Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Should Higher Education Have a Leftist Bias?

A socialist professor defends liberal education from capitalism, unthinking conservatism, and his critics.

I respond more in sorrow than in anger to Professor Marks’s review of my Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias and the comments following it.

My book began and concluded with an appeal to conservative readers to respond to it according to a set of “Ground Rules for Polemicists,” to which I also pledged myself, and which included the following:

Show that you approach opponents’ actions and writings with an open mind, not with malice aforethought. Concede the other side’s valid arguments–preferably toward the beginning of your critique, not tacked on grudgingly at the end or in inconspicuous subordinate clauses. Acknowledge points on which you agree at least partially and might be able to cooperate.

Summarize the other side’s case fully and fairly, in an account that they would accept, prior to refuting it.

Be willing to acknowledge misconduct, errors, and fallacious arguments by your own allies, and try scrupulously to establish an accurate proportion and sense of reciprocity between them and those you criticize in your opponents. Do not play up the other side’s forms of power while denying or downplaying your own side’s.  Do not weigh an ideal, theoretical model of your side’s beliefs against the most corrupt actual practices on the other side.

Do not substitute ridicule, insult, or name-calling for reasoned argument and substantive evidence.

Why did Marks not only fail to mention or try to adhere to these ground rules but set out to flout every one of them, beginning with cheap-shot ridicule of the book as a “stale ’80s culture wars remix”? Why did he—along with nearly every other conservative editor, reviewer, and commentator who has discussed my book—reflexively jump into the “Gotcha!” mindset that has poisoned civil discourse in American politics and culture?

Rather than reiterate my 230-page case that academic leftists provide a legitimate counter-balance to all the “unmarked” conservative biases that are accepted as normative in American society, I direct readers to this description and table of contents of my book. Marks did not try to provide anything like an impartial summary of my central thesis, the contents of these chapters, or my supporting arguments. Here is a post of one key section on Truthout.org, “Corporations, Corporations? Nobody Here But Us Chickens.” Isn’t there much in this chapter that TAC readers might agree with?

Marks doesn’t believe that my account of the provincial conservatism of many of my students is typical at many colleges. He teaches at Ursinus, a private, small, and selective liberal arts college, 30 miles from Philadelphia, which apparently emphasizes study of the classics; he suggests that the students are relatively liberal, as is common among liberal arts majors. It sounds like a wonderful college, and I would have loved to teach there. But I taught mainly at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, in a rural stretch of Central California; it was originally an ag college, and most of the English courses I taught were lower-division General Education and Breadth requirements for students in majors like Agricultural Management. Many such students resented having to waste their time and money on any general education at all. Does Marks really think that more college students resemble those at Ursinus than those at Cal Poly?

Marks also ignores my point about the long-enshrined bias in America of self-proclaimed conservative parents and students who conceive college as a place for the mindless worship of intercollegiate sports and of Greek social life, which has increasingly fostered drunkenness, rape, and fatal hazing. Nor does he consider my argument that the primary force against liberal education is the conservative one of corporations and professions turning higher education into publicly subsidized training of their work forces and conducting of their research. Nor does he condemn the Republican politicians who flaunt their disdain for intellect, science, reason, and humanistic knowledge, while their budget cuts have caused tuitions and student loan debt to skyrocket. Cannot academics on the left and right at least join ranks in opposition to these forces that are killing off liberal education and political literacy everywhere but in privileged schools like Ursinus?

Many of my students at Poly—and at the University of Tennessee, where I taught after retirement—identified themselves, in anonymous questionnaires, as conservative and Republican. Most, however, did not get their conservative ideas from Edmund Burke or Russell Kirk but from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly. Many were baffled at being required in my course in argumentative writing and evaluating sources to undertake scholarly study of sources like Limbaugh’s and O’Reilly’s books, or the campaign rhetoric of Republicans and Democrats. However, nearly all came to recognize the factual unreliability and deceptive reasoning in these sources. My ultimate goal here was to lead students to read at the level of Burke and Kirk, in debate with intellectual liberal or socialist counterparts, rather than at the level of Limbaugh and O’Reilly versus Bill Maher and Al Sharpton.

