March 31, 2005

With Friends Like These...

I generally don't like to bring my work life into the blog, but this incensed me so much that I couldn't help it. One of my colleagues sent this email out on the faculty list. (Apart from other things, I find that alone inappropriate.) It's from "her friend Grover." I sincerely hope that Grover is not really a "friend," as that in itself is enough to make me never speak to her again. See, Grover is Grover Furr, who teaches at Montclair. If you don't know, he happens to be--besides named after a muppett--an apologist for Stalin. Yeah, THAT Stalin. Here's a choice line from one of his musings:

The mass murder of Jews, but not only of Jews, by the Nazis is very well documented. In the case of the Cold-War horror stories demonizing Stalin, the shoe is on the other foot -- all the evidence points in the _opposite_ direction.

This, of course, will come as a great suprise to those families who suffered and/or fled the Soviet Union.

You can read some more about Furr at Frontpage Magazine. To be fair, many consider Frontpage to be...less than objective. I will urge you, then, to visit Furr's own web pages. Web pages that he directs his students to use, by the way. Read the man's own words. Check out the reading lists for some of his classes. It's no wonder that he disagrees with the ideas of 'balance' and 'intellectual diversity' in the classroom. The man is, in a nutty-shell, the very reason the Academic Bill of Rights was put together.

But I digress.

The other thing I want to mention is the article that accompanied the email. It's from Stanley Fish, and concerns itself with that very same 'balance' and 'intellectual diversity.' Here's the complete (I know it's long) text:

ALL IN THE GAME
On Balance

The only thing you get when you enforce a political balance in hiring,
teaching, or campus life is a politicized university

By STANLEY FISH

Recently, the Supreme Court once again took up the question of whether it is permissible under the establishment clause of the First Amendment to display representations of the Ten Commandments in courthouses and other public spaces. At issue is the relationship between those displays and the "Lemon test" -- the legacy of Lemon v. Kurtzman, a 1971 ruling that, in at least one interpretation, bars the state from engaging in activities that endorse or promote religion.

In the course of a long legal journey that included suits, injunctions,
petitions, decisions, and appeals, those in favor of the displays argue that their purpose is secular, not religious. The Ten Commandments, they say, are one (although not the only) source of the values and traditions upon which this country was founded. Therefore to display them in a public place is merely to recognize that history, and to provide a momentof education (not proselytizing) for passers-by.

In response to the findings of a district court that the Commandments and some accompanying documents were chosen only because of their obvious "religious references," officials of the two Kentucky counties involved in the latest case modified the display, adding to it political texts, patriotic texts, song lyrics, and pictures.

The idea was to surround the religiously charged materials with materials obviously secular, on the theory that, so surrounded, the religiosity of the suspect documents would be muted and even negated. That strategy (which may or may not prove successful; we'll have to wait and see) is taken from the landmark cases County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union (1989) and Lynch v. Donnelly (1984).

In Allegheny, the court ruled that a stand-alone crèche placed in the county courthouse in Pittsburgh "has the effect of endorsing a patently Christian message." But in the same decision the court said that a menorah, placed outside a government building and flanked by a Christmas tree and a sign saluting liberty, "does not have an effect of endorsing religious faith."

In Lynch, Justice O'Connor wrote that a crèche displayed in Pawtucket, R.I., along with teddy bears, candy-striped poles, and an (ungrammatical) sign reading "Seasons Greetings," "does not communicate a message that the government intends to endorse the Christian beliefs represented by the crèche." The reason, she adds, is that "the overall holiday setting changes what viewers may fairly understand to be the purpose of the display -- as a typical museum setting ... [which] negates any message of endorsement."

I leave the issues raised by those cases to the court's deliberation. My interest is in the mechanism by which materials bearing substantive content (as in "Jesus Christ died for your sins") are turned into museum pieces -- that is, into texts whose messages have been aestheticized or commercialized, in the case of the holiday setting (and did Justice O'Connor forget the etymology of the word "holiday"?) -- with the result that they are no longer taken seriously as texts by spectators or readers.

