U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Is Ideology a Problem?

What follows is a version of the talk I gave as part of a plenary at the most recent S-USIH Conference in Indianapolis on the topic: “The Ideology Problem in Teaching and Scholarship.” I was joined on the panel by Susan Curtis, Michael Kramer, Rick Perlstein, and Christopher Shannon. Michael and Chris have agreed to have their talks published here as well, so look for those in the next few days. 

Since this conference and society grew out of the success of an academic blog—yes, that’s how cutting edge we are—it’s fitting that the inspiration for this plenary came from a conversation that first took place at the US Intellectual History Blog. This conversation was started by the one and only LD Burnett, in her post “The Reluctant Historian.” LD reflected on Thomas Haskell’s charge that we as historians “bracket [our] perceptions long enough to enter sympathetically into the alien and possibly repugnant perspectives of rival thinkers.” In other words, we as historians need to somehow set aside our ideological commitments if we are to be fair to the past and to the truth. In the comments section LD extended this directive to our role as teachers of students: “It’s not my job to change their understanding about life in general, or politics, or religion, or whatever,” LD wrote.

In a follow-up blog post I took exception to this by arguing that the best teachers are often—though certainly not always—openly ideological because ideological teaching can be exciting. I cited my own experience as a student: my favorite high school English teacher was an admitted Ayn Rand objectivist and my favorite college professor was an avowed Eugene Debs socialist. I learned more from those teachers than most precisely because their honesty about their ideological commitments made me reflect on my own.

Insofar as ideology is a problem, it’s an old problem. But it has become a more public problem. Since the sixties a growing number of academics have explicitly conceptualized their work in service to the revolution. Many conservatives have responded in kind by designating themselves counterrevolutionaries in a war for the soul of the American university.

Today, our most outspoken counterrevolutionary is David Horowitz—the former sixties radical turned right-wing provocateur. Horowitz has taken up where Dinesh D’Souza and Lynne Cheney have left off by becoming the unrivaled master of the venerable academic exposé genre. In his 2007 book, Indoctrination U: The Left’s War Against Academic Freedom, Horowitz argues that today’s academia is intolerant of many ideas and thus habitually violates academic freedom. He writes: “Ideas that oppose left-wing orthodoxy—opposition to racial preferences, belief in innate differences between men and women, or, more recently, support for America’s war in Iraq—are regarded as morally unacceptable or simply indecent.”

Indoctrination U grows out of Horowitz’s efforts to implement an “Academic Bill of Rights,” his attempt to supposedly extend academic freedom to everyone including conservative faculty and students. His “bill of rights” thus stipulates that “faculty will not use their courses for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination.” It’s difficult to imagine how such a so-called “right” could be enforced without violating the academic freedom of the professor. Which is why despite pretentions about academic freedom, Horowitz’s project should be understood as a political offensive on par with William Buckley’s 1950 treatise, God and Man at Yale. In that book Buckley issued a complaint about professors who subverted the curriculum to their “secularist and collectivist” ends and argued that Yale’s trustees had an obligation to hire and fire for Christian and capitalist values. Horowitz is less honest than Buckley was. Whereas Buckley called academic freedom a “superstition,” Horowitz uses it is as a fig leaf, and only sees ideology when it emanates from the left.

But we should note that conservatives are not the only ones who see ideology as a problem. The literary theorist, university administrator, and New York Times columnist Stanley Fish argues that college professors should leave their ideological baggage behind when they enter the classroom. Fish wrote his 2008 book Save the World on Your Own Time partly as a response to conservatives who believe that “universities are in a sorry state, and ideology is the problem.” But above and beyond such a rearguard rationale, Fish claims that bringing political ideology into the curriculum is a violation of the academic enterprise.

Fish draws strict boundaries that separate academic and political knowledge. He contends that we can study and teach any topic—even a highly contentious topic like economic inequality—as long as we do so using an academic lens, which precludes ideology. For instance, in a US history course it’s fine to investigate the ebbs and flows of economic inequality. But in Fish’s view we cannot ask our students if economic inequality is immoral. Asking such a question falls outside the job description. Fish brackets off all objects of academic study as objects of analysis not objects of affection or antipathy.

