Friday, September 29, 2023

Differences and Differends: One More Note on the Politics of Education


I know that I should not even bother to engage with such things, but I saw someone retweet this from Christopher Rufo on X-Twitter. I think that it is revealing about two fundamental different ways of thinking about diversity and differences in a university. First, as Judith Butler states in the video posted below (11:49), that classes in women and gender studies are filled with debate and discussion. This is something that I think anyone who has been in a classroom would probably agree with. I would argue that it extends that it goes beyond gender studies to other subjects of supposed indoctrination such as critical race theory or even Marxism. Christopher Rufo's response to this is to focus not on what happens in such classrooms, he has probably never been in one, but to cite some supposed fact that faculty in gender and interdisciplinary studies are 100% left. I am not sure what he means by that, or if he is including all interdisciplinary programs, but I am going to assume that the left he is referring to is voting patterns, since that is an obsession of many critiques of higher education. 

One could say if one wanted to be generous that what we have is two different ways of thinking of what difference means. Butler focuses on the differences internal to the classroom, the debates and discussion of issues of gender and sexuality, and Rufo focuses on voting, on what happens outside of the classroom. If one wanted to be generous one could call this a differend, in Jean-François Lyotard's sense, a disagreement about the terms of disagreement itself, about what it means for something to be the same or different. That is too generous, however, it is more like a bait and switch. The right's critique of indoctrination in the classroom often uses activity and speech outside of the classroom as a supposed indicator of internal classroom dynamics. Voter registration of faculty is supposed to be an indicator of what and how people teach. Or, to take another example, a faculty members activity outside the classroom, a tweet or protest, is taken to be an indicator of their bias in the classroom. I have even had this happen to me in which my blog, this one, was offered as evidence of my supposed bias in teaching. Just to be clear, if your argument about faculty bias or indoctrination looks to such evidence as faculty voter registration, tweets, political engagement or other activity outside of the class as evidence then you have not proven what you claim to prove. That does not stop people from using this standard. I even know of faculty who have internalized this standard, who curtail their own political activity so as not to appear biased, to be objective. I have heard of political science professors who refuse to register with a party or donate to candidates for fear of appearing biased. Academic freedom and free speech are confused enough to curtail each. 

The focus on electoral politics also explains one of the ongoing obsessions of the right wing pundit sphere. There is a whole niche publishing market of books arguing that liberalism, Marxism, postmodernism, critical race theory are all THE SAME. I believe that Christopher Rufo even wrote such a book.  Such a claim is demonstrably false from the perspective of the respective histories, ontologies, and epistemologies of different political ideologies. It does, however, make sense on one level and that is the one thing that all these different politics and philosophies have in common is that they are not likely to vote Republican. All of these shoddy, intellectually dishonest, and often anti-semitic books about the secret history of Cultural Marxism and Critical Race Theory are all attempts to give an intellectual basis to a rather Schmittian distinction of friend versus enemy, to prove that everyone who is against you is actually part of the same conspiracy. That your enemies are enemies of freedom and rationality itself. 

The focus on voting registration or party affiliation also seems to carry an odd assumption that the political makeup of any activity, any institution, or group, should reflect the overall division of the US. That unless a college major, or discipline, is roughly thirty percent Republican and Democrat, with forty percent unaligned or uninterested in the whole thing, it must be because of indoctrination. It seems odd to suppose that every part of society should function as a microcosm of the society. Would one also assume that all rifle clubs, churches, country clubs, and so on must reflect society at large? Which brings me to the last assumption of this overanalyzed tweet, and that is a causal one. It is assumed that the uniformity of voting or party affiliation, or whatever other paltry measure, of a department of discipline is an effect of what happens in the classroom. That is the supposed indoctrination. As Spinoza argues, however, one of the fundamental aspects of imagination, of what we could call ideology, is confusing effects for causes. I can only speculate here, but I can imagine that maybe the students who sign up for a gender studies course, or women studies, might already have a politics that corresponds with their interest. The same thing could be said for a course on global warming or the history of civil rights or any other issue seen as indoctrination, the students are already educated, already engaged, before they enter the classroom. To put it bluntly, a party that has made ending abortion rights (not to mention in Florida the persecution of gay, lesbian, and trans people) part of its central platform should not be surprised that a women studies or gender studies course has no members in it. 

All of this obsession with the political make up of different major and disciplines is happening at the same time that one party is openly declaring hostility towards knowledge about science (climate change, Covid), history (slavery), society (gender), and even current events (the 2020 election). I stress open hostility, because the other party, the Democratic Party might declare that climate change is real, but that does not mean it is going to do anything about it--active nihilism versus passive nihilism. Universities seem ill equipped to deal with this assault, maintaining their standard neutrality towards "both sides" of any issue, but this neutrality towards politics on part of the institutions of knowledge is being confronted by a politics that is anything but neutral with respect to knowledge. 

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