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Monday, 25 September 2006

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N. Pepperell

Scott - Just a quick question, because I've been personally obsessing about the "culture of argument" issue at my own university this term - particularly in relation to mandatory courses... Your post seems to me to contain a bit of a tension (I'm very tired at the moment, so I'll apologise in advance if I'm just misunderstanding you... I'll also confess that I'm commenting on the post content only - I haven't yet read any elaborations that might be in the comments...).

On the one hand, it sounds as though you are making a strong argument that courses should teach students basic critical thinking and argumentative strategies that will equip them to assess whatever biases might enter into the content of a course. I agree.

You also, though, make an argument for something like "balance across the curriculum" - a position that potentially allows individual courses to be doctrinaire, as long as the curriculum as a whole exposes students to a diversity of perspectives. I'm referring here to your comment: "Thoughtful conservative students recognize that although a culture of argument may not exist in a single classroom, the cumulative experience of the average undergraduate involves exposure to conflicting perspectives and the critical skills required to critique them."

I don't personally agree with this - and (disclaimer of personal interest) have been involved in something of a pitched battle around this principle this term. I think it's actually deeply ethically problematic when a culture of argument does not exist in any university classroom. The "volume" of my ethical objection rises or falls based on whether the class is mandatory, whether the students are in the first year at university, etc. But I think something very fundamental has been broken when a classroom has been used to pitch an intellectual party line.

I should note that I mean something very specific here: I'm not saying that instructors can never reveal where they personally sit politically; I'm not saying an instructor can't make an impassioned argument for a specific position, etc. But when a culture of argument is not provided within an individual classroom, I don't personally think the diversity of the remainder of the curriculum is an ethically mitigating factor...

Jeff G
First, I went and posted on protein wisdom again. The post hit the web fifteen minutes ago, and already 3,393 people have convicted me of irrevocably gaying up America's youth. By the time you get there, I'm sure I'll have written Article 1 of the newly established U.S. of GAY's Constiution. Feel free to defend my honor with arguments.
Do you really believe this is the general tenor of the responses you received? Or are you simply playing two rooms here?

And what does it say to you that you feel the need to wink and nod here every time you author a post for a "conservative" site? Because to me, it suggests you fear something from your regular readers.

Just an observation.

Jeff G

Oh. And check your email. Would love to at least "observe" the WBM event, and I'm curious how much success you'd have convincing Berube to send me a copy of his book.

Slartibartfast

Me, I've got nothing to say. I just want to see if I can finally move the comments counter from "2" to a rather more accurate "4".

Slartibartfast

Nope, it's still stuck. This is the second comment in a not-yet-accurately-named trilogy.

David R. Block

I think Scott is playing two rooms here. And there was less than 150 comments when I stopped by, so his numbers are a bit, um, exaggerated, maybe?

I will share my (now ancient) college experience over there on the appropriate thread.

Scott Eric Kaufman

N.P.:

You also, though, make an argument for something like "balance across the curriculum" - a position that potentially allows individual courses to be doctrinaire, as long as the curriculum as a whole exposes students to a diversity of perspectives.

I'm being pragmatic more than anything else here. Ideally, every class would be taught like I teach mine--bold statement, I know--with the exception of a few lecture courses which complement it. In this world, however, we have to realize that some courses are going to be taught by unadulteratable ideologies. What do we do then? Either we junk tenure on the basis of the bad egg, or defend a system by demonstrating how we check its rot. Not ideal, not by a longshot, I know.

But when a culture of argument is not provided within an individual classroom, I don't personally think the diversity of the remainder of the curriculum is an ethically mitigating factor...

No, it isn't. But I can't imagine an alternative which doesn't involve non-academic oversight of what goes on in the classroom. That said, I don't think curricular diversity a bad argument, nor one I'd make unrestrained, but when you begin between a rock and a hard place, your decision-tree is rather limited.

SB, that worked, finally. Has something to do with multiple comments by the same poster. What that something is, I don't know, but it's one of TypePad's few quirks, so I don't necessarily mind.

David, as I mentioned over there, and as I ought to mention here, for continuity's sake, is that I was riffing on Jeff and Rich's exchange in the comments here the other day.

Rich Puchalsky

Scott, from pt thread: "Well, in addition to the kind of tedious statement of the obvious which the internet sometimes demands, you get what is manifestly and patently an unsubtle needling of Rich’s idea that conservatives aren’t worth arguing with. If you want to believe otherwise, I suppose you can ignore the facts and their context and do so. Why you would is beyond me."

