WASHINGTON—As the 2005 Modern Language Association annual convention officially got underway last night, attendees could choose from panels on "Travel Writing and Empire" (a growth field over the past decade or so, as "postcolonial studies" looking at the interplay between cultural artifacts and geopolitics has gained in popularity); "Contemporary Fiction and the Novel of Ideas" (featuring readings of books by Richard Powers, Tariq Ali, and Nicholas Mosley); and "Religion and Cultural Studies: Postmodern Approaches" (which included interesting-sounding papers on "Selling Religion and Literature in Cold War America" and "Georges Bataille's Yoga Practice"—somehow I'm guessing the Surrealist author of several of the dirtiest books ever was into the Tantric variety); and much, much more.
I laid in with a panel called "English Studies and Political Literacy." As one of several "presidential forums," scattered throughout the week's proceedings, this crew not only tackled a big picture topic but pulled in scholars from outside traditional literature departments—in this case a journalism professor and a political scientist.
In the end, the panel didn't really come up with any silver-bullet solutions to what all agreed was a stunning and troubling decline in student knowledge of and participation in not just partisan politics but civic engagement more broadly defined. But far more interesting than what they said was how they said it: Panelists alternated between recognizing that they had to change their teaching practices in order to connect with increasingly conservative students (see table 272) to invoking large-scale social, economic, and political forces and, in the words of one panelist, a "concerted effort" by "Goebbelsian" masters of rhetoric that have turned the country to the right over the past generation or so.
In other words, the panel accurately summed up the state of exasperation that many liberal and left-leaning academics feel not just about the kids these days but about American society more generally. More promising, perhaps, were the signs that such exasperation is leading to a moderation of ideological excess rather than a heightening of it. That is, faced with a choice between a sort of bitter righteousness and increasing irrelevance on the one hand and engaging students with more fair-minded argumentation and open-ended discussion, some academics are choosing the latter. That's certainly good news for kids stuck in freshman composition classes, those dreary required classes which are often little more than clumsy attempts at political indoctrination.
Political literacy, noted Emory University's Mark Bauerlein, matters because "of the heavy burden that democracy places on its citizens. Every government that is not watched closely slides into tyranny." If students don't know the basic facts of government and politics, they really have no role in the debates that will greatly affect their lives, he said. Among the signs of declining political literacy in college students, said the panelists, were lower rates of news consumption.
In 1972, said David Mindich, a journalism professor at St. Michael's College and author of Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News, half of all college students read a newspaper every day. Now the percentage is 21 percent. He and other panelists invoked a long-term decline in youth political participation, a trend which is at the very least complicated by the turnout in the 2004 election, in which, according to Pew Charitable Trusts, the youth vote surged more than any other group's. Indeed, with some notable exceptions, the notion of today's youth as disengaged is not particularly convincing.
Nonetheless, the panel's moderator, University of Tennessee's Donald Lazere, attributed political apathy largely to economic forces. Students from all socioeconomic backgrounds need to work outside jobs to pay for school and that financial squeeze leaves them less time for study. I'm not convinced that students are working more outside jobs in the past but if they are, that may be one of the prices paid to have more kids going directly to college after graduating high school. Since the mid-'90s, about two-thirds of graduating seniors go on to college, which is a sign of a strong higher education system (even if far fewer than 66 percent actually graduate). So is, for that matter, the amazing diversity of educational institutions—indeed, one wishes that K-12 education offered up as many competing alternatives as you see in higher education.
And is working a job really antithetical to intellectual and political engagement? I never worked fewer than 30 hours a week during my undergraduate years and still I found plenty of time to kill in the library, engage in wee-hours bull sessions, and indulge in lost weekends.
Lazere, who identified himself openly as a "progressive," also noted that many students are simply "lacking the basic Hirschian cultural literacy" required for engagement in civic life. Adolph Reed, Jr., a political scientist at University of Pennsylvania, contributor to The Nation, and Labor Party stalwart, argued that "kids are sponges, they soak up what's around them." The past 25 years, he said, have been a period in which there's been "a concerted effort" to push the country to the right, to stifle left-wing political activity and dissent, and to create a consumer model of education in which the professor is really little more than glorified counter help. He singled out the rise of the for-profit University of Phoenix as a particularly reactionary trend (ironically, the University of Phoenix was created by billionaire John Sperling, a former political science professor, drug legalization advocate, and one of the biggest supporters of the Democratic Party). Such forces, concluded Reed, work to keep students from being politically conscious and engaged.
