Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"Common Reading" and Liberal Bias

There used to be a saying in the world of journalism: "Dog Bites Man" is not news. "Man Bites Dog" -- now that's news!

The National Association of Scholars recently published a report choices made by all of the 290 colleges and universities that have "common reading" programs. That's where someone picks out one book that everyone is supposed to read, so that, in this age on no core curriculum, they have some common topic they can all talk about. The authors of the report find that the book choices reflect the aspirations and world-view of today's academic liberal, and are apt to seem pretty quirky to someone (like me) who does not share this Weltanschauung.

To me, that's a real dog-bites-man story if ever there was. What's amazing to me is that as recounted in this Fox story there seem to be plenty of academics who vehemently, even angrily deny this. (Scroll to the middle of the story.)

It's hard to see your world-view as a view at all: for the most part all we see is -- the world!

You can find the report here and a complete list of all the books assigned here. The report is (surprise!) a lot more nuanced and multi-dimensional than Fox makes it sound. I recommend reading it. The list is especially interesting reading. It is a peek into the claustrophobic world of people who get all their news from NPR, whose idea of an interesting author is Barbara Kingsolver, who are sure that global warming is the most serious emergency we now face, and who don't seem to be aware of the global sovereign debt crisis. That's right. It's the world of the typical humanities professor.

I think some of the urge to deny the NAS charge stems from a failure to understand it. Blogger John Wilson (who I think can fairly be described as a PC denialist) wonders how a list of books can reflect liberal bias when so few of them are political books. As if the NAS complaint is that the list is packed with "liberal books," which ought to be balanced with "conservative books." That's not the point at all. They are saying that the choices reflects what academic liberals think is interesting or important or true, and ignore what the rest of us think is interesting or important or true. Indeed, anyone who is not a PC liberal can immediately detect the PC ethos just by browsing through the assigned book titles. We can smell it, like a choking whiff of sweet incense.

One thing that jumps out at the authors of the report is the enormous emphasis on things non-European. Books on Africa outnumber books on Europe nearly six to one. Frankenstein is the only European literary classic "from Homer to Dostoyevsky" assigned by any of these 290 institutions. (This last is a little misleading, as it might suggest that Dostoyevsky was assigned. He wasn't).

The report interprets this as a sign of a alienation from, perhaps even hostility to, European civilization itself.

I see it somewhat differently. I think there are actually two profoundly different views of what higher education is all about here. In one view, that of the NAS, what we are supposed to be doing in the university is to learn where we come from. The purest expression of this idea is probably Ortega y Gasset's The Mission of the University. What we should be doing is presenting students with an overview of what has been learned so far, an account that is, Ortega tells us, "systematic and synthetic." To introduce the spirit of novelty, of research and criticism, into the process too early is to explode the foundations on which novelty is built.

Of course there is another view, which is just as ancient as the Ortegean/NAS view. This other view holds that what we are supposed to be doing is to explore the new, the different, the other. Admittedly, there's a big difference between Plato's idea that you should think critically in order to get in touch with eternal truth, and the PC view that you should learn about people with a different skin color from your own, but they are members of one family of views.

I think both these views (suitably formulated) are true and the only real issue is about emphasis, ordering, and ranking. What we seem to see in these "common reading" choices is an academic establishment that is tipping over toward one of these views and pretty far away from the other.
Full disclosure: I am an on-again, off-again member of the NAS, with which I've had a complex relationship for some 16 years. I am currently Vice President of the Wisconsin Association of Scholars.


SINVILLE said...

"They are saying that the choices reflex what academic liberals think is interesting or important or true, and ignore what the rest of us think is interesting or important or true." Perhaps you meant reflect, but reflex is apropos to this subject. I think it is important to teach how to think, and if their agendas exhibit a liberal bias (the book list and common sense tells us that is so) then, they are in for a surprise. It is a normal reflex for students to rebel from force fed ideology. It will be interesting times when these minds are no longer in the 'protection' of the academic world.

Lester Hunt said...

Yes, I did mean reflects. I've corrected the mistake. I guess I was getting in touch with my inner dyslexic.

I does seem to me that this is just the sort of thing -- sanctimonious, patronizing, moralistic -- that kids tend to rebel against.

My son recently had a common reading assignment inflicted on him on two occasions. In one, the book was a novel by the ubiquitous Kingsolver. In the other it was a novel called "The Tortilla Curtain" ["about a white family that realizes what racists they've been and tries to help Mexicans" -- Nat's description].

In both cases Nat and his friends resented, despised, and hated the text. But then they are probably more rebellious than most kids, so I can't say for sure this is representative.

SINVILLE said...

"But then they are probably more rebellious than most kids, so I can't say for sure this is representative." My experience is that they are probably typical boys in that they expressed their dislike to you, but not likely to their teacher. Girls tend to wear their 'opnions' on their sleeves.