a critique of a critique of a critique

A few weeks ago, there was some interwebs hubbub concerning the abrupt dismissal of Naomi Schaefer Riley, a contributing blogger to the Chronicle of Higher Education. She wrote a piece which turned incendiary concerning Black Studies departments and the quality of work being done for dissertations. Riley was lambasted by the readership and the Chronicle at first defended their writer, then making an about-face and ending their relationship with her.

Riley is also one of a very few writers for the Chronicle who self-identifies as conservative. Not surprisingly, with academia being a long-time bastion for left-leaning belief sets, she was a stranger in a strange land. [Chronicle of Higher Education: CHE. Not sayin’, just sayin’.]

As mentioned before, the news of her termination made some waves on the interwebs with conservatives and contrarians rallying behind Riley, the martyr for the cause. No one will accuse the right or left of failing to take up the victim’s mantle whenever possible.

Riley did make some mistakes, none so egregious or quixotic as to throw down a gauntlet against a field of minority study but, more to the point, in failing to review dissertations beyond abstracts or in building a solid, rational case for her proposition that Black Studies may need to be reevaluated on the whole (and, in fairness, every field should from time to time.) She also was somewhere between reticent and less-than-charitable with readership when the commentariat began with the digital torches and pitchforks. (Again, in fairness, the Chronicle commentariat was like sharks to chum. She was meat the moment that post hit the site.)

Conservative professors and instructors, in the wake of their latest cause célèbre, began reflecting on Riley and how to process the virtual immolation that had taken place. In particular, CSU Northridge literature faculty member Robert Oscar Lopez wrote a piece on American Thinker, largely excellent and thoughtful as a reflection and rejoinder, to this extent.

I do agree with him in noting the irony of academic freedom and critical inquiry being conveniently tossed to the wayside when it comes to questioning the validity of a pet project for self-styled progressive academes. Liberty in the academic realm must be extended to all serious participants, else there is any liberty at all. Victims–real or perceived needs not matter–indeed tend to make for great tyrants. Where I part company with Lopez, though, is in regard to this notion that the academy needs to be somehow taken back by conservatives, like America being taken back for the Lord. In either case, it probably wasn’t theirs in the first place.

My good collegiate experiences were in the supposed lions’ den: in the classrooms of the liberal arts department of a public university. My bad collegiate experiences were in a private, conservative Christian Bible college, where academic freedom was equally convenient to suit the powers-that-be. I had a mixed bag in my graduate studies at a fairly moderate Evangelical Seminary with a considerable and welcomed–though at times maddeningly inconsistent–spectrum of viewpoints. I focus, though, on my time spent working toward my baccalaureate degree in philosophy and religious studies.

Without question, I studied under faculty who were largely quite left-of-center. Some of them just offered it as a matter of full disclosure right off the bat, and I respected that. That said, and I’ve mentioned this before, so I apologize to long-time readers (admittedly a stretch to say) who have seen or heard this before, the faculty I studied under and worked with kept their political stances to themselves, and focused on the task of teaching. They were excellent stewards of the classroom, and some of them remain mentors and friends to me today. I had no concerns about becoming some mindless college leftist drone, and through my ability to produce consistent quality work, the opportunity arose for lively, collegial discussion and perspective.

Admittedly, going from having a positive learning experience to moving into a teaching role is a considerable gap to jump, and my aspirations to lead a classroom in the collegiate setting are all but dead, thanks to a floundering economy and feckless governmental and bureaucratic leadership of all stripes. Regardless, the issue is why are we concerned about bringing conservative academics back into academic positions?

The problem isn’t that we have evil liberals polluting the eager young minds of tomorrow; it is that we’ve reduced education to making sure we get faculty who agree to a specific worldview, an inference diametrically in opposition to the educational enterprise in the first place! Yes, faculty should leave their politics at the door in the same way that Christians are expected to leave their faith at the door of a civic facility (faith for faith, all’s fair, no?) But my experience dictates that we can have excellent educators developing excellent minds from a broad range of backgrounds and persuasions–political or otherwise–all of which contributes to the robustness (*phew*, no spell check!) of our academic endeavors and, in turn, our society.

Politicizing the matter, regardless of who did it first, is not going to solve the problem. The left used Gramsci’s hegemony, but the right doing the same in time is in no way legitimate. At the end of the day, left and right eventually end up at the same place: totalitarianism. If we are serious about academic liberty, then we ought to be serious about liberty as a country, and judge who entrusted with the care of children and young adults not according to their political posturing, but by the quality of their output. Those entrenched in the academy with a political axe to grind should be given walking papers. But those who have the character to set their leanings to the side to make sure our kids can proficiently read, add, balance equations (ugh) or critique an argument should not only stay, but be lauded for knowing their role.

Perhaps I am too optimistic in this regard, and that my own experience is singular and exclusive. I’d like to think not, and given some of my friends and family who are blessed to be where I’d love to be and going on, studying to do what I’d love to do, I think the future isn’t as bleak as many make it out to be. And if it is, it’s not the Black Studies departments or Naomi Schaefer Riley who are to blame. It is the person you see in the mirror every morning. Even family values conservatives are  guilty of ultimately expecting someone else to raise their children right. (Sidenote while I’m here: thanks, Mom and Dad.)

So no, conservatives don’t need to “strategize [their] triumphant return to the academy.” They need to pursue with relish their passion for education and let the product do the talking. When it comes to teaching and developing people, the one thing that can not be questioned is the quality of the students when the term is up. When we stop being interested in cultivating voting blocs and start getting back to the work of rigorous and vibrant education, we’ll be setting a much better course for our shared future.


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