Seasoned Debate: Should Education Have a Leftist Bias?

George Leef

(Editor’s note: Last month, George Leef, director of research at the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, reviewed a book by Donald Lazere, professor emeritus of English at California Polytechnic State University. Leef posted a link to his review on NAS's blog, and Professor Lazere has requested that NAS publish his response to Leef. We do so below, along with Leef's original review. After this initial exchange their conversation continued; additional parts are published at the Pope Center.)

Donald Lazere: Academia Should Have a Leftist Bias

George Leef’s review of my book, Why Higher Education SHOULD Have a Leftist Bias, appeared April 24th on the website of the libertarian Pope Center for Higher Education at the University of North Carolina.  Several conservative journals including yours have reposted it with comments in support of Leef.  I wrote a response, which he recently posted, though abridged.  This is the unabridged version.

My thanks to Mr. Leef for his review. I brought the book to his attention with a copy of an open letter to the officials of several conservative scholarly organizations including the Pope Center, which is dedicated to "pursuing excellence in higher education” and to "increas[ing] the diversity of ideas taught, debated, and discussed on campus."  My letter reiterated the appeal in my book to conservative intellectuals to practice such ideals through engagement in good-faith dialogue and civil debate between leftists and mainstream or libertarian conservatives.  That appeal was couched in my list of eight “Ground Rules for Polemicists,” which include:

Summarize the other side's case fully and fairly, in an account that they would accept, prior to refuting it.  Present it through its most reputable spokespeople and strongest formulations (not through the most outlandish statements of its lunatic fringe). . . .   Allow the most generous interpretation of their statements rather than putting the worst light on them; help them make their arguments stronger when possible.

Be willing to acknowledge misconduct, errors, and fallacious arguments by your own allies, and try scrupulously to establish an accurate proportion and sense of reciprocity between them and those you criticize in your opponents.  Do not play up the other side's forms of power while denying or downplaying your own side's.   Do not weigh an ideal, theoretical model of your side’s beliefs against the most corrupt actual practices on the other side.

Do not substitute ridicule or name-calling for reasoned argument and substantive    evidence.

Of course, I agreed to be subject to the same ground rules and invited “gotchas” calling me on my own lapses.  I also made clear throughout that my arguments were not meant as “the last word” on these issues but just “the first word” toward further, open-ended debate—and toward which I hope this exchange between Leef and me will further prime the pump.

I would give Leef’s review a “C” at best for the extent to which he summarized my arguments fully and fairly or established an accurate sense of proportion between those on the left he criticized and of conservative (not libertarian) forces in America.  Most of those commenting on his review on his website and others that reposted his review merited a “F” in stooping to straw-man stereotypes of me as a leftist and to knee-jerk ridicule of a book none of them showed any sign of having read.  Did any of them consider that Leef’s review might have been biased?

Leef says, “It’s not appropriate for professors to smuggle their naïve beliefs about socialism (or other topics) into English classes where they’re neither appropriate to the subject nor within the professor’s field of knowledge."  Well, the subject of the courses I taught, at a level beyond Freshman English, was argumentative writing, where my special field of knowledge has long been the study of American public discourse, especially in the rhetoric of mass politics and media.  I am the author of two textbooks, Reading and Writing for Civic Literacy: The Critical Citizen’s Guide to Argumentative Rhetoric and Thinking Critically about Media and Politics.

Far from an offbeat or radical field for study, political argument is a classically conservative one, the central subject for scholars from Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero to the American founders, whose education was steeped in debating the controversies of the day.  This subject includes study of the public uses and misuses of all the –isms––including socialism­––and the biases in lines of argument about them addressed in my book.  For example, this field examines the semantic misunderstandings that cause those like Leef and me to talk past each other because we are assuming different definitions of socialism or Marxism (both of which come in many varieties, Communistic and anti-Communistic like mine), conservatism, liberalism, etc.

Shouldn’t there be a legitimate role for critical college study of these issues at the level of public discourse, not the level of specialized scholarship—and within strict ethical guidelines like those that I have strived to establish over many years, as in my “Ground Rules for Polemicists”?  Central to this study, of course, is making students aware of the over-simplifications, distortions, and propagandizing of political issues on all sides in public discourse, and directing them toward specialized studies as a necessary further step.

