Commentary Magazine


Academic Advocates

Recent discussions of academic freedom have focused on one particularly egregious case of professorial racism and anti-Semitism. In class and in public lectures, Professor Leonard Jeffries, then the chairman of the black-studies program at the City College of New York, expounded his theories of the genetic supremacy of blacks and of the responsibility of Jews for the slave trade. In 1992 City College removed him from the chairmanship, but he was reinstated after a federal court found that the school had violated his right to free speech. This April that court decision was reversed, and Jeffries has now stepped down as chairman, though he continues to be a tenured professor.

The academic and legal communities, to say nothing of civil-rights organizations, have tied themselves in knots trying to sort out the issues raised by the Jeffries case. Would there have been a problem if the professor had preached his doctrines only outside the university and not within? Or in the university (in a meeting of a black-student organization, for example) but not in the classroom? Or in the classroom while permitting other views to be heard and assuring students they would not be penalized for expressing such views? Or in a private rather than a public university?

Or—and this is the more fundamental issue—what was the ground for moving against Jeffries in the first place? Was it the political nature of his ideas, threatening the civility of discourse that is supposed to prevail in the university, and (in the language of sexual-harassment cases) creating a “hostile environment” for whites and Jews, thus jeopardizing their civil rights? Or was it the untruth of his ideas—their unscientific, nonhistorical character?

The last question is the most vexatious. For it raises the familiar argument: who is to say what is true and untrue? A professor cites his authorities; so do his opponents. If those authorities conflict, is that not the nature of all scholarly inquiry? Is it not the basic assumption of academic freedom—indeed, of freedom in general—that truth emerges only from the conflict of ideas? Surely this is the great lesson we all learned from John Stuart Mill: that truth depends on the “collision of adverse opinions,” that an undisputed truth is “a dead dogma, not a living truth,” and that adverse opinions are so essential to truth that they should be artificially contrived, if necessary, by “the most skillful devil’s advocate.”

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“Devil’s Advocate”—that describes the role of all too many of our professors today. The Jeffries case is only the tip of the iceberg. Precisely because it deals with such sensitive issues as racism and anti-Semitism, it obscures a larger problem that bedevils the university: the problem of advocacy in general. Not just the advocacy of patently and outrageously offensive doctrines; rather, the advocacy of any views that a professor might hold on any subject.

In most universities, professors have become accustomed to expressing their opinions freely on all sorts of matters about which they may or may not have any professional competence. They do so as uninhibitedly in classrooms and lecture halls as in the media and public forums. Moreover, not only do they feel free to express their opinions; they feel free to promote causes, interests, and organized activities of every kind. At issue is not the professor who, in a class on Shakespeare, presents his own interpretation of Hamlet; it is the professor who, in a class on Shakespeare, presents his own view of homosexuality and gay rights, or who so distorts Hamlet as to make it seem a tract about homosexuality and gay rights.

The professor as advocate. Is this what academic freedom is about? Originally intended to protect professors in their scholarly pursuit of truth within the university, while ensuring their political rights as citizens outside the university, the doctrine is now invoked to allow professors to express their political views in the classroom, without regard for either scholarship or truth. Although this is not the first time that advocacy in this sense has reared its head in the university, it is the first time it has done so with the approval of so many professors in so many disciplines—and not in the name of truth but in a show of disrespect for the very idea of truth.

Even Marxists in their heyday were not so dismissive of truth. They were, to be sure, contemptuous of those “bourgeois truths” that parade under the names of freedom, justice, law, and culture. These were said to represent the “social consciousness” of the ruling class, the “superstructure” that gives a specious legitimacy to capitalist property, production, and social relations. But Communism, Marx had explained, would bring with it not another such superstructure but truth itself, because Communism, being the “real movement” of history, could be depicted by a “real, positive science.” It was in the name of that “science”—in other words, of truth—that Marxist professors assumed the mantle of advocacy, determined not merely to “interpret” the world but to “change” it.

Today a good many professors accept the Marxist indictment of bourgeois society and culture while rejecting any notion of a “real, positive science” or any other kind of truth. In the now-familiar race/class/gender trinity that has replaced Marx’s monolithic class doctrine, there is no room for transcendent truth or knowledge.

For a while, in the new multicultural order, it was possible to envision a flourishing of scholarship inspired by the different perspectives of newly “empowered” groups. Black historians, feminist historians, ethnic historians, gay and lesbian historians would pursue their own interests in the traditional way, as scholars rather than advocates. But as each group has tried to overcome its own “marginality” by “mainstreaming” itself into the center of the curriculum, the competing, often conflicting, pressures and passions have made advocates of all but the most resolute scholars.

