Sunday, April 1, 2012

Libelling UC: Peter Berkowitz Takes a Flight of Fancy

I should know better than to expect much in the way of critical thought from the Wall Street Journal, but a recent article, “How California’s Colleges Indoctrinate Students” by Peter Berkowitz, was so wide of the mark, and missed so many points, that it seems worth responding to.  Moreover, although I think the article’s suggestions about indoctrination would be laughed out the door by anyone who has ever spent an hour in a University of California classroom, I’m aware of a pervasive and growing misunderstanding amongst much of the public when it comes to higher education.  Read any newspaper article on the subject, and you’ll invariably run across a bunch of embittered commentators talking about lazy students and far left ideologies and elitism. 

These comments are so far removed from my experience at the University of California, that it pains me to see them gaining traction in the public sphere.  I’ve now spent eight years at the University of California, on two campuses—Irvine and Berkeley, one a supposedly apathetic campus, the other generally held to be a hotbed of radicalism, neither quite living up to the stereotype.  I’ve been on both the receiving and giving end of UC teaching, having studied history and anthropology at Irvine, and history at Berkeley, and having taught discussion sections and upper-division seminars on African, British and environmental history at the latter.

In my three years at Irvine I took forty-three courses in eight departments.  Those courses which had a geographic rather than a thematic focus touched on Mexico and the Southwest, the United States (three), Africa (five), Europe, Latin America (two), the Pacific, Asia, and Britain (three).  I’m sure that in most cases, I could have guessed at the political persuasion of the professor, but it would not have occurred to me to do so, and in not a single case in any of those courses, or in any of those which I took during three years of coursework at Berkeley, did I see a professor use their lecture as a platform for the airing of their political views.  There was not a single instance of a professor praising a particular politician, suggesting that students join a particular group on campus, or of supporting a particular cause.  In a single course (Biodiversity and Conservation), a part of our grade depended on writing letters to decision-makers, but we were neither instructed as to which side of an issue to take, nor graded on the party-political slant of our letter.  I’ve never had a single professor indulge in discussing, as Berkowitz would have us all believe they’re just itching to do, “the need to transform America in a progressive direction”. 

In my own teaching, when discussing the growth of ancient Djenne in the Niger River Delta, the Mfecane in early nineteenth century South Africa, or the Reformation and counter-Reformation in Europe, there is hardly any occasion on which to air my politics.  On days when Berkeley has been beset by strikes, I’ve given over half of our class-time to a discussion of the issue, but on such occasions I remove myself from the substance of discussion and act as a moderator. 

Now of course faculty have ‘biases’ or predispostions (they’re human after all).  And some of them do, as Berkowitz’ subtitle suggests, aim to politicise students.  But there’s a world of difference between indoctrination and politicisation, and I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether Berkowitz (a Stanford fellow) conflates the two out of stupidity or malice.  To indoctrinate would be to cram a particular ideology down students’ throats.  To politicise would be to encourage students to see the stakes either in a given issue, or in general, and then to take action according to their beliefs.  If we believe that higher education has any relation to citizenship (and Berkowitz certainly makes much of this connection in his acerebral, declensionist whine), then we should welcome the politicisation of students.  After all, that means that they are concerned about the society and the world in which they live and are prepared to act on that concern.  But the idea that faculty at the University of California are so many proselytisers is so crude as to be laughable.  These are people with respect for the intellectual capabilities of their students, and for the process of self-discovery. 

Some of Berkowitz’ other complaints are standard reactionary fare.  He bemoans the absence of “Western Civilization” requirements.  It sounds as though Berkowitz wants to prepare students for the eighteenth century rather than the twenty-first.  There are somewhere in the neighbourhood of seven billion people in our world, and most of them live outside of Europe and the United States (the places that tend to constitute ‘Western Civilization’).  Economic and geopolitical power are on the move, but Berkowitz remains wedded to a curriculum designed to reassure people of their own self-importance and prepare them to govern a world consisting of European empires.  That world is dead—long dead.  Too many high school students continue to be put through European history rather than World history classes, and I was not surprised when not more than one or two students in a university course proved unable to label any countries besides Egypt and South Africa when given a map of the African continent at the beginning of the semester (though I suspect their parents would fare little better).  No, too little Western Civilization is not our problem.  Berkowitz bemoans the paucity of Shakespeare classes.  Why, having read a half dozen Shakespeare plays as a part of high school curriculum, shouldn’t students be encouraged to read other things if so inclined?  Berkowitz would undoubtedly be consoled by the fact that a nuclear engineering PhD student friend of mine continues to take Shakespeare courses, the very model of a liberal arts education!

