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“Why We Fight”: Classroom Politics and “Bias” in Higher Education

Original Publication Date
Author of Book
Michael Berube
Author of Review
Aaron Barlow

What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?  Michael Berube

The man that man has made is the product of the culture man has devised.1

A quote from B.F. Skinner may seem a little odd for the start of a review of a book by Michael Bérubé, one of Richard Rorty’s students, but there is relevance.2 Skinner and Rorty both reject the idea that words and the world correspond directly (and that culture and cultural concepts reflect a “reality” beyond them), providing an ironclad basis of knowledge.  Both also show what words can do when wielded with mastery and intellect.  In addition, Skinner gets to the heart of the concept of antifoundationalism underlying the Penn State professor’s new book What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?: Classroom Politics and “Bias” in Higher Education3.  Words and beliefs exist through a continuum of discussion, not through access to external “truth.”  This is at the heart of the liberal tradition and even of the liberal arts Bérubé defends.

There’s a second reason for bringing up Skinner as well as Rorty: both  lives answer the question in Bérubé’s title.  Though Skinner was a generation older than Rorty, who is now in his seventies, both men spent careers as public intellectuals and, frequently, as figures of controversy (though Skinner much more so than Rorty).  They attacked what they saw as ill-considered beliefs while constantly reiterating (and modifying) their own beliefs.  The two scholars represent a tradition of public presentation of intellectual debate that goes back in America at least to John Dewey, though its roots reach all the way down into the life of Benjamin Franklin.  It is a “liberal” tradition in the best sense of the word, seeking, unconfined, and positive, and it is one that Bérubé is trying to help revitalize in the eyes of the American public.

Today, it is also a tradition in peril, for the very attitudes providing its underpinning are in danger of disappearing.  Much of its past success can be linked to a certain cultural acceptance of the basic antifoundationalist idea that concepts such as “good” and “bad” are rooted in human beings and do not arise from a necessary external foundation — or from any certain epistemology.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident” says the Declaration of Independence.  Jefferson originally wrote “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable,” a phrase with a different meaning altogether, for it posits an external source of the “truths” in a way the final version does not.  Americans, for more than two hundred years, understood the distinction between “self-evident” (which side-steps the foundationalist possibility, allowing even foundationalists to engage in debate within the liberal tradition) and “sacred,” which moves the basis of the “truths” beyond human construction.  For the last few decades, that recognition has been fading.

Today, to many, the idea that truth (self-evident or not) lies within us is a dangerous concept, for it opens the door to consideration that truth is transient or relative, undercutting (in their view) all morality.  They see great loss through this attitude, and for little in return:

What, then, is gained by treating moral edicts as nothing more than good ideas, dreamt up by well-meaning humans?  Well, for one thing, it helps protect us from the hubris of thinking that we’re propounding something more or other than human ideas, and for another, it cautions us against too readily leaping to the conclusion that X is simply wrong and must be stopped or exterminated.  (Bérubé 256)

If nothing else, a constant questioning of the truths we see can keep us from repeating the more abominable acts of human beings.  But that’s the “liberal” answer.

Increasingly, such an attitude is rejected in the United States.  Ours is a time of belief in “truth,” an emotion so strong that it leads many to seek to destroy (figuratively, for the most part) those who see “truth” as anything but an absolute — such as the antifoundationalist liberals, like Bérubé, of our universities.  So, though he tries to follow in the tradition of the great public intellectuals of the past, Bérubé has found he has to fight this other battle as well, one against those who would cast aside the entire American “liberal” system of education.  His ability to act as a public intellectual in the tradition of Skinner and Rorty is hampered by attacks on the tradition that produced not only his mentor but generation upon generation of great American minds.

