What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

I did enjoy and indeed finish it.  The book defends the liberal nature of the university but more importantly it has an excellent discussion of "the postmodern novel" (the author’s field, apparently), including a brilliant take on William Dean Howells and a good discussion of The Great Gatsby.  Its portrait of the American university, however flawed, is closer to the truth than what one finds in the right-wing scaremongers.

But reading this book shows me — contrary to the author’s intentions — why so many college students have turned to the so-called "Right."  Michael Bérubé, the author:

1. Believes that David Horowitz is a very powerful man.

2. Claims that libertarians are simply ignorant of poverty and therefore wrong.  At least libertarians are "quite smart now and then" and yes that is a quotation.

3. Repeatedly rejects political views by citing the (supposed) moral failings of their undergraduate proponents.

4. Claims conservatives hate social security "because it works."  By the way, that is also why conservatives hate universities.

5. Argues that "the real scandal of public universities is that they have become increasingly beholden to right-wing demogoguery…"

6. Believes that he is holding genuine dialogue with alternative political views.

If we bundle this all up and put it against the "…the world is a fragile place and liberty is dear.  Let us start with an ethic of individual responsibility, family values, strong national defense, low taxes, and a deep belief in the sacred nature of mankind, and no we cannot elevate every injustice," I know which vision the American people — including their undergraduates — will choose.  (For new MR readers, I should note that those are not exactly my views, it is just one shorthand description of parts of the American right.)

Bérubé, by the way, has a brilliant performance art-worthy fantasy segment on why 50 percent tax rates would not (should not?) deter anyone from working or producing.  Excerpt:  "I find it hard to imagine a Clever Entrepreneur who thinks, "Well, I’ve made ten million this year, but if I make another two million I only get to keep one million of it, so I’m going to stop developing and promoting my product right now."" (p.286).  Ah, if only all taxes fell on pure profit.  It is even sadder to learn that many wealthy people are "hoarding it [their money]," rather than creating jobs with it.

I consider American universities to be a marvel of the modern world.  And yes diversity does mean that not every outcome can be controlled.  I remain grateful for this freedom, while admitting its external costs.

One of my favorite professors edited a book called The Essential Stalin, and yes he was sad he had to cut some pieces from the selection.  He was the guy who introduced me to Melville and Hammett and Lem and Stapledon.  I’ll never forget the last day of class when one mousey, dewey-eyed girl in the back of the room finally raised her hand and said in a mix of shock and exasperation: "But Dr. Franklin, those are all the Communist countries!"

The Cuban guy in the room did not approve, but that’s part of education too.  My rather excellent paper on the labor theory of value received only a B, due to its conceptual errors in characterizing the transformation problem (and not because this was a freshman class in English literature).  But at least with that professor one knew where one stood.


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