Typically, Berkowitz cites the imbalance between Democrats and Republicans amongst faculty, to suggest that leftists have a hammerlock on higher education.  But perhaps it’s only natural that fewer conservatives gravitate towards academia when their political standard-bearers, if Rick Santorum is anything to go by, have nothing but contempt for the suggestion that higher education has anything to offer all citizens, and see universities as ‘elitist’ institutions.  Right-wingers are busy dismantling California’s public higher education sphere, so it doesn’t make sense that they’d be flocking in any great numbers towards an institution whose very purpose they purport to despise (I’ll admit, I have a morbid curiosity to know who the lone Republican in Berkeley’s history department is).  And it’s not academia that’s been moving left.  The Republican Party used to be a respectable party that believed in things like protecting the environment, examining cause and effect in foreign policy, and at least some measure of communitarian responsibility.  These days it’s become a radical party run by economic and often religious fundamentalists, so I’d say that it’s no wonder that people who have chosen to dedicate their lives to solving problems and answering questions of communal social interest want nothing to do with a party that has developed a disturbing tendency to spurn knowledge and attack its thoughtful acquisition as somehow elitist.

Berkowitz comes up with this puzzler, citing a UCLA study which suggests that “more faculty now believe that they should teach their students to be agents of social change than believe that it is important to teach the classics of Western civilization”.  Well, if the study phrased the question that way, I’m not surprised.  What constitutes Western Civilization, given its tendency to leave out women and working class people, to say nothing of huge geographic swathes of the globe, is a pretty small part of the human experience.  But the more serious point is that the Victorians were not reading classical writers because there was some intrinsic value to reading old stuff.  They read them because they thought they offered lessons in morality and governance and philosophy (all, gasp! political things) that were relevant to their own age.  Which, I suspect, is exactly what survey respondents were suggesting.

Another arrow in Berkowitz’ quiver consists of this gem: “The analysis begins from a non-political fact: numerous studies of both the UC system and of higher education nationwide demonstrate that students who graduate from college are increasingly ignorant of history and literature.  They are unfamiliar with the principles of American constitutional government.  And they are bereft of the skills necessary to comprehend serious books and effectively marshal evidence and argument in written work”.

I have several comments on this rather incredible leap of logic on Berkowitz’ part.  Firstly, high school education has been increasingly reduced to a kind of rote learning, and high school teachers are increasingly enjoined to teach to the tests that are supposed to measure student achievement and preparedness.  The result is that at the University of California we get students who’ve never before been asked to read critically, don’t realise that the basis of a good history paper is an argument, and who might not have got much in the way of critical feedback from high school teachers who have hundreds of students to keep up with.  This means that not only does UC have to offer challenging curriculum and provoke students to think longer and harder about their coursework; UC also has to do a lot of remedial work in brushing up students’ writing skills, instructing them in the assembly of evidence for argument, and so on.  I daresay it’s true that UC has been slow to react to this; after all, the campuses, shorn of funds, do not have a lot of leeway.  But they are reacting.  In the last year, for example, Berkeley’s history department has begun to offer a new lower-division writing course aimed at improving the quality of students’ written work and analysis.  But these changes take time.

The other factor that Berkowitz fails to take into account is that this supposed decline (and when haven’t people done the ‘kids these days don’t know anything about [insert topic]’ routine?; in this case it’s a bit hypocritical, as your average Californian is fairly clueless about the state’s Byzantine system of governance) has taken place as higher education has increasingly been commoditized.  His fellow right-wingers, aided and abetted by the likes of the UC Regents, have managed to transform higher education from a rich opportunity to study diverse subjects, learn about the world, think about how individuals and their societies fit into it, and decide how to apply this information, into something altogether smaller, meaner and less ambitious.  Today’s students are told to get a degree and get out.  And better still, get a degree in something ‘practical’ that will make you lots of money.  So the very subjects—history, literature and philosophy—that Berkowitz purports to treasure, have been dismissed out of hand as expendable—not because universities and their faculty aren’t passionate about them, but because students are encouraged to bypass them for economics, business or computer science degrees (none of these unworthy in themselves, but all of them missing a critical human component). 

Berkowitz writes that at no UC campus are students required to study “the history and institutions of the United States”.  He is wrong: it is a system-wide requirement, although I believe that students who have performed well on Advanced Placement exams can waive this requirement, just as they can waive other breadth requirements.  He also suggests that “those ideas that depart from the progressive agenda” are excluded.  Again he is wrong.  For one thing, every UC campus has an Economics department, which would more properly be called a Western Capitalism department given that no shrift is given to economic practises or modes of life outside a western tradition.  Furthermore, I read Burke and Carlisle along with Mill and Marx; Collingwood and Nietzsche as well as Foucault and Fanon; Niall Ferguson alongside Hobsbawm.  Berkowitz supplies no data to support his contention about exclusive curriculums, and I suspect that this is because there is none.  He’s riding a right-wing hobby horse straight towards a cluster of giants who will turn out to be windmills. 

