Monday, August 30, 2010

Israeli Universities Under Attack

Most of us who make our livings at universities take it for granted (and try not to talk about this too much) that our colleagues on the faculty are liberals. They, we, tend to put a great deal of emphasis on personal freedom, are skeptical of appeals to patriotism, choose being over having, talking over shopping, believe that the government should be giving a hand to people who would otherwise suffer from inequality, support secular principles over the received morality of faith traditions, and so forth.

The reason why we try not to talk about this is because a good many of us secretly believe that the university is a place where smart people separate themselves from dumber people; that smart people tend to be liberal, because liberal ideas require you to be a little smart. There is a measure of truth in this belief but, on the whole, this is the really stupid reason why university people take each other's liberalism for granted. Nobody who has ever worked in both a university and, say, a private company, would say a good university teacher is smarter than a good manager. As for the bad ones, let's call it a draw. Such condescension is justifiably held against us by people who hate elites because they assume elitism--as Sarah Palin puts it, "the people who think they're better than 'ya."

But there is better reason why university faculty tend to be liberal. It is that the university is inherently a liberal institution. To keep a democratic republic going, you're always going to have to move against the current. The university is the place you learn to swim, not so much in what you learn, but how you learn. Personal freedom, skepticism, erudition, rules of evidence, equality, secularism--you might as well be describing the very foundations of the classroom experience. It is meant to incubate doubt and mentoring and the equality of merit.

The university, you see, is this strange, subversive community democratic republics plant down in the middle of themselves to protect themselves against the primordial instincts that are incubated in the primordial family--what Hegel called (a little eruditon of my own, ha-ha) the Family. It isn't an accident that Benjamin Franklin founded the University of Pennsylvania or that Thomas Jefferson, the University of Virginia. It isn't an accident that the first great institution the cultural Zionists founded was the Hebrew University. The university is not just a place you get the accumulated best of what is believed. It is the place the very idea of best is pulped, so that the community can regenerate itself more adaptively. "Education," Robert Hutchins said, "is not to reform students or amuse them or to make them expert technicians. It is to unsettle their minds, widen their horizons, inflame their intellects..."

I am making the point because Israeli universities are now under a concerted, organized attack from "the right," as my friend Didi Remez shows in a brilliant series of exposes. You can read his posts here, here, and here. The attack is not really from conservatives (like Hutchins) who are concerned about the bias of professors; it is from neoconservatives, neurotic nationalists who are fed up with the very ethos of universities--fed up, that is, with classrooms in which all ideas, including Zionist ideas, are pushed around.

The right is a hodge-podge, of course, and includes principled political economists, from Hayek to Brooks to Netanyahu. But these other people, who attack universities for their liberalism, are not so much concerned about economic ideology or educational theory as social discipline. The critics of Im Tirzu, The Institute for Zionist Strategies, etc., want their world to make sense: their leaders to be strong and good, their ancestors to be mythic, their God to be magic, their sexual desires to be contained, their nation to be protected, their enemies defeated, their fears soothed. All they really need to know they learned in kindergarten. What is fascism if not the values of sweet little children projected onto our politics? Why are Oliver North, Glen Beck, and Geula Cohen always crying in public?

For these conservatives, the university is just the kindergarten's finishing school. It is the place where received wisdoms are received most perfectly. They talk about freedom, but think of this (also like Hegel, alas) as the recognition of necessity. They think of education as the way the nation indoctrinates new generations to the values (also above averageness) of the nation. Teachers who, rather, emphasize liberal ideas are a danger to their mobilization and solidarity. They will rail against the danger of professors' biases when professors are really biased against holding biases--which is exactly what these conservatives resist. As Didi says, follow the money back to the Hudson Institute.


Y. Ben-David said...

It is overly simplistic to say that university people are generally "liberal". There is a significant difference between the liberal arts faculties and those of the scientific and engineering faculties. There are actually quite a few "conservative" (i.e. "Right-wing") professors in the sciences and engineering. I think the reason for this is because science and engineering has to deal with the world as it is, whereas the liberal arts deal with the world as they want it to be, regardless of whether it could really work or not.

Peter Schwartz said...

Good point...if true. But then why is there such an uproar from conservatives about the lack of conservatives in the university?

Y. Ben-David said...

The uproar is directed at departments that are particularly involved in matters involving state policy, such as history and political science, and others where there are lot of faculty members calling for boycotts of Israel and the such.

It should be pointed out that many liberals such as Amnon Rubinstein agree that there is a very bad left-wing bias in some departments.

Potter said...

What is fascism if not the values of sweet little children projected onto our politics?

Left wing bias means whatever the right wing fascist (in this case) wants it to mean,whatever threatens the latter's point of view. The ( fascist) instinct is to silence it, kill it. And, at that, stupidly without questioning or bothering to consider the merits of what is being said, or even taking a look, a sober look at the full implications of the hard line right policies. To me this is working against survival.

The point is, I agree, academic freedom, the oxygen of a democracy, the freedom to think deeply and expound on ones thought, to throw ideas out, the freedom not to be pressured or threatened to think dogmatically for fear of losing position or being the focus of an attack. This loss of that freedom would be tragic for everyone.

An enlightened (let's hope) boycott divestment and sanctions movement will take hold though if there is no further movement towards the end of this conflict. The boycott should not extend to academics in the universities... of course not. That would be very counter-productive.

Thanks for the Didi links.

Y. Ben-David said...

Academic freedom WORKS BOTH WAYS. You don't seriously believe that there is no such thing as intolerant, conformist, dictatorial "progressives", do you? Have you ever heard of the USSR where the punishment for not being "progressive" was the GULAG or worse?

Potter said...


You usually twist things around to suit and here again. You get rid of the word "liberal" and drop in "progressive", a term which BA does NOT use above. "Liberal" ( as opposed to conservative or right wing tending to fascist) has it's own meaning and implications, even elaborated above. The word "progressive" can mean anything you attach onto it, as you do, or something specific in an historical context, as your example. Those Soviet "Progressives", capital P, are fascists; they stink the same as fascists.

Since you bring it up, we are also talking about the nature of a totalitarian regime.

Academic freedom DOES work both ways- no one, no one group gets to silence anyone else, any other group. They don't get to impose their views on everyone else. Liberals do not attempt to silence fascists, but do need to resist their actions and expose and warn of the dangers. You don't see liberals forming groups and getting funding to get rid of conservatives or right wingers or fascists (if there are any in the universities) because this is contrary to being a liberal. You are not a liberal if you do that.

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