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September 14, 2010

The Defense of Radical Teaching

For a few years now, distinguished literary scholar Gerald Graff has been disputing with "social justice" professors and "radical teachers" over the proper use of authority in the classroom. While president of the Modern Language Association, he spoke forcefully against the stigmatizing of conservatives, and in the pages of PMLA and Radical Teacher he has argued several times that an insidious coerciveness underlies the leftists' claim to promote critical thinking, challenge hegemonies, and foster a more just society.

In last May's PMLA, Graff weighed in again. In a previous issue, radical professors had responded critically to Graff's presidential address and had Graff had replied at length. Here, another letter comes in from Margaret Morganroth Gullette, a cultural critic at Brandeis who specializes in "age studies" (web site: "Age studies from childhood on can be as powerful as studies of gender or race in empowering people to challenge American age culture").

The letter opens with the standard premise that "views not informed by radical critique implicitly promote hegemonic values." That is, if you don't challenge the hegemony, the system, the Establishment, etc., you endorse it. Or, if you're not against it, you're with it.

This is more than just a political position, too. Without "radical critique," Gullette says, you are professionally irresponsible: "Teachers who hold such views cannot lead useful debates."

She proceeds to chastise Graff for "teaching the conflicts," that is, giving both sides in controversial matters a fair hearing. Some sides just don't deserve it. Her examples are Larry Summers "because he still thinks the inherent scientific intelligence of women is debatable." Also, remember that slavery used to be commonplace, but "we no longer debate its merit." And, "Most well-informed people, like most scientists, think that the human impact on climate change would not make an interesting subject of debate."

In general, she concludes, "Much of what was 'radical' in 1848, 1920, 1954, 1968, and 2004 is now mainstream. Teaching students to become radicals has simply led them to become early adopters of humane values that much of American society was blind to." If classrooms don't address "the failures of capitalism" (where "main radical arguments today" aim), they "deserve a responsible educator's scorn."

Graff replies. "Gullette's logic," he says, "is a good example of the self-righteousness and insularity I attacked in my address: since history has now demonstrated the truth of 'radical critique,' we have the right or even the obligation to try to radicalize our students." He proceeds to detail a case in which social justice education does, indeed, slip into coercive education, a new psychometric scale developed by Boston College educators to measure how fully ed school students have embraced social justice values and pedagogies.

But we should pause for a moment over the historical truth so often cited by radicals on campus. They say that what was once radical is now mainstream. Formerly-despised beliefs now stand as universal values, the examples almost always being about racial and sexual equality. Two other correspondents in PMLA state bluntly, "Indeed, much of what was radical once is no longer so," as if that proves something.

But think of all the radical ideas from the past that didn't become mainstream, and rightly so, for instance, all the radical experiments in totalitarianism, in re-education, in social engineering. In citing only those instances in which unjust traditions fell to praiseworthy radical protest, leftists on campus simplify the past and stack the deck. The next time they claim history as warrant for "radical critique," remind them that, like every other longstanding tradition of thought and action, the radical movement has had and still does have its share of evil.

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