Last year, the Chronicle organized a conversation between Michael Bérubé, who’s now my co-blogger, and David Horowitz. I enjoyed the conversation greatly, not least because Bérubé had the better of it; Horowitz had considerable difficulty in keeping up with Bérubé, who clearly didn’t take him at all seriously. But this provoked a debate in the comments section here at CT, with some commenters, including Harry, suggesting that Bérubé should have engaged seriously with Horowitz rather than poking fun at him. I didn’t and don’t agree – I think that poking fun at Horowitz is exactly the right thing to do. But I recognize that it’s necessary to make arguments as to why this is possibly so. Small-l liberal academics – that is, academics who are committed to certain standards of diversity and plurality as a basis for academic argument – have an obligation to engage in reasoned debate with people that they profoundly disagree with, or at the very least to recognize that these people not only have a right to participate in argument, but very likely have something of value to contribute to it.
So why shouldn’t we engage in serious argument with people like David Horowitz? After all, he seems (some of the time) to be inviting us to? In this overly long blogpost, or overly short essay, I want to argue that this question is important to understanding Bérubé’s recent book, What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts?: Classroom Politics and Bias in Higher Education. (Powells, Amazon). I also want to argue on behalf of a possible answer to this question, which I draw from Max Weber’s idiosyncratic and agonistic version of liberalism. The short version: I think that we need not only to distinguish (as Bérubé does) between substantive liberalism and procedural liberalisms, but between different procedural liberalisms that are appropriate to different contexts. I suspect (although I’m not entirely sure) that there’s a proto-argument along these lines buried in Bérubé’s book – and I think that Max Weber’s essays on Politics as a Vocation and Science as a Vocation help to draw it out. This said, my thinking on this is still a bit in flux (i.e. good tough criticisms are greatly appreciated).
First: Bérubé’s book. There’s lots that could be said about it, especially the later sections which really do a very nice job of laying out how classroom discussion of novels should work, and why the skill of interpreting novels well is a precious thing to be cultivated. But the opening sections are less about the positive virtues of interpretation than why people who don’t like interpretation have come to play an ever-larger role in debate. Bérubé seems to me to be trying to figure out how to argue with three different kinds of critics on the right of the spectrum (while he takes potshots at a few lefties too, they’re not his main target). First, he’s trying to figure out how you can “reasonably accommodate” students “whose standards of reason are significantly different than yours.” This is the problem of ‘John’ – a pretty obnoxious sounding conservative student in one of Bérubé’s seminars whose stridency in class was underpinned by an apparent unwillingness to think through the implications of his viewpoints. Second, the hacks – the Michelle Malkins, Dinesh D’Souzas, Abigail Thernstroms and David Horowitzes of the world, who purport to be public intellectuals, but who appear willing to be more or less dishonest in pursuit of political goals, and who in many cases don’t seem to believe in the ideal of independent inquiry that motivates the academy. Third are the serious critics, conservative and otherwise, whom Bérubé is willing to engage with (albeit rather impatiently) while complaining about their sometime unwillingness to dissociate themselves from the hacks.
Bérubé’s ideal academy is one that has a place for conservatives, and for people whom he disagrees with radically. Indeed, this is key to the “pragmatic anti-foundationalism” that underpins his specific form of procedural liberalism. Substantive liberals – those who believe in the importance of equality etc – don’t have a monopoly on the truth. Therefore, we need procedural liberalism too, where “any reasonable proposition can and should be debated from any reasonable angle.” This is a pretty uncontroversial claim in itself, but Bérubé backs it up nicely from classroom experience with students whom he disagrees with radically. And he’s right in practice – critics who claim that universities are hotbeds of leftist indoctrination where brilliant conservatives can expect F’s don’t get that most professors on both left and right don’t care about the ideology of a smart student who is prepared to argue and defend her claims intelligently. Teaching students like this, and helping them to sharpen their arguments is one of the joys that makes the daily grind of the academy worthwhile.
However, there’s something missing from Bérubé’s argument – it doesn’t set out an explicit differentiated account of how to deal with people whom you don’t agree with. In practice, it’s clear that Bérubé treats different kinds of intellectual opponents differently. When dealing with a difficult student like John, he’s prepared, insofar as he can, to bend over backwards to accommodate John’s views and perspectives, even though it’s pretty clear that John is obnoxious and badly behaved. When dealing with someone like Horowitz, it’s a quite different matter – Bérubé clearly revels in ridiculing Horowitz, showing up his inconsistencies and lies and so on. Finally, when Bérubé debates more serious critics, such as Mark Bauerlein, he deplores the ways in which they misrepresent the truth, as he sees it, while recognizing that there’s a real basis to many of their arguments. What gives here? Why should these different kinds of critics be treated differently? Bérubé perhaps provides some clues in the closing section of the book, but he doesn’t begin to offer a coherent account of why procedural liberalism should distinguish nicely between different forms of criticism, and what basis these distinctions should rest upon.