Heh. So first you have Jeff Goldstein's comment here humorlessly and tiresomely accusing you of "playing two rooms" and suggesting that "you fear something from your regular readers", then you have a long thread full of his commenters saying the same thing, to the point where you have to slowly, painstakingly explain yourself. So, needling my idea that conservatives aren't worth arguing with -- was that really successful? Wasn't it more like proving my idea by demonstration?

David R. Block

Ah, Rich, how are we ever to get along then? When each side sees the other as "not worth arguing with," that is? Both the political left and right have ridden that horse to death. At least to the death of political discourse.

One could prove the same point in the other direction on a large left political blog. If a conservative post isn't censored outright like at Kos, or edited to say the opposite of what was originally written like at Firedoglake. Since the mere affront of daring to post a conservative viewpoint there is grounds for censorship or rewriting, it's sending the same message. "Nothing worth seeing here, move along now."

And by and large, I've gotten the message and moved on. Sorry to have inconvenienced you.

N. Pepperell

Scott - Why not academic oversight of what goes on in the classroom? I'm not talking about extreme authoritarian measures here - I'm talking about serious and sustained internal discussion and self-critique of our commitment to certain professional standards for the provision of tertiary education, and at least a social expectation that our peers will endeavour to meet these standards.

I don't particularly see how this is not pragmatic - or why it's so difficult to visualise institutional mechanisms that would facilitate such a discussion - even if the only penalty for non-professional conduct in the classroom was the social consequence of knowing that particular kinds of behaviour in the classroom are generally regarded as unprofessional... To me, this option at least beats trying to soft sell doctrinaire behaviour by saying things like, "Oh well, yes, I know Prof. X rants at their students - but, you know, students need to learn how to deal with people ranting at them so, really, it's not such a bad thing." (I should note that I'm not trying to gloss your post here, but instead thinking of a discussion that took place in a particular professional setting.)

Peer review mechanisms, whatever their flaws, give us some means of monitoring the quality of our research work through internal self-regulation, rather than non-academic oversight. Is it really such a reach to think that internal systems could be developed to prevent at least the worst abuses of teaching authority? I don't view this, incidentally, as something that is particularly important for any particular "side" in academic politics - so I understand the desire to push back when critics act like there is some specific need for oversight of professors who tilt left. I balk, though, at the notion that this political fight is causing us to make statements like: "we have to realize that some courses are going to be taught by unadulteratable ideologies", as though ideologues are like a thunderstorm, something students just must occasionally weather, as the cost of their university education, because we regard colleagues' inapropriate conduct as fundamentally beyond professional and social reach...

Rich Puchalsky

Scott, if you want a serious defense of why no one should bother with contemporary conservatism -- well, Holbo has already developed the theme quite a bit, with posts, say , here and here. (And multitudinous links, of course.) But since he is allergic to quick summing-up, I'll quote a single paragraph which I think may stand for the rest:

John Holbo: "If the criterion by which you select your ideas is not their mutual compatibility but their shared incompatibility with viscerally loathed 'liberalism', you end up with no ideas, just a stock of "irritable mental gestures that seek to resemble ideas" (to quote my stock Trilling tag)."

This is exactly why someone like Jeff Goldstein can take an article written by a chemist about attempts to encourage more women to become chemists and turn it into a supposed push for "feminine sensibilities", mixed in same paragraph with an incoherent swipe at gender as a social construct, as if the chemist in question, who had written about neither, had written about both.

No one needs to argue with someone who is just making irritable mental gestures. There's no thought there, no coherence. Of course no conservative can see the contradiction in your "One [course] is taught by a queer theorist who believes homosexuality a biological fact; the other by one who believes it a social construction." There is no contradiction for them; the queer theorist and social constructivist are both liberal, hence doubleplusbad. It doesn't matter what they're actually saying.

So no conservative will understand your argument. They are incapable of thought, except in formally subscribed fields. They will, however, in their usual habit of projection, go on about how you're a fearful hypocrite.

You may think that's worthwhile; I don't.

DAL

So no conservative will understand your argument. They are incapable of thought, except in formally subscribed fields.

Those subhuman motherfuckers! Those despicable, contemptible SWINE! It sure is great that we're not like them.

God, I loathe 'em.

P.S. Seriously, did you mean what you wrote? Really? OK, will you condescend to let an unsophisticated undergrad tell you why you're wrong -- and wrong in a deeply offensive way.

