Monthly Archives: June 2004

The Liberal Academy?

I have a complex reaction to Donald Lazere’s article, “The Contradictions of Cultural Conservatism in the Assault on American Colleges,” in the July 2 edition of Chronicle of Higher Education [via La Di Da]. I believe that it is in the free section of the Chronicle’s website, so please go read it in full before you dive into my critique. I’ll wait.

For starters, let me say that I disagree with Lazere’s claim that the “liberal faculty” in the humanities are partially offset by “conservative faculty” in other areas. (I take him to definitely be including engineering and business in those other areas, but I’m not sure what else he might include.) In my experience, while engineering faculty may be less liberal than their humanities counterparts, they still tend to be slightly left of center. And I certainly haven’t been “[indoctrinated] in pro-management, anti-labor, anti-government (but pro-military) ideology” in my engineering studies nor am I indoctrinating my students, as Lazere suggests, despite the fact that (full disclosure) I am working on one DoD funded grant. So, I take strong issue with those parts of his article.

And I generally agree with Lazere that universities are institutionally very conservative, but I think it is a serious blunder to equate this sort of conservatism – reluctance to change and steadfastness in tradition – with modern policital conservativism which is, frankly, a totally different animal. (One might argue that modern political conservatives – especially those aligned with the Bush administration – are actually extremely radical in their views.)

So, those are some fairly enormous problems with the article, from my point of view. Beyond that, though, I agree with some other things which Lazere says, and there is much that I could comment on. I will focus, though, on one of his points, which I believe leads to a key insight into why universities might be left leaning. (Though, as he rightly points out, it isn’t the extreme liberalism which conservatives would imply.)

In the second half of the article, Lazere points out some typical features of his interactions with conservative college students. He says, “for most students, sad to say, their conservatism is in direct proportion to their self-admitted, near-total ignorance of politics, history, geography, economics, and academic modes of reasoning.” He also points to “oversimplified appeals to nationalism, religion, family values, and ‘free enterprise.'” And observes that even intellectual conservatives are caught in “complicity with both corporate philistinism, which dumbs down culture to maximize profits, and the Republican Party’s time-tested policy of reducing political rhetoric to Manichean sound bites.”

This tendency, I believe, holds the key to whatever left leaning there may be in the academy. As a group, academicians tend to loathe dumbed down culture, sound bites, and oversimplification. These tactics are used by the left as well, for sure, but I postulate that if you were to look at the entire volume of political rhetoric spewing forth in our culture, then you would find that conservative appeals to these tactics (and other equally deplorable means of argumentation) are much more common than liberal appeals to them. I believe that it is this tendancy towards oversimplification which drives many intellectuals away from conservative thought.

I can certainly say for myself that when I encounter intellectual conservatism, which is far too rarely, I often find it stimulating, if not convincing. For instance, I heard William Kristol on NPR several weeks ago, and I was extremely intrigued. He is certainly a very thoughtful, intelligent man. On other occasions, though, he seems to be advocating (and occasionally spewing) the very kind of empty partisan rhetoric that makes me want to retch.

So, if conservatives want to counter any “left leaning” tendancies they claim exist in the academy, then I have a strategy for them. Try empasizing intellectual conservatism and tone down the empty sound bites. It’s a simple strategy based on the premise that intellectuals prefer intellectualism. “But wait,” they will protest, “emphasizing intellectual conservatism doesn’t poll as well in the heartland.” Fine. But stop complaining about the so-called “liberal academy” if you aren’t willing to do what it takes to fix it.

Supreme Court Does Some Good

Back in Bush v. Gore (2000), Justice John P. Stephens wrote in his dissenting opinion:

It is confidence in the men and women who administer the judicial system that is the true backbone of the rule of law. Time will one day heal the wound to that confidence that will be inflicted by today’s decision. One thing, however, is certain. Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.

