Today’s accusations against subversive professors differ from those of the past in several respects. In a sign of the times, the test for disloyalty has shifted far toward the center. Once an unreliable professor meant an anarchist or communist; now it includes Democrats. Soon it will be anyone to the left of Attila the Hun. Second, the charges do not (so far) come from government committees investigating un-American activities but from conservative commentators and their student minions. A series of groups such as Campus Watch, Academic Bias and Students for Academic Freedom enlist students to monitor and publicize professorial conduct. Third, the new charges are advanced not against but in the name of academic freedom or a variant of it; and, in the final twist, the new conservative critics seem driven by an ethos that they have adopted from liberalism: affirmative action and a sense of victimhood, which they officially detest.
I’d run the whole column here if copyright allowed it.
But politicization is perceived as a problem. Steve Goodman, an educational consultant, wrote in the Washington Post:
Yes, I do get some students who expressly wish to apply to either a liberal or a conservative college. But the vast majority are simply eager to find a school that will help them advance in their intellectual and professional lives. They’re flabbergasted by courses with titles like “Pornography and Evolution,” “The Beatles Era,” or “Introduction to Material Culture,” as well as educational values that appear only tangentially related to the reality of their lives.
Too easy. From at least the time of the Roman Republic (see Cicero, On the Character of the Orator), the purpose of a higher education hasn’t merely been to “get a job,” but to prepare one for civic engagement. As Thomas Ehrlich wrote for the National Center of Public Policy and Higher Education, “For America, politics is a crucially important dimension of civic life. Our democracy depends on an informed and engaged citizenry, one that acquires the knowledge and skills needed to become politically involved and then participates actively.” That’s why there are so many general education requirements in a “liberal” education.
The point of a class in “Pornography and Evolution” isn’t so much about pornography or evolution as the skills students acquire in critically examining our political and social paradigms. Reading the description (from the UCLA Communication Studies course listings) that goes along with that title explains:
M159. Pornography and Evolution. (4)
(Formerly numbered 197K.) (Same as Women’s Studies M159.) Lecture, three hours. Discussion of theories and research on why pornography exists and its effects. Use of topic to illustrate value of evolutionary theory to social sciences generally. Letter grading.
I’m not even a student at UCLA; so I haven’t taken this course. But Darwin did not intend for his theory to be used in this context. And I suspect that’s part of the point. As Daniel Kevles wrote in the 1995 Preface to In the Name of Eugenics, “Some supporters of Darwin’s theory of evolution have misapplied the biological principles of natural selection — ‘survival of the fittest’ — to the social, political, and economic realms.”
If, then, you’re going to criticize the existence of this course, you need to explain why it is that educated people, supposedly prepared for civic engagement, shouldn’t be concerned about the common misapplication of one of the most important scientific theories of our time. And you need to explain why educated people shouldn’t be concerned about the effect of pornography on gender relations–and there’s more to this than I’m going to go into here, as well.
Steve Goodman does raise an interesting point on how a college education has come to be seen as elitist:
A large part of the alienation I’m seeing stems from the widening economic disparity between the middle class and the universities. While the median income for a family of four is just a little over $62,000, middle-class families are regularly expected to come up with nearly $200,000 per child for four years of college. And tuition rates keep soaring. Brown University’s yearly tuition, which was an already-hefty $14,375 in 1989, reached $30,672 last year.
Attending a state university, my costs aren’t nearly this high. But there’s little question that government has increasingly come to see education more as a cost than as an investment. Colleges aren’t getting cheaper to run, but their budgets are being cut nonetheless, and as our population expands, there is ever greater demand for their services.
An educated populace seemingly doesn’t serve conservative interests, and perhaps that has something to do with academic attitudes. As Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times, “Think of the message this sends: today’s Republican Party – increasingly dominated by people who believe truth should be determined by revelation, not research – doesn’t respect science, or scholarship in general. It shouldn’t be surprising that scholars have returned the favor by losing respect for the Republican Party.”