You're predicating your view of your political opponents on Holbo's (rather egotistical) assertion that conservatives "select [their] ideas, not [for] their mutual compatibility but their shared incompatibility with [a] viscerally loathed 'liberalism'." Do you select /your/ political ideas for their shared incompatability with conservatism, or do you think they make sense when taken as a coherent whole?

Oh. I see. Well, then, unless you think conservatives are a generally lower breed of man whose intellectual capacities can never, under any circumstances, come close to your own lofty and superior endowments, isn't your argument a wee bit FUCKING PATRONIZING? Oh hey, how about... dehumanizing? How about... deeply in opposition to the general ethos-- to which I /assume/ you subscribe-- of respecting and upholding the dignity and equality of all humanity?

If you're going to argue that your conservatives don't deserve a basic presumption of equality because their /conduct/ has inspired your response, then let me ask you this. If it's OK to think that, by means of their conduct, people can forfeit their right to be treated with dignity, where does this put you vis-a-vis Guantanamo? How can you condemn gay-bashing, when after all the people who /engage/ in it think that gays, by virtue of their conduct, aren't entitled to the same consideration as heterosexuals?

Summing up: if you really feel that conservatives are inherently inferior to you, then there's nothing I can say to change your mind. If, on the other hand, you've expressed yourself poorly (although reading your post, I can't really see any alternative interpretation), by all means, please do clarify.

Or just ignore me, because... see, um, this one time, I-- I-- I voted for a Republican candidate instead of for a Democrat. In fact, I do it fairly often. And I guess that means I have a stupid, ugly face that's uglyful an' dumb. Apparently it also means I'm against "liberalism" in all its many varieties (and have no coherent worldview), and that I just generally hate things like progress and equality and peace and, well, I guess I should probably go kill myself.

Bye!

David R. Block

Rich,

How does one arrive at the point where they consider that "liberalism" should be "viscerally loathed?" How does one arrive at the point where they consider that "conservatism" should be "viscerally loathed?" Surely one doesn't just suddenly wake up one morning and say "I think that I will viscerally loathe X today and henceforth." It's a death by 1000 cuts, or a drip, drip, drip of distasteful experiences.

Bad experiences, ill treatment [ahem], condescension [ahem], and hypocrisy evident on the other side are features shared by those who have described the journey in each direction. It would not surprise me if the journey to both points is a mirror image of each other. For those liberals who have described their conversion from conservatism, and those conservatives who have described their conversion from liberalism, those things appear repeatedly. If one has stayed in one camp, then indoctrination and peer pressure (groupthink) might be part of it.

You have apparently made the "doubleplusungood" decision in the opposite direction much as you have maintained that conservatives have. Or at least it's not possible to tell the difference.

But what the heck, I'm only a 49 year old n00b at all of this. ;-)

Rich Puchalsky

DAL, I'll try to explain it to you. No, holding your political views up to scorn does not mean that I am refusing to treat you with dignity. There's something that we have in the U.S., called "free speech", that generally says that when you disagree with some political viewpoint, you can publicly do so. People who think that doing so infringes on basic dignity -- well, they go far beyond proponents of campus speech codes and the like into a type of authoritarianism that has no place in the American tradition.

And it's not like I am holding a group of people up to scorn because of something that they were born with. You chose to be a conservative; you chose to think as you do and act as you do. And yes, if you choose to argue as badly as you have above -- like a petulant child, who has the nerve to compare my writing bad things about conservatism with the act of gay-bashing --then you will find yourself being patronized.

David R Block, in the protein wisdom thread you posted:

"The only known liberal English professor I had was also a neighbor down the street. Since no one in our neighborhood wanted the wrath of my father (ex-Texas Highway Patrol), he was more tolerant of me than I expected (but, as I found out later from dad, he better have been). He was less accepting of dissent from many other quarters."

I don't know what your father did, if anything, but your recounting this incident reveals more about you than you think. What do you think that your father needed to protect you from, when he protected you from your neighbor? A bad grade? Don't you think it would have been a bit more grown-up and manly to have argued with this professor yourself, and gotten a bad grade if it came to that, then to proudly recall your father preemptively standing up for you?

You have no standing at all to claim that my experience is the mirror image of yours. I have a coherent political philosophy and positive goals. You have nothing but ressentiment, expressed through your stories of imagined victimization.