Moreover, the aim of my book was neither to idealize socialism nor to whitewash all bias by academic and journalistic leftists (in the naïve manner of a “Don Quixote” that Leef snidely attributes to me), but to argue that leftist biases can only be fairly judged in accurate proportion to all the conservative biases that pervade American public discourse, so most of the book surveys the latter at the length necessary to support the case that conservative biases outweigh the former, although most American public discourse simply accepts conservative biases as the unbiased norm of neutrality, or “business as usual.” 

Leef predictably dismisses my two hundred-thirty pages of evidence as “tiresome,” but how else could my case be made without this accumulation, and how could an adequate rebuttal be made without a thorough survey of it?   Conservative rhetoric and corporate propaganda, after all, sink in through “tiresome,” calculated flooding of public discourse that drowns out opposing voices, on the model of endless repetition of the same inane TV commercials.   An effective counterpart would necessitate children being exposed to tens of thousands of, say, commercials for labor unions or daily robocalls along the lines of, “Hello, this is Rachel calling from the Democratic Socialists of America.”

Leef further dodges my catalogue of conservative biases by disassociating his own libertarianism from mainstream, Republican Party conservatism, a position that has some validity though it lets him off the hook from adequate consideration of my body of evidence that conservative biases outweigh those on the left.  Contrary to his claim that I ignore libertarian thought, I have a good deal of respect for it, and find some affinities between it and the civil-libertarian model of socialism I favor.  However, I write, “Conservative [or libertarian] spokespersons claim to champion definitions of conservatism that have positive ideological substance––accompanied by high-minded evocations of Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, and Leo Strauss––but they tend to evade the gross contradictions between those definitions and other, far more powerful manifestations of 'actual, existing conservatism.’”  Those are the main forces cultural leftists oppose––while agreeing with much in the tradition of conservative and libertarian intellectuals who would choke on being identified with today’s anti-intellectual right, as would the American founders, most of whom were intellectual giants.

I would say that libertarians and democratic socialists tend to be equally “quixotic,” and that libertarians bear a similarly discomforting relation to actual, existing capitalism as democratic socialists do to what used to be euphemized on the left as the “actual, existing socialism” of communist dictatorships.   The obligation of both should be to denounce clearly and constantly the betrayal of their ideals—in the case of socialists, by Communism, and of libertarians, by right-wing extremists, Limbaugh-esque demagogues, corporate criminals, the increasingly plutocratic control of both the Republican and Democratic parties (including the Obama administration), and propaganda extolling the virtues of “free markets” as a scam to obscure the global monopolization of markets and wealth.  Is Leef as willing to look for biases in the views of self-styled libertarians like the Koch brothers and Art Pope, who fund his center, as in those of lefty pipsqueaks like me?

Leef makes the common argument that it is a form of the ad hominem fallacy for leftists like me to discredit the motives of conservative journalists or scholars who are subsidized by corporate special interests when we should limit ourselves to open-minded evaluation of their substantive arguments.  To a point, I agree.  How far does that point go, though?  Should we disregard the motives of the sponsors of every TV product commercial or attack ad and be obliged only to evaluate its claims at face value?   In my book, I present the transcript of a “Sixty Minutes” report titled “Confessions of a Tobacco Lobbyist,” based on an interview with Victor Crawford, then dying of throat cancer contracted from smoking, who remorsefully looked back on his highly-paid career of fabricating arguments refuting claims, which he knew to be true, of the health hazards of smoking.  His techniques included inventing phony reports by a “world famous laboratory” and “some cockamamy pollster.”  He organized astroturf “smokers’ rights” rallies and played the libertarian card in smearing anti-smoking organizations as “health Nazis” depriving smokers of their civil rights.

Or consider the conservative foundations and think tanks that, behind a façade of being impartial research institutions, serve as PR agencies for corporations and the Republican Party, in the manner brazenly expressed by William Baroody, former president of American Enterprise Institute: "I make no bones about marketing. . . .  We hire ghost writers for scholars to produce op-ed articles. . . ."  Or by one-time Heritage Foundation vice president Burton Pines: "We're not here to be some kind of Ph.D. committee giving equal time.  Our role is to provide conservative public policymakers with arguments to bolster our side."