Not that demonization of intellectuals is anything new.  Skinner, certainly, would sympathize with the situation Bérubé and the other public intellectuals of the early twenty-first century find themselves in.  He was personally vilified in much the same way as today’s scholars, through half-truths and conscious misinterpretations.  The facts of his “air crib” and “operant chamber” were deliberately conflated by his enemies, leading to the still-prevalent canard that he raised his daughters in a Skinner box, causing them great trauma later in life.  Noam Chomsky, himself a great public intellectual, used the opportunity of reviewing Skinner’s 1957 work Verbal Behavior as a means for skewering a type of behaviorism that wasn’t even the topic of the book — a disingenuous methodology, at best.  As a result of these and other attacks, many people still shudder at the mention of Skinner’s name.

David Horowitz, leading other critics of academe from the right, would like the same thing to happen to Bérubé and the rest of the group he calls “the 101 most dangerous academics in America.”4  In Horowitz’s view, these professors — and thousands of others like them — are destroying American universities and endangering the youth of the country.  Vilifying them in the minds of the American public, to him, would only provide their just desserts.  He has no sympathy for those who do not accept the “truth” as he sees it — let alone for those who doubt that external “truth” can exist so simply.

Like many on the right (and on the far left), Horowitz seeks use the concepts of “truth” and “good” in a punitive manner, with definitions sometimes harkening back to conditions that no longer apply (something that makes liberals blanche).  Skinner describes this methodology:

The principal technique employed in the control of the individual by any group of people who have lived together for a sufficient length of time is as follows.  The behavior of the individual is classified as either “good” or “bad” or, to the same effect, “right” or “wrong” and is reinforced or punished accordingly.  We need not seek far for a definition of these controversial terms.  The behavior of an individual is usually called good or right insofar as it reinforces other members of the group and bad or wrong insofar as it is aversive.  The actual practices of the group may not be completely consistent with these definitions.[…]  A classification of behavior may also continue in force long after it is out of date: behavior often continues to be branded good or bad although, through some change in conditions, it is no longer reinforcing or aversive.5

Can we say “Groupthink”?  It is bad enough that this happens naturally.  It is worse when those who believe they have special access to the truth try to make it mandatory.

The “truths” of a foundationalist system change more slowly than condtions because, once set, they are rarely allowed to evolve; nothing more than cultural agreements, change in them undercuts their tenuous positions as “truth.”  Rorty writes:

In some Mayan ball game, perhaps, the team associated with a lunar deity automatically loses, and is executed, if the moon is eclipsed during play.  In poker, you know you’ve won if you’re dealt an ace-high straight flush.  In the laboratory, a hypothesis may be discredited if the litmus paper turns blue, or the mercury fails to come up to a certain level.  A hypothesis is agreed to have been “verified by the real world” if a computer spits out a certain number.  The hardness of fact in all these cases is simply the hardness of the previous agreements within a community about the consequences of a certain event.  The same hardness prevails in morality or literary criticism if, and only if, the relevant community is equally firm about who wins or loses.  Some communities do not take cheating at cards, or intertribal marriage, too seriously; others may make one or the other decisive for their treatment of their fellow humans.6

Recognition of this is itself a sign of the “relativism” that the right so reviles liberals for.

To Horowitz and those like him, it seems impossible that anyone could actually doubt the “truths” they see, or could consider them relative to a specific cultural context — so someone must be perverting people from their natural conservative tendencies if liberals continue to exist in a world so clearly conservative.  Berube suspects that:

for some critics on the right, it’s a mystery why liberals exist at all; they sometimes speak as if no one, left to his or her own devices, would wind up as a liberal but for professorial indoctrination and brainwashing.  And it certainly doesn’t occur to them that some of their demonized liberal faculty members have our share of undergraduates who find us not liberal enough for their tastes.  (177)

Again, to many on the right, truth is clear and present.  Anyone would see it — if their natural instincts were not somehow limited.  They refuse to imagine a different reality, the one of the liberal professor, perhaps, who must negotiate myriad beliefs, not simply a conservative one and its singular opposition, the liberal.

