Review: What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

LiberalWhat’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?, Michael Bérubé. New York: Norton, 2006.

Summary: This is a spirited defense of liberalism and the liberal idea by a literature professor against accusations of “liberal bias”. The argument includes extensive description of the author’s own classroom practice.

Beginning perhaps with William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, there have been numerous attacks on the “liberal” university. The defenses of the university have been far fewer. By and large, this book could have been subtitled “what’s right with the liberal university?”

Michael Bérubé, a literature professor at Penn State (he holds the Paterno Family chair), argues that the conservative charges of liberal bias are largely groundless. [Correction: The information about his holding the Paterno Family chair was taken from his bio on Goodreads. He resigned this chair in 2012 following the Penn State football scandal and wrote about this in the Chronicle of Higher Education and is now the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Penn State.] He would contend both that the procedural liberalism that values all serious argument and scholarly inquiry, and substantive liberalism which with its commitments to universal human rights and defenses against authoritarian control by any single group within a society, are positive values that the university upholds which are central to a democratic society.

He begins with his own experience of dealing with a contentious and sometimes obnoxious conservative student in one of his classes and his efforts to take his arguments seriously, to challenge them where faulty, and to take class texts seriously on their own terms, culminating with granting the student an “A” grade for his efforts.

He moves from this to complaints from conservatives that “liberal professors” have abridged students’ academic freedom. He argues that the most notorious cases actually turn out to reflect not “liberal bias” but appropriate grading down poor academic efforts or even instances of plagiarism. It is true that politically liberal faculty outnumber conservatives significantly in the liberal arts but he argues that this often is offset by the views of faculty in the sciences, technology fields, and business, and overlooked in what he argues are cherry-picked statistics. He also argues that some of the issues is conservatives simply not being willing to do the hard work to obtain positions in liberal-dominated fields

The next three chapters focus on Bérubé’s own practice in teaching. He begins with his general classroom practices including classroom discussions and what he looks for in papers. Here he writes:

“…I tell students that it often helps to develop a thesis by imagining other readers who might disagree with it. What, I ask them, do you want to tell us about the book in question, and why should we believe you? Is there another way to read the book, a way you find mistaken, partial, or downright unsavory? Do you want to make sure we aren’t persuaded by that other way, with all the consequences it might entail, whatever those might be? My most important criterion is that of plausibility; I want to see how judiciously and carefully students cite the text in order to bear out their assertions or to direct their hypothetical readers’ attention to what they think are a text’s crucial passages….I tell students straightforwardly that I tend to be especially impressed by papers that ask the simple but profound question, so what?” (p. 110).

He proceeds in the next two chapters to describe two of the classes he has taught, one on American Fiction Since 1865, and the other on Postmodernism. In the former, he goes into significant length describing his discussions of The Rise of Silas Lapham and its explorations of class. In the latter, he describes his interactions with a conservative student, Stan, and the vigorous arguments they had around questions of foundationalism versus anti-foundationalism. Once again, the outcome was that the two still differed, Stan received a “A” in the course, and eventually the two conducted an independent study course together.

He concludes by returning to his original argument that it is vital to protect the kind of liberal education and liberalism he is talking about against efforts that suppress argument and inquiry (he uses the ID movement as an example of the latter). He also argues that liberal ideas such as universal, egalitarian human rights and safe-guarding the university from control of any particular part of society is vital to the broader aims of democratic society. He points out that the interest of people from other countries in attending our institutions and the fact that affluent conservatives will choose Harvard or Yale over Hillsdale or Mount Olivet Nazarene points to the effectiveness and success of liberal education.

I found myself torn in reading this account. Bérubé sounds like someone who I’d love to take a course with–a good and diligent teacher genuinely interested in teaching the material of a course and engaging students in critical thought and argument around what is most worthy in these courses. I’ve also seen the truth of his arguments against some conservative complaints about bias. Rarely have I seen instances where students who wrote quality papers differing from  professor’s viewpoint be graded down solely for their viewpoint.

There is a more subtle issue that Bérubé does not adequately address. It is the liberal control of many liberal arts disciplines. Working in graduate student ministry, I would attest to how hard it is for students to sustain a basic viewpoint at variance with the reigning paradigms of their discipline, and even harder for such students to be hired into tenure track positions except in conservative or religious institutions.

While Bérubé vigorously defends open argument and enquiry, at one point he describes facing charges of racism because he gave a low grade to a poor quality essay. He describes these as “Star Chamber” proceedings and what is striking is that even progressive faculty like himself are not immune to such charges. Erika Christakis’s resignation from her teaching post at Yale because of a carefully reasoned email in response to the outcry over Halloween costumes is the most recent example of a thoughtful and indeed, progressive, academic sacrificed to what appears to many “political correctness gone amuck”. Among her contentions was whether students really wanted to set up institutional controls over costumes, and posed other questions based on her area of research, child development. This is not the consequence of attacks from the conservatives Berube rails against.

What this points up to me is that there may be a moment where all those who truly prize open discourse and inquiry might come together, whether “liberal” or “conservative”. The real issue, which I think Bérubé missed in this book, is that we have moved from an age of reason and argument, to the empire of desire, and the rule of sentiment; and from the reasoned argument to the soundbite and slogan. We have moved from what we hold in common as humans across cultures and centuries, to the politics of identity and incommensurability.  Might this be the moment where all who value the classic liberal ideal of the university come together to conserve what is good, and perhaps most critical, to help us compose our differences as a nation committed to e pluribus unum?