Should we just ignore these motives in evaluating their arguments or the tobacco lobbyist’s, Mr. Leef?   Whatever forms of bias conservatives may find among academic leftists, none that I have ever known in the liberal arts has had ghost writers for op-eds or been hired by a university employer with orders to cater her or his scholarship to bolster one party or special interest.  Do you deny that biased scholarship by university faculties occurs most habitually in fields like business and medicine or applied  sciences, resulting from their corporate ties?  That is one of the many instances I give of “leftist faculty bias” being exceeded by conservative forces that receive far less public criticism.

I would pose one more question to Leef and other conservatives who believe that the left dominates American politics.  If this is true, why are Democratic politicians unwilling to identity themselves as liberals, let alone socialists (socialist senator Bernie Sanders is proudly not a Democrat), while Republicans fall all over themselves competing to declare themselves the most conservative?

In general, isn’t it time for liberal, socialist, conservative, and libertarian intellectuals to be seeking good-faith dialogue like this and common ground like grown-ups instead of childishly perpetuating the rhetoric of polarization and insult? 

George Leef: Higher Education Already Has a Leftist Bias

Sometimes a book is useful in ways that its author did not intend. That’s the case with Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias by Donald Lazere, a professor emeritus in the English Department at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. 

What he wants to accomplish with the book is to show America how horribly it has been distorted by corporate/conservative culture and politics. What he actually accomplishes is to show how poorly many avowedly left-wing academics understand those who don’t share their ideas. 

Lazere says he wrote the book because he wants to make common cause with conservative educators in “elevating the level of civic education to that of reasoned debate.” He writes that most Americans, including college students, aren’t able to think through the constant barrage of false and misleading “right-wing” indoctrination that saturates the country. That creates a “conservative” slant that keeps most Americans from grasping the truths of leftist criticism and seeing how much better off we’d be if truly progressive politicians and thinkers weren’t impeded.

In the author’s own words, “Critical pedagogy and left media have a legitimate responsibility to provide minimal balance against the far more powerful forms of conservative bias in American society.” 

From Lazere’s perspective, the dark and greedy forces of corporate America and its right-wing attack machine have prevented President Obama from moving full-throttle to transform the U.S. into the wonderful country we could enjoy. He maintains that the country is so dominated by “conservative” thinking that college professors must try to even things up.

From my libertarian perspective, it’s impossible to take that seriously.

Twice the U.S. elected the very leftist Obama, and has many media outlets that push relentlessly for more statist policies and demonize anyone who opposes them. We have a populace that’s about equally split between those who want an expanded government and those who don’t. False and deceptive leftist arguments have at least as much impact as all the commentary coming from the other side. For example, Lazere repeats the erroneous notion that the housing bubble and resulting financial meltdown was due to greedy people in business. Sadly, he doesn’t realize that he has been misled by the left’s own “attack machine” on this issue.

I’m in agreement with Lazere to this extent—some of the nation’s ailments are due to “conservative” forces and some of the misdeeds he rightly laments were done by people on “the right.” What he is unable to see, however, is that there is a common thread to all of those ailments and misdeeds, namely the excessive power of the state, power that enables liberals, conservatives, and apolitical people to exploit government for their selfish ends.

There are many educators who make the principled case that big government conservatism and big government liberalism are equally blameworthy for our ills. But Lazere dismisses them because he thinks they’re bound up with loathsome “conservatism.” 

If Lazere really wants to make “common cause” with educators who aren’t of his persuasion, he has gone about it poorly because the book’s tone is uncharitable and off-putting. Despite a perfunctory statement that “conservative positions may be defensible on a more complex cognitive level,” the writing drips with contempt for all the “polemicists” who oppose his vision. 

Most of the book consists of tiresome pages in which Lazere recounts his battles against the evil forces of conservatism. He explains why Rush Limbaugh was wrong about this and that, why David Horowitz is misleading, why the National Association of Scholars has no credibility, why Bill Bennett is a hypocrite, why it’s erroneous to equate the Koch brothers with George Soros—and on and on. 

What it reminds me of is Don Quixote. Lazere wants his friends to see how gloriously he jousts with and punctures all those horrible right-wingers. But Cervantes’ novel is entertaining; the pages of this book are pointless and screechy. Not that Lazere doesn’t raise some good arguments, but they do nothing to advance his idea that college faculties should teach with leftist bias.

