University Diaries
A professor of English describes American university life.
Aim: To change things.
Contact UD at: margaret-dot-soltan-at-gmail-dot-com

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(Tenured Radical)

Friday, May 11, 2007

"What most professors want
is for students to validate
their pathetic life experience."

This comment, which got a good audience response, came from Michael Munger, a political science professor at Duke, in the film UD saw at the National Press Building last night, Indoctrinate U. What he means is that you can explain coercive political correctness on American campuses if you understand that American university professors as a class are politically confused and socially isolated people, desperate to bolster their shaky sense of the world by seeing it reflected back at them by their students.

And by their colleagues. Recall University of Chicago professor Cass Sunstein's law of group polarization, which "predicts that when like-minded people deliberate as an organized group, the general opinion shifts toward extreme versions of their common beliefs." Recall the extreme uniformity of many law school faculties, for instance.

The ideological blandness of the academy is an old and scandalous story; but it matters how you go about describing and responding to it. The phenomenon certainly makes intellectual life less lively and dialectical than it could be; but does it make students the victims of indoctrination?

Indoctrinate U. doesn't do a very good job of making that case. It's a callow, Michael Mooreish venture into academic rather than corporate offices. But its sneak attacks on paranoid staff assistants and pissed associate deans don't come off. And that's because the reactions the filmmaker gets from these people aren't about politics. They're about anxiety over unstable and/or obnoxious students generally. Recent events confirm that these people are right to get upset when intense young men asking weird questions come at them with a camera crew.

There were powerful moments in this film, though. When the all-female, highly articulate staff of a conservative paper at Yale described their publication constantly getting trashed -- stolen, shredded -- you could see their shock at the extremism of their environment. Similarly, footage of assholes at Santa Cruz and elsewhere shrieking at ROTC people was effective in making the film's point. Robert KC Johnson was very good on the anti-American bias of some history and political science departments.

But you don't want to mix up with this critique a floating hostility against professors altogether, and there was plenty of evidence, in the film, and in the comments of the filmmakers before and after the showing, that a lot of these people just hate professors. One of its sponsors gleefully quoted from a movie-inspired rock song titled "Shut Up and Teach."