American Liberal Arts Blog

Teaching the Liberal Arts in the American Context
On Learning to Teach Political Theory: A Beginner’s Account, Part 1
By Steven McGuire

I’m a young man, so I’m not qualified to offer sage advice on the art of teaching. Nevertheless, in a series of posts, I’d like to present some reflections on certain questions that have arisen during the course of my still nascent teaching career. Consider, for instance, the following: as an instructor in political theory, is it my job to teach students my positions on the variety of political, philosophical, and interpretive questions that we examine in class?

The question arises because, on the one hand, I recognize that teaching students to hold a particular position offends against the very nature of philosophy (and scientific inquiry in general), while, on the other, I can’t say (as some professors do) that I don’t care what my students think, so long as they think. I do, in fact, care about what my students think, and, at the end of the day, I want them to agree with me (at least on important matters). If they don’t, then something (whether it be in my mind or theirs) isn’t right, which is particularly disconcerting on days when we’ve discussed something on which I’m fairly confident in my position (for example, on the question of whether or not moral relativism is irrational). What am I to do on such days when my students and I are at a disconnect? Should I get up on my soapbox and attempt to hammer home a point?

I find the beginnings of an answer in James V. Schall’s Another Sort of Learning (Ignatius Press, 1988), where he observes that “The teacher-student relationship is, in fact, primarily a spiritual relationship—both, teacher and student, participate in what is not properly theirs” (31). Here Schall reminds us that teachers and students are beholden to truth, which never “belongs” to either. This suggests to me that, even when I’m confident that I’m right, it should never be my goal to teach my positions to students. Instead, I should strive to lead them toward truth (and if that turns out to be in accord with what I think, then all the better, but that is a secondary consideration)—and they should feel obliged to seek it. We must let the arguments lead us where they will. Certainly, I must guide the students, but they must be allowed to draw their own conclusions. Thus, the decision to get up on that soapbox should depend on whether or not the students are openly seeking the truth, not on whether or not they happen to disagree with me on any particular point. Besides, if they wrongly disagree with me about something, then I’ve already failed to lead them to the truth and getting up there probably wouldn’t help anyway.

The next question for the next post, then, is how does one avoid getting to that point?

A Review of "Adventures in Podcasting"
By Gerson Moreno-Riano

Matthew Roberts, a professor at Hope College, wrote an important piece entitled "Adventures in Podcasting" in the July 2008 issue of PS: Political Science & Politics. Roberts' article was the result of his experience using podcasting in some of his political science courses. The reasoning behind his use of podcasts is itself somewhat funny (readers will have to engage Roberts' article for this bit of information). But the article and the study and data he presents offers important insights in the use of the new technologies for teaching in today's university classrooms. I myself was interested since I have used podcasting technology once before. So as a fellow podcaster I thought I could learn from an expert.

Roberts used podcasts for two of his courses (an introductory American politics course and a methods in political analysis course). More specifically, he "podcasted" (notice how the word can now be used as a verb, gerund, etc.) every lecture in both courses. He admits that this is a basic use of the technology but, frankly, it is quite admirable that he did all of this! In the article he reports on what he learned through the use of such podcasts. His conclusions are important for us to consider.

Conclusion 1: Content is more important than the "WOW" factor

Roberts found that while students are usually in awe of using iPods and podcasting in higher learning environments their awe is temporary and succumbs to their need and desire for academic content. Students are interested in being educated and look for strong educational and academic leadership. Roberts' research validates what I have noticed in my own courses. Students do want to learn and technology provides a medium through which to provide good, sound content. The WOW factor is important if only to pierce through the veil and couch strong content as "cool" and "up to date with the times." Frankly, I have no problem doing this if in the end I am able to get into the minds and hands of students the type of content that will educate them to be good thinkers and good citizens.

