Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Of Armadillos and Marxists

This should be so painfully obvious as to not need saying.  But judging from yesterday’s story about Mitch Daniels and Howard Zinn, and much of the commentary it generated, it still needs to be said.

You don’t have to be an armadillo to study armadillos.  You don’t have to be an ancient Greek to study ancient Greece.  And you don’t have to be a Marxist to study a Marxist.

As governor of Indiana, apparently, Mitch Daniels sent a series of emails declaring that nobody should teach the writings of Howard Zinn at any public university in Indiana on his watch.  After all, Daniels seemed to assume, Zinn was a lefty and a skeptic.  Teaching him would be corrosive of the morals of the youth.  And the only people who would ever teach a subversive must obviously be subversives themselves.

Predictably, though dishearteningly, many of the comments either sided with Daniels or extolled the virtues of Zinn.  

At one level, it’s an easy case of a politician failing utterly to understand academic freedom.  But it’s more than that.

Whether the book in question is by Howard Zinn or George Will isn’t the point.  Studying a text does not imply agreeing with it, whatever “agreeing” means.  In fact, learning to keep a critical distance on a text is one of the most important skills that higher education can impart.  (I’m using “critical” here in the academic sense, meaning “evaluative,” rather than in the popular sense, meaning “bashing.”  Any idiot can bash.  But a serious evaluation requires actual thought.)  Reading texts that take different points of view can force a student to get beyond simply repeating what they’ve read, or falling back on whatever cliches are handy.

In my radio days, one of my favorite tricks was to play back-to-back versions of the same song by different artists.  (That’s easy with jazz, since there’s a widely accepted set of standards.)  Hearing Billie Holiday’s version of “God Bless the Child,” and then hearing Keith Jarrett’s version, you couldn’t help but notice what each musician brought to it, and how much the song had to offer.  When you knew how the song was “supposed” to go, and then it took a left turn, you noticed the turn.  It allowed for a fuller appreciation of the possibilities of the song.

In teaching history or politics, the same idea holds.  How many ways are there to interpret the industrial revolution?  If you say “one,” you’re badly wrong, no matter which one you pick.  Walking students through some of the alternatives, and getting them to grapple with the strengths of each, builds their analytical skills.  It’s hard, but it’s worth doing.  And it presumes the freedom to teach material that does not necessarily reflect the professor’s own view.

With ideologically loaded material, sometimes a certain distance could go a long way.  I struggled with teaching the civil rights movement the first couple of times, because students were so eager to reduce it to “MLK good, racists bad.”  That wasn’t wrong, but it was facile.  It didn’t require any actual thought, and it lent itself to a smug and unhelpful attitude that located racial conflict safely in the distant past.  The discussions got far better when I reframed the question.  “Why did the civil rights movement happen when it did, as opposed to twenty years earlier or twenty years later?”  At that point, students couldn’t just fall back on cliches.  They had to come up with, and evaluate, alternative answers.  They had to think.

Equating an object of study with a political position is absurd.  Assuming that a professor agrees uncritically with everything in every text she assigns is absurd.  I’d be concerned if she did.  Lefties can study conservatives and vice versa.  The best paper I wrote as an undergraduate was on the George Wallace presidential campaign of 1968.  I was no fan of Wallace, and that hasn’t changed, but taking a sustained, close look at what his appeal was for a certain segment of the population forced me to think a little harder about my own views.  I wouldn’t be shocked to hear that some conservative undergraduate is doing a paper on Ralph Nader now, and asking himself some uncomfortable questions.  At least, I hope so.

The relative merits of Howard Zinn aren’t the point.  Yes, it’s about academic freedom.  But it’s also about recognizing the difference between teaching a book and espousing a doctrine.  It’s about respecting students as thinkers, and faculty as craftspeople.  Education isn’t just about transmitting content; it’s about developing the critical skills that enable people to confront ideas with which they disagree and come away smarter.  Otherwise we’re robots.  Or armadillos.