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What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and “Bias” in Higher Education

reviewed by Dave Iasevoli - December 05, 2006

coverTitle: What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and “Bias” in Higher Education
Author(s): Michael Bérubé
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co., New York
ISBN: 0393060373 , Pages: 288, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

Michael Bérubé, Professor of Literature at Pennsylvania State University, has written a book about the academe in which he fires broadsides against those arch-conservatives who would eliminate not only such movements as post-modernism, but also shut down classrooms that aim towards the opening of students’ minds. He focuses intently on his own classrooms and successfully illustrates the dialectic that revolves around the critical question for so many of us: “[T]o what extent should my own beliefs be an explicit part of my teaching?” (p. 11). Bérubé himself comes across, vividly, as an unapologetic liberal—not a member of the radical left—but this book does indeed sound defensive, as if the baseline liberty of free expression were at stake. The academy may indeed remain one of the final bastions of genuinely liberal thinkers, and Bérubé aims to keep things this way. This is a bias; he and his editors might have omitted the quotation marks around “Bias” in the book’s title. He sums up his argument with: “I believe that liberal education is fundamental to the future of democracy in ways many of us have not fully realized” (pp. 20-1). His rhetoric and content are, at times, quite compelling, and Bérubé defuses controversy rather than inciting it.

More than half of this work takes us inside Bérubé’s classrooms, mostly at Penn State, but also at his previous school, the University of Illinois. Its opening chapters, “Reasonable Disagreements” and “Conservative Complaints,” establish a playing field that at times resembles a war zone, with critics such as William Buckley, Dinesh D’Souza, David Horowitz, and Morton Blackwell attacking the academy for its allegedly extreme bias against those students who believe in “God and Country.” Bérubé succeeds in defusing such charges, as he undermines “cooked” statistics that surveyed only 32 institutions and concluded that “99% of graduation day speakers called themselves liberals, Democrats, or Green Party Members” (p. 43). A more accurate statistic, for Bérubé, from a study of over 55,000 faculty members’ self-descriptions, shows that liberals outnumber conservatives by a much more modest ratio of 48 to 18 percent, or 2.67 to 1 (p. 42). Nevertheless, Bérubé expresses his outrage at Campus Watch and Horowitz’s “Students for Academic Freedom” for their demonization of liberal professors as “apologists for terrorism” (p. 49) in our post-9/11 world.

In his next chapter, “In the Liberal Faculty Lounge,” Bérubé proposes some explanations for the preponderance of liberals on campus faculties. His illustrations stem from his own personal education, from an examination of base salaries of professors, and from the depressing perception that “conservatism in America becomes more and more associated with the know-nothing…I often wish I had more conservative colleagues in literary study” (pp. 82-83). Bérubé also criticizes such hard-left thinkers as Ward Churchill, and takes pains to point out that the equivalent of a “one-party system” in campus humanities and arts departments actually diminishes their efficacy. He urges liberal and progressive students to seek positions, not on college faculties, but as legislators and public-policy advocates.

The heart of What’s Liberal? beats within Bérubé’s classrooms. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 all center around his undergraduate courses. Here, he carefully moves from some broad generalizations about college campuses to intimate examinations of the rhetoric inside his undergraduate classes on “American Fiction” and “Postmodernism.” And here the book splits, to a certain degree. Even though Bérubé’s tone remains consistent, the latter two-thirds of this book lose some of their earlier political punch. The author could be writing about his classes for his own students, or for other like-minded educators; his intricate and logical analyses of his courses’ content and the students’ responses to it are very unlikely to change conservative thinkers’ perspectives on “liberal bias.”  “[F]or some critics on the right, it’s a mystery why liberals exist at all; they sometimes speak as if no one…would wind up as a liberal but for professorial indoctrination and brainwashing”  (p. 177). Thus, for the remainder of this book, Bérubé attempts to show that he never proselytizes in his classrooms. Repeatedly, he provides illustrations of a paradoxical situation, that “in the liberal arts corner of the campus, we believe in critical thinking even when it’s applied to us” (p. 139, emphasis added).

Thus we read about difficult engagements involving the instructor, the texts, and the students as they examine, through film and literature, many of the forces that shape our current U.S. culture and society. Bérubé flaunts his considerable skills as an instructor who provokes students to argue about race in a diversity of contexts—including football, TV shows, music, and The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. He makes his classes sound vital, as if they never fail to take students out of their comfort zones, but also encourage them to stick to their own political guns, so to speak. The chapter on “Postmodernism” may be the least successful—and the most dear to the author himself—as Bérubé belabors points about consensus, antifoundationalism, and charges of moral relativism. Even though his discussions about The Matrix and Blade Runner and Pulp Fiction hold interest—they’re entertaining—they digress: this reader found himself looking up from them to wonder, wait—when does the author fire back at the rants of Coulter and Limbaugh?

In his concluding chapter, “More Liberalism,” Bérubé returns to the front lines by citing studies that show that colleges and universities enjoy enormous success: “[The anti-academic right] despise us because we work so well” (p. 281, original emphasis). He points to a kind of “trade surplus” in education, insofar as many more foreign students study here, on American campuses, than U.S. students study abroad. He also notes that conservative pundits typically send their own children off to study in some of the most liberally “biased” campuses in the nation, rather than to universities that espouse Christian fundamentalist tenets. Bérubé eloquently repeats the call for an active defense of two kinds of liberalism on campuses—“the ideal of egalitarian human rights” (p. 289), and “wide, vigorous, and meaningful discussion” (p. 290)—a “procedural or intellectual liberalism” that he equates with the formal raison d’etre for the university itself.

In summary, then, Bérubé has contributed a strong apologue for the continuation of liberal arts—in the face of what often appears to be an unassailable tide of foundationalist, jingoistic, and reactionary thinking in the current cultural climate of the U.S. This book speaks with great intelligence and passion to academics and the students in their classrooms: “The true purpose of education is to try to foster in students a kind of critical cosmopolitanism, such that they learn, among other things, to question any notion that one’s nation or tribe is favored by God or destiny” (56). Bérubé wants us to see that conservative ideologues intrinsically resist the opening of young minds, and that their primary goal revolves around an incarnation of an American ideal that never truly existed.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 05, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12875, Date Accessed: 5/17/2022 4:49:30 PM

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About the Author
  • Dave Iasevoli
    CUNY Queens College
    E-mail Author
    DAVE IASEVOLI, Ed.D., currently teaches at CUNY/Queens College, as an Assistant Professor in the English Education Program. He is developing a project that examines educational programs in New York State prisons over the past 50 years.
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