Conclusion 2: Context matters

Roberts suggests that his research demonstrates that podcasting is very useful in upper level courses and not just lower level courses. Most podcasting courses or content are deployed in large enrollment courses suggesting a "bang for the buck" approach. Roberts argues that professors should not overlook upper level courses. Here, I would suggest, Roberts may want to reconsider his criterion. Perhaps it is smaller courses that are more appropriate for podcasting than larger courses. Obviously, in larger courses the content net is spread over larger waters. But as in traditional face to face teaching, smaller courses are always richer and more robust. So too with podcasting. My own experience allowed me to create an iPod course using iTunes U. Students would then register for free with iTunes and arrive at a portal for my university. Once there they would find my course page and down load each weekly podcast. The class was a small one and I was even able to video record lectures and place them as podcasts. The small class size and the strong content of the podcasts allowed them to be highly favored and used by students. And, in turn, the class size also allowed for rich discussions as well.

Conclusion 3: Sound is not enough

As mentioned before, in my own experience, I not only used sound podcasts but also video ones. Roberts concludes that this is very important as well. Sound should also be augmented when possible with video. In my own podcasting I found that students really engaged the video podcasts and used them frequently to study and review for examinations and other assessments. Depending on the IT department at one's university or one's own computer, creating short videos is not very difficult or time consuming. And there are numerous online videos that one can link to in a podcast or video podcast that serve to enrich one's teaching.

Conclusion 4: Podcasting alone does not improve instruction

The danger with podcasting alone is that professors could make learning entirely passive. Roberts is right to suggest that podcasting should be used strategically to augment good teaching and not to replace it. Podcasts are a way to enrich already good teaching and are never meant to replace it. They can be use to provide content to students that prepares them for strong Socratic dialogue and discussion. They can also be used to provide auxiliary content and suggested content to enrich their learning. Podcasts should never be the sole method of instruction and/or content delivery.

As Roberts suggests, "podcasting is not for everyone." But he goes a long way to demonstrate that there are some important benefits to its use. As a podcaster myself, I wholeheartedly agree.

Spirit in an Age of Science Part II
By John von Heyking
This is the second part of a four-part series. Part I is here.


According to Kronman, the physical and social sciences (which are based on the quantitative mode of analysis of the physical sciences) enjoy authority for best satisfying the human yearning to know and because of the utility of knowledge (e.g., inventions, predictions of physical events and human actions) they generate: “Science today enjoys the authority it does not only on account of the practical inventions that flow from it and from their capacity to satisfy our desire for control, but because it satisfies more fully than any other form of knowledge we possess a second elementary desire, the desire to understand” (215).

The physical sciences are based on the experimental method, which provides for near-perfect knowledge in “aligning theory and observation” (213). In it, the universal and particular, the abstract and empirical, are united: “The experimental method is a technique for liberating our powers of reasoning from the limits to which sense experience otherwise confines them, while at the same providing a mechanism for testing the soundness of reason’s abstractions against experience itself” (213). The experimental method perfects the aspiration of Aristotelian science of providing theoretical knowledge while “preserving the appearances.” Aristotelian science aspires to remain consistent with common sense, which Kronman asserts is denied by the social sciences especially. Jonathan Swift’s satire of the Royal Society in the form of the Laputians, with one eye pointing above and one below, but none focused on the intermediate, the human, is a splendid lampoon done out of an Aristotelian spirit.

Whereas Aristotelian science attempted to synthesize theoria with the practical wisdom (phronesis) entailed in knowing particulars, the experimental model undertakes a “fusion of mathematical and empirical truth, the mathematization of reality” (214). The “solidity and objectivity” of the experimental method, along with the technologies it produces, provides it with its public authority.

Even so, the “truths of modern science, expressed in mathematical terms, are thus arrived at by a manipulative method that permits us both to use our experience and to transcend it” (214). The “manipulative” experimental method creates a “controlled experience,” meaning the “mathematization of reality” is the expression of the researcher’s experience of reality. It is the language of the subject conceptualizing his or her environment, or “the product of our intellectual manipulation of the world” which allows researchers to create the technologies that feed into our dreams of liberation from fate.

With the emphasis on the researching subject’s conceptualization of reality, Kronman indicates that the experimental method repeats Immanuel Kant’s alleged installation of the priority of the subject. Kant is frequently said to have reversed the epistemological question from “How does the subject know reality?” to “How does reality conform to the categories of understanding?” For Kronman, the experimental method similarly prioritizes the subject over the object of scientific inquiry, which is based on the myth that all knowledge is generated from the subject himself. This is the researcher who sets the conditions of control over the experiment. It is therefore unsurprising Kronman identifies wonder with self-love. The scientific researcher, alone in the controlled conditions of his laboratory, is the font of scientific knowledge. Reality is mathematized. His authority takes on added weight by virtue of his social prestige as the exponent of the most satisfying form of knowledge available in our time.