Horowitz, however one may view his “crusade,” has gathered a certain amount of success.  At least seventeen states have considered some form of his “Academic Bill of Rights” and his screed against liberal professors has become something of a truism on the right.  Still, this isn’t a concern that is raising alarm bells in many quarters:

most people outside academe are thoroughly unaware of how well-organized the anti-academic right is, and how successful the Horowitz machine has been in getting its version of campus controversies represented in national media — regardless of the actual realities of the events they describe. (Bérubé, 29)

One of the reasons Bérubé wrote this book, I suspect, is that he would like to change that.  He would like more people to recognize the strength and success of our universities and their liberal foundation (where, Bérubé asks, would you rather send your child, to that den of liberal inequity Harvard or to the clearly Christian Hillsdale College in Michigan?).  Wider recognition of just how good our universities are (and they are superb) would provide an extra layer of protection from the attacks by the right.

When I first learned of Horowitz’s book on “the professors” earlier this year, I realized quickly that nothing in it reflected genuine experience in the classrooms of liberal professors.  So, I invited the author to visit my own classes, to see what really goes on when a liberal professor teaches.  He said that he already knew enough (though he admitted to having visited only one class in recent years — and in that one a film was shown), that he could get adequate information second hand from students, and that he talked frequently with administrators who know what goes on.  A little naïve, I had hoped to be able to convince him of the error of his attitude through demonstration.  But Horowitz isn’t open for convincing.  So, my own little attempt at countering the perception he is trying to build in the minds of the public failed.

Bérubé’s book is a different attempt at fighting back — and will certainly be much more effective.  Like me, he wants to show Horowitz (and, by extension, the rest of the right) exactly what we liberal professors do in our classrooms.  But he goes far beyond what I could have accomplished, even had I managed to get Horowitz to campus. 

As Bérubé writes, his book:

is not a string of defenses and denials.  On the contrary, it is about liberal “bias” in my own teaching; it is also about some of the odd fantasies people (including college students) have about college campuses, and the wrenching personal transformations that either do or don’t occur on them.  (20)

Instead of defending, Bérubé attempts to convince through a type of demonstration.  He can’t bring the world (let alone Horowitz) into his classroom, so he tries to bring his classroom (or a description of it, anyway) to the world.  This is a book about the discussion he generates with his students and about the value of discussion in general — in the face of assumptions that are being used rather effectively to limit discussion in our universities.

Why does Bérubé care about attacks on universities at all?  After all, as a tenured professor with a sterling professional reputation, he has no reason to get involved in debate with the Horowitz’s of the world.  Whatever happens, the impact on him professionally will likely be small.  He explains his rationale (a good “liberal” one) and the expansiveness he promotes in face of what he sees as a rightwing constriction, arguing that:

a capacious, supple, and revisable sense of what it is to be human is better than a narrow, fixed, and parochial sense of what it is to be human, and the more participants we as a society can incorporate into the deliberation of what it means to be human, the greater the chances that the deliberations will enhance our collective capacities to recognize each other as humans entitled to human dignity.[…]  Most Americans had no idea what people with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities could achieve until we’d passed a law entitling them all to a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.  So just as woman and minorities, when finally given access to the terrain of universalism, led universalists to rethink the terms of universalism, so too, when more and more formerly excluded groups are given access to the conversation, will we be impelled to rethink what access itself means.  (262)

This is a personal battle for Bérubé: his son Jamie is a Down syndrome child.  The protection of liberalism isn’t merely an abstract exercise to him.  It is part of his life.

Since returning to academia five years ago, I have taught mainly at two campuses.  I like the schools equally well, and am at the one in preference to the other only because of the demands of my own career.  The first is the inner-city public college of technology I once taught for as an adjunct and returned to this fall, full time.  The second is a state school (once a teacher’s college) in a more rural setting.  The former is dominated by African-American students, most of the rest being immigrants.  The students at the latter tend to be white Americans from small, mostly rural, communities.  In both, most are first-generation college students.  In both, the students are eager and willing, but often at sea in an alien academic culture.

