The New York Review of Books, May 16, 1991
To the Editors:
Having wrenched a phrase of mine out of context to create the false impression that I have no moral objection to "using the classroom to impose a specific ideology on students," John Searle in his "Reply" now resorts to pure fabrication to support the charge and to convict me of a "totalitarian" view of education to boot ["The Storm Over the University," NYR, December 6, 1990; and "An Exchange," NYR, February 14]. This is perhaps of no great interest to anyone but me. Of greater significance, however, are the possible larger implications of Searle's remarks in the "Reply."
First the fabrication. Searle says I "suggest" that "we should try to make the university into an instrument of social transformation for desirable rather than undesirable ends; and as leftists we should make sure that it promotes left-wing purposes." Not only do I not "suggest" this, it's precisely what I oppose in the passage Searle quotes, where I argue against the view that the curriculum should be turned "into an instrument of social transformation."
What I did defend is an individual teacher's right to endorse any belief in the classroom, including a belief in "social transformation" or "the politics of the left." Searle calls this position "immoral." I take it to be merely a restatement of a basic principle of academic freedom. Was John Dewey immoral when he taught a philosophy of social transformation?
Searle is confused: where teachers do act immorally, and abuse their academic freedom, is not in advancing political convictions but in refusing to tolerate disagreement with them. Searle obliterates the crucial distinction between espousing a political view in one's teaching and imposing it by force on students or colleagues.
The confusion, however, enables Searle to apply an invidious double standard in which teachers who raise questions about power and injustice are being "political," "partisan," and thus "imposing" an ideology, while those who ignore or reject such questions presumably are not. The effect can only be to intimidate teachers who are straightforward about their political assumptions and to foreclose debate on what is or isn't "political."
Searle goes even further when he accuses me of violating "the terms" of my agreement with my students and my institution, terms which, he says, "are intellectual rather than political." Given the extremely narrow way Searle construes the concept of the political, I wonder how he proposes to enforce this distinctionor is the point again just to intimidate? Do I violate the terms of my profession if I argue that the very subject of American literature has its roots in cultural nationalism? Do conservative economists violate those terms if their theories commit them to a preference for certain political systems over others?
We should indeed be concerned about the vulnerable position of students in all this. But it was in response to that very concern that I urged that the university's political conflicts (but not only those) be brought into the foreground of the curriculum, an argument Searle confuses with an attempt to replace the teaching of primary texts with the teaching of debates over texts.
My point was that when we teach any primary text we inevitably in the process teach our different interpretations of the text and our different reasons for valuing it, and that students need to see these differences of interpretation and evaluation openly engaged in order to read the texts well and to take an active role in the discussions about them. In other words, the surest way to protect students from being bullied by their teachers' political views is to expose them to the debates between those views.
Department of English