So Many Books, So Little Marx

A college professor’s morning routine looks a lot like most other people’s, except for the Marxism thing. For while they’re brushing their teeth, getting dressed, and having breakfast, professors are already mapping out another day in the Marxist indoctrination of their students. By the time that second cup of coffee has been drunk, any professor who’s worth a damn will have planned some promising strategies for marching those wide-eyed young ‘uns a step or two closer toward the overthrow of the bourgeoisie by an international brotherhood and sisterhood of enlightened workers.

As Teyve the Dairyman might ask, “Sounds crazy, no?” And yet it’s not far from how my colleagues and I are regularly portrayed in the red-in-the-face side of the media. Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, cites statistics showing the leftward leanings of a majority of college professors as a sign that they are attempting to indoctrinate students—without a shred of evidence that the former, even if true, actually leads to the latter. David Horowitz channeled his scorn for lefty professors into a list-cum-book with the appropriately McCarthyite title The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. And speaking of crazy, Google “Marxist Professors” and you’ll find a disproportionate number of hits dedicated to Marxist-Professor-in-Chief Barack Obama. On sites like commieblaster.com, you can further stoke your rage by reading “proof” that the President is a “Communist / SocialistMuslimRussian AgentSerial LiarJew HaterRacistNarcissistGaySoros PuppetEvil Man.”

Setting the President’s alleged virtuosity aside, though, let’s take a closer look at our so-called “tenured radicals.” (A side note that we can discuss further some other time: those of us who have tenure are in a rapidly shrinking minority of college instructors.) Are university faculties really dominated by a bunch of lefties? There’s plenty of reason to think that more often than not, those who teach in universities hold views to the left of center. Why? The best explanation comes from Stephen Colbert’s observation that “Reality has a liberal bias,” for the pursuit of a PhD is really an in-depth study of a corner of reality, whether grounded in the natural sciences, social sciences, or humanities.

How far to the left are college professors? I really couldn’t tell you. I’ve exchanged ideas with colleagues whose views range from left of Che Guevara to right of Darth Vader. The overwhelming majority, though—in this country, at least—are nowhere near those two poles. Many have little interest in politics whatsoever. Many others are fairly mainstream liberals, or fairly mainstream conservatives. And how about dyed-in-the-wool Marxists? A few are kicking around, but my sense is it’s vanishingly few. But much more to the point: so what?

“So what?” because first of all, the whole point of our country is supposed to boil down to freedom, right? Isn’t that what W and his cronies were nattering on about for eight years, accompanied by no small expenditure of blood and treasure? Isn’t that what we hear from the Tea Party and Fox News on a minute-by-minute basis? Well, to quote those folks back to themselves, freedom isn’t free; sometimes you have to put up with listening to ideas that don’t completely parrot your own. Deal with it.

Second, what’s most laughable about the idea that your average college professor spends a significant amount of time plotting the Marxist indoctrination of his or her students is the gaping abyss between that scenario and the realities of higher education, for three simple reasons: (1) indoctrination is lousy pedagogy, (2) we don’t have time for it even if we wanted to, and (3) it would work on our students about as well as insisting they adulate us on demand. Because teenagers.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve spent countless hours talking to colleagues about pedagogy, and those exchanges often boil down to a few basic questions. Is what I’m doing working? How do I know? What techniques, new or old, might I incorporate into my teaching so I can inspire, motivate, and challenge my students better? What does a meaningful assignment or exam look like? What information or tools do I need to equip my students with so their experience with me will have been worthwhile?

None of the above is about indoctrination, because indoctrination doesn’t require such questions to be asked, and really, we have other fish to fry. In humanities classrooms like the ones I teach in, those questions translate into more basic ones. How do I get the students to read the text? Why don’t they just read the text when I ask them to? Why does “read” mean something so different to most of my students than it does to me? Why do some of them struggle even to write a proper sentence? How am I supposed to teach them the mechanics of writing when I have so much material to cover?

So Fox-flavored conspiracy theorists of the world, relax. My colleagues and I are not conspiring to have the proletariat occupy Starbucks and overthrow their capitalist overlords. If there’s any conspiracy afoot, it’s the one to dismantle student’s access to a quality education, leading us to spend so much time and energy filling in gaps in knowledge and method that would better have equipped our students for college in the first place.

Meanwhile, teaching students to scrutinize the world around them, challenge assumptions and prevailing wisdom, question the agendas of those who produce the information they receive, question their own biases and agendas, and back up their conclusions with solid evidence, is not Marxism. It’s called thinking.

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About Joel Berkowitz

Center director, teacher, theatre historian, translator, co-founder of yiddishstage.org. Proud supporter of the Wisconsin Idea.
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