Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Don't Include Me in Your We, Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish has noticed that both David Horowitz and Ward Churchill (and Norman Finkelstein and Cornell West, among others) are conservatives when it comes to education.

Well, yes. This has been one of the sources of my anger at the faculty of American institutions of higher education for years—and one of my sources of respect for David Horowitz (respect, not admiration). Though they dress themselves up in leftist clothing, even the most “radical” of American academics live lives of conservative protectionism. Horowitz, at least, had the courage to admit that his radicalism was a sham, that he is, at heart, of a most conservative nature.

Now that I am an academic myself, having abandoned my life as a retailer and cafe owner, having achieved tenure and having committed to an academic career for as long, I hope, as I am able to work, I have quite conflicted views on my fellows. On the one hand, I tend to look down on those who espouse revolution from their cozy chambers. They don't have the courage of their convictions, nor have many of them ever experienced the insecurity of lives either in small business entrepreneurship or at the lower end of the economic chain—nor have any of them really gotten to know anyone who has. On the other hand, I have found that I'm quite happy to join them without shedding my own rather radical beliefs—which makes me more than a little uncomfortable.

One of the most influential books on my young life was George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. At the time, I did not understand the support system he had that allowed him to 'tramp' as he did—any more than I understood why I was able and willing to do my own 'tramping' (I, too, had a family to turn to, were things to get too nasty). But, like Orwell, I learned a great deal. Not only did I learn that I could shovel all kinds of things for a living, clean toilets and dishes, pump gas, stock shelves, and do a variety of other tasks, but I got to know the people who were stuck in that sort of life. Like Orwell, I could (and did) get out. Like him, I have retained the radicalism confirmed by my experiences in the lower reaches of employment.

The greatest lesson I learned is that there is creativity—and intelligence—everywhere. The abilities spread amongst the employees of a supermarket are no less than those of a super university. This is why I will have a problem, if I ever leave New York City College of Technology for a school with a better reputation: my students are just discovering they are smart, having been told by society for all their lives that they aren't as good as the rest. Students at “better” schools have been among Garrison Keillor's “above average” since preschool.

When one's life is spent cocooned in the self-congratulatory atmosphere of most academic institutions, one necessarily develops a sense of entitlement, an entitlement of extremely conservative nature. Change of any sort threatens it—which is why even the most “radical” of academics tend to be stalwart supporters of tenure, a system conservative by nature. They justify their support of it by claiming it protects outsider opinions, but that's never really been the case, the system of achieving tenure being such that only the most timid achieve it (one of the reasons I am not as proud of my new status as I would like to be). The real revolutionaries, politically or within academic fields, have long since been tossed out.

Yes, some (like Churchill and Finkelstein) become victims of tenure and review systems (one deservedly, the other not—one who had actually been granted tenure, the other not), but the desire, generally, is to get back inside—not to establish another, more radical, more egalitarian, more revolutionary system.

Though Horowitz believes that the radical professors are indoctrinating students in philosophies that undermine the relatively conservative American system, even this is not the case. Though leftist lines may be spouted, the example provided by these “radicals” is extremely conservative. They have bought into a system that is quite hierarchical, quite rigid, and quite reactionary. Nothing about our academic institutions promotes change, but rewards sticking to pattern—even grades do this.

The irony of Horowitz's battle against American academics is that they really are his allies. On one level, he retains an anger against them as insiders (he never achieved the academic credentials that they have, having earned only an MA degree) protecting themselves against challenge from those who (like he) have rejected their alliance. But that's an emotional response, not a rational one. On another, he sees them as the perfect foil, their hypocrisy allowing him to pick them off at leisure while pretending to his own 'conservative revolutionary' stance. He can fight them with confidence that he will never lose: should they “succeed,” nothing will change; should he “succeed,” nothing will change. They are all invested in protecting the same systems, ones that, in my radical view, should be completely dismantled—but that the 'radical professors' want to retain just as much as Horowitz does.

Fish sees both Horowitz and 'the professors' fighting for the same thing, a Kantian view of the university as a place for increased enlightenment. He writes:
To be sure, there are some things to fear, but their names are not West or Chomsky or Horowitz. The forces — call them neoliberal, call them corporate capitalism, call them political indoctrination — that have in different ways turned the university away from the emancipatory project Kant called us to (and every one of these authors celebrates) are enemy enough. We don’t have to demonize each other.

My response comes from the hoary joke, where the Lone Ranger asks Tonto, when they are surrounded by Indians and out of bullets, “What do we do now?” Tonto replies, “What do you mean 'we,' white man?” To me, Horowitz, Fish, West, Chomsky, and all the others are part of the problem. Maybe I am, too, as a tenured professor now myself.

But maybe, like Tonto, I can see the writing on the wall and change sides.

I hope so. The last thing we need is more people protecting a system of education that is not doing its job. That actually opens the way for neoliberal forces, for corporate capitalism, and even for political indoctrination—for its own destruction. By circling the wagons and protecting the so-called 'emancipatory project' we imagine, we are assuring our own destruction. The cracks in the system will only widen as time moves on.

What we should be doing is rebuilding, reworking education from the ground up, creating something that can respond to 21st century needs, not to those of the 18th century Enlightenment, as Fish would have us continue to do. As Horowitz wants, as do all those 'radical professors.'

In a time of radical change worldwide, we need to be opening up our minds and our institutions, not closing them in, as much of what we do these days leads to.

When was the last time there was a really revolutionary attempt to strike out from traditional higher education?

The question I ask myself, and can't answer, is this: Would I be willing to be a part of it, should it arise? Could I join Tonto and the "Indians"?

I hope so, but I don't know so.

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