Even so, scientific research does not really follow the idealized version expounded by the “experimental method” as outlined by Bacon. The researching subject no more imposes her categories on infinitely plastic matter than does matter provide undiluted categories to the researcher. The process of research is more like that described by Michael Oakeshott, who describes the researcher as an inheritor of a tradition of learning, and who draws upon nondiscursive intimations for understanding as much, if not more, than “method.” The findings of research are not so much superimposed upon the object of research as they arise in the practice of research.


Part III will be published next week.
The Job Search and Interview Process
By Gerson Moreno-Riano

In a number of posts, Phil Hamilton has provided invaluable advice for advanced graduate students and recent Ph.D.'s regarding the job search process. In this post, I want to continue this blog theme. Currently, I am involved in two search committees and am involved in evaluating a number of different candidates. And, as always, such activities allow one to learn much about the current state of the profession as well as the types of candidates in the field. Now, I confess. The following observations are not "rocket science." They are quite common sensical. But you would be surprised to know the number of candidates that do not abide by them or appear to have never thought about them. With this in mind, consider the following:

  1. Submit ALL requirements that potential employers require in the manner required. Many candidates do not fulfill this basic requirement. Somehow some job candidates expect search committees to be flexible and to accommodate the applicant's schedules, preferences, idiosyncratic behaviors, or plain and simply lack of professionalism. This is a major error that a job seeker cannot afford to make.
  2. Do not pester the search committee or related personnel. In some of the search committees in which I have participated, some candidates have bombarded the committee or its staff with 3-5 emails per week and sometime per day! This not only frustrates the committee but demonstrates a great sense of insecurity and immaturity on the part of the candidate. This is another error to be avoided.
  3. Know the institutions to which you are applying. Phil has emphasized this already. I would like to re-emphasize it! If you are applying to a religious institution, ensure that you are aware of its religious heritage and requirements. And, ensure that you can articulate your own sophisticated position on the relationship between religion (faith) and your discipline. Many religious institutions want their professors to be able to articulate this relationship (this is often called the integration of faith and learning) during the application process as well as in teaching and perhaps scholarship. Non-religious schools want the same thing. They may not say it or use the integration jargon. But every institution wants candidates that can articulate how their research, teaching, and understanding of their discipline impinges on what they believe about politics and history and what is relevant. This raises another important issue-breadth and depth of knowledge.
  4. Specialization. Ph.D.'s push one to specialize- to know a lot about a small area. This is all well and good. But the most effective scholars and teachers are those that can specialize and yet still have a broad understanding of the human experience. Some search committees look for this. They don't just want a super specialized candidate that can talk about the particularities of state elections in the Virginia governor's race of 1851 (was there a race in 1851?). They also want a candidate that can articulate a broader understanding of politics, history, and life for their students and community. Job candidates must always keep this in mind and prepare to articulate both broad and in-depth knowledge.
  5. Meekness and collegiality. An important rule of thumb in all searches and interviews is not to appear as if you know everything and have done everything- as if you are perfect and untouchable. Remember, you will be part of a team and departments, as Phil has reminded us, want a good fit- someone who can contribute in a mature fashion. This means that you must be collegial, meek, and never wear your ideological badge (if you have one) on your shirt sleeve.
  6. Be who you say you are and appear to be. This is an issue of integrity. Don't ever make a search committee regret hiring you or recommending you for an interview. Remember, people trust your words (both oral and on paper) and a candidate owes it to the committee to be professional, collegial, and a great contribution both during the interview process and, if hired, during the actual appointment.
Spirit in an Age of Science Part I
By John von Heyking

I previously considered Anthony Kronman’s discussion about the “research ideal” here and here, as well as his discussion of political correctness here and here. I have been working through his thoughtful reflection about the plight of the humanities in the modern university in his book, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (Yale University Press, 2007). He provides incisive criticisms of the “research ideal” and political correctness. His final chapter takes up “Spirit in an Age of Science,” which gets directly into the major philosophical questions concerning not only the nature of the humanities’ place in the university, but also the nature of wisdom and the predominance of the natural sciences and the experimental method in the modern age.