I reckon that Max Weber’s agonistic liberalism provides the beginnings of one very useful way of drawing out these distinctions. Weber isn’t usually thought of as a political theorist, but as one of my favorite professors in grad school used to say, there are elements of a very interesting political theory buried in there; flashes of Nietzschian insight glinting here and there through the sociological stodge. This is especially true of two late essays, both of which are conveniently available on the WWW, Science as a Vocation, and Politics as a Vocation.
They’re relevant to the task at hand in two ways. First, Weber’s liberalism, like Bérubé’s is quite pronouncedly anti-foundational – he borrows heavily from Nietzsche, and believes that political positions are fundamentally contingent. Political heroism, for Weber, is the “hier steh ich” of Martin Luther in a world where we cannot, as Luther did, believe that we are in possession of ultimate truth – there is a variety of possible gods and no universally applicable way to choose between them. Weber also sharply distinguishes between the tasks of the teacher and the politician. The teacher should forebear from seeking to impress his own values on his students; to do so is to betray his vocation.
It is said, and I agree, that politics is out of place in the lecture-room. It does not belong there on the part of the students. … Neither does politics, however, belong in the lecture-room on the part of the docents (lecturer), and when the docent is scientifically concerned with politics, it belongs there least of all.
It is certainly possible that the individual teacher will not entirely succeed in eliminating his personal sympathies. He is then exposed to the sharpest criticism in the forum of his own conscience. And this deficiency does not prove anything; other errors are also possible, for instance, erroneous statements of fact, and yet they prove nothing against the duty of searching for the truth.
The primary task of a useful teacher is to teach his students to recognize ‘inconvenient’ facts—I mean facts that are inconvenient for their party opinions. And for every party opinion there are facts that are extremely inconvenient, for my own opinion no less than for others. I believe the teacher accomplishes more than a mere intellectual task if he compels his audience to accustom itself to the existence of such facts. I would be so immodest as even to apply the expression ‘moral achievement,’ though perhaps this may sound too grandiose for something that should go without saying.
These comments apply primarily to social scientists, but also have more general force as an ethic of scholarship, and one that dovetails nicely with Bérubé’s procedural liberalism in the classroom. They moreover draw a clear distinction between the scholar and the politician. When one is acting as a scholar, one has a clear duty to be faithful to one’s vocation, to acknowledge uncomfortable facts, and to give due respect to viewpoints that are not one’s own. The duty of the professor to the student is not to impart the professor’s values to the student, but rather to help the student to understand his or her own values more clearly.
Thus, if we are competent in our pursuit (which must be presupposed here) we can force the individual, or at least we can help him, to give himself an account of the ultimate meaning of his own conduct. This appears to me as not so trifling a thing to do, even for one’s own personal life. Again, I am tempted to say of a teacher who succeeds in this: he stands in the service of ‘moral’ forces; he fulfils the duty of bringing about self-clarification and a sense of responsibility. And I believe he will be the more able to accomplish this, the more conscientiously he avoids the desire personally to impose upon or suggest to his audience his own stand.
The duty of the politician, in contrast, is precisely to use argument to express one’s own beliefs and, where possible, to sway others towards them so that one’s political goals can be achieved.
When speaking in a political meeting about democracy, one does not hide one’s personal standpoint; indeed, to come out clearly and take a stand is one’s damned duty. The words one uses in such a meeting are not means of scientific analysis but means of canvassing votes and winning over others. They are not plowshares to loosen the soil of contemplative thought; they are swords against the enemies: such words are weapons. It would be an outrage, however, to use words in this fashion in a lecture or in the lecture-room.
The academic can of course act as a politician, but only outside of the classroom. Not only are his roles as educator, and as a citizen engaged in politics distinct from each other, but they are profoundly different; as Weber describes it, they serve different gods. The political realm is one of unending struggle between different and antithetical ethical standpoints, each of which has adherents who want it to win. Here, it is incumbent on the politician to ensure that her point of view prevails, and to use whatever means are available in the electoral system to do so. While the truly responsible politician recognizes the tensions between lofty aims and the morally compromised tools that she must employ, and even that her own point of view is not unassailable, she fails in her responsibility as a politician unless she participates actively and wholeheartedly in the political struggle. The scholarly realm (within the social sciences) is one of debate where one starts from the premises that no point of view is foundationally right. Thus, the teacher imparts two important kinds of moral lesson to her student – lessons that allow the student to clearly articulate his own views to himself, and lessons that allow the student to recognize in principle that no point of view provides an account of the world that is complete and foundationally grounded.
