The Old Campus Quarrel, Fought to a Standstill Again

To judge from What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?, Michael Bérubé, a literature professor at Penn State, seems to be one of those strange academics who actually enjoys the undergraduates. While teaching William Dean Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham, for instance, he gets at the issue of social capital without help from Karl Marx or Pierre Bourdieu—instead, he heads straight for Thom Yorke.

If he wants to explain to his class that the novel’s protagonist “is displaying the fact that he knows enough to know the ‘right’ kind of thing to say about Tennyson in 1875 … basically saying, ‘I like his early work, but his recent stuff is kind of weak,’” Mr. Bérubé can translate the notion into an idiom his students will easily grasp: It’s like saying, “I liked Radiohead up until they released Kid A, but since then they’ve been spinning their wheels.”

Fair enough. As a clear-eyed, occasionally quite humorous account of the joys and frustrations of running a college classroom, What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? makes for a pleasant read. But as the title suggests, the book wants to be much more: an impassioned “liberal” defense against conservative attacks on liberalism and the “procedural liberal” idea “that no one political faction should control every facet of a society.”

Which is about when things get, as they say in academia, problematic.

Mr. Bérubé—both a committed Democrat and a committed democrat, not to mention a former rock musician and a current blogger—is never quite able to describe what exactly he’s defending. He doesn’t address the central “conservative” challenge, in either its serious or its baldly demagogic guises; instead, he haphazardly triangulates, misjudging along the way both those to his right and those to his left. The liberalism that What’s Liberal leaves us with is finally of the amorphous, wispy variety that understandably unites Straussian rightists and Foucauldian leftists in pinched-nose disdain.

This is not to say that Mr. Bérubé has nothing interesting to contribute to the increasingly intractable higher-education debates. Indeed, it’s nice to see a professor in the arena who’s not perched among the Ivy League or its elite brethren. Mr. Bérubé’s position at Penn State (and the University of Illinois before that) isn’t glamorous, and it gives his work a relevance no what’s-wrong-with-Harvard tome can match.

Moored in places like State College and Urbana-Champaign, Mr. Bérubé knows first-hand that it takes just one red-state legislature to put thousands of vulnerable, mostly untenured professors at risk. The coastal professoriat is “still in some sort of denial” about the extreme right’s cultural and electoral influence, says Mr. Bérubé, a state of denial that the faculty at large, isolated public universities do not have the luxury of maintaining. He insists that writer David Horowitz’s “Academic Bill of Rights”—an Orwellian document aimed at stamping out “liberal indoctrination” in state-supported institutions—is “no joke,” even if “many liberals and thoughtful conservatives” might dismiss it as a “phenomenon of the fringe right wing, no more consequential than the extreme right’s past campaigns against the fluoridation of drinking water and the introduction of zip codes.”

Mr. Bérubé spends some 70 pages meticulously debunking Mr. Horowitz’s most sensational claims. Unsurprisingly, well-publicized instances of conservative students being “punished” for their views almost invariably turn out to be a matter of “the least prepared and least capable students in the class” resorting to a “nationwide whining network” when their grades come in. But What’s Liberal fails to answer (or even to pose) the broader question: Why is Mr. Horowitz—himself a New York Jew, a former New Leftist with degrees from Columbia and Berkeley—more appealing to backwoods citizens and lawmakers than the friendly neighborhood academics among them?

Indeed, in a time and a country where an intellectual über-elite—think Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Stanford’s Hoover Institution—has achieved geopolitical dominance largely through the votes of religious reactionaries, Mr. Bérubé’s measured refutation of specific liberal-bias anecdotes can’t help but read like the marginal, impotent move it is. Conservatives have somehow become both the voices of intellectual “rigor” and the allies of populist anti-intellectuals, and until self-professed liberals consider the forces behind such a seeming paradox, the cultural situation, on campus and off, will only get bleaker.

Mr. Horowitz, meanwhile, makes for an easy straw man, and Mr. Bérubé crowns his victory by citing a New Republic article by “thoughtful conservative” Ross Douthat, who dismisses the idea that liberal discrimination can account for the scarcity of academic rightists. But having divided conservatives into the “extreme” and the “thoughtful,” it seems plainly bizarre for Mr. Bérubé not to engage more fully—or at all—with the allegations of the latter group. Mr. Douthat’s recent memoir Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class would have been a good place to start; his scathing portrait of his alma mater (he’s class of ’02) belongs to a critical tradition that began with William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale (1951) and reached its apotheosis with Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987).

The deep conservative grievance—repeated with generational variations in each of those three volumes—is simple: In an environment dominated by “electives” and binge-drinking, American higher education is no longer a force that gives students meaning. Young adults stumble out of colleges bewildered and strangely unfulfilled, and what the eminently likable Mr. Bérubé fails to appreciate is that this melancholy is in no way limited to the conservatives.