This chapter is somewhat of a disappointment because there he admits the natural and social sciences come closest in knocking off the humanities’ ability to satisfy humanity’s yearning for life’s meaning. Both come very close to satisfying humanity’s desire for knowledge. Thus, physics and economics are the twin queens of the sciences. However, they do not quite do the job. He praises them but sees their limitations. However, in seeing their limitations he does not provide an alternative account of how life’s meaning can be striven for, and how the humanities can be positioned to address it in light of the ambitions and limitations of the natural and social sciences.

As the ancient philosophers noted, the desire for wisdom begins with wonder. Kronman makes a useful distinction between the wonder that begins with ignorance (“wonder about”) and the wonder that accompanies knowledge (“wonder at”) (217). We might characterize the latter as delight. He claims “the natural sciences now have a near monopoly on wonder” because of their ability to explain the natural world (219). According to Kronman, we wonder not only at the world we behold, but also at our awesome ability to bring large amounts of it under our control. The modern world has come to accept Francis Bacon’s dictum that knowledge is power (214). After all, the modern experimental method creates a “controlled experience” and manipulates its objects of inquiry. Thus, the experimenter possesses special authority as one who sets up the conditions of control. As a result, for Kronman to claim the natural sciences possess a near monopoly on wonder means that wonder consists both in wondering at the natural world and in man’s power. Wonder is a form of self-love. The ancient philosophers would have disagreed. Insofar as they regarded self-love as the root of injustice, they strove mightily against this modern prejudice.

With wonder as a form of self-love, it is little wonder Kronman views technology in all-encompassing terms in a manner influenced by Martin Heidegger. Technology is man’s attempt to control his environment. It is “the ambition to eliminate every constraint that prevents us from doing as we please” (210). “All we can imagine is more technology” (209). Its ambition is to liberate human beings from fate (the same goal as constructivism, which he claims is the governing ideology of political correctness).

Perhaps the clearest expression of this ambition to overcome all constraint is the biotechnological quest to overcome death, the ultimate limitation (or fate) human beings face. Yet, it is here that Kronman rightfully identifies the self-contradictory nature of technology. Even if we could engineer human bodies not to die, it would create meaningless lives: “An immortal existence can have no purpose, in the strict sense of the word, and the longing we sometimes think we have for immortality is not a longing for life in which our purposes might finally be achieved, but an existence that is free of the burdens of purposefulness that are the mark of our humanity – for an existence that is no longer human” (232). The dream of technology would lead us into a lonely and meaningless existence not unlike that of the immortal Homeric gods who need to partake in the spectacle of the mortals so they too can participate in what is good and noble.

Thus, that Kronman can provide a critique of the emptiness of technology indicates the erroneousness of his claim that “all we can imagine is more technology.” But showing the emptiness of technology differs from providing an alternate narrative to the narrative of the dominance of the physical sciences and technology. This Kronman does not provide, but in fact he explains why the physical and social sciences have a monopoly on wonder and public explanatory power of the way the world works. Yet, their authority, however established by the “regulative ideal” of technology, seems as illusory as the ideal of technology itself.

Part II of this article is here.
The Academic Job Search: The Preliminary Interview
By Phil Hamilton

About a month ago, I posted a blog about the academic job search, primarily for advanced graduate students and new PhDs. In any year, looking for an academic job is a daunting and stressful task. This year, however, with a dismal economy and canceled job searches, remaining positions are even fewer than normal. Last time, I wrote about putting together an effective cover letter and dossier.

In this posting I want to focus on some things to keep in mind if you have an upcoming conference and/or phone interview. These sessions are typically round one for candidates and last about a half-hour. Your application has impressed search committee members and they are trying to identity two or three applicants to invite for a campus interview (which I will cover in my final posting on this topic).

Conference and phone interviews are very different experiences and each has advantages and disadvantages. The conference interview has the big advantage that you can see the committee and gauge members’ reactions to your answers. But there are also the significant costs of a hotel, flights, ground transportation, and meals at the conference. The phone interview is also more time efficient and you can do the interview while wearing your sweatpants! Given current economic conditions, I suspect more institutions will be turning to phone interviews in the future.