Returning to Bérubé, this provides us with a somewhat modified account of why one should be prepared to tolerate students like John in the classroom, but also of where the limits of that toleration end. Students like John, whether on the left, right, or center, are students who don’t want (1) to recognize the limits of their own point of view, (2) to recognize that other points of view may hold truth, and (3) fail to follow through all the implications of what they themselves believe. It’s incumbent on the professor to do what she can to correct this – not to guide the student to ‘right thinking,’ but to a better appreciation of the strengths and limits of her own perspective as one of a variety of valuable possible perspectives. This is undoubtedly small-l liberal. It isn’t hospitable to points of view that insist on their sole and absolute possession of the truth. But as Weber argues, the academy (in the social sciences, and the kind of humanities that Bérubé is practicing here) has its own logic and a sense of the appropriate academic vocation, which is precisely to provide an arena in which reasoned debate is possible between different points of view. The student need not ultimately be convinced that this small-l liberalism holds in any absolute sense, but she needs to recognize that it is a fundamental condition for academic debate, and that as long as she is in the academy, she needs to argue with others as if it is true.
In practice, however, even within small-l liberalism, I suspect that there are limits to the accommodation that should be granted to specific individual students. Weber’s primary concern is with large classrooms in which the professor (as German professors still do to some extent) lectures without interruption and is vulnerable to the temptation of expounding his own views without fear of contradiction. Thus, he concentrates on the professor’s responsibility. He isn’t writing about undergraduate seminars in which the value to the student of the seminar depends not only on the professor, but on the other students. I’m going to go out on a limb here, and suggest that this means that students, insofar as they are engaging in a limited form of mutual education, also take on a limited version of Weber’s vocational responsibility, and it is the professor’s duty to enforce this. Students who persistently and belligerently refuse to recognize in principle that other points of view may potentially hold some truth prevent seminars from becoming genuine intellectual exchanges, and need to be discouraged, if necessary in very strong terms, from so doing. They’re acting to stop the university from doing what it should be doing, from providing a proper environment for people to pursue the academic vocation.
Thus, I think Weber’s arguments can be adapted to suggest that there should be a gradated approach to how one treats the viewpoints of students, depending on the teaching format. In both one-on-one interaction and in large lecture classes, the professor should be highly prepared to accommodate diversity, and to seek to guide students towards a better understanding of their own philosophies. In seminar classes, the professor should be equally accommodating of diversity as long as the students themselves seek reasonably to accommodate other students’ perspectives (the professor’s perspective can fare for itself). When a student – from whatever perspective – seeks to disrupt this set of mutual responsibilities, the professor should do all he/she can to remind this student that he/she has responsibilities too (he/she is partly responsible for educating other students, and for engaging in meaningful exchange with them).
A similar logic applies, obviously, to academic debates among scholars. The academic vocation demands that a scholar both express respect for different viewpoints, and honest acknowledge the limitations of his or her own. Without this kind of respect, the academy fails.
The difficult case is that of people like David Horowitz. Here, one could take two plausible positions. The first is the one that I think Harry takes. That is, one could argue that the responsibilities of the academic extend to a broader set of interactions in the public sphere, and that when academics debate as public intellectuals, they need to stick to the same kinds of principles that guide internal debates among scholars, e.g. respect for a diversity of viewpoints, acknowledgement of different points of view on contested issues and so on, even when one is dealing with opportunistic jerks like Horowitz.
One can adduce both principled and pragmatic arguments for this viewpoint. The principled argument (or at least the most obvious one to me) is that academics have a potential role in public debate because they are academics, i.e. because they are supposed to be less caught up in the specific battles of the political fray, and to have a broader commitment to the truth. Thus, if they engage in public argument as academics, they need to stick to the academic rules of debate. As Weber suggests, if they engage in public arguments in their capacity as private citizens, they don’t have the same obligations (although one could, I think, argue that they still have a greater responsibility than others to acknowledge uncomfortable truths in the course of their efforts to sway and persuade others). The pragmatic argument is that even when academics are engaged in argument with others who don’t have the same commitments to pluralism as they do, they can perhaps shame those others into behaving a bit better by the force of example (or at least make it clear by demonstration to outside observers who is complying with the appropriate norms, and who isn’t).
