27 April 2006

ROBERT JENSEN, TOM PALAIMA, AND POLITICS IN THE CLASSROOM

Check out Robert Jensen's article in the recent Counterpunch. Jensen's main topic is the difference between leftists (as he calls them -- "leftist" is too vague in common usage for Jensen's use of the term) and liberals. But his thesis there is problematic -- I would assert that there are plenty of people who, in political life, straddle the dividing line Jensen wishes to erect between leftists and liberals, and that Jensen doesn't seem to have a category for them.

More apropos is Jensen's critique of Tom Palaima. Now, Jensen's characterization of Palaima's article is quite on target. To quote his conclusion:
I think the most likely reading of Palaima's piece -- given that many people's existing ideas about leftists and universities are negative -- is something like this: Jensen is a radical who injects his politics into the classroom, but we shouldnt worry too much about it because students can manage to see through it, and besides other professors are teaching from a different perspective. And oh, by the way, there are lots of sensible professors with less extreme ideas, such as...
I didn't quite find the article that Jensen referred to -- but I did find this piece in which Palaima says:
Jensen believes in confrontational politics. His letter in the Houston Chronicle just after 9/11 raised a storm of protest and drew a response from UT President Larry Faulkner. The current head of the Young Conservatives, Austin Kinghorn, was a student of Jensen's at that time and felt that in his class "[t]here was no opposing view presented."

Professors have a professional obligation not only to "profess" our technical subjects, but to signpost where and how these subjects are meaningful to our lives and to human society. Some will do this in a balanced way that promotes discussion and allows for varying perspectives. Others will be more radical and categorical, and that includes both conservatives and liberals. I think it is incumbent on us not to avoid controversial topics but to develop whatever perspectives our particular course specialties offer.

That being said, professors hold lots of power over students in a classroom. Professors must then try to be honest, yet restrained. Students themselves have to muster the personal courage to express opposing views. If Kinghorn did not speak up in opposition to Jensen's views, got his A, went away and later watch-listed Jensen, he will not appear in the next edition of "Profiles in Courage."

And Jensen strikes me as disingenuous. He uses confrontation and provocation as political tools, but then complains that the response he evokes and the atmosphere he creates "make people a little nervous and there's a self-censorship effect."
Confrontation and provocation! One has to wonder what, precisely, Palaima is talking about. Has he observed Jensen's classroom personally? What's happening in there? Without that, we can only guess -- but those of us in the professorial racket who know more than a little about classroom interaction will recognize that certain topics are going to be confrontational and provocative, especially since students and teachers come to the classroom with ideologies that define said topics as confrontational and provocative from the get-go. How would you teach Nicaraguan or Vietnamese history, for instance, without discussing the US role in ruining these countries economically? Being "radical and categorical," then, is bringing up issues and topics that do not "promote discussion" or "allow for varying perspectives" because they're taboo.

And this matter of the "self-censorship effect"! If anything, Palaima (like Jensen and all the other professors, including myself) would be the last person to know if students are "self-censoring." Here's a perspective to cast light upon the "self-censorship effect" -- what if the socially-regarded main point of taking a class is to write a paper for a professor so that that paper gets a good grade? Would students not recognize the "self-censorship effect" as part of the equipment they take to the classroom in order to fulfill that purpose? Does Palaima not see this in his own classroom? I do. In short, the classroom is a poor place for the expression of student opinion. Professors who really want to know student opinion are best advised to check out the controversy around ethnographic studies such as Cathy Small's book, and then to question what the point of "classroom instruction" really is, if not to justify professorship as a form of labor. (Why classes? Couldn't we just get professorial knowledge by reading books at home? And why letter grades? Couldn't we just give students recommendations if they're good enough?)

And I'll bet dollars to dimes that, if the issue of the "self-censorship effect" were presented in a different light, there are plenty of professors who would endorse it as a good idea! Do we (professors) really want racists and misogynists and fascist warmongerers and all-purpose misguided fools expressing themselves in the classroom all the time? Be careful before you rush to a "yes" answer to this one.

Here is my opinion on Palaima's opinions, in a nutshell: opinions are not equal, so presenting them in a "balanced way" is just another form of bias. Students are obliged to sort through the morass of opinion in order to form their own biases. And in doing so, they, like everyone else, have an obligation to find out the truth about a matter, even if such truth is unpopular. When an atmosphere of groupthink (such as is encouraged by our winner-take-all political elections, for instance) suffuses the public, pressuring us to acquiesce in falsehoods, those who promote the truth are going to appear "radical." If Palaima finds this to be merely unsavory, if worthy of protection, then he still relies upon groupthink for his opinions.

Now to Jensen. Sure, he's right about Palaima. But he's right about Palaima concerning the question of Palaima's allegiance to truth, and Jensen's article isn't about truth (although he successfully denies teaching "opinion"), but politics. Jensen's scope on politics leaves some questions open. First:
First, in the short-term in this country it is difficult to see possibilities for serious progressive political change. Thats not defeatist but merely realistic. In such a period, when no mass movement is likely to emerge, one important political task is to consolidate a base of activists with common values and deeper commitments.
What good are activists (as activists) if, all together, they can't accomplish "serious progressive political change"? I rather suspect that, instead, Jensen really does believe that there is a progressive opening in US politics, despite protests to the contrary. The existing political order is based on precarious ideological foundations; said foundations could collapse any day now.

Jensen also says:
Second, when leftists and liberals form least-common-denominator coalitions, liberal positions dominate. Theres no history of liberals moving to include left political ideas when right-wing forces are chased from power. Think Bill Clinton, here.
This is indeed true of the coalition that elected Clinton. But such an election has to be measured against the historical forces that brought Clinton into power, in that phase of the history of political economy that the 1990s represented. In short, we need to be thinking theoretically in order to understand politics. I'm not so clear that distinctions between "leftist" and "liberal" help us do that.

I prefer distinctions like "anti-capitalist" and "pro-capitalist" anyway -- at least then we know what the controversy is about.

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