What Is Conservative?: A Review of Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias

Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias

by Donald Lazere

235 pp. Palgrave Macmillan.  $95.00

Political labels can be funny things.  I know I’m an odd bird in this respect, but I actually welcome people’s labelling me politically, largely so that I can figure out myself where my place is in various political ecosystems.  What I’ve found is that, probably because of my own unpleasant personality, folks tend to put on me the labels that are somewhere short of a devil-term, a la Richard Weaver, but still outside of the “our group” circle.  So liberals will tend to call me “conservative” but not often “right-wing,” and libertarians tend to call me “leftist” but not “Communist,” and most of my students think of me as “liberal” because that label means “my youth minister would not approve.”  (There are exceptions, of course, but can anyone predict what will appear in the next Facebook comment?)  Learning such things about my relationship with self-identified partisans is helpful: I’m not inclined to say that such folks are wrong about what sort of political animal I am, largely because politics, as a human practice, is precisely the process of naming who other people are and deciding how one relates to them.

When I read this book, I found out that in fact I am a “leftist,” but the content of “leftist” might just be identical with what other folks call “conservative.”

Donald Lazere’s investigation begins by locating “conservative” in any space not claimed by the names “liberal” and “leftist,” meaning that “conservative” in his lexicon is a massive entity.  (Such is why, throughout the book, the answer to “Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias” is usually that “Conservatism is already powerful and pervasive and needs a counterweight of some force to balance out the political ecosystem.”)  What makes a move strange, for a reader like me, is that such a negative definition of “conservative” (as in not-something rather than something) renders phenomena as disparate as the advertising industry (54), fraternity and sorority culture (16), Fox News (9-10), the tendency for college students to prefer job training to the humanities, and all sorts of other things “conservative,” leaving someone like me (who, on Twitter at least, seems to get labeled as conservative) wondering whether the pervasive influence of corporations, who after all tend to benefit from sexual libertinism as much as they do from economic libertarianism, fits in the same category as Catholic social teaching, which tends to promote both labor-union activity and traditional marriage.  As this book sets forth the categories, the Catholic theologian might just be the leftist and the Victoria’s Secret advertising agent the conservative.

Perhaps most importantly Lazere locates the tendency for those my age and younger to self-identify as “non-political” as conservative in an atmospheric rather than intentional way (26).  In fact, Lazere ends up calling even the culture of publish-or-perish in the contemporary research university as inherently conservative (32).  His argument is rooted in a notion of an “Unmarked Norm” (15), an array of forces not actively employed by one party or another (though, as Lazere demonstrates, that line also does not stay distinct) but part of the “default” that a culture tends to regard as neither conservative nor leftist.  As I noted before, one would not have to look far to see conservative intellectuals calling the same forces alternately consumerist (and thus liberal) or libertine (and thus liberal), but for the purposes of Lazere’s argument, because they have a tendency to militate against socialist economics, they’re conservative. For these and other reasons, Lazere’s cultural criticism reads strangely, rolling so many things into the category “conservative” that it ends up sounding the way “the world” does in some sloppier modes of Christian theology, something that includes everything except for my own narrowly-defined circle.

When Lazere focuses his attention on actual GOP partisans rather than broad cultural phenomena, he’s far more precise and thus far more convincing.  Lazere names a phenomenon that I’ve noticed over the last couple decades, namely that intellectual conservatives (think Russell Kirk and Ross Douthat, not necessarily Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck) decry the moral and intellectual relativism of “postmodernism” even as AM radio personalities and Fox News talking heads use postmodernism’s tropes of situated knowledge and the hermeneutics of suspicion to render fuzzy the findings of climate scientists, sociologists, and other folks whose research would make GOP policies harder to swallow, if the researchers’ findings were true.  Instead of responding to research in academic journals and other venues that present themselves as tournaments of ideas, Lazere contends (and he’s right), right-wing advocacy groups tend to found their own labs, think-tanks, and journals, and public-record statements about such institutions present a fairly compelling case that, unlike university-press journals, such right-wing-sponsored “content providers” tend to let the faction call the shots.  The result is not unfamiliar to folks who do read academic journals: claims and ideas and conclusions that would not likely hold up in those more-agonistic publications often wind up in the talking points of pundits and elected officials as the uncontested word of “experts,” while ideas that have endured the crucible of peer review and journal-publication, because they don’t have the monetary backing of the think-tanks’ content, get labeled “just another opinion” and dismissed.