DAL

I'd like to start by saying that I regretted almost the entire comment from the moment that I posted it. I was speaking in anger, and I expressed myself poorly and contemptibly. There are parts of it, in particular, that I'm bitterly ashamed of, and I'll say more about that in the comment after this one.

The truth is that I was angry, and writing in the heat of the moment. That's not a recipe for eloquence, but it's also not an excuse. I'm old enough that I should know better than to ever, ever speak in anger. The tone I took, and much of the language that I used, was completely unacceptable. I'm sorry that I said it.

So, uh... OK then! On to the post.


DAL, I'll try to explain it to you. No, holding your political views up to scorn does not mean that I am refusing to treat you with dignity.

No. No it doesn't. Calling a class of people "incapable of thought" because you disagree with them, on the other hand, /does/.

Actually, let me phrase that more precisely.

If I'd been sensible and gone off to cool down for a while before I started writing that first comment, I'd have taken out the the word "dignity" and replaced it with "equality." That's really what I meant, and what I was trying to say is that you weren't willing to treat conservatives as your equals-- that you were making a deeply, deeply offensive assumption of inferiority.

And in all honesty, my opinion hasn't changed.

You cannot, on the one hand, use the kind of rhetoric you did above ("they're" incapable of thought; "they" represent-- in fact, they define themselves as being-- everything we stand against; no one should bother with them since they won't listen to reason; they can't form a coherent political philosophy, so instead they latch on to ours and oppose it)-- you can't say all that and then turn around and say to a conservative, "But I still think you're my equal in every way, and I respect you as a human being who's just as worthy of consideration as anybody else."

In short: if you tell me that, simply by virtue of my politics, you /know/ that I can neither think nor reason nor form a political philosophy of my own, what /should/ I think if not that you don't see me as an equal?

DAL

Now I'd like to apologize for the most galling part of my first post:

"If it's OK to think that, by means of their conduct, people can forfeit their right to be treated with dignity, where does this put you vis-a-vis Guantanamo? How can you condemn gay-bashing, when after all the people who /engage/ in it think that gays, by virtue of their conduct, aren't entitled to the same consideration as heterosexuals?"

That was the passage that I most regretted right after I posted it. I really wish I hadn't said it, but I did, and I'm both sorry and ashamed because of it. I don't know what to say outside of that that.

I guess I could try to explain that I didn't mean it the way you took it, but hell, what good would that do?

I might as well try, though. For what it's worth, if I'd written that first comment when I was calm instead of angry, the passage in question-- if I didn't just leave it out entirely-- would probably say something like, "If you're going to argue that you don't consider conservatives your equals because of their freely chosen /actions/-- not because they're inherently inferior to you-- I would say two things.

"First, the extent to which you can say conservatives /choose/ to be conservatives is debatable. Studies have shown, time and again, that an overwhelming majority of people inherit their politics-- just like their religion-- from their parents. Do people choose their parents? No indeed.

"And second, even if we take your statement at face value, holding a broad class of people in contempt for /any reason/ isn't cool. Ever. Moreover, why exactly /should/ we take it at face value? You're an academic; you're presumably sufficiently well-read to know that genuine bigots very often claim that their hatred is inspired by the detestable actions and character of the people who they hate. Why, then, should that claim be more credible in your mouth than in theirs?"

But really, I'm mostly just appalled at having said what I said. I'm not going to offer an excuse. There is none: neither can there be.

CR

"First, the extent to which you can say conservatives /choose/ to be conservatives is debatable. Studies have shown, time and again, that an overwhelming majority of people inherit their politics-- just like their religion-- from their parents. Do people choose their parents? No indeed.

Holy christ, is it in the water or something? Or is there some sort of sunday school system focused on Advanced Sophistry and Mimetic Reversal? Where do they learn to do this stuff? A million ideologemes dancing on the head of a pin.

Rich - you just watch. The Bell Curve is coming up in a comment or two, and guess who's going to play Charles Murray.... Want to bet a beer on it?

CR

And DAL - given your silly mimicry of arguments about race and class and non-discrimination, social determination, and the like, you're only one step away from a truly innovative, if modest, proposal... You should argue for some sort of ideological welfare system, where your generally impoverished ideas are subsidized by the clever up to some level of minimal coherence.

DAL

CR: I have no intention of responding to your insults in kind. That was what I did in my first post, and I regret it.

Have a nice night.

David R. Block

CR,

Never read the book of which you speak.

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