In the effort to radicalize students willing to work for social change, “critical” teachers may be forgetting to let their students freely choose their own ideological positions in the first place.
That’s what Gerald Graff concluded of a Modern Language Association special session on “The Dilemma of Critical Pedagogy.” “My complaint was not that radical pedagogy is political, my complaint is that it’s authoritarian, or at least it sounds authoritarian in some of the versions that [as you can see] I quoted from: “How can we turn our students into radicals?,” he said, later continuing, “…and I think Mark Bauerlein is trying to point out that a lot of people hear that as authoritarian and it would seem that if you wanted to advance the fortunes of this kind of pedagogy you would want to take that more seriously than I hear you doing.”
The University of Illinois at Chicago professor, who was not listed as a speaker but responded from the audience, had argued in the Winter Issue of Radical Teacher that he thinks “it’s immoral for teachers to try to get students in their classes ‘to work for egalitarian change,’ as you put it.”
“What right do we have to be the self-appointed political conscience of our students?” he asked.
Graff was addressing Wesleyan University professor Richard Ohmann, who argued during the MLA session that “We here are all too well aware of incessant efforts of the right wing and its enablers in the mainstream media to ignore or deny any validity in critical pedagogy, same with challenging the biases of corporate capitalist business as usual and to distort our effort into an effort to simply coerce students into parroting agreement with leftist biases.”
“To be sure, some critical teachers do go overboard toward counterindoctrination and although I bend over backwards myself trying to avoid doing so, I identify with the constant frustration that may drive them over the edge.”
Other presenters included Nancy Welch of the University of Vermont, University of Texas at Austin Professor Patricia Roberts-Miller, University of Tennessee at Knoxville Professor Donald P. Lazere, and Emory University’s Mark Bauerlein.
Professor Lazere, entitling his MLA presentation “Teaching the Conflicts through Giving Conservatives Their Best Shot,” offered his own take on how Graff’s ideas could be put into practice:
“So far from monolithically imposing leftist views, I require that students spend what at that stage is about the last half of the semester researching individually and in teams the best conservative rebuttals, then writing a point by point evaluation of them against left arguments, including comparative analysis of the reasoning and verifying the documentation, then incorporating them into small group discussions, full class debates and a term paper.”
Lazere said that radical professors have a “responsibility…to convey at the outset and even have the rhetorical understanding of where and how the opposing side disagree.”
“Then,” he continued, “we are justified to say something like ‘look, I am a leftist because my experience in academic studies have led me to the conclusions that liberal and left sources in general tend to be more independent, better reasoned, and documented than conservative ones and that there is not a level playing field in American rhetoric between the left and right for all the reasons that I laid out [at] the beginning.”
But, he argued, the right-wing sources are often a source of pseudointellectual propaganda. “Now I gladly acknowledge that there are conservative thinkers of [honest] intellect and integrity like my friend Mark Bauerlein, but it is not easy for students doing a google search to distinguish their work from the flood of propaganda put out by the Heritage Foundation, Hoover Institution, and dozens of other corporate [public relations] agencies,” Lazere said.
Perhaps the most interesting of the academics, Professor Barbara Foley, another contributor to Radical Teacher, responded to Graff’s complaints, saying “I think Jerry, first to Jerry, because he’s helped facilitate this whole conversation, I think that you are captive to and then conveying a very stereotypical caricature notion of what radical pedagogy is all about.”
“All I’m saying is that I find myself constantly up against guiding dominating paradigms…but I really think the dice have been weighted in a very caricature way against those of us who are really trying to—and yes I try to radicalize my students but they have to buy into it. They have to agree,” she later said.
The head of the MLA’s Red Caucus, Foley teaches American Literature as well as “the occasional course in Marxist theory” at Rutgers.
No wonder Elizabeth Kantor wrote in The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature that “The fact is, even if you sign up for a course with ‘Shakespeare’ or ‘Faulkner’ in the title, there’s absolutely no guarantee that you’re going to be taught English or American literature.”
As for Bauerlein, he suggested that teaching critical pedagogy was “secondary” to the need to teach students basic English skills such as “how to formulate an argument, a sequence of sentences that add up to a coherent paragraph, to a coherent conclusion” and “how to get students to memorize the rights enumerated in the first amendment.”
Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.