Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

politics in the classroom, one more time

Peter Wood wants some help. On behalf of the National Association of Scholars, he is asking,

Who are the key authors and what are the key books in the liberal, conservative, libertarian and radical traditions? The National Association of Scholars is designing a project to examine how political theory is conveyed in the American undergraduate curriculum. To that end we need to compile lists of works that (A) unambiguously represent different strands of political theory, (B) are widely recognized, and (C) are plausible material for undergraduate courses. We are interested in contemporary books as well as older works, but nothing published before 1750.  Our goal is to compile lists of ten books in each category that all sides would agree are a fair sample of these political traditions. 

As he explains elsewhere, “The disparities on campus between the percentages of liberal and conservative professors is well-documented, but the effects of this disparity are still in dispute. In principle, it is possible that leftist professors are teaching (in a fair-minded way) important authors and books that are associated with the traditions of classical liberalism, conservativism, and libertarianism. The National Association of Scholars has embarked on a project to find out whether this is so.”

Okay. But, some thoughts:

  • political theory isn't the whole story of politics on campus, and maybe not even a significant part of the story;

  • many vitally important thinkers are not associated with particular traditions of political thought, indeed are not political in any conventional sense at all — think about the endless controversies over Shakespeare’s politics;

  • liberal education isn't just (or even primarily) a matter of “exposure” to certain texts — the “how” is often more important than the “what.”

More on that last point: it’s relatively easy to figure out what is being taught, because that kind of information tends to be on the internet. But how are the books being taught? The attitudes of teachers are probably more important for the political (in the broadest sense) orientation of a given class than the explcit political views of the authors studied: condemning Jane Austen for her complicity in British colonialism, or Milton or Plato for misogyny — these are common political stances in the academy, and they wouldn't show up in an list of texts for a particular course or sequence of courses. That’s the big problem with the new ACTA guide to campuses: it’s based on one kind of information only, and not, I think, the most important kind.

Note that I’m not taking a stance here on the question of what counts as legitimate “politics in the classroom” and what doesn't — maybe I’ll do that another time. For now, I’m just pointing out that if you want to understand the political orientation of a particular professor or program or department or college, you need to know a lot more than the list of texts being assigned to students.


  • Okay, but even more shocking: to think that Peter Wood, provost and professor, rather than inform us of some books we should read, chooses to crowdsource a booklist via Internet.

    If he really needs to ask, then what is he doing with a PhD?

  • Um, yes.
    I had one of my graduate school assignments returned with "Virtue is not served when hypocrisy is defended. Jim Bakker" scrawled in the margins.

  • Alan Jacobs writes, "For now, I’m just pointing out that if you want to understand the political orientation of a particular professor or program or department or college, you need to know a lot more than the list of texts being assigned to students."

    I agree. You do need to know more than what books are being taught to get the big picture of politicization in the classroom. But books are one way to start getting the picture. True, they don't tell the whole story, but don't you think they can give us a clue?

  • You need to be able to have open conversations with several Ph.D. students or faculty who are there, or who have been there.

    They can tell you if the Marxist professor of an entry level course sees his job as shattering the identity you came in with and forcing you to construct a new one from scratch.
    Otherwise, you might have to hear from the guy himself, once you are enrolled in the class and undergoing the deconstruction process.
    Wham, Bam.

  • Ashley: books assigned tell you something . . . sometimes. For instance, by almost all measures I have a pretty conservative approach to literature, and yet I regularly teach classes (literary theory and African literature, for instance) that ACTA would probably see as "trendy" and therefore to be deplored. But knowing what books I assign wouldn't tell people anything about how I teach them.

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