Thursday, November 11, 2004

What you teach drives who you hire 

A new faculty member tells me about a conversation she had with a colleague in another department who is more renowned for his progressivism. He reported that he tries to practice democracy in his class on democratic citizenship. (That link is not to this fellow's class, but another professor who explains well what the class' intentions are.) My new faculty member replied that she was not at all interested in democracy in her class: "they are here to learn, and I am here to teach." This is quite correct, and part of our problems as faculty who are told students are to be treated as customers.

Last night I had read Mark Bauerlein's article in the new Chronicle of Higher Ed (temporary free link here) describe why these other departments seem to gather in these types of faculty (and perhaps why we've been able to get this new faculty member who has better sense):

Political orientation has been embedded into the disciplines, and so what is indeed a political judgment may be expressed in disciplinary terms. As an Americanist said in a committee meeting that I attended, "We can't hire anyone who doesn't do race," an assertion that had all the force of a scholastic dictum. Stanley Fish, professor and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, advises, "The question you should ask professors is whether your work has influence or relevance" -- and while he raised it to argue that no liberal conspiracy in higher education exists, the question is bound to keep conservatives off the short list. For while studies of scholars like Michel Foucault, Michael Hardt, and Antonio Negri seem central in the graduate seminar, studies of Friedrich A. von Hayek and Francis Fukuyama, whose names rarely appear on cultural-studies syllabi despite their influence on world affairs, seem irrelevant.

Academics may quibble over the hiring process, but voter registration shows that liberal orthodoxy now has a professional import. Conservatives and liberals square off in public, but on campuses, conservative opinion doesn't qualify as respectable inquiry. You won't often find vouchers discussed in education schools or patriotism argued in American studies. Historically, the boundaries of scholarly fields were created by the objects studied and by norms of research and peer review. Today, a political variable has been added, whereby conservative assumptions expel their holders from the academic market. A wall insulates the academic left from ideas and writings on the right.

One can see that phenomenon in how insiders, reacting to Horowitz's polls, displayed little evidence that they had ever read conservative texts or met a conservative thinker. Weblogs had entries conjecturing why conservatives avoid academe -- while never actually bothering to find one and ask -- as if they were some exotic breed whose absence lay rooted in an inscrutable mind-set. Professors offered caricatures of the conservative intelligentsia, selecting Ann H. Coulter and Rush Limbaugh as representatives, not von Hayek, Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss, Thomas Sowell, Robert Nozick, or Gertrude Himmelfarb. One of them wrote that "conservatives of Horowitz's ilk want to unleash the most ignorant forces of the right in hounding liberal academics to death."

In some departments in our college, we place courses both on democratic citizenship and racial issues, and then demand that those departments offering those courses hire only faculty who can teach them. That job requirement builds in a bias in hiring new faculty that will think these types of issues to be important, and therefore likely to be the types of "progressives" that think experiments in democracy in freshman classrooms are worth compromising their ability to teach the Constitution.

For sake of completeness: our department does offer democratic citizenship (though most come at it from a public choice view, save the fellow whose page I linked earlier) and does not offer racial issues.