Politics and the Classroom: An Attempted Clarification

Though I have long suspected that the clash between the right and (mostly liberal) academia comes from a conflation of issues and expectations, I have not been able to verbalize the problem to my own satisfaction. Yet I have continued to try, and have engaged people on the right, to try to come to my own understanding of the problem.

The other day, I emailed a man—I’ll call him “Larry”—whom I’d been going back and forth with in a comments section of Michael Berube’s blog. He seemed like a nice fellow (and he is), not a wingnut, though his views are certainly on right of the spectrum and he does see academia as a cloistered world divorced from reality.

Unfortunately, our email exchange quickly frustrated “Larry.” After only a few back-and-forths, he emailed me, “I don’t know, but you seem like one of those Define Your Terms and Cite Your Authority types with whom conversation is impossible without getting pissed off.”

He’s right (though I am always leery of refuge in authority): I do want those involved in discussion to define their terms. I hate it when people throw out statements and then refuse to explain what they are saying, and why.

And that, of course, is at the core of the problem. He gets pissed off because I am approaching the discussion from an academic point of view while he wants to keep it in the political, where the ground-rules are quite different.

Simply put (and you all know this, but it does bear repeating), in our political system, no one has to explain their beliefs, or even defend them. Anyone’s belief, no matter how cockeyed, has to be respected. We must trust to the individual to come to his or her own decision, by whatever method they choose. And that, as we all recognize, is extremely important—it safe-guards us from those amongst us (either Leninist, neo-con, or of any other belief) who think they know what’s best for us, and want to force that on us “for our own good.”

In an academic setting, however, the needs and goals are different. There, the fact of a belief is not sufficient. For it to be respected in a university, a belief has to be defended. By its very nature, academia is not democratic, nor should it be: at its best, it is a meritocracy, place where the best expressed and defended ideas rise to the top, and rise through a process of revision and refinement based on rigorous discussion and on experiment via the scientific method.

If we try to apply “democracy” unilaterally to the university, we destroy it. All beliefs are not created equal; ideas achieve respect only by surviving a process of debate and even attack. Their places have to be earned, not assumed. Otherwise, there can be no growth, no moving forward, and intellectual life is stifled.

On the other hand, I (for one) don’t want to live in a meritocracy (working in what often seems like a parody of one is enough, thank you). It tends to develop an elite (just as our universities do), a group believing that its own judgments are superior to those of the masses—be they students or the general populace. And it does not provide the basic respect for the integrity of the individual and the individual’s beliefs that allows for the freedom and experimentation that are so important to our lives. I have problem enough with the “peer review” system we have within our universities. The last thing I want is for that to migrate to the rest of my life.

What we have in America, then, and have had for generations, is an uneasy (and necessary) truce between the two, of democracy and meritocracy. This has worked well for us, has been part of our success as a country, though it has not been comfortable.

If, as those attacking the universities from the right want, we start to insist that political beliefs be respected in the same way in the classroom that they must be respected in regard to the voting booth, we will simply end up destroying the universities—and tearing down one of the bases of our success. Unlike in the political system, it is not the person who should be respected in the academy, but the idea expressed. And its respect should not be based on the fact of its existence, but on its defense. This is a necessary part of any attempt to build academic excellence.

Somehow, we need to re-learn that an attack on an idea in a classroom is not an attack on that idea within the political arena. Nor is it an attack on the person holding that belief. It is simply a demand that the idea be defended if it is to be seriously considered.

So, yes, “Larry,” I do insist that terms be defined and I don’t respect ideas that are provided without definition or defense. But that doesn’t mean I don’t respect the holder of that idea or that I want to limit their ability to participate in the political discourse of our nation. I simply want them to recognize that academic discourse is a different thing, with different ends and means.