I thought Berkowitz had hit bottom, but he ends with the accusation that the supposed indoctrination of California’s students “is more than a failure of [professors’] duty as educators.  It is also a violation of the law.  Article IX, Section 9, of the California state constitution provides that ‘The university shall be entirely independent of all political or sectarian influence and kept free therefrom’”.

The easy response would be for me to call Berkowitz an idiot for misreading a line which is clearly talking about some kind of official party doctrine being imposed on the university.  The constitution does not say that intellectuals who study subjects like politics, history and philosophy should not have or express opinions.  There would be precious little point in having a university at all if that was the way you wanted to run it.  And Berkowitz does not have a problem with the appointment of the UC Regents who he imagines as being “protectors” of these radical leftists, even though they are political appointees and, most of them having been appointed by Republicans, have a very clear agenda of their own.  (As someone who is seeing first-hand what their mismanagement is doing to UC, I can promise Berkowitz that the Regents are not a bunch of closet socialists.) 

But the real answer to Berkowitz is different.  George Orwell, an unapologetic polemicist, had it right when he noted that everything is ‘political’.  In Why I Write, he remarked that “no book is genuinely free from political bias.  The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics itself is a political attitude ... The more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity ... And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally”.

The basis for higher education, as Berkowitz notes, is to “[prepare] citizens to discharge civic responsibilities in an informed and deliberate manner”.  Part of citizenship—and rather a big part, come to that—is debate and, when necessary, disagreement.  It follows that a thorough education must push students, and push them in all directions, testing their intellectual mettle, forcing them to address different points of view, requiring that they defend their own and, in fact, asking them to look at a complicated—indeed terrifying, but also hopeful—world from multiple perspectives that they might have the opportunity to always reconsider a point of view based on moral argument or material evidence, however dearly that point of view may have been held.  This citizenship building cannot be achieved in a university that is turned into a marketplace any more than it can be achieved in one dedicated to an uncontroversial, myopic, and introverted approach to teaching such as that advocated by Berkowitz.

I know what Berkowitz’ ideal university looks like.  Students read Shakespeare and Mill and the Declaration of Independence, and have scripted, Hollywood-esque conversations about their meaning—so long as those conversations are far removed from any political topic that might have bearing on the present day.  Professors spend their lectures listing off Roman emperors, studiously avoiding topics which are remotely controversial and carefully circumventing any developments in their field that have occurred within the last hundred years.  They pretend that we live in a comfortable era, in which conventional wisdom, and happy narratives about the easy and benevolent dominance of the West will do. 

But such a view of higher education will not do.  And thankfully, it is not the education that students receive today at University of California campuses.  In spite of budget cuts forced by uncompromising ideologues, in spite of the public doubts fostered by misleading diatribes such as Berkowitz’, and in spite of efforts to change the University of California from a place dedicated to free intellectual inquiry into an institution designed to serve the short-term desires of the ‘market’, UC continues to do critical work for California and its communities while remaining a beacon of teaching, research and inquiry throughout the world.

UC does its best.  Of course is not perfect and like any institution it could do better.  But the important thing is that it is an institution dedicated to its public mission, and one which is filled with thoughtful, creative people who are far removed from Berkowitz’ maliciously misleading caricature, in which I recognise none of the brilliant and dedicated faculty, thoughtful and hard-working students, or well-learned and engaging colleagues and friends who I know.  It appears that Berkowitz is blinded by his ideology.  But the public, in the best traditions of the University of California, should look with a more thoughtful and discerning eye at the institution that has perhaps done more than any other to foster innovation and to promote a sense of community in our state.


  1. Geez, did Berkowitz even READ any of the UC graduation requirements? That allegation "UC students aren't required to study US history" sounds so ridiculous in its face that even some regular WSJ readers won't buy into that. In fact, from the graduation requirements at that Communist Indoctrination Camp known as UC Berkeley:

    "The American History and Institutions (AH&I) requirements are based on the principle that a U.S. resident graduated from an American university should have an understanding of the history and governmental institutions of the United States. "

    But then again what do you expect from a newspaper owned by the same company that owns FOX NEWS?

  2. If there was a "radicalizing" influence in my concentration, I guess I must have been it. These articles are indeed misrepresentative, but more because those of us who actually seek out the kind of things he distorts to be propaganda are sadly misled as to what they'll get out of Cal.

    If Cal has a liberal bias, it is surely one in the traditional sense, or at most in the "slur against Democrats" sense. In the even more ridiculous "synonym for socialism" sense? Please.

    But what do I know - my party just decided to Blair itself.