The differences between the two?  Let’s put it this way: the “affirmative action” bake sale (selling cookies at a discount to people of color to point out the “inequities” of affirmative action) that the college Republicans sponsored at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania would be a complete non-starter at New York City College of Technology.  The fact of a huge white majority makes political conversation much different at Kutztown.  This fact is also something the right is taking real advantage of at the predominately white colleges in most of America.

When I left Brooklyn for Kutztown in the fall of 2004, I had no notion of the debates I would discover on the more standard (in an ethnic and racial sense) college campuses, debates concerning liberal faculty and the supposed pushing aside of conservative thought.  Such questions would never come up at City Tech — and probably not at any of the other City University of New York campuses — for reasons that have to do with race, but also with the very idea of difference.  One of the mantras of the right is that the liberals of academe espouse diversity, but not diversity of thought.  But they, who lack diversity of thought themselves, cannot operate where real diversity has led to a lack of majority for anyone.  Only where there is a possible “traditional” majority (i.e., “predominately white”) do they have a chance of success — and this results in an awkward racial stance.

Dan Flynn, a rightwing author (Why the Left Hates America) who spoke at Kutztown last year, would never willingly take his address to the black and immigrant students at City Tech.  Though nothing he said was overtly racist, the cultural underpinnings and assumptions of his talk would not hold up in the face of a non-white audience.  By the same token, there’s little concern one way or another at City Tech for Horowitz and his so-called “Academic Bill of Rights.”  The claim that diversity of color and ethnicity has trumped diversity of thought gets as little consideration in that milieu, as diverse on all counts as any in the world.  Questions relating to race certainly take on a whole different face there.  As Bérubé writes about Rush Limbaugh’s statement on Monday Night Football regarding Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, “the statement, ‘You just think that way about X because he’s black,’ sounds more and more absurd the more black folk there are in the conversation — or in the room, or the league” (176).  At colleges with extremely high African-American enrollments, it is almost impossible just to talk to whites about blacks — as Limbaugh (apparently) thought he was doing.  As affirmative action sits as the foundation for much of what Horowitz has built for his attacks upon academia, the need for keeping racial separation and difference in mind for his success quickly comes clear: blacks are not invited into his conversation, for he starts to sound ‘more and more absurd’ the more blacks (or women, gays, or the differently abled) there are in the room.

I am reminded of a German friend who was incensed that Eminem was a successful rapper, angered that he had made it — because he is white (she is part of what Bérubé calls the ‘Monty Python’ left — serious to themselves but absurd to everyone else).  She wants to divide everything as though it were a pie with no pieces to be shared.  That doesn’t work, certainly not in America — and this is one of the crucial points about affirmative action that Horowitz doesn’t understand: even though we respond to the needs of different groups and individuals differently, you can’t separate us out and expect positive results (something that has been brought home to Bérubé through the school experiences of Jamie).  Nor can you simply assign percentages.  As Bérubé writes:

The number of works by African-American writers on a syllabus in 2006 should not have to correspond to (a) the proportion of African-Americans in the population in 2006, (b) the proportion of African-Americans in the population in 1885, (c) the proportion of literature African-Americans in the population in 1850, or (d) any other number whatsoever.  (163)

Just so, affirmative action isn’t quotas or an attempt to keep anyone off campus, but to bring more in.  The number of African-Americans represented on a syllabus or a campus need not have anything at all to do with the numbers in the population.  In neither case is there a contest going on, certainly not any sort of zero-sum game that demeans the whites in favor of the blacks.

To help them get over the “theirs” or “ours” feelings of racial identity on the part of a lot of students — but more because it is substantially true — I try to disabuse my students of the idea that cultural influence has any sort of relation to the percentages of the population originating from one place or another.  Contemporary American culture owes its existence to a wide range of roots, but three groups that have contributed substantially are the Christian European, the African, and the Jewish European.  There’s no advantage in trying to break the influence down into parts or percentages, because the three (along with all the others) have become so thoroughly mixed up that all of all of them, in America, is each of ours.  Rap no more “belongs” to Jay-Z than to Eminem — their particular genetic makeup has little to do with the cultural backgrounds that “made” them.