Calling the phenomenon “right-wing deconstruction” (76), Lazere calls on liberals and leftists to insist upon truth and logic as the hallmarks of public discourse, going so far at one point to use “sophistic” as a term of disapproval (89).  Such a move establishes Lazere solidly as an old-left sort of thinker, one who would not be impressed with skepticism and whose intellectual projects insist on demonstration rather than looser sorts of psychological associations.  In other words, Lazere is not the stereotype of the college English professor, who regards so much of life as “relative” that his pronouncements about other spheres of life come across as un-serious.  Instead, Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias is the work of a teacher who believes in truth and that the right-wing media machine distorts that truth, and he’s mad about it.

The most significant gap in his political-social analysis, though, is that he almost entirely neglects the rise and the character of public liberal discourse in the Fox-News age.  Why the Academy Should Have a Left-Wing Bias briefly mentions that high-society magazines will gladly feature affluent Black women, gay men, and other individuals they can hold up as examples of “diversity” but rarely give a nod to the poor (71), but beyond that brief mention, his book does not touch the question of identity politics and the charge, which I read on labor-left blogs as regularly as I check them out, that North American liberalism takes most of its cues not from labor unions, much less socialists, but from the purveyors identity-politics.  If I could have wished for one more chapter in this book, I would have wished for some treatment, whether critique or assimilation, of the tendency for social-network liberals to villainize fast-food chains, pop singers, and even small-business cake bakers far more readily than they’ll call for a boycott of, say, the Apple corporation.  My contention would be that such breathless and pervasive outrage sucks the oxygen out of more sustained, labor-left quests for better working conditions and such, perhaps even propping up the corporate influence on politics by lionizing corporations (like Apple) which make public gestures towards LGBT issues while continuing to exploit workers in the pursuit of their massive profit margins.  Even more interesting might be an investigation of how some conservative writers, those more influenced by Chesterton and Weaver than by Friedman and Hayek, actually agree with more of Lazere’s work than do some of the iPad-toting, Internet-Rage-Machine-fueling New-Left folks who are the most visible faces of “the left” in many public exchanges.  Perhaps Lazere would say that I’m lumping in identity-politics liberals too readily with what he calls leftists, but that itself might lead to some interesting discussion of how we use and refine our use of category-labels.

But the best part of this book is not the political analysis; it’s the pedagogy.  Donald Lazere is a 40-year veteran of the college English classroom, focusing largely on composition, and the apparatus that he’s developed to teach rhetoric is impressive.  He presents an extensive rubric for examining sources, a “Semantic Calculator” (5) that demands to know not only the form of the argument but the sources of the examples and the stylistic choices present in the text.  He offers a set of “Ground Rules for Polemicists” (8-9) that serves as a sort of code of ethics for writers when we engage public questions.  As he goes through his arguments about atmospheric consumerism and the duplicitous tactics of right-wing media sources, he illustrates often how college-level writing assignments can emerge out of investigations of such rhetorical tendencies.  And more impressive, throughout the book, Lazere reminds the reader of his own code for evaluating arguments, asking readers to hold his own examinations of conservative politics to the same standards that he accuses GOP-funded media outlets of violating.  Throughout the book, Lazere is an ethical practitioner, offering himself as someone who arrived at liberal/left positions because they have better and more logical arguments and inviting conservative readers to judge him by the same standard by which he judges.  The book ends with an epilogue entitled “An Appeal to Conservative Readers” (233), in which he extends the invitation one more time for conservatives to respond to his arguments.

Beyond the checklists, Lazere calls for teachers to imagine education beyond the modeling of critical-thinking skills, to think of education as nurturing critical-thinking dispositions (37).  The aim of a rhetorical education, for Donald Lazere, is to become the sort of person who, by strength of developed habits, investigates matters of public importance for the sake of a larger community’s well-being, and the way that he has brought his students at the University of Tennessee and other state institutions along that way is by inviting them, as he invites his readers, to use the tools of reasoned argument to demonstrate that an alternative to his socialism is more adequate, in terms of argument and evidence that a literate public can agree to live by.  Whether one agrees with Lazere that socialism ultimately pulls more intellectual weight than consumer capitalism or whether one disagrees, the call to an education for the sake of intellectual excellence commands applause, and inviting students to ideas that transcend immediate consumer choice should be an aspiration that all of us who teach the humanities, no matter who gets our vote (if we do vote).

Overall, although the small-batch academic-press price of this book would have rendered it inaccessible to me had Palgrave not sent me an examination copy, this volume is one that I’d recommend for an interlibrary loan read.  For readers like me, who discover that we’re socialists one day and traditionalists the next (and who suspect that the two might both have common cause against consumerism), Lazere’s writing on teaching makes even some relatively narrow-sighted political analysis worth the read.


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