Marks further claims I emphasize study of partisan politics to the exclusion of broader humanistic thought—but I am only arguing against its exclusion. He asks about study of political argument, “Can a more dreary, less useful, course of education be imagined?” What a strange statement from a political scientist, who surely knows that Socrates’ teaching students to debunk political sophists who make “the worse argument appear the stronger” is central to Western humanistic education. Don’t Marks and TAC’s readers think that political illiteracy presents any problem in this country or that the Socratic, critical study of current political rhetoric should be required somewhere in American education—far more than it has been in either college or K-12 courses in English or any other discipline?

Some of Marks’s accounts of my book are slanted. He writes disparagingly, “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.’” My passage here, referring to a recent incident in my home town of Knoxville, began by citing a 1976 column by Kristol in the Wall Street Journal advocating conservative invective against liberal journalists’ “professional integrity” and advising that they “have to be hit over the head a few times before they pay attention.” I commented,

The ostensible tone of such pieces may have been wryly humorous, but whimsical metaphor was beyond the wave length of more crude-minded conservative constituents who pushed such verbal violence to literalness, in the manner of the Knoxville army veteran who went on a killing spree in a Unitarian church in the belief that ‘all liberals should be killed… because they had ruined every institution in America with the aid of major media outlets.’

The killer, Jim David Adkisson, testified he had compiled a hit-list inspired by a book of conservative media critic Bernard Goldberg, a disciple of Kristol, titled One Hundred People Who Are Screwing Up America.

Marks also distorts my comments about Alan Bloom, claiming that I “attack” him, whereas I found much to like in Bloom’s ideas and personality. He says I “accuse 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.” I say no such thing, though I would say that Bloom’s bawdy sense of humor, his atheism, his intellectual elitism, and above all his homosexuality and death from AIDS (as confirmed by Andrew Ferguson in the Weekly Standard) were concealed by those who promoted him as a paragon of conservative orthodoxy. Marks further criticizes me for claiming that Bloom ignored rock music’s connection to capitalism, “even though Bloom says that ‘the rock business is perfect capitalism.’”

Marks may be right on this precise point, though my larger argument is that Bloom, like many conservative intellectuals, didn’t have the nerve to pursue the implications of the fact that the degradations of commercial popular culture are driven wholly by capitalism’s amoral profit motive. My book suggests a strong similarity between Bloom’s critique of mass culture and that of Frankfurt School Marxists like Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm, though he misrepresented and ridiculed books by them without any indication that he had read them. (See my p. 137). I also point out several factual errors in Bloom reflecting his political bias.

My main criticism of Bloom is that he was coy at best in claiming to defend the traditions of liberal education that transcend partisan politics, while his books were coded rationalizations of Reagan Republicanism. He was the darling of the neoconservative Republican circle of power centered in the Olin Foundation, where Irving Kristol was a key figure. Olin associates funded the writing of The Closing of the American Mind, got it published, and managed to place rave reviews of it in the Wall Street Journal by William Kristol and in the (liberal?) New York Times by Olin stalwart Roger Kimball. All this publicity made it a bestseller and conservative Bible, though it is questionable how many who bought it had any clue about, or sympathy for, what the book actually said.

Finally, Marks disputes my argument in the chapter “Socialism as a Cognitive Alternative”:

Most [American public] discourse is confined to a narrow spectrum whose leftward limit is the Democratic-Party version of governance by relatively liberal multimillionaire corporate, financial, and military executives… . In recent elections, Democratic candidates have even refused to label their positions as liberal, while Republican candidates compete to declare themselves the most conservative. Conservative polemicists play up the power of liberal, and even socialist, forces in America, but why then has not just socialism but liberalism become the ideology that dare not speak its name?

