Thursday, March 31, 2005

Where to, Professor Zywicki?

Todd Zywicki of the VC puts together a long post on Academic Diversity, kindly linking to my previous post in the process. I just want to give a few reflections on his latest piece, the vast bulk of which I agree with.

The only true quibble I have is Prof. Zywicki's protest of the "ethnic studies" type courses. As he puts it:
While there are many good professors who create an open and balanced forum for a true exchange of ideas, there are many situations where this plainly is not the case. Most obviously, the entire point of many courses today is to present a particular viewpoint, not to create a balanced discussion, such as Women's Studies, African-American Studies, and GLBT Studies (for instance, when Dartmouth added a GLBT Studies program a few years ago, its first course was taught by a local activist, rather than a properly-qualified professor)

I obviously wouldn't defend having a class taught by a random activist pulled from the street. I do, however, see the value in those sorts of classes (Women's studies, GLBT studies, Jewish studies, et al). The primary objection to these sorts of classes is that they are not "neutral," that is, while a generic philosophy class teaches precepts common to all mankind (or at least, makes the effort to), ethnic studies courses are explicitly within the perspective of a single group. Conservatives tend to object to this from two angles: first, that it is needlessly divisive and leads to ethnic strife (by accentuating differences rather than bringing people together as one) and second, that it is unequal, since there isn't a "Men's Studies," or "Christian History" class. Advocates of Ethnic Studies classes have a single response that addresses both: that "generic" classes aren't neutral but actually coming from the perspective of the dominant group (in America, White Christian Males). Ethnic studies classes thus are no more perspectivized than any other class, it just is explicit about where it is coming from. The classes aren't "unequal" because every other class IS taught from the WCM perspective; it's just that White Christian Males have spoken alone for so long that they mistake the sound of their own voice for silence. Ethnic Studies classes thus give equal time to voices and perspectives that are marginalized in the dominant discourse that every person hears.

This isn't to say that Zywicki doesn't have a valid argument here. At some point, there has to be a cross-over, where so many persons are articulating the "marginalized" views that it ceases to be marginal anymore. The question is, have we reached that point? I'd venture no, because a) these views, despite their prevalence in academia, still have yet to gain much penetration into mainstream political discourse and b) these views are virtually non-existent in secondary school education, so incoming college students still have had far more exposure to the dominant views than to marginal ones. In this respect, having Ethnic Studies classes aids the quest (indeed, one might say is a pre-requisite) for an educational experience which "exposes students to a variety of ideas and perspectives, and through that develops critical thinking skills and an understanding of different ways of seeing the world which is necessary for living in a free and democratic society." However, as Zywicki and his allies will surely rejoin, diversity cuts both ways, and it is as important to expose students to conservative views as it is to liberal ones. I agree whole-heartedly, and while I think that Ethnic Studies classes should be preserved, I'd submit it should be part of a broader educational experience that presents conservative views as well as liberal ones.

Now that we've gotten past that little detour, where to? In other words, how to we get to that lovely panacea of diversity we lust so for so much? In my previous posts on the topic, I've argued that there are other explanations beyond bias that help explain the underrepresentation of conservatives in academia. The first of these is self-selection; conservatives may be less prone to the desire of academic life in the first place. For example, they might prefer jobs which offer more financial rewards, or ones that have more practical opportunities for influence (such as at Think Tanks or in politics, for example). Since that problem is on the end of the conservatives, I'll leave it up to them to fix it. The second potential bar I saw was the emphasis by universities on "novel" scholarship, which I argued in the last post was detrimental to conservatives who, by definition, are more likely to believe and be arguing for something that has already been said. Since this is an institutional problem, it seems, to me, to be ripe for resolution (and all you conservatives out there note: the thought-process I used to come to this idea came directly out of my exposure and enjoyment of critical theory and post-modernism. Just goes to show you that it is a tool that can be used by all ends of the political spectrum).

Professor Zywicki and I have been exchanging emails, and trading some ideas on how this institutional flaw can be rectified. This was the solution I came up with:
Perhaps an alternative would be recasting the norm about what "acceptable" (esp. for tenure review) scholarship is. If academia was changed to be more debate oriented, with the expectation that professors would not just construct arguments but also actively engage in debate with their philosophical opponents, that could help conservatives immensely by astronomically increasing the worth of their at-present less valuable defenses of prior claims, and by giving an alternative path to academic success beyond just making new claims and blissfully ignoring the scathing criticism coming from the other side of the political divide.

By making participation in Symposia and paneled debates either an independent requirement or a partial substitution for novel scholarship in the tenure process, we can give conservative scholars a leg up by end-running the institutional barrier to success posed by novel scholarship requirements. As an ex-high school debater who seriously believes in the value of discourse and argumentation as an integral part of the intellectual process, this holds a lot of appeal for me personally.

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