Part 2: My Criticisms Stand, Mr. Lazere

(Editor’s note: George Leef reviewed Donald Lazere’s book in an April 23, 2014, Pope Center article. On May 23, Lazere responded to Leef’s criticisms. The following article is Leef’s rejoinder.) 

I have never known a book author to give a critical review an A grade, which would amount to saying, “Yes, my work was entirely off base.” Professor Lazere writes that he would give my review only a “C” but I don’t think his reply above shows my analysis to have been erroneous in any way.

Let’s start with the points where we agree.

Yes, college students who want to study “the rhetoric of mass argumentative writing” should be able to do so. I don’t think that a freshman writing course should be used for that purpose, however. Given the well-known weaknesses that many incoming students have with the basics of English (see, e.g., John Maguire’s article on the freshman comp course he teaches), I don’t think it wise to divert their attention to other topics, especially highly controversial ones.

Furthermore, a course analyzing rhetoric should include the analysis of argumentation so that students can spot logical fallacies being thrown at them. That includes the fallacy of dismissing someone’s argument just because you think you have found something you don’t like in his “point of view.” As I argued in my initial piece, it’s a mistake to teach students to hunt for a writer’s “agenda” because they are apt (no matter what their political leanings) to dismiss arguments by people who are perceived to be on “the other side.”

Where Mr. Lazere and I emphatically disagree is the notion that the teaching or rhetoric (or any other subject) should be done with a political bias. The instructor should no more import a political bias into writing or rhetoric courses than into history or chemistry courses.

There are times and places for advocacy meant to fix what’s wrong with the world, but not in the classroom, as the American Association of University Professors emphasized in its founding statement on academic freedom.

Why does Lazere insist that higher education should have a leftist bias? Because, he maintains, what he calls “conservative rhetoric and corporate propaganda” are so overwhelming that they “drown out opposing voices.”  Even if that were the case, it wouldn’t justify the smuggling of counter-messages into college classrooms, which professors often do.

Yes, there is a great deal of conservative rhetoric. There is at least as much “liberal” rhetoric (I employ the snicker quotes because the word “liberal” has been so completely distorted, a point made by Kevin Frei and Daniel Klein in their campaign to restore meaning to it) as conservative and it most assuredly is not “drowned out.” The New York Times is not drowned out by The Wall Street Journal; The Nation is not drowned out by Reason.

And there is a lot of “corporate propaganda” but that rarely defends the conservative/libertarian arguments for limited government and individual rights. The influence of corporate America on our politics is mostly behind the scenes and aims at the securing of benefits from the government, which is rigorously opposed by conservatives and libertarians.

Nor is it true that the speech coming from “the right” has an overwhelming impact on the minds of Americans. Lazere evidently thinks that they are being led astray, just as the Pied Piper of Hamelin led away the children of the town, but the evidence is to the contrary.

A recent survey of the opinions of young Americans shows that a large majority has been led to believe that we need more government to solve our problems, not less. By almost three to one, they favor more government involvement in our lives rather than less. Young people absorb the clichés of socialism and reverence for the state in government schools, so it’s little wonder that most of them come into college imbued with what Ludwig von Mises called the anti-capitalist mentality.

If anything, a case might be made for a libertarian bias in higher education to disabuse students of all the mistaken notions they hold about government, both those congenial to left-wingers and those congenial to right-wingers. I would not support that, however. Professors should teach their subjects and leave the political/philosophical advocacy to other venues.

In my review, I argued that professors should not import material into their classes on topics they have little knowledge about. Specifically, I noted that socialism has been relentlessly studied by many economists and that an English professor who is not familiar with the arguments ought not to waft his opinions about it in front of  gullible students. Unwittingly, Lazere buttresses my point.

He writes that he finds “many affinities” between his model of socialism and libertarian thinking. Libertarian thinking and socialism have as many affinities as oil and water do. Socialism can’t work without state coercion, the very thing that libertarians most emphatically reject.

My point was not that Lazere “ignored” libertarianism, but rather that he doesn’t really grasp the arguments against leftism, whether made by libertarians, Chicago School economists like Milton Friedman, classical liberals, or others. And if you don’t really grasp the contending arguments on an issue, I don’t think you ought to bring it up with students.

I would rejoice if higher education in America could, as Lazere writes, “overcome intellectual polarization” or even make a slight dent in it. The faculty could lead the way by renouncing the idea that the classroom is a place for proselytizing. To the best of my knowledge, that is done almost exclusively by leftists who feel driven to “save the world” as Stanley Fish put it, but right-wing professors shouldn’t do it either.

But it’s not enough merely to abjure the politicizing of the classroom. Professors should also try to get students out of the tribal mindset that has many of them thinking, “Everything my side believes is right and everything your side believes is wrong.” In courses where contentious issues are pertinent, it would be a good exercise to have students write papers arguing different positions or have debates where the students would have to prepare to argue both the affirmative and the negative.

Perhaps best of all, colleges could encourage students to take a course on logic and argumentation. I would like to see that as a core requirement. A good professor would find numerous illustrations of fallacious pitches from both the right and the left.