Monday, July 10, 2006

Squabbling Professors

Squabbles: don’t you love them? Generally, they reduce themselves to one side telling the other what the other first said. Then they turn into nothing more than “did not/did too.” Case in point: rather than adding anything to the “debate” (to use the word loosely) over leftist influence on academia, Mark Bauerlein, himself a professor at Emory University, has let loose a blast of “this is what you said” in an essay called ”The Selective Critique.”

Rather than listening to the arguments against the poor scholarship and and unwarranted conclusions of the likes of David Horowitz in works like The Professors and responding to the serious questions raised about experimental design (Horowitz, for example, has none) and breadth of research, Bauerlein tries to turn the argument on what he, too, groups together as “the professors,” saying we’re the one looking at things too narrowly.

He writes:
And yet, how have the professors responded? Not by taking up the critical challenge and carrying out the analysis. Not by bouncing the samples off of the institution in which they appeared. Instead, they shot the messenger. They declared the samples isolated and un-representative, or they denied to them the symptoms alleged by the critics. The course description wasn’t a fair stand-in for the course itself, they protested. Ward Churchill’s post-9/11 rant was an aberration. The conference paper title was just a way to garner an audience, so let’s not confuse it with the real substance of the paper. In sum, they put the most benign construction on the samples. That turned the allegations back upon the people who cited them, David Horowitz, Anne Neal, and the rest, who were cast as sinister crazies pushing a vile political agenda.

Oddly enough, Bauerlein hasn’t ‘taken up the critical challenge’ either—certainly not in his dealings with the attacks the professors (me among them) have made on the work of Horowitz and Neal.

The heart of our criticism of the Horowtiz crowd is this: they cut-and-paste bits from Internet searches, add in anecdotal evidence, and call what they have done “research.” Even worse: they then have the temerity to draw conclusions about the whole of academia from these slight bits of culled information. The problem isn’t the samples, but the method of sampling.

It’s as simple as this: I can make even James Joyce look like a bad writer—if I’m allowed to show only the snippets of his prose I choose.

But that’s not research, and my conclusion about Joyce’s writing skills would be as ridicuous as Horowitz’s about college professors.

Bauerlein writes:
The academic defense comes down to this: conservatives and libertarians read too much into bits and pieces of language.

He’s right, but he conveniently avoids the reason we make this claaim: these are selected bits, chosen to support a conclusion reached long before the research was ever started. You can only draw conclusions from parts to the whole if the parts are representative. Because these were selected based on outside criteria, not on their position vis-à-vis the whole, they cannot serve as a basis for commentary on the whole.

Bauerlein should know better than to overlook this basic, simple fact.

2 comments:

Gordon N. Trenchard said...

David Horowitz is certainly not the world's greatest researcher (or writer for that matter), but he is certainly right in saying academia is liberal. No one should be surprised by that. Despite being a conservative in academia I don't support Horowitz' Academic Bill of Rights. The problem is not that schools are not hiring conservatives, but that conservatives are not entering the profession to begin with.

AaronBarlow said...

Yes, academia does tend to be liberal. And you are right, not enough conservatives are entering the profession--just as not enough liberals enter business (which tends to the conservative).

I'll disagree with you on one thing only: no matter how much I dislike David Horowitz, I do respect his skills as a writer.