Monday, August 29, 2005

So That Explains My Aneurysm!

This was a rough weekend. We did an out-of-town trip, which is always taxing, and The Boy decided that this would be a good time to enter the ‘why’ phase. (‘It’s time for dinner.’ “Why?’ ‘Turn off the tv.’ ‘Why?’ While I’d like to think that I’m open to epistemological skepticism, sometimes I just need him to turn off the (#&@Y)% tv.)

In a futile bid to relax, I decided to sit down with a copy of Harper’s. (Okay, okay, I’m showing my pinko commie northeastern brie-eating chardonnay-drinking granola hippie unitarian peacenik side. Deal with it.) This month’s issue includes a roundtable addressing one of the most important topics facing higher ed today: ideological diversity on the faculty!

I can already feel the forehead veins pounding, but foolishly, I plow ahead anyway.

They’ve assembled four panelists, not a single one of whom is currently active in academic administration, to debate the need for affirmative action for Republicans on college faculties. To make the discussion concrete, they propose a series of scenarios, and ask the panelists how they would respond to each.

The first scenario: a government department with 30 professors has only 4 who voted for Bush, and only two Straussians. The students are up in arms, demanding more Straussians, but the department instead hired someone whose work is in European integration. What to do?

I physically threw the magazine across the room.
Let’s parse that sucker.

First of all, how many colleges or universities in America have 30 faculty in the poli sci department? My college has one. Uno. Hard to achieve diversity, with a faculty of one. That nobody on the panel even caught this tells you what you need to know about where they came from. Most colleges and universities in America (and Canada, too, I’d guess) would have a poli sci or government faculty ranging from zero to five or six. To find a department bigger than a dozen, you’d have to hit the ranks of the elite research universities, and even there it will be hit and miss. So we’re already talking about a very, very small sample.

Second, how many undergraduates have the vaguest idea what a Straussian is? (The term denotes followers of the political philosopher Leo Strauss, an influential scholar of Plato at the University of Chicago in the mid 20th century. His work is notoriously opaque (and unmistakably homoerotic), but tends towards a radical distrust of democracy.)

Third, since when does a style of interpretation dictate a particular political position? I’ve known left Straussians, conservative Nietzscheans, and feminist Republicans. To conflate ‘Straussian’ and ‘Republican’ would be like conflating ‘Catholic’ with ‘Democrat.’ It doesn’t make sense.

Fourth, there’s a difference between a style of reading (which is what Straussianism is) and an area of study (which is what European integration is). For some reason, otherwise-intelligent people forget this. A lefty can study a conservative movement, and a conservative can study the left. More to the point, either can study ‘Europe,’ or ‘war,’ or ‘Congress.’ To infer someone’s political position from her chosen object of study is just sloppy thinking. (That’s where I take exception to the social/feminist history vs. military/political history debate making the rounds in the history blogosphere. Both sides understand the objects of study as proxies for political positions – broadly, social history is taken as a sign of leftism, with political history as a sign of conservatism. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Either side can be done either way, and probably should be.)

All this, and I’m not even a page into the article.

Speaking from the hiring side (to the extent that I ‘ve had the chance to hire, which has been less than I’d like), I can say with confidence that I have absolutely no idea who my hires vote for, if anybody. It doesn’t come up. There is no reason it would, and no reason it should.

But my real gripe is that Harper’s (and the media who bother to cover higher ed) gets such tunnel vision. The elite 100 or so universities are actually a minuscule portion of the overall picture, and the liberal arts departments are a small (and declining) portion of those. Most colleges and universities in America don’t come anywhere near having 30 poli sci professors, nor would the students be attuned enough to raise a stink if too few of them were oddball Platonists. (In a way, I’d happily take that world – a world in which every college is a hotbed of high-theoretical debate, with large, well-funded faculties with enough release time to delve deeply into the eternal mysteries. Oh, happy land!) Most colleges are struggling to cover the core curriculum, to keep what staff size they have now, to graduate their students, and to keep costs down. Delegating the voter-registration police is just otherworldly.

I’m not naive enough to believe that anybody actually thinks that the problem with higher ed in America is too many Democrats. It’s a fundraising bugaboo for the Right, and an excuse to cut funding for ‘butter’ to pay for ‘guns.’ Call it what it is. I just get annoyed when the real issues are utterly ignored, and this absurdity gets eight-page spreads.

My Excedrin stash is calling...