Whatever format for your initial interview, you should keep the following things in mind as you prepare:

1. Know as much as possible about the institution and the department for which you are interviewing. Given the Internet, this should not be too terribly difficult. And ask in advance which department members will be participating in the interview.

2. Be prepared for questions about how you will teach the department’s introductory courses as well the upper-level classes in your specific field. You should tailor your answers for the kinds of students who attend the college to which you’re applying. Explain how you will reach out and engage students, both non-majors and majors. Will you use discussions and in-class writing exercises to stimulate learning? How will you evaluate and assess student progress?

Also a search committee may want you to discuss the specific course themes of the classes you will be teaching as well as the textbook and other readings you will assign. You should also be ready to discuss specific student assignments and how (if at all) you will use technology in the course.

3. You will very likely be asked about your research, including what you want to do beyond your dissertation. Moreover, you should assume that (if you’re applying to a liberal arts college) that interviewees will not know a great deal about the particulars of your area of expertise. So make sure you discuss your research in an accessible fashion, but, by all means, don’t come off as condescending or go on and on about your work.

4. Be ready for unexpected questions (such as “Tell us about yourself”) and/or confrontational statements (e.g., “I don’t see the worth of your research conclusions at all”). Sometimes search committees like to see how a candidate reacts under pressure.

5. Almost every interview will end with the committee asking if you have any questions. So, be sure you have one or two engaging questions to ask. Don’t ask questions that are easily discovered by a cursory glance at the University’s website. They will know you didn’t do your homework.

A final point: You want to demonstrate that you will be a good fit in the department, have lots to contribute, and will be a pleasant colleague. This last point is particularly important at small departments. Most new PhD’s (even those trained at prestigious institutions) will teach at relatively small institutions with heavy teaching loads, few research funds, and significant service expectations. Be prepared to explain not only how you will meet these challenges, but thrive in this environment.

Good luck to those of you on the market this academic year. And, to my colleagues on this blog who have been through this process before, please add your insights and advice for our younger colleagues.

What's music got to do with it? Popular Culture and Politics
By Gerson Moreno-Riano

In his ground breaking book Politics and Popular Culture (1997), John Street makes a convincing argument that there is symbiotic relationship between popular culture and politics- both inform and transform each other. This recent presidential campaign is a perfect example. Politics appeared in most every arena of popular culture. In February, rapper WILL.I.AM released what soon became a super hit: a video featuring numerous celebrities and Obama's "Yes We Can" campaign slogan. Later, Obama echoed Jay-Z with a reference to "Dirt Off Your Shoulders" in a campaign rally. In July, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton made their campaign day view through McCain's commercial portraying Obama as Mr. Celebrity. And right before elections in November, Saturday Night Live registered its highest ratings in close to 15 years with Sarah Palin on the cast.

Now, it is true that these references to popular culture and politics symbolize what I would call "mainstream" popular culture or mass popular culture along with mass party politics. A more radical popular culture making its big entrance has not really been seen since the 1960's. This was not a "mainstream" popular culture. Rather, it was what today one could call alternative popular culture, a type of culture that actively works to bring about change and altercation to the mainstream masses. Is there such a culture today? And what is its impact upon politics, education, and the young?

I would like to argue that among American high school students and college students, the indie and alternative popular culture is alive and well and having quite an impact. This culture is deeply skeptical of tradition, the nation-state, religion, and free-market economics. It is symbolized by alternative and indie bands like punk rockers Anti-Flag and the rap, heavy metal band Rage Against the Machine. These bands and countless others constantly portray politics as corrupt and all traditions, law, and legal institutions as deeply flawed and covers for greed, injustice, and raw power. For these bands and brands of popular culture, all politics is about blood, money, and injustice. Say good-bye to the sweet ol' days of the 4th of July and apple pie. And, it should be noted, these bands are not just into music. They are also into social justice. Some of the band members of Rage Against the Machine started the NPO Axis of Justice- an organization to network musicians and grassroots organizations to advance social justice and fight racism, intolerance, and social injustice. In one way, Rage Against the Machine is unique. Most bands in this anti-politics underground genre tend to foster destructive social tendencies. RAM, so it seems, has at least advanced some type of positive social action.

