Academic beachheads

As a academic and a historian of philosophy, I find these sorts of initiatives baffling:

COLORADO SPRINGS — Acknowledging that 20 years and millions of dollars spent loudly and bitterly attacking the liberal leanings of American campuses have failed to make much of a dent in the way undergraduates are educated, some conservatives have decided to try a new strategy.

They are finding like-minded tenured professors and helping them establish academic beachheads for their ideas.

These initiatives, like the Program in Western Civilization and American Institutions at the University of Texas, Austin, or a project at the University of Colorado here in Colorado Springs, to publish a book of classic texts, are mostly financed by conservative organizations and donors, run by conservative professors. But they have a decidedly nonpartisan and nonideological face.

Their goal is to restore what conservative and other critics see as leading casualties of the campus culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s: the teaching of Western culture and a triumphal interpretation of American history.

These are not ideological courses,” said James Piereson, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, which created the Veritas Fund for Higher Education to funnel donations to these sorts of projects. The initiatives are only political insofar as they “work against the thrust of programs and courses in gender, race and class studies, and postmodernism in general,” he said.

The programs and centers differ in emphasis, with some concentrating on American democratic and capitalist institutions and others on the Western canon, the great books often derided during the culture wars as the history of “dead white men.” They sponsor colloquia, seminars, courses, visiting lecturers and postdoctoral students. At Brown, the Political Theory Project even put on a play by the capitalist heroine Ayn Rand.

Some, like the effort in Colorado Springs and the Program for Constitutionalism and Democracy at the University of Virginia focus solely on exposing freshmen to classical thinkers. Others favor a return to a more traditional teaching of America’s past, featuring its greatest accomplishments instead of the history of repression and exploitation that had been the trend.

Not surprisingly, such initiatives betray no understanding of how academia actually works.  I have never understood why they can't just try to make arguments for their views.  

5 thoughts on “Academic beachheads”

  1. postmodernism in general

    Really? Are we back to using nebulous pejoratives? Postmodernism refers either to a historical epoch–in which case they are counteracting time, not any sort of ethos, which, while a noble venture, seems futile–or a literary genre, in which case, they mean to counteract a certain aesthetic, not anything close to a predominant worldview. There are no “postmodernists,” at least insofar as that term refers to any philosophical movement.  This is the odd case where Piereson, et al, have constructed a straw man, the postmodernist, and then began to regard it as a real man.

  2. I’m not sure it is possible for us to ever be “back” to using nebulous pejoratives, since that would suggest there was a moment when “we” stopped using them in the first place.

    I confess to being in that nebulous crowd that finds meaning in use, so I would argue for a more tempered approach to the term “postmodern” than PMAYO seems to be suggesting above. (And, apologies in advance, if I am misconstruing you.) As the term is used, it does seem to have taken on a connotation of a class of critical and interpretive moves that I find rather distasteful. It seems to be a fairly egregious form of subjective relativism that was recently (in the last decade?) mocked by Sokal’s infamous buzz-phrase article. (If I really have to look up the citation, I can; but I’m recovering from the flu, tired, and really, REALLY hoping everybody already knows the article I’m talking about.)
    Rather, I would argue that the “triumphal interpretation” — and, holy Christ! What a buzz phrase THAT is! — that forms the kerygmatic underpinning of these folks’ ideology profits (prophets?) substantially more from the postmodern subjectivism that it explicitly pretends to damn than the objective standards it never actually employs. Objectively, there simply are no grounds for the unqualified triumphalism they so ideologically — I would even say “viciously” — choose to trumpet. But that is only because I genuinely believe that some things are objectively wrong. (I mean, little things: slavery; genocide of Native Americans; fabricated excuses for wars in the Middle East; lying about all the above; misusing semi-colons.)

    And what do you call such an abuse of reasoning? A “negative petitio principii“? A “counter clockwise” circular argument? Damning the principle you use to damn the principle you use? (Or is it damning the principle you use to damn the principles you are not using?)

    Obviously I need to go to bed. “Triumphal interpretation” — ya’ know, I’m going to have to try and go to sleep with that as the last phrase on my mind tonight …

  3. Good points Gary.  You underscore my point that such desires show how little they understand academia–they ignorantly or perhaps disingenuously embrace the ideology they claim to criticize.

    On another matter, we could grant that they mean the worst possible interpretation of post-modernism without affirming that this is minimally characteristic of the departments we know.  The good people of the state of Illinois continue to pay me to teach the works of dead white male persons.

  4. Points taken, Gary.  I can’t say as I disagree with you, though perhaps I have adopted a “throw the baby out with the bathwater” approach to the use of “postmodern.”

  5. They can’t just make arguments for their views because, for all their free-market le humping, their arguments sink in the “marketplace” of ideas. These academic bastions of conservatism are no different than places like the Discovery Institute; when the peer review process and the academic community reject ideas, they simply run off to create their own parallel universe of peers to sit around, applaud one another’s research, and bitch about the biases that segregated them from mainstream academia.

    It’s Dingell’s Law – power doesn’t lie in writing the law, it lies in controlling the process. This is simply an effort to establish control over some portion of the academic universe.

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