If much of the book is like Don Quixote’s battles, Lazere also has his Dulcinea, namely socialism. “Isn’t there something to be said,” he writes, “for at least preserving in the human imagination the socialist ideals of an economic community, guaranteed employment and living wage, reduction of required work time, democracy in governance of work and of employers’ economic and political activities—and an ultimate end to the long-established bonds between work and basic subsistence, with the corollary power of employer over worker?”

Lazere gripes that anyone who rises to defend the honor of his lovely Dulcinea will be “smeared” by the nasties on the right. Nevertheless, brave college professors should keep this vision alive by introducing their students to it.

There is nothing wrong in studying socialism in courses where it’s pertinent. In an advanced economics course, for instance, students might read Ludwig von Mises’ 1922 book Socialism, which would go a long way toward disabusing them of the idea that socialism can bring about the delightful world Lazere imagines. But it’s not  appropriate for professors to smuggle their naïve beliefs about socialism (or other topics) into English classes where they’re neither pertinent to the subject nor within the professor’s field of knowledge.

As I noted above, Lazere shows almost no familiarity with the great thinkers in the classical liberal, free market, and libertarian traditions. He’s eager to skewer media types like Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, but as for serious non-leftist scholars, he mostly steers clear of them.

He does, however, mention Milton Friedman, but his encounter with Friedman’s thinking is a howling embarrassment.

Lazere, attempting to support his notion that life would be much better if only the awful conservative economic policies of the Republicans didn’t get in the way, quotes from a 1989 Time article: “in 1967 testimony before a Senate subcommittee indicated that by 1985 people could be working just 22 hours a week or 27 weeks a year or could retire at 38. That would leave only the great challenge of finding a way to enjoy all that leisure.” Lazere grabs that fanciful bit of testimony and runs with it: “Those predictions of vastly increased leisure even led Milton Friedman and President Nixon … to propose paying people not to work, through a negative income tax….”

Now, if Lazere had bothered to read any of Friedman’s books, he’d know that Friedman opposed the idea of “paying people not to work” and supported the idea of a negative income tax only as a way of minimizing the high cost of our plethora of welfare programs. Or, to save time on reading, he might have contacted Friedman’s son, David, a professor at Santa Clara University, to ask if his interpretation was right. I did so, and the younger Friedman confirmed that Lazere is mistaken.

So, how did Lazere put his ideas into practice? He explains that in the composition courses he taught, he had his students write papers on controversial topics after giving them his guidance in analyzing argumentative pieces. At the top of his list of points is that students should think about the author’s “vantage point.” That is, how do such attributes as wealth, class, educational level, gender and so on color the writer’s argument? Does he or she stand to benefit? What other “interests” back the position?  

That’s a mistake. If we want students to learn to employ reason, we must teach them to analyze arguments on their own terms. 

All of Lazere’s “vantage point” considerations lead students into one of the most common of logical fallacies, the ad hominem circumstantial––the mistake of rejecting an argument merely because of some circumstance about the person making it. Telling students to look for such matters invites them to think that you detect bad arguments by hunting for author bias.

At least Lazere is consistent, because he does that again and again throughout the book while he battles the bad guys.

One of many examples is his treatment of Professor Richard Vedder’s argument that federal student aid subsidies are a bad policy. In class, Lazere had his students read a piece published in The Progressive favoring increased government support and then look for and analyze “conservative” articles taking a contrary stance. One of those was by Vedder. Here’s what Lazere writes, “His work has the appearance of objective, scientific research, but…he has a partisan agenda, that of Reaganomic free market ideology, which the students quickly perceived without any prompting from me.”

Discerning that “ideology,” is irrelevant to the strength or weakness of Vedder’s argument on federal aid, but it becomes an easy reason for both the professor and (I’d guess) most of his students to dismiss his case. That’s no way to argue. Exactly the same tactics could, after all, be turned against Lazere’s book. 

I applaud professors who succeed in improving students’ ability to employ logic, but Lazere’s approach was less than optimal in that respect. Worse, I fear that many other professors will seize upon his title and proclaim that their dogmatic, leftist pedagogy is justified. 

Teaching shouldn’t have any “bias,” whether leftist, rightist, libertarian, religious, non-religious, or any other. In Save the World on Your Own Time, Stanley Fish argued that professors shouldn’t try to be change agents, but should just teach their subjects.

That’s sound advice. 

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