Now, we should ask what is the impact of such alternative popular culture on mass politics and the masses of the young. RAM is one, if perhaps only, example of an alternative band that is pushing people to become engaged in sociopolitical action. Most if not all alternative bands advocate a deep distrust and skepticism toward all social, political, and cultural institutions and some advocate anarchy itself. For young fans in this genre, such music leads them to question politics, to reject its representatives, to have no faith or confidence in their nation state, its traditions, or its governing documents. The only faith for these fans is in the movement itself, its principles, and the community and pleasures that it seems to provide.

We may wonder what sort of young people are involved in this type of popular culture. Maybe visions of punk hairstyles and all sorts of non-conventional hairstyles and clothing come to mind. Yes, some of this is correct. But, I must warn you that young people in this movement look quite conventional. We probably have students in our classes that we perceive as being "normal" or "conventional" but would be surprised when we realize that they really belong to a very anti-political and anti-American popular culture movement.

Now, my question is how can we engage and make inroads into this type of culture so as to begin a process of cultural change and renewal and with it bring about a change in attitudes toward politics, the nation-state, and other important political principles? Just how is this done? Can it be done? Or are there some cultural pre-requisites that are needed prior to such a change taking place? In other words, is there some amount of moral and cultural capital that must exist for educating young people toward wise and virtuous citizens? And if this capital is not there, what are we to do in the classroom? Furthermore, how can we use bands and examples of such culture as tools to foster sound education toward wise citizenship and politics?

All thoughts and suggestions are welcomed.

By the fruits …
By Joe Fornieri

Merry Christmas to all. I still speak these seemingly awkward words in the academy. And Happy Hanukkah to our Jewish students, friends, family, and neighbors. (Nancy Hiller’s heavenly latkes are the only non-Italian food item that graces the Fornieri family table on Christmas Eve). I rarely mention Kwanza since I have never met a single person in ten years of teaching who actually observes it. I also tend to distrust in principle any holiday that was invented by a college professor. Some of my colleagues invite me to their annual “boxing day” party, but I still don’t understand what “boxing day” commemorates? Does it really have something to do with boxes? I am afraid to ask since I might be considered provincial, which is probably true to an extent.

The Holiday I absolutely refuse to acknowledge is “Winter Solstice.” Why? Well, if you have ever grown up in Rochester New York you know that there is nothing happy about winter. It lasts for five months. There is no sun. Grey perma-clouds cast a monochromatic shadow over everything. Snow and slush, bone chilling cold, biting winds, dreaded “black ice”—a frozen tundra of winter oppression. Just going outside is a bracing reminder of one’s mortality. By the end of winter, people have usually gained at least ten to twenty pounds due to mammalian hibernation instincts. The neo-pagans and atheists can rejoice in their five months of winter; I dread it. (Some have told me that I should take up skiing or snow-shoeing to help adjust my mood during this time of year, others have gently suggested antidepressants).

All this “holiday” musing got me to thinking seriously about the role that faith and religion plays in our teaching vocation. I therefore raise the question for further reflection on this blog (it is admittedly more relevant for those of us who teach at secular institutions): how should faith and religion inform our teaching vocation? Is faith a purely private matter that has no bearing on our professional life? How may we bring our spiritual commitments into the classroom without proselytizing and in a manner that respects the faith traditions or even non-belief of others? Must we be anonymous Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists (did I forget anyone)? Merry Christmas—forget the solstice. I look forward to the light that illuminates the darkness.

"Diversity": Is There an Opportunity to Converse? Part II
By John von Heyking
Part I of this article can be read here.

First, Kronman asks we grant constructivism to be appear true, that the human world (and the physical world, according to some versions) is an artifact. Still, the intelligibility of any constructive activity depends on its being carried out in accordance with rules that the person acting is constrained to accept (184). Keeping in accordance with those rules is a precondition necessary for any such act being intelligible at all, and a precondition of our being able to think or say anything whatsoever about it. Kronman appeals to Kant’s postulates to illustrative the precondition of meaning of action. Constructivism seeks to maximize freedom, but the intelligibility of freedom is predicated on that freedom being constrained as “a necessity that is freedom’s coeval enabling partner” (185). Recognizing the constraints of freedom, which are rooted in human mortality, is essential not only to political freedom but also to the project of the humanities. Curiously, Kronman omits mentioning the two postulates upon which freedom itself depends: God and human immortality. For Kant, the postulates form the indispensable horizon of our existence. Whether conscious of it or not, we act as if they exist though we cannot prove their existence. Noting the “hypocrisy” of constructivists is simply another way of pointing out that they can only ignore reality for so long.