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Recently another movement has emerged to give credibility to the practice of advocacy. This is postmodernism, which has swept through the academic disciplines—literature most conspicuously, but also history, philosophy, anthropology, the law. Postmodernism is the most influential, and perhaps the most enduring, of all the fashions that have afflicted the university in recent times. This is not to say that all professors have become postmodernists. But the basic tenets of the creed have pervaded the academy to the point where most young professors, and a good many older ones, accept them almost unthinkingly.

The animating spirit of postmodernism is a radical skepticism and relativism that rejects any idea of truth, knowledge, reason, or objectivity. More important, it refuses even to aspire to such ideas, on the ground that they are not only unattainable but undesirable—that they are, by their very nature, authoritarian and repressive.

This is very different from the skepticism and relativism that scholars have always brought to their trade. Historians, most notably, have always had a healthy dose of both. They have been acutely aware of the limitations of their discipline: the deficiency of the historical record, the selectivity inherent in the writing of history, the fallibility and subjectivity of the historian, and thus the imperfect, tentative, and partial (in both senses of the word) nature of every historical work.

But professional historians have always made the most strenuous efforts to curb and control these deficiencies. This is what is meant by the “discipline” of history, and why until recently the keystone of every graduate program has been a required course on “methodology,” instructing students in the proper use of sources, the need for substantiating and countervailing evidence, the conventions of documentation and citation.

Today, such courses are very nearly obsolete, and the very idea of a discipline of history is regarded as disingenuous or hypocritical. Similarly, the idea of fact (the word now appears almost invariably in quotation marks) is derided, as are the ideas of truth, objectivity, and reality. What passes as history, like all forms of knowledge, is presumed to be a “construct” of the “hegemonic” class. There is no truth to be derived from history—not even partial, incremental, contingent truths. There is no objectivity—not even an approximation of it or any reason to strive toward it. There are not even any events—only “texts” to be interpreted in accord with the historian’s interest and disposition, just as the text of a poem may be an occasion for the free-floating imagination of the literary critic.

It is in this spirit that all the humanities have been relativized, subjectified, “problematized” (as the deconstructionists say)—and thus politicized. For if there is no reality, no truth, no facts, no objectivity, then there are only will and power. “Everything is political,” the popular slogan has it. Every professor—indeed, every student—is presumed to be, consciously or not, an advocate.

This is the intellectual rationale that lies behind the practice of advocacy. Not all advocates are postmodernists, but those who pride themselves on being “engaged” can take comfort in a learned and sophisticated theory, couched in an appropriately arcane language, that makes advocacy intellectually reputable and morally commendable.

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Certainly this is the view that emerged in Pittsburgh this June at a conference on advocacy organized by the Modern Language Association (MLA) and sponsored by fifteen leading professional associations. The overwhelming consensus of the participants (I was among the few dissenters) was that advocacy in the classroom is not only proper; it is natural and inevitable. Professors, the argument went, obviously have opinions on all sorts of subjects. Is it not better for them to express those opinions openly rather than surreptitiously? Is not advocacy a necessary part of the competition of ideas that is the driving force of scholarship? And is not advocacy an essential component of the new inclusive, multicultural university, where diverse groups are for the first time asserting themselves? If advocacy were limited, would this not inhibit, even repress, these new constituencies?

Some of the speakers qualified their enthusiasm. Advocacy, they allowed, should not mean indoctrination; students should feel free to disagree with a professor and not be penalized if they do so; although no professor is obliged to present a “balanced view,” the curriculum as a whole should provide balance; civility, rather than objectivity, should be the goal of the scholar; and—a cautionary note—professors should be wary of expressing views that might bring complaints of harassment from students.

But there were also those who spurned such compromises. “I let my students know,” one professor declared, “where I’m coming from, and also that they’re free to write papers which disagree with positions I’ve taken in class. But those papers had better be very, very good because I’ll read them with a more critical eye than the ones I agree with.” “Neutrality,” said the head of a women’s-studies department, “is not something I want to encourage in my students”—or in the classroom, where she declines to present the views of anti-feminists. Still another professor spoke of the “transformative” experience of her students, whose term papers were based on their work at rape-crisis centers, battered-women’s shelters, and AIDS clinics. Asked whether that experience would be equally valuable if they had worked at a pro-life center or at a branch of the NRA, she replied that that was “not the same thing.”

This notion of advocacy, which is as intolerant of others’ opinions as it is indulgent of one’s own, was reflected in another talk at the MLA conference by a philosophy professor, who insisted that politics is as relevant in the sciences as in the arts. He himself, he said, was frankly a “partisan,” in contrast to those who merely appeared to favor neutrality but in reality were “dogmatists”; the latter were the true enemies of the “open classroom.”

