For many years, Michael Bérubé has been an outspoken and topical voice in the humanities professoriate. His books cover critical theory, academic employment, and the canon, and he weighs in on current events, academic and political, on a personal blog that has a steady and interactive readership. He’s an MLA insider but also a popular writer, contributing to The Nation, The Village Voice, and Dissent. He leapt into the Culture Wars in the early 1990s, and, with regular sallies into campus controversies, his career sets a different example of professorial labor. His writings don’t evince months and years spent poring over archives and assembling primary documents, and the focus on contemporary matters gives them a dated feel a few years after their publication. But, then, Bérubé’s practice exempts him from many of the vices that have bedeviled humanities professors for three decades.
For one thing, he writes well. Bérubé disdains the mushy, cutesy abstractions of critical theory as much as do traditionalists, and his paragraphs move with clarity and dispatch. His interest in public affairs contrasts well with the haughtiness of his colleagues, whose snide stance toward the man in the street corresponds to their degree of felt powerlessness in off-campus matters. Added to that, his experience in large universities sharpens him to the social and economic conditions of faculty life, for instance, the fact that campus egalitarianism coexists with acute status-consciousness.
For these reasons, What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? is a smooth and swift read. The opening sections cover the chorus of “conservative complaints” about liberal bias on campus, ranging from the national campaign of David Horowitz to the remarks of John, a “large white student” who interrupts Bérubé’s class discussions with obstreperous outbursts against identity politics. The center of the book details Bérubé’s teaching, with readings of novels (My Ántonia, etc.) interspersed with classroom scenes. Finally, Bérubé outlines the principles of a liberal classroom, explaining how a Rorty-derived “solidarity” shields education from the hubris of believing that our beliefs stem from anything except human interests and inventions.
Along the way, Bérubé makes several admissions that please critics of academia. “It is a skewed notion of dissent to think that one’s classroom should be deployed as the counterweight to conservatism in the rest of the culture,” he asserts, dismissing one of the customary apologies for the leftist tilt of the professorate. He calls some versions of “diversity training” exercises in “hamhandedness,” and prefers not to know about the “hooking up” habits of undergrads. He notes how many of his liberal colleagues “have no trouble exploiting their teaching assistants,” and, in the interest of lively debate, he says, “I often wish I had more conservative colleagues in literary study.”
The chapters contain lively characterizations of students, careful expositions of American fiction, and, in contrast to the regret cited above, blithe vilifications of conservatives. Yes, conservatives are, to Bérubé, a more or less deranged and ignoble crew. Some thoughtful “arts-and-humanities” conservatives are out there, he observes, but their kind is fading. In their stead, we have angry, hypocritical figures unhinged by the presence of liberals in classrooms. Their criticisms have reached a “fever pitch,” and are “hysterically overblown.” Their “mind-bending charge[s]” strike the profs as “surreal.”
But these insults appear mainly in the opening chapters of the book and don’t advance the core issue, which is how the tenets of liberalism enhance education. For that, Bérubé relies on lengthy demonstrations of his classroom practice. He counsels students to read closely, gather evidence, consider counter-evidence, address claims that dispute their deepest beliefs, and treat opponents with respect. Open your minds, face verbal challenges, keep complacency at bay, and play fair, he presses. These are the protocols of John Stuart Mill, and one has no difficulty believing that Bérubé runs a stimulating, reasonable classroom.
The strengths of the presentation, however, point to a weakness in Bérubé’s argument and to contemporary liberalism in general (in educational contexts). The procedures he details are evenhanded and rousing, but the ensuing liberal tenets of liberal education are just that: all procedural. They lay out how to argue and how to disagree, how to relate to one’s own beliefs and how to relate to others’. True to Bérubé’s neopragmatist outlook, classroom liberalism bears upon attitude and conduct. It does not endorse a curriculum. The inculcation of tradition is barely hinted at. A student’s educational path may amble promiscuously through a smorgasbord of course offerings.
This is today’s fallback position for liberalism in higher education. It used to push curricular innovations such as “opening the canon,” but those enthusiasms faded years ago. Now, shying away from content, it emphasizes forensic ideals and content-less habits such as critical thinking. In doing so, it never really engages conservative educational thought, whose operative concepts (tradition, core curriculum, common culture, high art, etc.) are mostly about content. In truth, open-minded conservative teachers would agree to all of Bérubé’s procedural norms. Bérubé contrasts constructivists like himself, who know that history, social circumstance, and conversation are the primary ingredients of knowledge, to various fundamentalists who insist that knowledge comes from extra-human sources such as the Word of God, and who grade students accordingly. But these tyrants are a false comparison, a rarity in classrooms. The real debate lies not over debating tactics, but over course content. Disagreement arises over the texts assigned, the topics emphasized, and the angles of interpretation taken. Bérubé barely touches upon these, leaving What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? with a hole at the center.
At one of those moments, Bérubé cites a case of falsely imputed “liberal bias,” and it indicates something else, precisely the curricular dispute that should be, but isn’t, elaborated. It concerns an assigned essay topic that was claimed by a conservative student to be anti-American, a claim rightly judged by Bérubé a silly exaggeration. Still, the tendentiousness of the question is plain. Here is the final sentence:
Analyze the U.S. constitution (original document), and show how its formulation excluded [the] majority of the people living in America at that time, and how it was dominated by America’s elite interest.
And here is Bérubé’s comment:
If students of American political science are not introduced to the contradictions underlying the foundation of a revolutionary democratic nation that practiced slavery and restricted the vote to landowning men, they are being miseducated.
What Bérubé considers good history registers with conservatives quite differently. They note the emphasis on exploitation and hypocrisy, along with no chance to argue otherwise. The Founding’s positive side is glossed over as if it were false ornament. And as for miseducation, the historical significance of the Constitution isn’t primarily that it legalized “exclusion” and “class domination,” but rather that a group of men acculturated to exclusion and domination should have conceived a system of government and a set of rights from which free and oppressed people have drawn inspiration for two centuries. The assignment, then, asks undergraduates to take a partial and politically loaded viewpoint on the Founding. If we want full historical context, by all means bring in the inequalities and injustices of the time, but let’s not obscure the extraordinary moral and political breakthrough represented by the document.
That Bérubé accepts such assignments as straightforward history goes a long way toward explaining why conservative criticisms appear unbalanced or cynical. The liberal outlook, especially regarding race and gender, has seeped into and saturated the curriculum so much that questioning it looks not like a new venture into the marketplace of ideas but like a violation of civility. This makes it almost impossible for conservative reformers in higher education to question, much less alter, the curriculum. It’s a frustrating impasse. Liberal approaches to the curriculum are so embedded that conservative attacks look suspect on procedural grounds. Say that multiculturalism as commonly practiced is incompatible with the training of erudite students and you offend the other parties. Describe “diversity” as a coercive and illusory term that will be remembered as nothing but a curious example of the mores of the early twenty-first century and you become an unprofessional crank. The substance of your criticism is waylaid by its impropriety.
When substantive points are recast as lapses in decency, outsiders have no chance of gaining a seat at the table. Someone as professionally aware as Professor Bérubé should recognize that, and he has at other times done so. But here, he overlooks the situation, because, I think, the aggressive actions of David Horowitz and others have raised the threat level. What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?, the major statement on the issue by a major academic voice, never outlines the most important aspect of any educational program, its curriculum. On the evidence of its arguments, we may safely assume that in spite of all the publicized assaults from the outside (such as the Academic Bill of Rights) and all the humiliating episodes on the inside (such as Ward Churchill), the humanities remain tied to a liberal outlook—not to liberal personnel, but more deeply to liberal values and pedagogies.