Yet many rightwingers continue to break things down into “ours” and “theirs,” refusing to recognize that even the newer immigrant groups are having an impact of American culture.  What has made American great in cultural terms has never been Christian European alone.  It has always relied on other cultures — and it always will.  America is not, as Pat Buchanan claims, a nation that white Americans’ “ancestors created and built.”7  It is a nation created and built by the ancestors of all of us, no matter our genetics, spiritual ancestry counting as strongly as physical.  This is an idea that many on the right refuse to accept, however, and this refusal lies behind much of the anger at the liberals in our universities, where this simple fact of our cultural past is both taught and cherished.

As liberalism is as concerned with method as with results, it invites discussion and compromise — and even invites results that may not jibe with expectations or desires:

The university is one of the last remaining areas in American life dominated by liberals — and dominated by a most curious kind of liberal, namely, liberal intellectuals who are committed both to substantive and procedural liberalism, for a form of pluralism and reasoned debate that does not always culminate in liberal conclusions. (Bérubé 24)

Aside from the sheer frustration that the right has over this one area that remains unconquered, one of the many things the right doesn’t get about liberalism in our universities is that liberalism is quite simply and primarily a methodology, not merely an ideology.  So, when they attack liberalism (or so they think) through what they see as its ideological stances and conclusions, they are often frustrated when told that they don’t get it — and that the points they think they’ve scored don’t impress anyone but themselves.

To Bérubé:

the liberal ideal consists in engaging my most stringent interlocutors, so long as we share an underlying commitment to open-ended rational debate. (22)

I agree — most liberals do.  Twice, David Horowitz has engaged me in email conversation, and I have responded willingly.  Each time, he both initiated the conversation and cut it off.  Each time, he apparently decided that I wasn’t going to be converted to his viewpoint so saw no reason to continue.  At no time did he acknowledge that there could be a meeting of minds somewhere between our starting points, that compromise could be reached — or that he could change his mind.  At no time did he work to understand my viewpoint.  He graciously sent me his books to read, but from the belief that they would open my eyes to the “truth,” not that they could be a basis for discussion and, perhaps, his own movement away from the positions he has staked out in them.

Horowitz’s attitude, to us liberals, is an extremely illiberal one, for it shows no interest in playing by the rules of discussion.  Liberals, in contrast, aren’t willing to discuss withoutadherence to their own ground rules.  For one thing, they are only willing to go so far with conversations when the other side isn’t interested in coming to accord.  I was willing to go a long way with Horowitz because I did think I could learn something from him (at least more about how the authoritarian mind works — but I would have stopped the conversation earlier had I realized sooner that he wasn’t playing by the same rules, that a meeting of minds was only possible if mine moved towards his.  In this regard, I wish I’d been able to read Bérubé earlier, especially where he writes that:

when I’m faced with the conflict between two parties with well-developed belief systems, I want to know one crucial thing above all: what internal protocols do they have that would enable them to change their minds about something?  Do they have, for instance, an evidentiary standard, and if so, what do they admit as evidence?  And what forms of authority are endowed with the capacity to decide such matters?  Is there a Supreme Court, a council of elders, a parliament, a workers’ collective, a Leviathan?  Are there competing moral imperatives within one or the other belief system that would be likely to induce a person to reconsider his or her position on grounds that are intelligible within the belief system itself?  (232)

Do they, in other words, bring something to the conversation aside from assurance that they already have insight into the truth?  Horowitz’s great claim to intellectual flexibility is that he once moved from the far left to the far right.  The difference between his stands, however, is slight — he’s as dogmatic and authoritarian as he ever was.  His “conversion” is closer to a switch in loyalty from one baseball team to another (perhaps because he likes the players better) than to a real, considered changing of mind.