What’s more, Mr. Bérubé also doesn’t recognize the canny slipperiness of conservative “thoughtfulness,” the way “liberalism” comes to describe both curricular permissiveness and the actual content of today’s more radical liberal-arts offerings. Thus, something that’s obvious to most every college student nowadays—that those theory-smitten “leftists” slogging through Heidegger and Derrida and Judith Butler are not taking the easy way out—is conveniently covered up by overzealous conservatives looking to make a grand point, while ameliorative liberals like Mr Bérubé, in their rush to defend themselves, get sucked into arguing on the same terms.

We regrettably never learn what Mr. Bérubé thinks about conservative concerns over “grade inflation” or the calls to adopt “Great Books” core curricula. Both are nuanced issues, ones that might attract a surprising number of Marxists or even Derrideans over to the “right-wing” side. Instead, the second half of What’s Liberal is dedicated to anecdotes culled from the author’s Penn State lit courses. On topics ranging from Willa Cather’s supposed “queer[ing] of the prairie” to the anti-foundationalist possibilities of postmodernism, Mr. Bérubé reveals himself to be an easy-going pedagogue, always ready to play devil’s advocate—even, he loves pointing out, to the liberal students.

“[I]n the liberal arts corner of the campus,” he assures us, “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.”

Nice to know. Mr. Bérubé takes pains to explain that most left-leaning academics are nothing like the monsters featured on Fox News; he writes with loathing of “the Ward Churchills who pop up every so often making outrageously stupid and/or morally obtuse remarks” (he’s referring here to the essay in which Mr. Churchill called the “technocrats” who died inside the World Trade Center “little Eichmanns”). But, again, the terms of the debate are never questioned: It’s the left versus the right, and Mr. Bérubé essentially lectures “the campus wing of the far left” for not being team players in the culture wars.

Some of his colleagues, he’s appalled to admit, are so far to the left that they don’t even like being associated with the thoughtful liberals; regarding l’affaire Churchill, he writes of “a smattering of academics [who] decided that because the ‘academic freedom’ defense was a ‘liberal’ position, they needed to go further and defend the specific content of the ‘little Eichmanns’ line …. [M]ost of them, I am now convinced, took this vile position chiefly in order to distinguish themselves from the mere ‘liberals’ to their right.”

There seems to be a bit of, as they say in academia, projection going on here. Because, of course, all the talk of “vile positions” is finally chiefly a way for Mr. Bérubé to distinguish himself from the despicables to his left. Sure, comparing 9/11 victims to the architect of the Holocaust is viscerally repellent, and there might be no other way for the general public to take it. But academics who defended the content of Mr. Churchill’s argument might have had any number of reasons to do so—anyone who has read Hannah Arendt’s haunting, ambiguous Eichmann in Jerusalem, for instance, would immediately find an allusive depth to the now-infamous Churchill quote that perhaps even its author never intended. Mr. Bérubé, however, seems to believe that any such “extreme” position is just so much grandstanding vis-à-vis his own common sense, free-speech-even-for-the-repellent liberalism.

The problem, ultimately, is that Michael Bérubé truly believes that politics, academic and otherwise, exist on a nicely delineated spectrum. He confidently describes “the four major political groupings … among students: conservatives, liberals, leftists, and libertarians.” The typology is rather embarrassing—the farthest “left” that the leftists get in Mr. Bérubé’s mind are “the wholly uncritical Chomsky fans.” Where, then, do we place the fans—probably just as numerous—of Michel Foucault, who (semi-) famously upended Noam Chomsky’s comfortable extremism in a 1971 debate broadcast on Dutch television?

There remains little consensus on who’s the more proper leftist, Mr. Chomsky or Foucault. But Mr. Bérubé’s central contention—that college professors properly serve all, even though most vote Democrat and support affirmative action and abortion rights—forces him to claim a certain liberal “sweet spot” in the web of possible political attachments. On issues like race and class, he writes, “my classes contain plenty of students who are more outspokenly ‘liberal’ and/or left-leaning than myself …. [It] doesn’t occur to [conservatives] that some of their demonized liberal faculty members have our share of undergraduates who find us not liberal enough for their tastes.”

What never occurs to Michael Bérubé is that these “more outspoken” students might finally be objecting to the same impulse as the conservatives, the same “procedural liberalism” that results in a tenured professor like Mr. Bérubé constantly worrying about offending his students. The truth is, college liberal-arts students aren’t much impressed with friendly professors who talk about popular music and are adept at playing devil’s advocate. To the contrary, we seek out those—liberal, conservative or otherwise—with passion, who will fight and intimidate and humiliate us in order to impart their scholarly revelations, who don’t treat us like the equals we aren’t, who will leave us defeated but challenged and finally emboldened.

What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? is thus a sad work, revealing a professor and a profession strangely overwhelmed by self-doubt. Indeed, Mr. Bérubé seems like the typical college instructor these days: caring, fastidious and totally forgettable. And his thesis—his grandly marginal answer to the conservatives—smells unpleasantly like wheels spinning in place. Or to echo the refrain from “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box”—Radiohead’s first post– Kid A tune—Professor Bérubé’s argument is not much more than a whimper: “I’m a reasonable man,” he appears to say. “Get off my case.”

Jonathan Liu is a senior at Harvard concentrating in social studies.