Higher Ed is in Crisis but Don’t Blame the Liberals (Or the Conservatives)

I love it when professors talk about troubles they have trying to be professors. The article I just read is meaty and full of very salient points about why teaching critical thinking has become a job deserving of hazardous pay. There’s just one teeny tiny thing I disagree with the author on: the meaning of “liberal” in this context. Specifically, the use of the term liberal as an appropriate label for the kind of phenomenon he describes. I blame George W. Bush. Or Bob Dole. Bob Dole doesn’t like liberals. Bob Dole doesn’t like higher education. Bob Dole likes Bob Dole. Bob Dole. (Does anyone else miss Norm MacDonald’s Bob Dole?)

I’m not going to go into a lengthy summary here of the content of his article since you can read it yourself but I will note for those of you that click the link and then grump “TL;DR” that his central point is about the increasing difficulty college level professors (and especially non-tenure track ones) have with engaging students in debates about cultural and social issues in the classroom free of accusations and consequences related to “identity sensitivity” or whatever we want to call the trend of concern for “my feelings” over serious socio-political moments. I encourage you to read the article since my one sentence summary is grossly inadequate. The point is, he has a lot to say about the dangers of challenging students’ ideas in the classroom.

My beef with the article is the misuse of the term liberal, or perhaps I should say “misappropriation” since that would be ironic. I say misuse because the author attributes much of academics’ inability to engage in serious discourse to liberals, and especially to “social justice” advocates who want to blame the white men for everything without a thoughtful critique of the specific situation. Here’s the problem with that: “liberal” is a loaded word—something George Lakoff might have referred to as a framing device. The term is a binary and implies that the only other option is conservative. If you’re not one, you’re the other. No other choices. Well, I don’t know about anyone else but when someone asks me what the best animal is, cats or dogs, my response is “What have you got against hedgehogs?” Also, I wonder what they’re “best” at.

So, the author’s binary definition of thinking is a trouble spot in the article, and in our conception of social and political understanding as a whole. His primary concern is how institutionalized students’ feelings have become. Don’t say anything bad because you might step on someone’s emotional toes. He is so right about that. But blaming that on liberalism is a serious slight to the historical work traditionally liberal groups have done, and ignores the very real impact traditionally conservative groups have had on public feelings. Lest we forget, it was almost always the religious right who “sinned” then wept on television, begging for public forgiveness. Remember Jim Bakker crying on The PTL Club? I secretly respected Bill Clinton’s unapologetic attitude about the whole Monica Lewinsky affair. He was an @$$hole for cheating on his wife, of course, but there was no shame in enjoying himself with the intern. Emotionalism isn’t a liberal characteristic. Also, Tammy Faye was an evangelical Christian and an LGBT activist so does that make her conservative or liberal? Trick question.

There are some very serious problems in higher education. There are major roadblocks for instructors like me and the author of the article in actually teaching what it is we’re supposed to be teaching, and the fear of reprisal the author describes is all too real. But, leveling the charges against “liberals” (or against “conservatives” for that matter) reduces a very complex issue to an overly simplified and misleading binary. I’m a queer, tree-hugging, socialist who likes shooting rifles and thinks the Federal government is too damn big. What does that make me? I don’t even know the answer.

In summation, I think we can all agree that the real problem is the commodification of higher ed. Students are not customers. If they were, they’d be tipping. Like today’s lesson? Twenty percent is customary.