So what is to be done? Reed champions a plan for the federal government to fund tuition for any American that wants to go to college. Journalism professor Mindich argued half-heartedly for a non-binding national exam in current events and civics given to all 18-year-olds; he also called for a reinvigorated Federal Communications Commission to start forcing networks to show more news programming. Reed's plan is unlikely to ever be put in motion for any number of political and economic reasons. What's more, it is an unnecessary solution. There's no reason why middle- and upper-middle class students shouldn't pay for their education. Targeted aid programs, both privately and publicly funded, are already available to help lower-income students; what is probably more needed is not more money per se, but a spreading of social capital that will match students with no family experience of college with schools at which they will flourish. But that hardly necessitates a massive program that Reed likened to the G.I. Bill. (the remarkable self-interest of an academic arguing for essentially unlimited funding for higher education went uncommented upon). Mindich's exam seems ridiculous on the face of it—and his view of the FCC as something other than a negative force on public discourse seems positively nostalgic.
Certainly, the last 20 years or so—precisely the period in which cable and satellite services gave viewers a end-run around the FCC-regulated broadcast networks—have seen a massive flourishing in all sorts of informational programming.
The University of Chicago's Kenneth Warren emphasized the role of pre-college education, even as he gently chided moderator Lazere for subtly equating "political literacy" with agreement on a particular political agenda. Lazere argued that instructors shouldn't shy away from politics in their classroom, because "literature can't be studied independent of political literacy." In fact, he said, they should bring in a wide array of sources, including The Nation and The Weekly Standard, where appropriate or relevant. That's all well and good. But Warren keyed into one of the unfortunate subtexts of any discussion of politics in academe (and, truth be told, everywhere else too). There's always a sense that a speaker thinks that once you understand things as clearly as he does, you'll of course agree completely with him. In this context, to be educated and smart strongly implies agreement on major issues. Which is one reason why the good faith of the classroom instructor is paramount: Students will turn off immediately if they realize they are being railroaded into agreement when discussing a topic.
Emory's Bauerlein—who during a stint at the National Endowment for the Arts produced the widely discussed report "Reading at Risk"—pushed the point of true ideological diversity. "We need more and wider perspectives," represented in the classroom, he said. "Bring in a little less Foucault and a little more Hayek. Some Whitaker Chambers to go along with Ralph Ellison." Bauerlein said to bring in a libertarian perspective, one that will upset longstanding Manichean right-left categories. One policy proposal with which I agreed wholeheartedly was his insistence that, along with The Nation and Weekly Standard, instructors should "bring in Reason magazine" (full disclosure: Bauerlein reviewed The Anti-Chomsky Reader for Reason earlier this year). In a more contentious moment, Bauerlein also pushed for instructors to provide students with an American identity that is positive. "Often the identity students get is too negative," he said. "We need not uncritical patriotism, but some line of argument about American history that students can espouse while criticizing other elements." That sort of positive feeling would, he argued, make it easier for students to want to become engaged politically and civically.
Arguably the most surprising presentation was offered up by Patricia Roberts-Miller, an associate professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of Texas at Austin. Roberts-Miller argued that in the classroom, "everyone's politics"—including that of the professor's—"should be open to change." She talked about the downsides of what she called "Calvinist political literacy," in which individuals, irrespective of ideology, look for reasons not to engage in political conversation. If Calvinism separates people into saints and sinners whose fates are predetermined and fixed forever, Calvinist political literacy means you don't have to argue with anyone with whom you disagree, because such interaction can only reveal differences rather than persuade.
Channeling radical education theorist Paolo Freire, she warned against thinking of students as "empty vessels" into which knowledge or enlightenment is poured. Rather, they need to be respected and taken seriously even and especially when they appear to be politically reactionary or obtuse.
Most of this is common sense, of course. But what is surprising is that it's coming from a composition theorist. When one digs into press accounts about the most tendentious classes in today's universities and colleges, they are often freshman comp classes. Over the past two decades or so, many of the designers of composition curricula have consciously seen those classes as the ideal place for political indoctrination to a sort of standard left-wing agenda. As one professor friend of mine told me, she's been in department meetings where comp doyennes have declared, "This is our best shot at getting into the minds of students."
So it's heartening to hear someone in Roberts-Miller's position talking the way she does. It suggests that one of the great virtues of higher education—open-ended discussion—is hardly a dead letter. Ironically, the beleaguered position of the left in contemporary America, if not the country's universities, may lead to its resurgence as it forced to engage and persuade indifferent—or skeptical—students.
Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in TCS Daily and can be viewed in that format here.