Some of that confidence (for me, anyway) was restored yesterday in the Supreme Court’s rulings on Guant´┐Żnamo Bay, Cuba. I never thought the day would come when I would utter these words, but it’s damn nice to know that the government can’t haul me off to prision in Cuba in order to abolish my right of habeas corpus. Also, I found the joint opinion by Justices Stevens and Scalia (an unlikely pair) to be particularly choice. These justices said that the rest of the court did not go far enough in protecting the civil liberties of the American citizens. They say that in order to detain Mr. Hamdi without habeus corpus, the government should either prosecute him for treason or Congress should suspend habeus corpus. Strong words from Justice Scalia, with whom I seldom agree.

You can find the full decisions here, here, and here. The NY Times article is here. The Scalia dissent, signed by Stephens, is here.

Karolina Sprem

Last Thursday, I was having lunch with a collegue, and I kept being distracted by the Wimbledon tennis match on TV. The sound was off, and the closed captioning was covering up the score, but I still kept getting sucked in. (Remind me to rant sometime about how stupid it is to cover up the score – an important piece of information in sports – with the mindless ramblings of sports announcers. If they’re going to closed caption sporting events, then they ought to do so in a way that improves the experience for the hearing impaired.) I’ve never been much of a tennis fan, but this was some exciting action. All I figured out while watching was that someone named “Sprem” was playing one of the Williams sisters.

I found out later that 19 year-old unseeded Karolina Sprem of Croatia had defeated Venus Williams. (There was a wrong call involved, which has gotten lots of press attention, but I don’t think you can blame that on the player – though some have tried.) Since then, she has defeated Meghann Shaughnessy and Magdalena Maleeva to move into the Wimbledon quarter-finals. It’s fun to watch her play; it reminds me of the first time I saw Tiger Woods play golf. (And I watch golf even less often than tennis.) I think she’s going to be a star. You heard it here first.

Cory Doctorow at Microsoft

Cory Doctorow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave a talk about digital rights management (DRM) at Microsoft Research a couple of weeks ago. It is a very good talk. He explains why DRM systems don’t work, are bad for society, are bad for business, are bad for artists, and are a bad business move for Microsoft. Not bad for one talk…

I have spent much of the evening blogging when I should have been cleaning off my desk, paying bills, and doing some light work. Oh well, it was fun for me. I hope you enjoyed it, too!

My Tropical Paradise

To give you some background on my new aquarium, I have been talking about setting up an aquarium since shortly after we moved. My plan was to set one up in my office first, and then set one up at home later. Becky got tired of me talking about it and never doing anything about it, though, and got me a 20 gallon extra high tank for our anniversary. She set it up in the island paradise bathroom that she was decorating for me. I would still like to setup that office aquarium, too. Maybe for Christmas or my birthday…

(Sorry that some of the pictures are dark. The flash produces too much glare off the glass surfaces in the room, and I was anxious to get the post up, so I didn’t want to wait for a sunny day to bring in adequate light through the window. The overhead lights are incandescant, which would give the room an orange glow. So, that just leaves us with the florescent bulb in the fish tank – not really adequate for general photography.)

Short of having an ocean view out the window, I must say that this is one of the finest views from the loo that a person could hope to have.

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And, in case we forget what we’re after, we have this handy treasure map to guide us right into Nassau.

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One of my favorite details in the room is the parrot. The towel bar is absurdly close to the surface below, making it useless for towels. So, we might as well use it for something.

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Finally, I failed to mention in my previous post that in addition to the tropical island themes, we also have some Jimmy Buffett references sprinkled throughout. I knew I left that salt shaker somewhere…

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Above the right end of the salt shaker, you see one of the new residents of the tank. At the moment, the only residents are four zebra danios. They are quite twitchy and difficult to photograph, as you can see here. I won’t add anything else until the tank has cycled in 4-8 weeks. (“Cycling the tank” means allowing the beneficial bacteria time to setup shop in the biological filter, converting the ammonia created by fish metabolism into nitrite which is then converted into less harmful nitrate. There is a good site on setting up an aquarium and cycling it here.) After the tank has cycled, I’ll probably add a couple more zebras, a few tetras, and maybe one or two other things. We’ll see!