Talk Isn't Cheap

Incidents often affect interpretations. Because I read academic megablogger Michael Bérubé's new book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? while I was serving on a jury, I came to believe that the most important part is not the accounts of his ongoing quarrel with David Horowitz or his stout defense of academic freedom, but the portions in the book on liberalism and the nature of discussion. Judges charge jurors to deliberate, a word with a root in common with liberalism. In the Judicial Council of California's "Criminal Jury Instructions," jurors are ordered "to talk with one another."

Each of you must decide the case for yourself, but only after you have discussed the evidence with the other jurors. Do not hesitate to change your mind if you become convinced that you are wrong. But do not change your mind just because other jurors disagree with you.

Keep an open mind and openly exchange your thoughts and ideas about this case ... Your role is to be an impartial judge of the facts, not to act as an advocate for one side or the other.

The same goes for students and professors in the liberal arts. We are charged to evaluate evidence impartially, to listen to our fellows, but ultimately to reach a decision based on the use of our own faculties. These are serious duties in a criminal court, where lives hang in the balance; they are serious charges in university classrooms, where (it is not excessively melodramatic to say) civilization hangs in the balance. And we can only honor these charges, in either courts or classrooms, by keeping our prejudices, politics, and even our sympathies out of the discussions and devoting ourselves to earnest deliberations over the case -- which is, after all, what the world really is.

Bérubé's accounts of teaching strike me as accurate representations of modern classrooms. The conservative student who "comes out" to you as a Republican, the lefty activist who regards you as a running dog lackey of corporate America, the nostalgic advocate of Japanese internment in the 1940s -- they're all familiar types, as are the vast majority of critical, diligent readers who populate his courses, mine, and presumably others around the country. These stories are well worth your reading, especially if you've heard accusations that professors are teaching your children "Race, Class, Gender" and "Postmodernism" -- Bérubé's chapters on these subjects explain that yes, indeed, professors are teaching this stuff, and that they should be, as these are crucial elements of a good education.

It's in his chapter on postmodernism that Bérubé makes his best points, by discussing in lucid, engaging, and careful terms the Lyotard-Habermas debate. Even rather educated readers may be forgiven for being unaware of this debate, but Bérubé argues convincingly that it "poses such intractable questions for ... political practice that our era may well be defined by them." It's a debate about whether we actually can deliberate.

Jürgen Habermas says yes, we can, and the Enlightenment showed us how -- we speak to each other, we use reason, we have certain universal human capacities. Jean-François Lyotard says no, we cannot; the Enlightenment and its assumptions of universality are wrong, because in certain disputes, the opposing parties hold irreconcilable beliefs that, to use Berube's paraphrase, "cannot be negotiated away."

For my money, Bérubé does a better job conveying Lyotard's argument than Lyotard does, shuffling aside some of the more absurd critiques of the Enlightenment in favor of simpler explanations like this one:

[W]e all know how vexing it is to be locked in debate with someone who says, "I represent the claims of universal truth, and the only reason you disagree with me is that you are intellectually deficient." It's even more vexing, certainly, when that someone happens to be running an imperialist outpost somewhere in the southern hemisphere, and follows that sentence with, "Now bring me some more rubber/oil/diamonds/ivory or I'll chop your hands off."

But, Bérubé shows, even if we acknowledge the deficiencies of the Enlightenment position we can see how holders of irreconcilable positions can nevertheless have discussions. Parties may agree on what's at issue. They may acknowledge that they could conceivably change their minds, and make explicit the conditions under which they might do that. They might simply agree to recognize that the other side has an argument worth considering, without actually accepting it.

Bérubé is careful to say that there's nothing weenified about this position -- if you're willing to deliberate honestly, good. If not, "when we decide that someone is 'a figure outside the conversation,'" he writes, "we might, in fact, be providing grounds for imprisoning or killing him" But to get to that point you have to deliberate, in procedurally sound ways, because those deliberations, conducted honestly and in recognition of each other's humanity, are all the basis we have for doing or believing anything. Bérubé shows some good humor about this conclusion: "You mean there's nothing more to our moral intuitions and our deepest beliefs -- it's just us, making stuff up?" Yep. "[H]ere's the really noxious postmodernist stuff," he writes "This is what we came for!" (You might, like me, demur at this point and say there's nothing substantial in what Bérubé is calling the postmodernist position that isn't also in William James's premodernist lectures on Pragmatism. But that's another discussion.)

Bérubé's students typically resist this noxious conclusion, and instead of pushing back, he helps them resist, offering in a single sentence the motto of the liberal arts: "I help them to keep arguing; it's my job." That's the goal: properly to deliberate, not necessarily to reach a conclusion. Sometimes the jury is hung.

This kind of liberalism is the essence of our civilization, and it's intrinsically anti-authoritarian; it stands for, in Bérubé's words, "intellectual independence." In this sense the classroom is not more or less liberal than the courts or any of our great procedural institutions, upon which still rests our claim to be a nation of laws, not of men.

Eric Rauchway is the author, most recently, of Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America. He teaches history at the University of California, Davis.

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