Second, even if every value is an expression of interest or pre-rational desire, they are necessarily articulated. Passions are distinguished by “ideality.” Passions necessarily have an object that reason proposes to them. For example, one does not get angry at being mistreated unless one has a notion of what injustice is about. Kronman notes human sexual desire differs from the “thoughtless sexual appetites of other animals” by being formed by an element of fantasy. Since sexual politics is so crucial for diversity, consider Kronman’s appeal to philosopher Jonathan Lear’s discussion of Sigmund Freud on this matter: “An Instinkt, for Freud, is a rigid innate behavioral pattern, characteristic of animal behavior: e.g., the innate ability and pressure of a bird to build a nest…. A Trieb, by contrast, has a certain plasticity: its aim and direction is to some extent shaped by experience. To conceive of humans as powered by Triebe, as Freud did, is in part to distinguish humanity from the rest of the animal world” (291, citing Jonathan Lear, Love and Its Place in Nature, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), 123-4)).

In the world of political correctness, Instinkt appears as identity, while Triebe appears as will (though not for Kronman, for whom “ideality” is a product of reasoning). This directedness in human passion, expressed as the difference between Instinkt and Trieb for Freud, and one might say inclination and choice for Aristotle, or perhaps phenomenal and noumenal for Kant, distinguishes human beings from animals. As insightful as Kronman’s discussion of “ideality” is, he is not very successful in bringing this out from the arguments of the constructivists themselves, except to assert that reason’s object is necessarily present to desires and interests. He would have been on better ground by observing that the “ideality” of their own interest is to gain liberation from the oppression (imagined and real) of the white male heterosexual European. In other words, the constructivist is a “hip” articulation of indignation at an injustice (real and imagined), as Aristotle would certainly understand. Despite the dead end of despair in one’s unchosen identity, on the one hand, and the solipsism of the will, on the other hand, that constructivists get into, Kronman helpfully points out how their own presuppositions actually affirm their participation in the common world of human beings seeking their genuine liberation from ignorance.

Kronman provides illuminating suggestions for starting a conversation with constructivists because he uncovers crucial starting points for conversation. Unfortunately, as he notes, the advocates of diversity campus politics are more “crude” in their thinking. Someone armed with Kronman’s Socratic suggestions hoping to convince a radical diversity advocate of the wisdom of Aristotle would likely come away disappointed. Conversation presupposes the willingness to converse. Willingness to consider these internal criticisms presupposes a certain openness to look within. Unfortunately, arguments are insufficient (though necessary) to convince one to look within. Fortunately, conversation presupposes certain non-verbal virtues that enable conversation. Philia and civility come to mind. Indeed, a simple display of affability can open up conversation. Of course, sheer intelligence and the ability to marshal rigorous arguments help too. Finally, acknowledging and perhaps commiserating over the individualistic pathologies that the modern research university sustains (and the research ideal legitimates) might disarm the more reasonable ideologues.

"Diversity": Is There an Opportunity to Converse? Part I
By John von Heyking

I previously examined (and here) Anthony Kronman’s argument that the “research ideal” is antithetical to the liberal arts and humanities because its “regulative ideal” of increasing specialization makes asking the general question of life’s meaning “unprofessional.” Moreover, “life” is necessarily a nonsense term under the “research ideal” because the researcher does not experience his or her existence as a meaningful unit one might call a “life.” The researcher, like the faceless bureaucrat, is an anti-individual.

The anti-individual reappears in Kronman’s discussion of political correctness, but he also provides a useful way of moving beyond political correctness. Kronman clarifies the challenge the humanities and liberal arts face, and helps us see how to find the place in the modern university to ask the great questions that liberal education has always asked.

