Jonathan's response to Nick Gillespie's first article hits all the notes mine would have. Since Jonathan couldn't attend the "English Studies and Political Literacy" panel Gillespie addresses in his second article, I will. Some preliminary remarks:
Gillespie's response contains some cogent remarks about the necessity of what I'll call "the Third Way" in composition and/or critical thinking courses. That the editor of Reason praised The Valve's Mark Bauerlein for suggesting that instructors bring Reason magazine into the composition classroom didn't surprise me. What did was that his ideological—one could almost say utopian—commitment to libertarian principles caused him to misdiagnose the etiology and symptomatology of the positions espoused by the panelists. First an example of his utopianism:
Mindich's exam seems ridiculous on the face of it -- and his view of the FCC as something other than a negative force on public discourse seems positively nostalgic.
Certainly, the last 20 years or so -- precisely the period in which cable and satellite services gave viewers a end-run around the FCC-regulated broadcast networks -- have seen a massive flourishing in all sorts of informational programming.
The 'Net? Digital cable? Satellite radio? Yes. Yes. Yes. Corporate consolidation of the aforementioned media? The gutting of regulations designed to create diversity in local and national news outlets? A return to yellow journalism? Yes. Yes. Yes. Only people who think everyone acquires their news from the internet or expensive cable television packages thinks the 1995 Telecommunications Act had a salutary effect on American media. For the average news consumer it has been an unmitigated disaster: no more local investigative reporters; no more local reporters period; an eighty-five percent increase in the number of "canned" news stories; &c. I could on but I think I've made my point. The privilege subtending the libertarian position undermines its ability to convince me that those who propound it have thought through their statements with eyes not their own.
His blindness to the needs of those who could work themselves to death but never into opportunity focuses his critique on those panelists who suggest government intervention. When he (and most libertarians for that matter) say that structural economic inequalities "hardly neccessitate a massive [social] program," the first words from my mouth are "What would?" The answer is invariably "an inequality which cannot be better corrected by allowing market forces to run their course."
"We'll let you know when we find one."
And there you have the crux of my complaint against rhetorical libertarianism. It can always invoke—sans evidence or with the ever effective feint, borrowed from Communists sympathizers, that we cannot rely on evidence because their philosophy has never been applied in its pure form—the idea that libertarianism could work better than the system we currently have. It could ... but to date deregulation rates a Far From Impressive in the game of practical politics. Wonderful rhetoric and all, but barring the appearance of proof or pudding, color me unconvinced.
All of which is only to say that while his praise of Bauerlein, Kenneth Warren and Patricia Roberts-Miller hits the mark, his criticism of Donald Lazere, Adolf Reed and David Mindich misses. Badly. He attacks them not for the New Left ideology informing their every word but for the quality of their economic arguments. For example, here is his criticism of Lazere's point about the inability to imbue critical thinking skills in students who have no time to read anything but the bare minimum required to pass the course:
And is working a job really antithetical to intellectual and political engagement? I never worked fewer than 30 hours a week during my undergraduate years and still I found plenty of time to kill in the library, engage in wee-hours bull sessions, and indulge in lost weekends.
But students can no longer attend college working 30 hours a week. In "The Pedagogy of Debt"—from a forthcoming issue of College Literature—Jeffrey Williams crunches the inflation-adjusted numbers:
During the 1960s, a student could work 15 hours a week at minimum wage during school and 40 during the summer and pay his or her public university education; at an Ivy or like private school, it would have been about 20 hours a week during school. Now, one would have to work 52 hours a week all year long, even during school; at an Ivy League college you would have to work 136 hours a week all year.
No doubt Gillespie could have worked 106 more hours every week and still succeeded in college. Mere mortals could and can not. Even if they could, all students are not blessed with the gift of perfect understanding. Some must even read books and essays multiple times to understand them fully. Doing so under the constraints which burden many students is impossible. In the end the only students who succeed are those who either 1) had the time to cultivate those skills earlier in life (and therefore did not have to work through high school or care for younger siblings or stay in crowded afterschool programs) or 2) are so naturally gifted that they would have succeeded under any circumstances.
(That the majority of libertarians I know are geniuses of that latter time only reinforces my impression that they lack touch with reality. They believe that because they overcame the odds anyone can. I think their humility honest if self-deluded. The guy who graduated high school at twelve and college at sixteen shouldn't generalize about "what it takes to succeed in the world." The sole circumstance in which he wouldn't have is an early death.)
Had he not been so focused on what he perceives as the inefficacy of government loans, he would have found far more suitable reasons to reject Lazere and Mindich's proposals. For my money it would be their New Left utopianism, their glorification of the "movement politics" of their youth: sit-ins, teach-ins, and generally "changing the system." Whereas Ken Warren spoke of the difficulties of changing high school curricula and the ineffectiveness of teaching cultural diversity at the college level—he likened it to Bobby Kennedy's plan to create a more enlightened ruling class—Lazere, Mindich and Reed all spoke against the corporate and/or institutional structures which necessarily prevented a student from thinking for him/herself. The anti-statist, anti-bureaucratic and anti-organizational biases of the New Left determined how these thinkers reacted to problem of teaching political literacy.
The reason Gillespie refused to attack these three on these grounds should be obvious: they correspond neatly with the anti-statist, anti-bureaucratic and anti-organizational biases of contemporary libertarianism. Did he hope to not confuse his audience?
Did he think them insufficiently literate in politics to catch the distinction?