There is something about the supple underpinnings of liberalism that enrages both the right and the far left.  They misunderstand liberalism’s antifoundationalism, mistaking it for a relativism that should (but doesn’t) force the liberals to accept another’s belief in any position — or go against their own principles.  That’s nonsense.  Liberal hands aren’t so easily tied:

Nothing prevents you from stopping someone from taking your life or from inflicting harm on someone you deem innocent.  So far, we’ve used the model of “conversation” and “argument” because we’re talking about clashes between language games and belief systems, and we’ve agreed to try to negotiate those clashes before leaping to the conclusion that they cannot be negotiated at all.  But once it becomes clear that the differences are in fact non-negotiable, then you have a range of options: you can ignore the other party, live and let live; you can keep trying to convert the other party to the cause of Christ or Allah or Lenin or Hitler or liberal democracy; you can rail at the other party from a safe distance; you can continue to point out that the party espouses positions that betray his or her culture’s best traditions of discussion and dissent; or, if you are in mortal danger, you can kill the other party, unless your own belief system utterly forbids you to kill under any circumstances.  (Bérubé 237)

My conversation with Horowitz proved that our positions were non-negotiable.  My reaction was to begin to talk around him (as Bérubé is doing, though to greater effect), blogging about Horowitz and his campaign (something Bérubé does as well, again on a higher level), and writing about him (my article “The Art of the Slur: From Joe McCarthy to David Horowitz” appears in the Fall 2006 issue of The Public Eye).  In fact, I first became aware of Bérubé through Horowitz’s attacks upon him and quickly became an admirer of someone doing what I was attempting — only better.

In my view today (reflecting Bérubé’s), Horowitz has demonstrated that he has no interest in participating in the type of debate that underlies liberalism.  If anything, he wants to take advantage of it, knowing that he need not stick to the rules surrounding our discussions.  I believe he looks down on us as fools who can’t or won’t fight ‘outside of the box.’  But, Bérubé writes, we are not quite the namby-pambies Horowitz imagines us to be:

Don’t let the language of “discourse” and “argument” fool you: when we decide that someone is “a figure outside the conversation,” we might, in fact, be providing grounds for imprisoning or killing him, on the grounds that he advocates — or is actually conducting — genocide.  There is nothing flabby about this.  Liberals, even liberals friendly to some of the theses of postmodernism, can kill you.  But they are duty-bound to exhaust every other rational remedy first, and they to determine that the incommensurability facing them is not merely non-negotiable but deadly.  (239)

No one is interested in killing Horowitz, of course — he’s just not that dangerous.  But just being liberals doesn’t stop our ability to act when needed.

The heart of Bérubé’s book is his two chapters describing his teaching, one on an American Literature survey, the other on an advanced course on postmodernism.  It is here where Bérubé attempts his end-run around attackers of academia like Horowitz, writing to the general public about what he does, exactly, in the classroom so that readers can judge without having to negotiate a rightwing filter.

At first, it seems as though Bérubé is providing nothing more than a standard description (and defense) of the liberal classroom.  Earlier in the book he has written that:

The challenge[…] lies in making reasonable accommodation for students whose standards of reasonableness are significantly different from yours.  (19)

This is something that every competent teacher — and any student who has been paying attention — knows.  In Chapter Five, it may appear that all he is doing is demonstrating how he meets this challenge.  He writes at the end of Chapter Four that:

What we love more than anything else is critical intelligence, and we don’t assume that all forms of critical intelligence will wind up on the political left; on the contrary, we know it’s illiberal to think that.  Any liberal professor will tell you the same thing; we’d much rather read a well-written, well-argued conservative essay than a careless, shoddy liberal-minded screed.  (139)

True, but there is nothing novel here.