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If feminists tend to be most outspoken in supporting and practicing advocacy, it is because they believe most fervently in the principle, “Everything is political.” Since women are the victims of an oppressive, patriarchal power structure (so the argument goes), they are obliged to be no less political in combating that power structure. Theirs is the class struggle “engendered,” as it were. Moreover, every aspect of their lives is implicated in the struggle. Hence the corollary principle: “the personal is political.”

The personal has always been high on the agenda of women’s-studies courses. As Mother Jones, hardly a magazine hostile to feminism, reports of an informal survey of such courses: “In many classes discussions alternate between the personal and the political, with mere pit stops at the academic.” On the theory that female students have been deprived not only of power but of the very awareness of their powerlessness, many women’s-studies courses are devoted to “consciousness-raising.” Thus, the classes are sometimes little more than rap sessions, or, at a more elevated level, group-therapy sessions, in which students and professor alike dwell on their own experiences, feelings, and grievances. Even courses ostensibly devoted to the history or literature of women in earlier times often infuse those subjects with the sentiments of a latter-day feminism, stripping away the “false consciousness” imposed by the regnant patriarchy and restoring the “voice” women never had.

Recently, the personal has taken on a new urgency at our universities and is invading courses and subjects far removed from women’s studies. Out of postmodernism, with its suspicion of logic as “logocentric,” of reason as “phallocentric,” of objectivity as “authoritarian,” there has emerged a new subjectivism—a new “personalism,” one might call it—that exalts the scholar’s own feelings, sensations, emotions, and private experiences.

This trend has been described in articles bearing such provocative titles as “The I’s Have It,” “Dare We Say ‘I’?,” and “Don’t Leave Out the Juicy Things” (meaning the personal things). The point is not that professors have taken to writing their autobiographies. Rather, they are being autobiographical no matter what they may happen to be writing about: Japanese society, primitivism and Western culture, the story of a Mexican peddler, the analysis of a French painter. The personalist mode exhibits itself not in an occasional intrusion of reminiscences or experiences but as a dominating presence. The traditionally impersonal voice of the scholar—the “footnote voice,” as it has been disparagingly called—has been replaced by the triumphal “I.” “George Eliot, c’est moi,” announces a recent biographer of the great 19th-century novelist.

The new “personalism” has progressed far enough to invite some derisory comments. “The ideology of . . . Miss Piggy,” one critic calls it. Another complains that professors have become “self-absorbed and confessional.” Still another speaks of the scholars’ “nouveau solipsism.” Such solipsism, or narcissism, seems to be far removed from political advocacy. Yet it is itself an invitation to any kind of advocacy, now justified by the ultimate authority, the sensibility of the professor. At the very least, it is another way of imposing the professor’s agenda upon the student, who is once again made hostage to the professor’s preoccupations.

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As we depart ever more from the traditional conception of the university, it is important to reflect on the momentum of ideas that has brought us to this point. For these ideas affect not only our views about advocacy—how professors communicate with students and with the scholarly community—but also our views about scholarship itself—what is being communicated, what we take to be the nature of the scholarly enterprise and the function of the university.

In the absence of any idea—or ideal—of truth, or objectivity, or disinterested knowledge, how is one to judge scholarly merit? What safeguards are there against willful ignorance and deception? If everything is political, if, indeed, the personal is political, we are truly in the condition depicted by Nietzsche: “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” This is a prescription not for academic freedom, but for intellectual and moral nihilism. Fortunately, we are not yet in that condition. Not all professors, perhaps not most professors, subscribe to the new doctrines, and not all who do act upon them. But there is no doubt that relativism and subjectivism are more pervasive than ever and have been carried to extremes that would not have been tolerated only a few years ago.

In A History of the World in 10½ Chapters by the English novelist and essayist Julian Barnes, the narrator explains why a world bereft of the idea of truth would be humanly, morally intolerable:

We all know objective truth is not obtainable; that when some event occurs we shall have a multiplicity of subjective truths which we assess and then tabulate into history, into some God-eyed version of what “really” happened. . . . But while we know this, we must still believe that objective truth is obtainable; or we must believe that it is 99 per cent obtainable; or if we can’t believe this we must believe that 43 per cent objective truth is better than 41 per cent. We must do so, because if we don’t we’re lost, we fall into beguiling relativity, we value one liar’s version as much as another liar’s, we throw up our hands at the puzzle of it all, we admit that the victor has the right not just to the spoils but also to the truth.

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