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.