It is not simply that the "museum setting" negates the message of endorsement; it negates any message, and that is its purpose. The name for this transmogrification is balance: If you want to take the edge off or pull the sting from a message that may prove provocative and controversial, balance it with other messages that are either bland or differently provocative.

In that way no one can accuse you of endorsing or saying or meaning anything. Doing the dance of balance indemnifies you from any criticism, except the criticism that you stand for nothing in particular, which will hardly be received as criticism given that standing for something particular, or being perceived to stand for something particular, is what you are trying to avoid.

Of course you could always say that what you are standing for and indeed standing up for is the First Amendment. That really sounds good, but more often than not it is just a fancy way of running away from the real issues that might be debated if balance had not become your new theology.

That is why balance is such an attractive option for administrators when someone like Ward Churchill comes to town, or threatens to.

An administrator in that situation can take his or her cue from Bill Maher, who invited Churchill to appear on his program Real Time but then paired him with the brother of someone who had been killed in the assault on the World Trade Center.

That is genius and a balancer's dream. Maher gets to defend free inquiry and to display his compassion for the victims of an atrocity at the same time. He comes off looking reasonable, fair, and, yes, balanced, while both Churchill and the victim's brother look a bit extreme. What administrator could wish for more?

Obviously, balance can be useful and I have employed it myself, when making up search committees or appointing members of a task force. But useful as it might prove, balance is not a real value. It is a strategy and as such is always political in nature. That is, balance is not the answer to an intellectual question; it is the attempt to evade or blunt an intellectual question. You resort to it not in response to the imperative of determining truth, but in response to pressures that originate more often than not from nonacademic constituencies.

That is surely the case with respect to the demand that a college or university faculty should display balance, in its hiring practices or in its tenure decisions or in its course offerings or in the materials assigned by individual instructors. In none of those instances is balance a legitimate educational goal.

Take the insistence that faculties be balanced so that there is a proportionate number of conservatives and liberals. That is the least defensible form of balance -- called "intellectual diversity" by its proponents, but is really affirmative action for conservatives -- because it assumes a relationship and even an exact correlation between one's performance in the ballot box and one's performance in the classroom.

There is no such correlation: The politics relevant to academic matters are the politics of academic disciplines, and the fault lines of those politics -- disputes between quantitative and qualitative social scientists, for example -- do not track the fault lines of the national divide between Republicans and Democrats. Thus it is not a coherent argument to say that students will benefit from having conservative as well as liberal professors; for with respect to the different approaches to a topic or a subject, party affiliation is not a predictor of which approach a professor will favor.

One might respond by pointing out that our nonacademic commitments and affiliations -- to religions, political agendas, ethnic origins, regional loyalties, sports teams -- will have, to a great extent, formed the person who enters the classroom, but that is an argument of determinism that is belied by every "tenured radical" (and there are many) who is on the "conservative" side in the battles of his or her discipline.

It is always possible to draw a line backward from the views you currently hold to the life events that preceded them; but preceding does not mean producing, and the line cannot be drawn in the reverse direction in a way that suggests that if you attended such and such a school, or read such and such a book, or underwent such and such a conversion, you would inevitably come out on this or that side of an academic debate.

Neither the dire consequences that supposedly come along with a predominantly liberal faculty nor the good consequences that would come along with a "redress" of the "imbalance" exist. The only thing you would get were you to enforce a political balance of persons hired or promoted would be a politicized university.

The same holds for the requirement that a curriculum be balanced between traditional and avant-garde courses. The courses a department ends up teaching will be a function of many things -- the kind of college or university it inhabits, the composition of the student body, the direction the discipline is taking. All of those are academic considerations, and in response to them a department might well have a balance of traditional and avant-garde courses -- not, however, as a goal
and by design, but as an unintended consequence of legitimate educational decisions.

And, finally, balance is not something an instructor should aim for when assigning texts or making up a syllabus. An instructor should first figure out what he or she thinks important and central and then make his or her choices accordingly. There is absolutely no obligation to include materials from every corner of the disciplinary landscape; there is an obligation -- and it is the only one -- to include materials that are, according to your intellectual judgment, relevant.

