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The Storm Over the University’: A Further Exchange

In response to:

The Storm Over the University from the December 6, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

Having wrenched a phrase of mine out of context to create the false impression that I have no moral objection to “using the classroom to impose a specific ideology on students,” John Searle in his “Reply” now resorts to pure fabrication to support the charge and to convict me of a “totalitarian” view of education to boot [“The Storm Over the University,” NYR, December 6, 1990; and “An Exchange,” NYR, February 14]. This is perhaps of no great interest to anyone but me. Of greater significance, however, are the possible larger implications of Searle’s remarks in the “Reply.”

First the fabrication. Searle says I “suggest” that “we should try to make the university into an instrument of social transformation for desirable rather than undesirable ends; and as leftists we should make sure that it promotes left-wing purposes.” Not only do I not “suggest” this, it’s precisely what I oppose in the passage Searle quotes, where I argue against the view that the curriculum should be turned “into an instrument of social transformation.”

What I did defend is an individual teacher’s right to endorse any belief in the classroom, including a belief in “social transformation” or “the politics of the left.” Searle calls this position “immoral.” I take it to be merely a restatement of a basic principle of academic freedom. Was John Dewey immoral when he taught a philosophy of social transformation?

Searle is confused: where teachers do act immorally, and abuse their academic freedom, is not in advancing political convictions but in refusing to tolerate disagreement with them. Searle obliterates the crucial distinction between espousing a political view in one’s teaching and imposing it by force on students or colleagues.

The confusion, however, enables Searle to apply an invidious double standard in which teachers who raise questions about power and injustice are being “political,” “partisan,” and thus “imposing” an ideology, while those who ignore or reject such questions presumably are not. The effect can only be to intimidate teachers who are straightforward about their political assumptions and to foreclose debate on what is or isn’t “political.”

Searle goes even further when he accuses me of violating “the terms” of my agreement with my students and my institution, terms which, he says, “are intellectual rather than political.” Given the extremely narrow way Searle construes the concept of the political, I wonder how he proposes to enforce this distinction—or is the point again just to intimidate? Do I violate the terms of my profession if I argue that the very subject of American literature has its roots in cultural nationalism? Do conservative economists violate those terms if their theories commit them to a preference for certain political systems over others?

We should indeed be concerned about the vulnerable position of students in all this. But it was in response to that very concern that I urged that the university’s political conflicts (but not only those) be brought into the foreground of the curriculum, an argument Searle confuses with an attempt to replace the teaching of primary texts with the teaching of debates over texts.

My point was that when we teach any primary text we inevitably in the process teach our different interpretations of the text and our different reasons for valuing it, and that students need to see these differences of interpretation and evaluation openly engaged in order to read the texts well and to take an active role in the discussions about them. In other words, the surest way to protect students from being bullied by their teachers’ political views is to expose them to the debates between those views.

Gerald Graff
Department of English
Northwestern University
Evanston, Illinois

John Searle replies:

Since Professor Graff charges me with misrepresenting him, indeed, with “fabrication,” I fear there is no alternative but to remind him again of exactly what he wrote.

Speaking as a leftist I too find it tempting to try to turn the curriculum into an instrument of social transformation. But I doubt whether the curriculum (as opposed to my particular courses) can or should become an extension of the politics of the left. The question not addressed by proponents of “the pedagogy of the oppressed” such as Paolo Freire and Henry Giroux is what is to be done with those constituencies which do not happen to agree with them that social transformation is the primary goal of education.

I argued in my original reply to him that this passage contains two unacceptable implications: First, that it is acceptable, even desirable, to turn his “particular courses” into instruments of “leftist” social transformation, an extension of the politics of the left. Second, that the main objection to trying to turn the entire curriculum into an instrument of leftist social transformation is that there are constituencies that “do not happen to agree” with this project.

I did not claim that, on balance, he thought that the entire curriculum should be so converted; on the contrary, both then and now I quote verbatim a passage where he precisely expresses his “doubt” about whether the entire curriculum “can or should become an extension of the politics of the left.” My interest was, first, in the inadequacy of the reasons given for this doubt and, second, in his implication that it is acceptable for his “particular courses” to be turned into vehicles of leftist social transformation.

