You Can’t Keep Politics Out of Education

Should we agree with Stanley Fish and others who feel that we should eliminate references to politics in debating the importance of the humanities and the future of higher education? Is it even possible to defend the humanities without placing the debate in an abiding political context, whether we like it or not? We need to acknowledge that the debate is taking place at the very moment that policy initiatives are aimed at reconstituting the curriculum and the institutional structure of higher education. Haven’t we already admitted that to conceive of the humanities in the context of higher education is to ask what is at stake in the debate—on all sides? This is a political question.

One part of defending the humanities has to do with the idea of critical thinking: that is, the sort of critical thinking that is both grounded in the humanist disciplines and crucial for any discussion of the “civil society” we have in mind when we speak of the  “liberal constitutional democracy” that underlies most prominent theories of justice. Those who are uncomfortable with such a concept often defend their discomfort by disparaging politics and those who cannot dissociate political participation from their sense of what is fair and right—beyond the simple questions of power and whether society should be modeled on one or another utopia or dystopia.

This disparagement of politics and of those who take society seriously as a shared project is characteristic of certain currents of the “right,” but not necessarily of conservatism as such. It is important to recognize that there is a logical connection between this disparagement and attempts to describe “republican virtues” according to an extreme individualism, to assert a morality whose primary function is to distinguish the good “us” from the bad “them,” to define “freedom” as “freedom to own.” Perhaps most important, it can be seen in the attempts to demonstrate that the very notions of society and government are essentially “totalitarian.”

Such an attitude easily shades into a dread of “change,” hence the misuse—by those who identify themselves with today’s radical right—of the label “conservative.” This is not a fear of change as such; it is a fear of the sort of change that encourages rethinking basic assumptions about the social world and moral principles.

When the humanities operate within the frame of reference of a general challenge to ideological thinking, they open the door to the sort of doubt and rethinking essential to a politics that, unlike certain libertarian currents and even mainstream conservatism, does not decide against society in advance. In this respect, the humanities not only make room for acknowledging the political dimension of what otherwise appears to be consensual and/or rational; they also allow for the possibility of the sort of reasonableness that John Rawls had in mind when he spoke of the need to take account of our shared experience when we try to formulate morally decent principles of right and justice.

That sort of reasonableness is not only socially conscious; it is also predicated on the willingness to acknowledge society. This society is not the aggregate we now call “population,” but the formative features of shared experience and collective needs irreducible to individual experiences. Society, our life together, is constantly changing. Politics is the most obvious active form of our recognition of society. The humanities bring to the forefront of thought the existence of society, disclosing the necessity to recognize the politics that comes with collective life.

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