Both of these arguments hold a lot of weight, and should be dispositive across most public debates that academics get involved in qua academics. For example, when academics get involved in a contested debate such as the merits of school choice, where the empirical evidence doesn’t provide decisive reason to favor one side of the debate over the other, academics who are commenting in the wider public arena should acknowledge this.
However, I think that they don’t provide good guidance when dealing with, say, David Horowitz, on, say, the horrible state of the academy. It’s worth examining Horowitz’s modus operandi to see why. His main line of attack is that of the standard political hack, concocting a farrago of innuendoes, half-truths and out-and-out lies in order to beat down those whom he sees as his political opponents. However, when he’s attacked in the same terms as those he himself engages in, he’s perfectly happy to appeal to academic norms of reasoned debate in order to accuse his accusers of themselves being politicized. When academics on the contrary try to engage him in reasoned debate, they’ve lost the battle before they’ve started it. They grant his (often preposterous) claims a credibility that they don’t deserve, and set themselves up to have the bejasus beaten out of them through distortion, selective editing etc.Thus, it’s not the kind of debate where the reasoned adducement of facts and academic expertise serves any useful purpose (especially as the status of academic expertise is itself what’s at stake). Nor, on the basis of the material record, is adherence to these norms likely either to chasten Horowitz towards better behaviour or to edify the audience.
Because Horowitz is able to use the low standards of political debate, while demanding that his intellectual opponents adhere to the high ones of academic argument he wins either way. In order successfully to argue against him, it’s necessary to recognize that the battle Horowitz is fighting is political rather than strictly academic. He’s not acting as an academic interlocutor (some conservatives and other critics are, and they should be treated very differently). He’s acting as a politician and looking to win political changes outside the academy that would radically reshape its internal practices. Indeed, he’s entirely right. The argument over whether or not the university will survive as a place where people of different political points of view can teach, debate and carry out research without being hauled up before state legislatures is a political argument in the Weberian sense; it’s an argument about the extent to which a particular set of values (the academic vocation that Weber describes) should hold sway over a limited area of social life.
The survival of academic life is not itself a purely academic question, and academics who debate this in the public sphere are not so much academics (disinterested experts) as ‘academics’ (adherents to the value-laden political position that academic discussion is extraordinarily valuable, and should be protected). Academics need to defend their vocation in the political arena, and they need to be unashamed about using political means to do so. They surely have an obligation to tell the truth in so doing; otherwise they would be giving the lie to their underlying ethos. But they have no obligation whatsoever to treat political hacks like Horowitz as serious interlocutors in a broad pluralistic debate where every perspective has some validity. Their damned duty is to take a stand, fighting on behalf of the virtues of the academy as they see them, and fighting vigorously against the people who would destroy those virtues.
Thus , the very considerable virtues of Bérubé’s argumentative strategy – it seems (at least to me) rather more likely to be politically effective than other strategies might be. And in this particular set of arguments, political effectiveness is the appopriate measuring stick:
In this context—the Chronicle, as opposed to Hannity & Colmes—this grants Horowitz, and his complaints about academe, a certain legitimacy. My job, therefore, is to contest that legitimacy, and to model a way of dealing with Horowitz that does not give him what he wants: namely, (1) important concessions or (2) outrage. He feeds on (2), of course, and uses it to power the David Horowitz Freedom Center and Massive Persecution Complex he runs out of Los Angeles; and most of the time, we give it to him by the truckload. Liberal and left academics need to try (3), mockery and dismissal, and thereby demonstrate, as I put it on my blog, that when someone tries to blame tuition increases on Cornel West’s speaking fees, that person needs to be ridiculed and given a double minor for unsportsmanlike bullshit.
In conclusion then, a liberal (in the broadest sense of the word) academic should deal with Horowitz in a very different way than she would deal with John, or with a conservative scholar within the academy who was arguing in a reasoned and honest way that conservatives should get more of a voice. She should deal with him as a political actor, using the tools of political debate. She should under no circumstances take him seriously, where taking him seriously would give him political traction. She should, however, take the aforementioned conservative scholar very seriously indeed, and do her best to push students like John to adhere to the basic rules of academic argument, without at the same time asking them to change their substantive values.
Thus the need to distinguish between different kinds of procedural liberalism, which should work in different spheres of activity. As Weber argues, different spheres of social life are governed by different principles; the vocation of the academic is not that of the politician. While a small-l liberal should recognize that it’s healthy that both politics and the academy are populated by a wide range of viewpoints, including some that she is violently opposed to, she should recognize that these viewpoints interact in very different ways in the two spheres, and that the proper standards for vary dramatically from the one to the other. I think that Bérubé’s book points towards something like this, but I also think that drawing on Weber allows you to draw the necessary distinctions more clearly.