This distinction is murky. I often ask my students: “Why are some people poor?” What do Fish’s rules make of this question? On the one hand, in asking it my desire is to spur historical thinking. I don’t want knee-jerk, preach-to-the-choir reactions like “rich people are greedy” or “some people are lazy.” In this way my pedagogical goals fall within the range of Fish’s parameters. And yet on the other hand it’s impossible to pose such a question from a non-ideological position. The very act of asking it is an ideological maneuver since how students answer it is a reflection of their ideology—as is my presentation of plausible alternative answers. Even subjecting the question to historiographical scrutiny—by asking a related question: “Why has the issue of poverty become more pressing to historians?”—has ideological implications since it can easily be inferred that historians have taken up the study of poverty in response to conservative policies that have led to an uptick in poverty and have become the norm since the Reagan administration. The stellar career of the late historian Michael Katz is an object lesson in this regard. We don’t select our topics in an ideological vacuum.

This strange contradiction at the core of Fish’s platonic theory of academic knowledge is written into his very intellectual trajectory. Whereas the later Fish wishes to separate form from content by arguing that we should teach skills not values, the earlier Fish—the author of the influential 1980 book Is There a Text in This Class?— sought to explode all such false binaries. The earlier Fish believed that a text is “the structure of meanings that is obvious and inescapable from the perspective of whatever interpretative assumptions happen to be in force.” In other words ineluctable ideological contexts shape how we read texts, how we teach classes, and how we understand the world. Just as Hayden White has shown that a seemingly neutral form like narrative history always already has content—ideological content—the early Fish convincingly argued that attempts to separate means from ends are fools’ errands. We cannot separate knowledge from value.

So this brings us full circle: Is ideology even a problem?

It seems we’re near a consensus on the epistemological impossibility of avoiding ideology in the production of knowledge. And yet, it seems to me, many of us still seek to teach as if this were otherwise. We still earnestly speak about the value of ideological objectivity in our teaching. In the classroom we act as if ideology is a pejorative and we keep our commitments close to the vest. There is a gap between our epistemology and our teaching practices.

So what is ideology and why has it been considered a pejorative? Traditional Marxists claimed that ideology is a belief system that supports the status quo and as such represents “false consciousness” since the status quo is oppressive to most people. Conservatives now flip such a definition on its head in their claim that ideology is that which belongs to those who oppose to the status quo, such as socialists or feminists, and that ideology clouds judgment. People who are ideological have an agenda—unlike David Horowitz.

But in the wake of poststructuralism—hell, in the wake of pragmatism—the “false consciousness”-ideology-as-a-pejorative theory falls apart. We thus need a more inclusive definition for the term. We all have ideology: or in Terry Eagleton’s words, ideology is “any kind of intersection between belief systems and political power.” By “any kind” Eagleton means that ideology can support the status quo or oppose it. For a host of historical factors including those that led us to be history professors, many of us are to varying degrees in opposition to the way things are. This cannot be avoided so it might as well be embraced. At the very least it will make for an exciting classroom.

We have nothing to lose but bored students.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew, great piece! There is no way to escape ideology, that I define it as a worldview, a way we make sense of the social and political world. We all have one, or we would not be able to function. I also see history as moral inquiry. I am motivated by own moral questions about many things and the topics I choose to study. What is the best way for humanity to flourish? How do we construct a good society? And your question, why are people poor, laziness, bad luck, or something else? To pretend we do not have a position on these question is dishonest.

    To educate is to ask questions of people’s assumptions and help them find the tools to make sense of what they believe and not simply to remain unchanged. Education is, to borrow a phrase from the Left, “consciousness raising,” not merely to impart information. That process is often disruptive.

    However, in a pluralistic society, one must always guard against over confidence in one own mind and be open to oppositional view points. That is were modeling intellectual humility comes in. I am confident but never certain of my own mind.

  2. Andrew, this is a great piece. I have a few broad questions.

    I wonder if we can gain clarity by distilling from the various controversies and competing arguments the central claim: how we teach (and/or write) history is an ethical question.

    What interests me here is the insistence of certain philosophers (for example, Alain Badiou) that a properly philosophical “ethics” be sharply distinguished from a deontological or “professional ethics.” The latter would just be the rules that one is supposed to follow in a given professional milieu, whereas the former would have something to do with how one orients oneself to act morally in the world in the absence of a list of rules.