It is only when one is halfway through Chapter Six that one begins to sense that he or she is reading something special, that through a gentle rehashing of much standard fare Bérubé has led us, unsuspecting, into a three-dimensional labyrinth comprising of planes of postmodernism, liberalism, and the classroom — his tour de force is that he actually manages to lead us through and out without undue confusion or pain.  The chapter, then, is not only a description of his teaching methodologies, it is his teaching.  Consider this passage:

Rorty never backs himself into the corner of arguing that his antifoundationalist account of truth is itself true; he argues merely that it is useful, that it “pays its way,” that it will serve us as a good tool for getting things done and for taking responsibility for our own moral propositions.  He does not claim that Platonism and its ilk are inaccurate and representations of the Way Things Really Are, either, precisely because he wants to jettison altogether such talk of the Way Things Really Are; thus, when he suggests that we substitute a “coherence theory of truth” (in which our beliefs “hang together” in such and such a way and are secured by intersubjective agreement among deliberating parties) for the “correspondence theory of truth” (in which we claim that our beliefs are secured by their correspondence to the way things really are in the world), he is not so foolish as to suggest that the coherence theory of truth better corresponds to the state of the world.  Rather, he merely tells us that the correspondence theory of truth has nothing “interesting” left to say about the world, and that it no longer seems worth pursuing.

Tease that apart in an old-fashioned ‘close reading’ and you will find a lesson on the history of philosophy, an entrée into understanding of the postmodern condition, a summation of much of what stands behind liberalism, and a demonstration of the skill of a master teacher.  The chapter, by its end, can leave an attentive reader breathless.  The rest of the book is simply a lead-up to it and a final bit of breathing room.

There’s arrogance to Bérubé’s writing, one that drives the likes of David Horowitz to distraction, for it is an arrogance derived from the centuries-long success of the liberal tradition:

America’s cultural conservatives may despise us for the obvious reasons — our cosmopolitanism, our secularism, our corrosive attitude of skepticism about every form of received authority — but the economic conservatives, I think, despise us precisely because we work so well.  (280-281)

Over the past decades, under constant attack by the reinvigorated conservatives who trace their emergence back to the 1964 Goldwater defeat and the lessons they learned from it, liberals have become somewhat defensive — more than somewhat.  Their defensiveness stems, too, from their own failings, especially in those same 1960s, when it seemed that the tide of liberalism would sweep over all competing philosophies.  Liberals, too often, have lacked the courage of their convictions.  As Phil Ochs wrote in his song “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”:

I’ll send all the money you ask for,
But don’t ask me to come on along.

There was a distinct gap between what liberals said and what liberals did — and they knew it.  Conservatives have long taken advantage of that (as has the far left), pushing liberals further and further into self-effacement.

There are other signs that liberalism is now on the rebound.  Progressive radio has started to make inroads into what was once an almost purely conservative medium — talk radio.  And liberal blogs are, today, far and away more popular than their conservative counterparts.  Perhaps this book will add to that movement, proving to be part of the renewal of pride in a tradition as central to the success of the United States and American culture as any that our country has seen.  Bérubé, certainly, never attempts to excuse liberalism; instead, he champions it.


1 Skinner, B.F., Beyond Freedom and Dignity(New York: Knopf, 1972), 208.

2 Though Rorty has been, at times, rather dismissive of Skinner (calling his views “pointless fantasies” at one point), I am not the only one to see a connection.  Sam Leigland, writing in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior (1999, 71, number 3 May, 483-500), also sees affinities between the philosopher and the psychologist.  Even as far back as the 1950s, Skinner had moved beyond the methodological behaviorism still associated with him toward a radical behaviorism much more compatible with Rorty.

3 Bérubé, Michael, What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? (New York: Norton, 2006).

4 Horowitz, David,  The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America(Washington, DC: Regnery, 2006).

5 Skinner, B.F., Science and Human Behavior (New York: MacMillan, 1953), 324.

6 Richard Rorty, Richard, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 80.

7 Buchanan, Pat, quoted on Think Progress (, viewed 9/14/06.

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