Marks claims to refute me by citing the same polls I do, showing that a surprisingly large percentage of Americans support socialism over capitalism and have a negative attitude toward corporations. My point was precisely the disconnect between those polls and the absence of openly socialist or anti-capitalist spokespersons in mainstream American politics, media, and education—especially K-12, that training camp for capitalist consumerism and conformity. If that many Americans are sympathetic to socialism, it is not because of the information they get from mainstream sources but in spite of it. Why can’t we have anti-communistic socialist, social democratic, or labor parties and mass media, as in most other democracies? The issue here is not the relative merits of capitalism versus socialism but simply allowance for a wider range of speech and thought. Can we really depend on our two political parties and media that are branches of corporate capitalism to give an adequate hearing to arguments—including from the honorable tradition of anti-capitalist conservative thinkers—that this whole system has been destructive of “liberty and justice for all” and the environmental future of the planet?

Why do conservatives get so outraged, then, over the notion that liberal education is one of the very few arenas of American public discourse that might allow some voice for views outside of the capitalist mainstream? I do not believe those views should be imposed unilaterally or coercively but in even-handed study and civil debate with capitalistic ones. So I again invite Professor Marks and TAC readers to engage my arguments here in such debate, without “substituting ridicule, insult, or name-calling for reasoned argument and substantive evidence.”

Donald Lazere is professor emeritus of English at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and currently teaches at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. 

Jonathan Marks replies:

Thanks to Donald Lazere for his reply. For the most part, I am content to let my review speak for itself.

But Lazere should not get away with denying what he says in the book. I said that Lazere falsely accuses Allan Bloom of trying to hide the obscenity in great books. Lazere replies “I said no such thing” and that I have distorted his comments. But in his chapter on the “Radical Humanistic Canon” he claims that “conservatives” expurgate the “unabashedly earthy, erotic, and ribald” from literary classics, then names Bloom among the “ostensibly pious conservative leaders” who, though they have probably enjoyed a little obscenity themselves “try to protect the unsophisticated masses” from it.  More fundamentally, Lazere claims that he is arguing only against the “exclusion” of advocacy from higher education, but that’s not true. The very title of the book indicates that he thinks that higher education should have a leftist bias.

That claim depends on another claim, about students. Lazere thinks that students on the whole are “limited in their political views to the conservative commonplaces they have heard from their parents and peers.” That is why Lazere can argue that educators who self-consciously adopt a leftist bias are merely Socratics, questioning whatever assumptions students happen to come in with, rather than partisan combatants seeking to win converts. Instead of discussing the survey data I cite to counter this proposition—data from the Higher Education Research Institute, whose most recent survey reached 165,473 students entering 234 colleges and universities of various sizes, types, and degrees of selectivity—Lazere focuses entirely on what I say about my own experience, which he wrongly suggests is limited to Ursinus College. Lazere asks “Does Marks really think that more college students resemble those at Ursinus than those at Cal Poly?” Setting aside Lazere’s assumption, that I trust that he is a good observer of his own students, my answer is that I think that the HERI survey is a useful starting point, though not the final word, on what political assumptions students enter college with. As my review showed, that survey offers no support for the proposition that students are “limited in their view to the conservative commonplaces they have heard from their parents and peers.”

One last thing: Lazere chides conservatives at the beginning and end of his response for failing to mention or observe the “ground rules for polemicists” to which people have not been paying enough attention since Lazere first proclaimed them in the late 1990s. But you don’t need to read his book—you can just read his response—to see how well Lazere observes his own rules. Consider Lazere’s attempt to show that my review is slanted because I accuse him of tying Irving Kristol to a killing spree. He refutes this charge by quoting and elaborating on the passage in which he… ties Irving Kristol to a killing spree. Watch as Lazere moves from the observation that Kristol once said that liberal journalists may “have to be hit over the head a few times before they pay attention” to the fact that the killer referred to a book by Bernard Goldberg, to the claim that Goldberg is a “disciple of Kristol’s,” leading to a conclusion he need not state, that Kristol and other conservatives have blood on their hands. In the book, having given this example of what he regards as sound reasoning, Lazere moves on to chide Kristol for arguing poorly. (“This level of writing would represent a “D” in freshman English.”)

Lazere has a right to say that few in the “Republican elite” have “ever made a visible sacrifice for their country,” or to quote approvingly a commenter who says they are “well-practiced in cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy,” or even, in a juvenile moment, to refer to Bill Bennett’s “portly physique.” But please, no more lectures on civil debate.

Jonathan Marks is professor of politics at Ursinus College. 



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