From other things in his article I thought he was relying on the argument we are so familiar with from those who also describe themselves as “leftists,” the argument which begins, “You accuse me of politicizing the university? Well I tell you that it already is politicized!” I gather from his present letter that Graff agrees with me that it is a bad argument. If I misinterpreted him on this point I am grateful for the correction. However the interpretation is not a “fabrication” as there is much in his article that is sympathetic to this line of reasoning. For example in discussing the traditional claim that the humanities address “universal values,” he writes:

The striking parallel between this defense of common culture against educational “special interests” and the recent campaign rhetoric of the Republican party does not seem accidental. The same problem arises in both contexts: who gets to determine which values are deemed “common” and “universal” and which merely “special.”

I took this passage and other passages, especially the reference to the “recent campaign rhetoric of the Republican party” as implying that he thinks there is a political dimension to these curricular decisions.

However, if I welcome his disassociating himself from one bad argument, I have to point out that he has now explicitly endorsed another, even worse. He writes:

What I did defend is an individual teacher’s right to endorse any belief in the classroom, including a belief in “social transformation” or “the politics of the left.”

And this view he thinks is justifiable because it is “merely a restatement of a basic principle of academic freedom.”

So the picture that emerges is this. We know from the first quotation that the “teacher’s right to endorse” “the politics of the left” does not just mean that teachers have a right to state a view en passant; it means that the professor is entitled to turn his “particular course” into an “instrument” of leftist social transformation, “an extension of the politics of the left.” And we are now told that the justification for doing this is that the teacher has a “right” to do it as a consequence of a basic principle of academic freedom.

The argument in its naked form is:

Premise: Academic freedom gives the professors the right to turn their courses into instruments of leftist social transformation.

Conclusion: Therefore it is all right (morally acceptable, etc.) to do it. (Any lingering doubts are to be removed by the provision that the student will be allowed to argue back at the professor’s efforts at leftist social transformation.)

There is simply no way to read his article together with the current letter without getting this result; but the result is both morally and logically unacceptable.

Logically speaking, the conclusion does not follow from the premise. From the proposition that one has a right to do something it does not follow that it is a right or even a morally permissible thing to do. Any healthy human institution—family, state, university, or ski team—grants its members rights that far exceed the bounds of morally acceptable behavior. There are many reasons for this. One is that the flexibility necessary for free, successful, and creative behavior requires a big gulf between what the institution grants by way of rights and what it has to expect if it is to succeed. The gulf between the rights granted and the performance expected is bridged by the responsibility of the members. It is the gulf that Graff is denying. Let us accept for the sake of argument that the principles of academic freedom grant Graff the “right” to turn his particular courses into instruments of leftist social transformation, just as they grant the racist the right to turn his courses into racist vehicles and the fascist the right to turn his courses into fascist exercises. All the same, in each case it is still immoral to exercise that right in that fashion.

Graff challenges me as to how I will “enforce” the distinction between intellectual and political objectives. I will not “enforce” it on him and neither will anyone else. In a free university he has to enforce it on himself.

The moral and logical issues in this debate, in short, are not about “rights,” but about the ethics of teaching. I will conclude by stating, all too briefly, some of the relevant principles.

  1. Where possible the professor should leave his or her political views out of the classroom. The reason for this is not only because the student is, in Graff’s word, “vulnerable”; but equally important, the introduction of politics skews the pedagogical situation in the wrong way. The student is then invited to construe all of the professor’s teaching in the light of his or her political commitments.

  2. In some courses it is impossible to leave out the professor’s political views. If, for example, one is teaching political theory or the history of the Russian revolution, the political dimension is obviously central. In such a case the professor should simply state his or her own political commitments at the beginning and then in the course of the term make sure that he or she presents the strongest possible arguments for all relevant views, including those that differ from his or her own.

  3. In the study of most great works of literature, the political dimension is minor. You will miss the point of, say, Proust or Shakespeare if you think that their main interest is the bearing of their work on the sort of political preoccupations that we happen to have today. It is, in short, a vulgarization of the study of literature to suppose that the primary categories for addressing literary works are those to be derived from the “leftist” (or “rightist” or “centrist,” etc.) persuasion of the sort espoused by Professor Graff.

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