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The Review

Understand the big ideas and provocative arguments shaping the academy. Delivered on Mondays.

From: Len Gutkin

Subject: The Review: Critical Race Theory; Moralization; an Interview With Michael Clune

In 1953, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote to the philosopher Sidney Hook about whether American professors should be automatically fired for membership in the Communist Party. Schlesinger thought not, though not because he favored unrestricted professorial speech. As Peter Novick puts it in That Noble Dream (1988), the definitive history of American academic history, “In Schlesinger’s view … Communist professors should be fired only when it was established that their beliefs influenced their teaching — that they attempted to ‘indoctrinate’ students.”

The purges of Communist professors, including the infamous imposition of a loyalty oath at Berkeley in 1950, now seem like remote episodes from an unusually hysterical period of cultural panic. But as our Emma Pettit explains, a cascade of contemporary Republican legislation against critical race theory in colleges suggests that all that old febrile anxiety about a fifth column of radical professors might have a long tail. (One lawmaker called critical race theory, which examines inequities stemming from the social construction of race, “Marxism 2.0.”)

Critical race theory is an outgrowth of critical legal studies, itself a development in the tradition of American legal realism, the sociologically inflected school of legal history and theory with roots in Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.'s 1881 The Common Law. Legal realism, as consolidated in the 1930s, treated legal outcomes, especially judges’ rulings, as conditioned by all the biases, prejudices, power relations, and even unconscious motivations undergirding the broader society. Its tendency was demystifying and disillusioning. Critical race theory began in the 1970s when scholars like Derrick Bell used the tools of legal realism to focus specifically on the consequences of racism in American law.

That such a school of thought should be off limits in the classroom is absurd on its face, and attempts to prohibit it will probably not survive legal challenge. As Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, put it, the government cannot “attach conditions on how controversial ideas can be taught"; moreover, academic freedom “protects the rights of faculty to assert positions as they see fit.”

Not all of the relevant legislation takes aim at pedagogy or faculty expression, though. Arizona’s SB 1532, for instance, would prohibit “an entity from requiring a teacher, administrator, or other employee to engage in training, orientation or therapy that presents any form of blame or judgement on the basis of race, ethnicity or sex.” I asked Cohn about the legal difference between mandatory training sessions, on the one hand, and curriculum and professorial speech on the other. “The distinction there is absolutely critical,” he told me. “It’s the difference between a regulation being unconstitutional and being constitutional. In the training sphere, you are talking about the government itself taking a position.” It’s perfectly constitutional, Cohn explained, for a higher arm of the government, like a state legislature, to restrict the kinds of official positions public universities can take. “That’s different than telling faculty what they can and can’t say.”

The Latest

A Conversation With Michael Clune

Recently, the Case Western English professor Michael Clune took to our pages to offer a précis of some of the ideas in his new book, A Defense of Judgment, out last month from the University of Chicago Press. Professors of literary studies, art history, and related fields, Clune says, have gotten mixed up about the real nature of their expertise: They are aesthetic, not moral, educators. I spoke with Clune about his essay and his book. Here’s some of that conversation.

Some commentators appeared to think you were arguing that criticism or arts education can’t address topics of morality, or discuss moral content in works of art.

There’s really just one mode of moral education that I think is incompatible with aesthetic education, and that is the tendency to use literary works to exemplify good moral attitudes. It would be insane to suggest that aesthetic education would somehow be capable of bracketing moral questions. It’s just that, when we’re doing aesthetic education, we are entering into the work with negative capability — with the possibility of learning something new — as opposed to going into the work saying, “I have these moral attitudes or views, and I’m going to use the work to exemplify them to my students.”

And there may well be downstream effects, for students’ moral outlooks — they’re just not programmatic or highly predictable.

That’s right. I’ve gotten a number of responses that suggest that the ethics of close reading and negative capability have moral effects. I’m hesitant to make a big claim about that — to say that encountering these texts will make you a better person in X, Y, and Z ways, because I think the enterprise involves not knowing where that work will take you.

With your second academic book, Writing Against Time (2013), you became one of the more influential literature professors associated with what’s sometimes called the “aesthetic turn” — a “turn” whose leading figure is probably Sianne Ngai. A Defense of Judgment both draws on and quarrels with Ngai.

Like many others, I’ve been really inspired by Sianne’s broadening of our sense of the aesthetic, her moving us beyond a kind of Kantian commitment to beauty or sublimity. I go in a different direction by exploring the relation of judgment to education, and by being honest about the conflict between judgment and the dogmatic egalitarianism of commercial culture. Sianne has an interest in the political effects of literature, expanding on figures like Adorno. I’m interested in how literary educators cultivate a different mode of receptivity to art, and I distinguish between consumer preference and the kind of transformative receptivity created in literature classes. I’ve criticized Sianne’s work for imagining that there are ways of doing aesthetic judgment that don’t offend dogmatic egalitarianism. Our work does offend it, and we should embrace that offense. The political effects of our practice derive from it, as I try to show.

Hannah Walser, in our pages, recently suggested that literary critics should learn to argue better. The moralization of argument wasn’t her sole focus, though it was touched on.

Hannah’s essay was fabulous. The moralization of argument is ubiquitous and, as she describes, it often takes the form of this suspicion: “Let me find some cues that may associate this person with something evil.” I was amused when a friend told me that someone on social media had responded to my questioning the moral authority of English professors by calling my argument “evil.” The best antidote to that kind of thing, as Hannah shows, is describing what good, solid, disciplinary practice looks like. When I was working with folks in a neuroscience lab, they were not afraid to say, “This is wrong, there’s no evidence for this claim.” You could have a respectful exchange not characterized by hypermoralistic surveillance.

I don’t think English professors are particularly distinguished morally. They do know a lot about literature.

Recommended

  • “Do you want to be a human being any more? Are you one now? What even is that? Or should you just allow yourself to be held in the long electronic petrochemical arms of your false mother?” At The Guardian, Margaret Atwood on Laurie Anderson, whose 1982 album Big Science is being re-released.

  • “Chemical particulars aside, these walkthroughs make it easier to imagine the small pleasures to be taken in alchemy: a hobbyist’s satisfaction in knowing enough of the jargon to follow along; the glamour of a gliding fire and other curious chemical effects.” At the Los Angeles Review of Books, Joe Stadolnik on Jennifer Rampling’s new history of alchemy, The Experimental Fire.

I’m always hoping to hear from you — write to opinion@chronicle.com.

Yours,
Len Gutkin

Len Gutkin is a senior editor at The Chronicle Review. His first book, Dandyism: Forming Fiction From Modernism to the Present, was published in February 2020 by the University of Virginia Press.