Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Gramscian Left's Trinity: Identity, Ideology, and Grievance

Grievance School by Steven F. Hayward. An interesting report from the front lines of academia. Well worth a read.

The silliest campus incidents usually don’t originate from faculty in traditional or science-based fields. Instead, they come disproportionately from explicitly politicized “studies” disciplines, activist-oriented “centers,” or disciplines with less rigorous intellectual content, such as creative writing and communications. (The most recent example of this is the professor of communications at the University of Michigan who wrote the now-famous “It’s OK to Hate Republicans” article for In These Times.) Boulder has a women-and-gender-studies program that proudly advertised its rough equivalent of Ward Churchill, an “activist-in-residence” who is a community organizer without academic credentials of any kind. She is essentially a Naomi Klein clone, fixated on the evils of “neoliberalism.” Not even the sociology department, which leans far to the left, would make such an openly politicized non-academic appointment.


In most departments of political science, history, English, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and sociology, you will find several professors whose main focus is the holy trinity of race, class, and gender, along with their close correlates, post-colonialist, postmodern, and post-structural analysis. (If “holy trinity” seems like an infelicitous metaphor, you could go with the Four Horsemen of the Leftist Apocalypse instead: patriarchy, colonialism, privilege, and Israel.) At Boulder, the telltale markers show up for about one-third of the history, English, sociology, anthropology, and geography faculty members (geography seems to have been an early target of opportunity for politicized scholarship just about everywhere) but are much less common in political science and philosophy. About the only Boulder departments in social sciences or humanities where you don’t find the holy trinity are economics and classics. I am tempted to propose the theorem that the presence of politically correct radicalism exists in inverse proportion to the emphasis on regression modeling or the serious study of ancient languages. (Though perhaps not for long; the campus Left, taking note of its lack of infiltration in economics, sent protesters and hecklers to the latest annual meeting of the American Economics Association, demanding that the discipline include perspectives on gender and class.)

This encroachment of PC doctrine proceeds because it encounters no serious opposition. For one thing, the typical academic liberal, even in the hard sciences, sympathizes with the basic historical grievances of the Left about racism and sexism. But even those faculty members who think the race, class, and gender workhorses are badly worn out have better things to do than make feeble gestures of resistance and tend to regard the beachheads in their own departments with benign neglect. I suspect that most professors of the race-class-gender catechism can sense that many of their colleagues don’t take them very seriously, which only serves to further fuel their righteous indignation, self-imposed sense of oppression, and mob mentality.


Gradually coming into focus is the plain fact that today we have two universities — the traditional university, which, while mostly left-liberal, still resides on Planet Earth, and the grievance university, mired in the morass of postmodern obsession with oppression and privilege. You can still get a decent education, even from very liberal professors — I had several excellent ones as both an undergraduate and a graduate student — if they teach the subject matter reasonably, and I came to respect several far-left professors at Boulder who plainly held to traditional views about the importance of reason, objectivity, and truth. But these traditional hallmarks of the university — one might call them the original holy trinity of higher education — are fighting words to the postmodern Left, which openly rejects reason, objectivity, and truth as tools of oppression.


The irony of today’s campus Left is the real privilege of identity politics, whose practitioners shout down anyone who dares question their premises. The current temper of the campus Left is way beyond social utopianism; it demands ritual conformism worthy of the Soviet purge trials or Maoist struggle sessions. When the campus Left cries out “Privilege!” it means “Shut up and conform.”


Between the stifling political correctness of the radical narrative, the increasingly esoteric hyperspecialization that renders boring much of the social sciences and humanities, and the out-of-control cost of higher education, it is doubtful that the university in its current form will survive. The number of students majoring in the social sciences (excluding economics) and the humanities has fallen by two-thirds over the last generation. At this rate, eventually many of our leading research universities will bifurcate into a marginal fever swamp of radicalism, whose majors will be unfit for employment at Starbucks, and a larger campus dedicated to science and technology.


Which brings me back to the starting point — Boulder’s deliberate attempt to broaden its ideological spectrum. While the idea of a “visiting scholar in conservative thought and policy” can be criticized on a number of grounds, the administration deserves credit for persevering with it. There aren’t many other major research universities openly attempting to broaden their intellectual diversity. A century ago, the Cambridge classicist F. M. Cornford wrote that the first rule of faculty governance is “Nothing should ever be done for the first time” (an early version of the environmental “precautionary principle”!), and the University of California’s Clark Kerr observed that “few institutions are so conservative as the universities about their own affairs while their members are so liberal about the affairs of others.” So Boulder’s administration deserves great credit for embracing this initiative with genuine enthusiasm, and for being unfailingly supportive of me throughout my year in residence.
I especially like the two trinities. On the left there are the three set pieces of Identity (Race, Class, Gender),Ideology (Post-Colonialism, Postmodernism, and Post-structuralism), and Grievance (Patriarchy, Privilege, and Appropriation). On the right you have a different trinity: Reason, Empiricism, and Truth. Or at least that is what might be aspired to; everyone likes reason, empiricism, and truth except when it contradicts one's cherished beliefs, a probability to which both ends of the spectrum are subject to.

Hayward is gloomy about the prospects of universities in their current form to self-correct from the corrosive swamps of Identity, Ideology and Grievance. I do not discount the perils that he articulates. However, on a long enough time scale, reality always triumphs and I think Reason, Empiricism and Truth will reemerge as the dominant engines of progress.

Hayward thinks that universities will bifurcate with a snarling Gramscian grievances rump ignored by the mainstream of traditional liberal arts and sciences. Possibly that is what will occur. I am a little more optimistic and think that the competition among universities for students and resources, the competition between universities and emerging alternates (MOOCS, etc.), a rebellion by consumers demanding better value, and the discipline of having to work within tight budgets will together, in fits and starts, see the decline and fall of these dead end endeavors (i.e. Identity, Ideology, and Grievance).

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