Wednesday, November 28, 2012

On educators who aren't

(Originally posted by Pat on 3/16/10)

I have great respect for academia. Indeed I dare say universities are among the greatest institutions the human race has yet devised, vastly better than churches or parliaments and right up there with laboratories and space programs. It is not an accident that most of the great leaders of Enlightenment values then and now were associated with universities. On the whole, professors are our first and probably best line of defense against falsehood and insanity.
Yet some professors are not deserving of their vaunted status; some of them are not even really educators. There exist professors who use their authority and respect not to expand knowledge, but to advance their own absurd and harmful ideologies.
Alan Sokal recognized this problem before most of us. His name is still said with scorn in most of the cultural anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies communities. This is precisely because he exposed these fields--or at least the majority of professors and journals in these fields---for the frauds that they are.
I don't agree entirely with the (in)famous Young Conservatives of Texas Watch List, but many of the points it makes are quite valid, and it tries very hard to criticize conservative ideologues along with liberal ones. There really is something very frightening about the way that certain subfields in the humanities are managed in contemporary American universities. Academic freedom does protect a lot of different ideas, but does it really protect systematic indoctrination of ideology that resists all doubt and disagreement?
Of particular (indeed, glaringly directly particular) relevance to secularism is my own experience with an honors seminar taught by George Hoffmann, an Associate Professor in Romance Languages and Literature and also in French, entitled "The Politics of Religion and Secularism". (I am exposing his identity because I have become convinced that he has crossed one line too far.)
The course description is as follows:
This seminar adopts a workshop format in order to examine the current debate over the categories of "religious" and "secular" and their broad implications for understanding political responses to religion. Topics include the recent criticisms of secularism, the challenges posed by defining and understanding fundamentalism, considering religion as a modern formation, and the charge that secularism constitutes a religion of the State. Readings draw upon a range of perspectives in Postcolonial Studies, Political Science, History, Anthropology, and Philosophy for how they come to bear on the ways that politics might fruitfully engage religion.
The readings do indeed provide a range of perspectives---from the moderately reasonable "religion is overall good" to the insane "secularism is the cause of everything that's wrong with the world". One perspective that Professor Hoffmann will not tolerate is that of New Atheism. I should have seen the warning signs when he assigned a paper not reviewing, critiquing, or analyzing Sam Harris' End of Faith, but explicitly arguing against it. My paper was a nuanced and sympathetic critique, agreeing with his main thesis but pointing out the ways in which he goes on tangents or makes his claims a little too strong. (If people are interested, I can post the full text of the paper, and if I still have it, the video review Professor Hoffmann gave it.) I was told that I had not followed the assignment, apparently because I agreed with Sam Harris' main thesis that Islam is false and harmful.
It soon became clear that Professor Hoffmann wants to use this seminar as a mouthpiece for his own idiosyncratic brand of cultural relativism, under which all perspectives are equally valid---unless they are secularist, in which case they are clearly wrong. After the Harris reading came a long sequence of readings from various authors arguing against secularism. In fact, most of them used so much pretentious academic language that they were virtually unintelligible, and they present remarkably weak arguments against something they called "secularism" which was typically not recognizable as secularism. Ashis Nandy, Kirstie McClure, Saba Mahmood, Webb Keane, Marshall Sahlins; please, look these people up. Their views are at best obviously absurd, and in many cases so incoherent as to be Not Even Wrong. (They are, briefly, Hindu/Muslim violence was caused by people not being religious enough, secularism cannot work because it privileges a Christian mind/body dualism, wearing burqas enhances women's rights, secularism is just a subset of Protestantism, and life was better back when we were hunter-gatherers, respectively.) Note that we are expected to "critically analyze" these works, but according to Professor Hoffmann, that means taking their claims seriously and not admitting that they are obviously wrong.
The most reasonable author we've read is Akeel Bilgrami, who still seems to think that Islam is good and we should give people special rights to break laws because of their religious beliefs. Even when we read John Locke we were only given excerpts from Locke accompanied with criticism by McClure. It was still nice to see someone making sense, though; seriously, read Locke, his arguments for democracy and secularism remain quite compelling.
Professor Hoffmann has on several occasions admitted that it's not clear what we are even talking about when we say "religion", but he refuses to accept the obvious conclusion, namely that religion can't possibly deserve special protections if we can't even define what it is. He takes at face value the notion that there are such things as "religions", and that they are important, and we shouldn't question them or offend people who hold them. In fact I think the most sensible definition of religion is something like "Belief I hold because my parents told me to" or "Belief that I don't want questioned"; I suppose on some other definition ("belief in an afterlife" or "belief about divine beings") one could at least in principle argue in its favor. But if you can't even define it, why should government protect it---indeed, how would government protect it if they wanted to?
As the course progressed, my conflicts with Professor Hoffmann grew ever more tense, until yesterday, when they reached a fever pitch. I have recounted the events as best I remember them:
One student presented what I thought was a rather reasonable presentation on the difference between literal and metaphorical interpretations of holy texts. He did a good job of directly dealing with the "hard passages", the ones that advocate rape, slavery, and genocide. It was clear from what he was saying that he thought we should interpret these passages metaphorically. (This is obvious of course because he is a Jew and he likes the Bible but doesn't think we should go around raping, killing, and enslaving.)
In the discussion period after I said something like, "I hear this sort of argument a lot, but it doesn't make a lot of sense to me. If we're reading it *as metaphor*, that's how we read a work of *fiction*, like The Lord of the Rings or The Odyssey. But this [Deuteronomy] is written like a law book. So we should either treat it like a law book, and do what it says, or admit that it's a *bad* law book and not do what it says. When Mein Kampf said "kill Jews", we took it to mean, "kill Jews"; but when the Bible says, "kill Amalekites", we take it to mean "what goes around comes around". If it had meant 'What goes around comes around,' it could have said that. Why are we looking for ways to use metaphor to make the bad book seem good?"
Obviously those weren't my exact words (I don't remember them), but that is pretty close to what I said.
Professor Hoffmann responded: "Well, Aaron isn't saying we should use the metaphorical interpretation; he's just presenting two different ways of interpreting that we can compare."
To which I said: "Really? Aaron, are you advocating genocide?"
Aaron: "No, obviously."
Professor: "Well, I don't know if we'd call it *genocide*..."
Me: "Systematic slaughter of an entire nation of people? [1 Samuel 15:1-6] Yes, that's GENOCIDE, by definition."
Prof: "Look, the purpose of this course is to compare different views and explore them, not decide which is right and which is wrong. I leave that judgment to you."
Me [visibly angry]: "But you DON'T leave that judgment to me! You expect me NOT to make it!"
Prof [surprisingly calm]: "I expect you not to hijack the purpose of this course, yes!"
I can't be sure that I am not in some way presenting events based on my own biases, or omitting some significant context; but to the best of my ability this is how events actually played out.
What I must ask, therefore, is this: If it is "hijacking" the course to merely state that one of the ideas presented is transparently foolish and wrong, then what wouldn't be? Either agreeing with Professor Hoffmann that religion is good and secularism is bad, or saying nothing, or perhaps considering all perspectives equally valid, regardless of what they say or how they say it---as long as they don't say anything bad about religion.
This isn't education; it is indoctrination. I for one am strong enough to resist it (admittedly with constant frustration), but I fear that many other students will not be. They will come out of this seminar secure in their feeling that religion is good, secularism is bad, and all perspectives, all cultures, are equal---except of course secularism and the West, which are scourges upon the planet.

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