Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Take that Pinko! What you always wanted to say to your professor?

In Uncategorized on March 2, 2010 at 8:31 am

I couldn’t help but to write about this. I have never spent much time reading Reason magazine. Occasionally I will find an interesting and provocative piece in this über-libertarian organ that I just can’t skip, but it is not really my thing. Well, I wasn’t looking for them, but they came looking for me.  Given that I have done some research on professors and their politics, I was intrigued to find this sales pitch in the mail that must fit my demographic.

I am always curious how anti-academy politics is developing, and from the looks of the flyer above, it is alive and well. Reading this, you get a sense of the anger that people feel toward professors. In the depicted scene, the professor has an “over-inflated ego,” is “spouting off” absurdities and “won’t shut up” (although they aren’t supposed to shut up until class ends are they?).  The student bravely stands up an takes the breath out of the pompous wind bag with powerful, and presumably anti-institutionalist, arguments that reveal the telling virtue of a student grounded in the power of common sense. It’s a kind of comedia dell’arte where Il Dottore takes it on the chin.  It seems to me that the Reason advertisement is a fantasy on hire and the pitch is to make Reason the champion that you wish you were.

I became curious to discover how often this kind of thing really happens in the classroom and if Libertarian students suffer more than others. I can remember one occasion in which a friend of mine confronted a professor whose yellowing notes betrayed his lack of current engagement with the subject, but this had little to do with politics and more with irresponsibility. If anyone has other good stories about libertarian students doing this kind of thing (even if it is you) please get the anecdotes to me. In fact I would be curious to hear about any students who felt so silenced that they had to resort to a heroic moment like that described in the letter.

One of the things that I find most interesting in this episode, is the resentment that some students must feel in the classroom and the depth of feeling represented here. My first thought, after a reflexive defensive reaction, was to wonder if my students ever feel like this? If so, do they have cause? I have always prided myself on respecting the students and so I hope that it does not happen.  In fact, I think (and have some evidence to support my claim) that I am not atypical and that most professors are happy to have students speak up with dissenting views. I can think of two or three students who could have turned out to be the in your face types, but they seemed to flourish when given ample room for self expression in the classroom; they became some of my favorite students.

My sense is that insofar as there is a problem with political silencing in the classroom it comes down to the stylistic mismatch between the University and the popular culture. In the University, we do things much the same as we did in 1960. We are respectful of academic tradition, focused on learning and largely committed to the authority that derives from disciplinary mastery. These norms extend to relations between teacher and student and do not match the experiences to which young people have become accustomed elsewhere. The texture of popular culture in that time has become far more relaxed, informal and even coarse. Leave it to Beaver has been replaced with Desperate Housewives. And while courses in Social Deviance have been replaced by newer ones on topics as potentially notable as Queer Theory, the basis of claims to knowledge and the style of interaction in the classroom has changed little. It may be as simple as that it is hard to get off of the rhythm of NFL Sunday to get on that of Peace Studies Monday morning.

In our political study of professors, Neil Gross and I found that younger professors are less radical than older ones. Why is it that the anti-professor movement is only now radicalizing? It may as simple as the explanation that Sarah Palin has offered, we are in trouble because we now have a professor of law in the White House. I must admit, that took my breath away.

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