A review of Gregory S. Prince Jr. Teach Them to Challenge Authority: Educating for Healthy Societies. (New York: Continuum, 2008) and Bruce L.R. Smith, Jeremy D. Mayer, and A. Lee. Fritschler, Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2008).

Because “knowledge is power,” and universities produce and impart knowledge, universities are sites of power. Because, too, “power” is a synonym for “politics,” universities are also political sites and will understandably generate disputes around what is taught, how it is taught, and who will legitimately possess knowledge.

This said, there is a curious contradiction in North American political culture.  Canadians and Americans generally delight in attacking politics and politicians as dirty, dishonest, and self-seeking. When running for political office, politicians can make all kinds of grand promises they have no intention of honouring, yet voters willingly cling to the belief in the superiority of their political system. So while “politics” is often cast as a bad word, the detractors nevertheless promote their societies as more open, more democratic, and fairer and more egalitarian than all others.

But the contradictions of politics do not stand alone. Democracy is accompanied by the inegalitarian economic system of capitalism – a system of production and exchange premised on inequality of property ownership, resources, power, influence, and social capital. But viewing education as the great equalizer permits the citizens at large to delude themselves into thinking that a fundamentally and structurally unequal system can be ameliorated by the provision of individual equal access to education. That is, by democratizing individual access to education it is assumed that the most debilitating consequences of inequality are removed.

This entails the cultivation and public acceptance of such myths and beliefs as “equal opportunity,” “liberalism” and “individualism.” Thus, while inequality is structurally present in the system, citizens are led to believe that individual effort and some good luck could trump class, race, sex, age, and other forms of structured lack of privilege. And when such ideological beliefs are widely embraced, inequalities are seen to be individually and randomly assigned, thus order is assured. To this extent the guardians of the prevailing social, political, and economic order have a great stake in the management of the educational institutions — especially those of higher education, as access to such institutions and the credentials they offer are seen as a tickets to privilege, success, and the so-called American/Canadian dream.

In this context the authors of Teach Them to Challenge Authority and Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities might be seen as contributing to the debate over the nature and function of higher education in the United States (and, by extension, Canada, which shares an almost identical social, political, and economic culture, complete with the values, beliefs, and myths that attend the daily encounters of its citizens). And one of the enduring debates revolves around the idea of the university, its place, purpose and function in society. The authors of both books challenge the increasingly utilitarian approach to higher education, which sees universities as training grounds for future professionals and assorted careers (vocationalism), and that posits a close link between learning, employment, and the economy. The other view sees the university as a place where a more rounded citizen is cultivated; one who, even if s/he is in the sciences or engineering, will have the ability to discuss politics, history, art, and poetry with some measure of intelligence. It is said that this latter emphasis is more about education (as opposed to training) and is aimed primarily at producing informed citizenship and elevating the general degree of sophistication and civic awareness among all citizens.

On many university campuses this has led to what has been called the “culture wars,” in which traditional conceptions of knowledge and truth are challenged by what the authors of Closed Minds? call the “New Criticism” and the critical reasoning emanating from the arts, humanities, and social sciences. The latter challenge positivistic notions of truth as absolute and scientifically verifiable and posit in their place the idea of a “socially constructed” truth. Much to the chagrin of the conservatives, the social constructionists who rode the bandwagon of political correctness and identity politics, called into question the taken-for-granted idea of white, male, heterosexual, Western, middle class, Christian, etc., privilege. As both these books note, the birth of the university in North America was pretty much the work of conservative men of status and property, so whether dealing with the founding religious authorities or with their class and race and gender allies in government, the traditional gatekeepers of university education, knowledge production, and power brokering were conservatives. By the last third of the twentieth century, however, Teach Them to Challenge Authority  argues, this was all to change as those who insisted on the importance of critical reasoning charged that “truth” is rarely understood and must always be subject to examination and reexamination. The authors of Closed Minds agree, adding that the resulting “culture wars” were sparked by the literary movements of modernism and postmodernism, which provoked conservatives defensively to challenge those left-leaning movements “as shallow intellectual fashions and potential threats to the very premises of free enquiry.” They were angry at “the new breed of scholars who cut their teeth on the identity debates” and turned their world upside down.