In the United States, “diversity” became simultaneously politically and academically legitimated when the Justice Lewis Powell of the Supreme Court ruled affirmative action programs are only constitutional if they are taken to promote diversity, which, in the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case, meant racial diversity, but has now expanded to include numerous other forms. Powell judged that not only should universities promote diversity as a way of incorporating minorities as a matter of fairness, but diversity now became a goal of education. For the sake of politics and ideology, the Court explained to universities what their goal should be in providing an education. Kronman observes that Powell’s justification not only gave universities cover to maintain affirmative action, but it also gave humanities departments especially a key role in promoting it. After all, what might an African-American or Latino chemistry experiment look like? One might say that just as a Department of Theology at a Roman Catholic university promotes Roman Catholic doctrine, so too do humanities departments serve the state doctrine of diversity.

The problem with diversity has less to do with it suddenly tying the goal of liberal education to ideological and political liberalism, and more to do with the fact that diversity is utterly antithetical to the goal of liberal education, which is the liberation of the intellect from ignorance and, for Kronman, liberation from fate. Students “engage” with one another not in a conversation of shared enquiry, “facing the same eternal questions that every human being confronts and struggling together to meet them,” but as representatives of whatever groups with which they identify: “The individuals exchanging views cease to be individuals, and their exchange ceases to be a conversation” (Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (Yale University Press, 2007), 151). Indeed, the types of identity acceptable to contemporary diversity advocates– race, gender, ethnicity (and sexual orientation, which Kronman does not discuss) – are fixed at birth or can be changed with only the greatest difficulty. What passes for debate and conversation ends up producing dispirited students who understandably feel like “the other” does not understand them, nor possibly can. The more aggressive take their despair and turn it into moralistic finger pointing as a way of guilting “the other” for treating them like “the other.”

This means identity politics produces a more monistic campus than found at a religious college or university. After all, one can always change one’s religion. Necessarily, then, diversity education becomes a form of finger pointing and instead of promoting genuine diversity, ends up dividing the world into the binaries of oppressor-oppressed or white male and everybody else. Instead of serving the liberal education goal of liberation, diversity is a form of moralism; it produces a dispirited, guilt-ridden anti-individual instead of a thoughtful individual capable of friendship and genuine liberation of the intellect.

Even so, diversity advocates do not appeal to racialism, gender determinism, and what not so much as appeal to the apparent spectacle that the aggregate of individual identities (which, in fact, are not individual) creates. The moralistic point of diversity is to assert “constructivism,” a way of thinking that views the whole of reality as “an artifact constructed by the human beings who inhabit it” (181). Claims of “right by nature” or “essence” are dismissed as cloaking interests of class, wealth, race, gender, and so on: “For a constructivist, all claims of this sort are projections onto the human world of a false necessity that belies the true generative freedom of the activity of meaning-making from which this world derives its very existence as a realm of meanings” (181).

Constructivism sits uneasily with the individual claimants of diversity who view the identities in roughly “essentialist” ways. For instance, few gay activists claim their sexual orientation is as arbitrary as constructivism would suggest it is. Even so, constructivism serves the collective interests of these claimants. Moreover, it serves as a faux-liberation of the will over one’s unchosen identity. One might be “stuck” with one’s identity, but one always has the will. This form of “liberation” apes the liberation of liberal education, which is one not of the will over identity (as rooted in the body), but one of intellect over ignorance. From this perspective, the polarity of unchosen identity and will perpetuates ignorance.

Kronman provides a helpful way of criticizing constructivism and why it fails to promote the humanities. In doing so, he maps a route out of political correctness that can help the cause of liberal education.

Before offering his two arguments against constructivism, he suggests the claim that constructivists are nihilists is ineffective because constructivists deflect those criticisms as interest-driven. However, Kronman overlooks the deeper point of these criticisms that they point out the hypocrisy of the constructivists who simultaneously affirm and deny truth. Even so, that criticism is also ineffective against a way of thinking that appears to ignore the principle of noncontradiction, and therefore implicitly takes hypocrisy as a virtue.

Kronman suggests two internal criticisms of constructivism are more effective. As we shall see, they are also more Socratic in so far as they begin with the premises of constructivism and demonstrate why the conclusions do not go where the advocates wish they would.

Part II of this essay will be published next week.