    Speaking for myself, I am happy to be a Fish-ite in the following situation: I have the good fortune to be hired by an institution of higher education with responsibility for teaching classes. I understand that this institution has its own eccentric reasons for existing and administrative agenda. At a deeper level I get that it is probably some sort of laboratory for the reproduction of capitalist social relations, in one form or another. So, because my employment is merely one node in a network over which I have no control (and in regard to which I am, at best, neutral if not highly critical), but a valuable source of money with which I can do my research and mentor the students who feel some affinity with me, I happily ask whoever is in charge: “okay, tell me the rules to follow, and I will follow them.” I see this as attractive, because the alternative–let’s take an extreme example and say I am working for the University of Phoenix or Bob Jones U, but persist in trying to really follow my heart and teach as authentic a Kurt Newman class as I can––is far more hellish.

    But I agree with Badiou–this is not an “ethics.” These are just rules, the following of which allows for an (albeit cynical) maintenance of a measure of sanity of integrity. A more psychoanalytically sophisticated version of this might be: by articulating my teaching to rules, I am embracing the “reality principle,” and traversing the fantasy of “the teacher as great sage and master,” thus allowing the students and me the room to breathe to carry out this particular set of social rituals without excessive guilt or anxiety.

    An ethics, on the other hand, would have to go something like this: the condition of pedagogical effectiveness is the honest and passionate investment of the teacher in the material. To constantly bracket “ideology” (or to adhere to the rule “don’t be ideological”) is to guarantee inferior teaching. Professors should be allowed, therefore, to be ideologically candid. At the same time, ethics seems to require maximum solicitude for the well-being of the other. Thus, ideological candor needs to be balanced against the imperative not to cause students pain. The Right has had a good run of insisting that exposure to leftist “biased” teaching is a source of pain for some conservative students. The Left is currently tremendously conflicted on this issue, and the affective model of certain kinds of pedagogical acts as “triggering.” Until we can figure this out, I think we will be leaving the question of ideology and ethics in the classroom to the administrators and op-ed columnists: a dreadful situation.

  3. Kurt, You just brought up a whole another issue that has recently being in the public conversation. The issue of how certain topics affect students. Let’s say you are going to talk about the legalization of abortion, both pro and con argument, and a student in your class recently had one. What happens when they are upset with issue, either what you say, or what other students say? We can go on with this to race, sexuality, poverty, domestic violence, on and on. Now we are talking about feelings and teaching a classic novel or history can evoke very strong feelings in students. Are we now to be psychologist? I just don’t know how these situation are to be avoided. Life is hard.

  4. Kurt, thanks so much for this comment. Its complexity and sophistication are precisely what’s wanted here. You articulate beautifully what I *wish* I had said:

    1) “the condition of pedagogical effectiveness is the honest and passionate investment of the teacher in the material.”

    2) ” At the same time, ethics seems to require maximum solicitude for the well-being of the other.”

    That tension is the line I feel I always walk in the classroom. At the conference, in the Q&A following the panel, I framed that tension as an oscillation between “the prophetic and the pastoral” — just the metaphor that came handy to me, especially given Chris Shannon’s remarks. I know that metaphor maybe doesn’t fly with people who aren’t used to thinking in those terms — which is all the more reason that I’m glad for the terms you’ve posited here. Because I think you really are getting to the heart of “the ideology problem,” at least for me.

    I don’t know if this “Amen” to your comment would represent a revision of, or a retreat from, or just a clarification of, what I said earlier, but it doesn’t matter. I’m not embarrassed to admit that my views are always partial and provisional and open to amendment or improvement. And I am delighted to thank this community — you, Andrew, the other panelists on this plenary, other commenters, other readers — for helping us all collectively to see and to think more clearly about what really matters.

  5. One essay I happen to be aware of that addresses a bit, at least in its opening pages, the issue of ideology and pedagogy is (the late) Judith Shklar’s “Teaching Ideologies with Stanley,” published in a 1993 festschrift for Stanley Hoffmann. In one passage Shklar wrote that she herself disliked or distrusted ideologies or ‘ideology’, whereas Hoffmann viewed ideology as a necessary part of being a citizen (or a political actor of any kind, really), which is not too far from the Terry Eagleton quote at the end of Andrew’s post. I quoted a very brief snippet of the Shklar passage in a recent post:

  6. Thanks for the wonderful comments. I agree with Kurt’s qualifications, especially that being an ethical teacher “require[s] maximum solicitude for the well-being of the other,” i.e. the student. I would not want my endorsement of open and honest ideological teaching to be made to seem that I endorse steamrolling students. First and foremost, good teachers care about their students. It’s cliche, but rings true.

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