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.


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

  1. ” 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”
    There is a reason for this.  Check out Jonathan Haidt’s work on ideological ingroup bias among academia.  While loudly proclaiming their commitment to diversity, social psychological studies of academics have shown them not only to have a profound leftward slant, but a willingness to discriminate in hiring and promotion against conservatives and Christians (especially the “devil-term” of “Evangelical”).  Sadly (says the social psychologist) those who showed the most overt and aggressive bias were social psychologists.  Institutional research has shown conservatives to be stuck at lower positions in universities compared to equally-qualified (in terms of publication, teaching, and service) liberals.  In another study, self-identification as a conservative Protestant was associated with reduced likelihood of acceptance into clinical psychology programs.

    When it comes to publication in academic journals, articles that contradict reviewers’ political leanings are reviewed with a level of methodological rigor not seen directed at articles that conform to the reviewer’s attitudes, creating a publication bias.  This also extends to the theoretical explanations that are allowed to pass peer review (see Philip Tetlock’s articles “Political Psychology or Politicized Psychology” in 1994 in the journal Political Psychology).  Jost et al.’s article “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition” (2003, Psychological Bulletin) got away with a highly-selective review of the research literature leading to the conclusion that all those more conservative than the authors are simplistic closed-minded fearmongers with low self-esteem.  I have seen articles (peer-reviewed, mind you) in the psychology of religion literature in which the author brushes aside counterarguments by claiming that he “does not expect rationality from the religious.”
    When Haidt (who is himself by no means conservative) reviewed research on left-leaning active discrimination against conservatives, he was shocked at the vitriolic response he got from a wide range of academics.  On the topic of bias in social psychological research, he summarized the responses as: “There is no bias against conservatives, and those creationist retards can’t do science anyway.”

    With such a toxic environment, small wonder that conservatives form their own organizations and publications.  As for the rhetoric from political advocacy groups being less than intellectually pristine, I would hardly use that as an argument for the intellectual inferiority of one specific side of the left-right spectrum.

  2. Charles H Thanks for the comment, Charles.  If you read my book, you will find that my main focus is not on bias within the academic world, but in the larger society.  The sources of bias I examine are not those you address, but the wide array of conservative biases, intentional and unintentional, that are just considered normative in America (e.g. the concept of college as a place for worship of sports and partying.)  Also,all the  corporate lobbies and  propaganda agencies and, the subject of Chapter 4, “The Conservative Attack Machine: ‘Admit Nothing, Deny Everything, Launch Counterattack,” which traces the history back to the Nixon administration of an unbroken sequence of Republican operatives who have deliberately practiced ruthless tactics of polarization, wedge issues, and sabotage against liberals.  I hold no brief for Democrats, but I have seen no substantial evidence of their advocating and practicing such underhanded tactics.  There is even less evidence that leftist college faculties IN THE LIBERAL ARTS  are beholden in their views to employers or sponsors, whatever their individual and collective biases might be.   So my argument is that leftist bias in the academy needs to be judged in proportion to, and as a counterbalance to, the full spectrum of conservative biases outside the academy.

  3. Donald Lazere Charles H Is “the concept of college as a place for worship of sports and partying” really a conservative thing? Yes, capitalism certainly plays a part in fueling that culture. But so do conceptions of freedom and sexual liberation that generally belong to the left and are widely taught in academia.

  4. JoelJ Donald Lazere Charles H This is an interesting point for further thought, as another
    instance of the multiple meanings of “liberal” and “conservative” and the
    semantic confusions that result from shifting between those meanings.I know of no liberal or leftist who remotely
    connects “freedom and sexual liberation” with “Animal House” fraternities,
    hazing, drunkenness, and rape.Come on,
    folks, don’t you agree that this culture has long been part and parcel of a
    certain variety of conservatism that is macho, anti-intellectual, and libertine
    when it comes to the behavior of the “good old boys” and of privileged,
    “conservative” classes throughout history, down to all the recent pious
    conservative public figures who have been caught with their pants down.
    College football sports worship is a product of that same
    variety of conservatism, again a bastion of machismo, “survival of the fittest,”
    appeal to ethnocentric emotion, patriotism, corporate profits and huge income
    to universities from advertising revenue for TV coverage, concessions, and
    marketing of college-branded merchandise.   I only wish that conservatives in general
    would join with liberals and leftists in finally renouncing the out-of-control
    excesses of this culture. 
    Don’t you all agree?

  5. Donald Lazere Charles H I’m inclined to agree with Donald (as I said in the review) on the broader, national-political level, but I do see Charles’s point: perhaps as a response to the rise of right-wing think tanks or perhaps for other reasons, many social-science and humanities journals in particular have tended to position themselves as advocates for a certain sort of social/political engagement in recent decades.  Academics who want to advance ideas that run too radically contrary to those positions might well find themselves desiring to compete in a more open forum but unable to secure those precious pages because such an exchange would ill-serve the larger, national-political balance.

    Thus I have a hard time finding fault with individual researchers who go the think-tank route, even as I agree with Donald that the larger, systemic phenomenon diminishes what could be going on in the realm of social science especially.  And I still want to maintain that think-tank propaganda pieces, as Donald describes them in his book, are an entirely different species of text that doesn’t deserve in any way the same degree of respect as does the specialized and discipline-honoring discourse to which Charles points.

  6. Donald Lazere JoelJ Charles H If that’s the aim, then one step towards establishing that alliance might be to stop calling such phenomena “liberal” and “conservative.”  Those words, because they’re what Richard Weaver calls “charismatic terms” (see our podcast episode on Weaver’s essay “Ultimate Terms in Contemporary Rhetoric”), are going to galvanize and anaesthetize but rarely bring anyone to change her or his mind.

    As I’ve said before, I think that liberals are right to see such things as outworkings of consumer Capital, and I think that conservative are right to see such things as abandonment of traditional duties of the free citizen.  To say to each other “that’s your thing” rather than “we should both be fighting this” is what makes the alliance for which Donald calls so hard to imagine.

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