education is biased solely toward the view that the unexamined life is not worth living for human beings, a view that necessarily calls itself into question.
Lazere’s great narrowing of the aim of higher education encompasses more than his wish that it occupy itself with preserving the thought of the left. Because Lazere thinks that not only “unmarked norms” but also the deliberate efforts of a “conservative attack machine” have prejudiced students against the left, exposing that machine becomes an important aim of “general education.” Here is his remarkable description of the work of “critical teachers”:
As if it were not exasperating enough for critical teachers to try to convey to students … the myriad ways in which they have been inundated with conservative biases … the effort to convey the deviousness of the massive body of plausible-looking information put out by conservative forces … presents a nearly insurmountable additional burden.
But Lazere is game. He wants students to consider such vexed questions as whether George Soros or the Koch brothers represents the greater threat to American democracy (surprise, it’s the Kochs), or whether David Horowitz is guilty of misquoting Noam Chomsky (guilty), or whether Allan Bloom, Irving Kristol, and Norman Podhoretz are disingenuous servants of the oligarchy (you bet). Although Lazere has “no stake in whitewashing the left,” he says that “its sins can only be judged accurately in proportion to a full accounting of those on the right.” Perhaps—whether because students are not easily persuaded, or because Lazere urges teachers to present the best conservative arguments—devoting general education to this kind of inquiry will not do any political harm. But can a more dreary, less useful, course of education be imagined?
Alongside the subtle but most damaging effects of the liberal bias Lazere promotes, there are less subtle effects to be noted. Lazere calls on conservative educators to help him “elevate the quality of American civil education to … reasoned debate” but does not hold up his end. He accuses Bloom of ignoring rock music’s connection to capitalism, even though Bloom says that “the rock business is perfect capitalism.” He accuses Bloom of trying to hide the obscenity to be found in great books, even though Bloom says that “obscenity predominates” in Shakespeare’s brand of comedy.
More seriously, Lazere connects some “wryly humorous” remarks of Irving Kristol to a “killing spree” perpetrated by a man who believes that “all liberals should be killed.” And to prove Kristol’s snobbery, Lazere refers to a disparaging remark Kristol once made about his fellow soldiers in World War II, without revealing that Kristol’s worry was that they were “too easily inclined to loot, to rape, and to shoot prisoners of war.” All this from a professor who proposes his brand of “critical thinking” as a “possible model for the entire enterprise of liberal education.”
These lapses are distasteful. But the more serious fault of Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias is its utter neglect of the vocation of teachers who, as Bloom put it in Closing of the American Mind, “must constantly try to look toward the goal of human completeness and back at the natures of his students here and now, ever seeking to understand the former and to assess the capacity of the latter to approach it.” Academics who think of the university as just another front in the war between liberals and conservatives turn their back on this humbling vocation.
Jonathan Marks is professor of politics at Ursinus College.