I teach Milton as a poet whose aesthetic is inseparable from his theology, and that conviction about Milton dictates the materials I assign and the questions I introduce and entertain. I am aware, of course, that there are other approaches to Milton -- psychoanalytic, Marxist, historicist, feminist -- and while representatives of those approaches make occasional cameo appearances in my class, they are, at best, supporting actors and, more likely, negative examples -- examples, that is, of interpretive directions I consider wrong.

I see no reason to include what I take to be wrong interpretations simply because they are there; no reason, that is, except for one imposed on me from the outside and with political, not educational, motives.

To be sure, educational motives might in some instances lead me to choose balance as an organizing principle; perhaps I am teaching a survey of critical approaches. But while balance might be the answer to the question of what's the best way of accomplishing what I'm after in the classroom, balance can never, in and of itself, be what I am after; unless, that is, I want to trade in the academic life for a frankly political one.


To be honest, I had planned a very long, thought-out, and researched reply to this verbal claptrap. I wanted to 'gut the Fish' so to speak. But here's the thing. Since Fish has fairly consistantly maintained that he disagrees with himself, arguing with him is an exercise in futility. But, since I haven't had much exercise today...

First, let me point out that the entire article is based on a false analogy. The idea that the presentation of religious symbols and the choice of viewpoints in an academic session are the same thing is absurd. It may be true that presenting religious symbols in a "museum setting" may make it seem like a courthouse, etc. "stand[s] for nothing in particular," but I have to wonder--what is it, then, that a professor is supposed to "stand" for? My feeling is that they don't. They facillitate, they challenge, they invigorate. They don't dictate or indoctrinate. Or they shouldn't, anyway.

In addition, Fish creates another fallacy: the false dillema. "I see no reason to include what I take to be wrong interpretations simply because they are there," he says. Thank goodness not everyone throughout history has thought that way. Otherwise we might be living on a flat Earth, around which the sun revolves daily as it and the other heavenly bodies travel through the heavenly spheres. Or at least we might think we are. The false dillema exists because Fish seems to imply that all "wrong" interpretaions are equally wrong. That is, completely wrong. That teaching that the world is hollow and inhabited by space aliens is akin to teaching that global warming is a myth. We know the world doesn't quite work that way. Take Hiroshima, 1945, for example. Was the atomic bomb dropped because the U.S. thought it would create a quick surrender, saving lives in the long run? Or was it because the U.S. wanted to put a scare into the USSR? Or was it simply because mushroom clouds are pretty? Well, which one is the "right" answer? Are the others equally wrong? What if I just happen to be a physics teacher who believes with all my heart that Superstring theory is correct. That means I am under no obligation to discuss oher theories? I don't think so.

Maybe Fish's analogy is good for something, after all. If a courthouse, say, includes a number of religious and secular symbols, one might argue that the impact of any one is dulled, and that the courthouse is endorsing nothing. The same might be said if (as I believe they should) they refuse any and all religious symbols. However, that doesn't translate to academics. If you provide a number of diverse views, you might not be endorsing any one in particular (I'd like to think that you are providing choice rather than balance), but if you remove all views, you teach nothing.

What I find ironic is that one of the best refutations of Fish's argument is made by Fish:

And, finally, balance is not something an instructor should aim for when assigning texts or making up a syllabus. An instructor should first figure out what he or she thinks important and central and then make his or her choices accordingly.

In other words, politics doesn't come into the classroom, anyway. It's all about the academics. In that case, certainly there would be no detriment to the students no matter what the ideology of the professor. And in that case, why not implement a policy that encourages fairness in hiring. Fish calls it "affirmative action for conservatives." It's funny how for some people that term only becomes derogatory when it refers to conservatives. I mean really...can you imagine Fish, or anyone else trying to make this argument about any other group? If political and ideological diversity don't matter, if it's all about the academic, then why hire women? Why hire Blacks, Hispanics, Jews? If balance in the curriculum doesn't matter, why even have a womens' studies program? Why have pop culture classes? What possible good can come from studying philosophy?

Well, of course the truth is, that in an ideal world, Fish would be right. We would leave our real selves at home and in the classroom adopt the unbiased, objective teacher persona, and we would only teach that which is "right." But this isn't an ideal world. One look at Grover Furr's websites should tell you that.

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