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.