While both the ‘‘vocational” and “citizenship” functions of the university are of central importance, the left has charged that vocationalism has come to eclipse the citizenship function and has converted the modern university into an extension of the corporate world, where research and development are geared to the market, where generous, targeted, private-sector grants drive the creation of research centres, and where mega-corporations can even endow professorial chairs. Consider, for example, the Rogers School of Journalism at Ryerson University or the involvement of the University of Western Ontario with the testing of ballistic materials for the manufacture of military vehicles for the Pentagon, or even McGill University experiments in perfecting torture techniques and related research into “sensory isolation” and “white noise.” And this does not even deal with the proliferation of corporate fast food outlets on campuses, designer clothing, music and computer stores, banks, state of the art gymnasia, and beauty parlours.

As universities have now come to compete like corporate entities, growth is equated with quality, and success is defined in dollars and cents. Thus, instead of a strong research and publication record, the receipt of huge external funding is sufficient for granting tenure and being promoted to the rank of associate or full professor. This encourages  vocationalism as academic standards (the quality of learning) are replaced by academic criteria (mere grade points) coupled with  grade inflation. This development goes  against a key  idea in Teach Them to Challenge Authority that, “The goal of education should be to build well-rounded, free thinking individuals and communities that are economically productive, culturally creative, socially equitable, and supportive of human rights.” He sees this is as the base from which to challenge authority; for students not to just “go along to get along” but to inform themselves about society’s priorities and to be able to see beyond the narrow materialism of corporate advertising and business culture.

When a university education is conceived in this light, both democracy and freedom are strengthened, and the authors of Closed Minds? agree, adding that today “the older role of colleges and universities – that of preparing students for life and for citizenship in our democracy – has been all but forgotten.” Defining education as “intellectual engagement,” the author of Teach Them to Challenge Authority  affirms that student disengagement is not an isolated matter. Universities, too, need to become more engaged with their students and the communities that house them. Thus, he insists, “you cannot educate without engaging,” and the university cannot pretend to be neutral. And far from advocating a call to armed struggle, what is being demanded is that students be taught how to challenge authority respectfully, so that when they in turn are challenged by life’s situations, they will know how to respond appropriately.

Neutrality, which plays into the hands of the status quo, is ideological and should be eschewed. And while universities cannot be expected to take a stand on every social issue, they cannot refuse, in principle and under the guise of neutrality, to take a stand. Students learn better when they are engaged and challenged; they do not look for, or expect, neutrality in their professors, any more than professors relish passive “yes” men and women as students. Neutrality, therefore, is not to be confused with objectivity, truth, or a propitious learning environment. As the authors of Closed Minds? remind us, “Although students may encounter what they see as bias from time to time, they are neither helpless victims nor pawns in the grip of forces beyond their control.” For today’s students are not passive learners, but rather “are encouraged to question their professors, and they rarely have problems expressing their own views to their teachers in or out of the classroom.” In Teach Them to Challenge Authority this leads Prince to insist that “democratic cultures need an education that stimulates questioning and active engagement of the student” and that the most able companion of a democratic order, thus conceived, is a liberal education. “How can we not seek to conserve our liberties,” Closed Minds” asks, “even while we argue over what it means to be free?” A proper liberal arts education will excite the student voters over the issues, make them aware of the importance of their voice, and alert them to the potential pitfalls and benefits of any given choice.

This liberal point of view is at definite odds with that of the conservative,  who feel that the university should be “neutral” and should stay away from advocacy and activism. In the latters’ estimation, therefore, education is a straightforward matter: it involves the objective imparting of objective knowledge and skill, the building of a disciplined mind, and the development of character.  These views are heavily ideological, but, as in most politics of this sort, those who articulate them are blind to their ideological content and prescription; they see themselves as objective and reasonable and maintain that advocacy and activism are not tailored to opening up closed minds and encouraging independent thought but rather to “persuade and convert” the student.  But because of the power imbalance between professor and student, such advocacy and activism amounts to intimidation and abuse of the professor’s privilege.

On the matter of engagement, then, clearly we are not dealing with a zero-sum phenomenon because all, or most, universities are engaged. The key concern, however, is whether they are engaged enough. For Prince, engagement speaks to the university’s reaching out, not only to its  students and professors, but also to those in the wider community. The protection of women’s rights, abortion rights, civil rights, gay rights, workers’ rights and even the rights of illegal immigrants, are vital to a flourishing democracy. As a servant of the community, the university thus has a responsibility to advocate on behalf of those both within and without its walls. And this is where some critics, both conservative and liberal, have sought to draw the line. Once more, questions about the idea and role of the university are recast.

Those conservatives who embrace the vocational function of the university and who see it primarily as serving the needs of the economy are supported by other conservatives who feel that the university should stick to the traditional Euro-centric curriculum with the traditional definitions of what is good and appropriate history, literature, music, and related subjects for instruction. Whether in the U.S. or Canada, conservatives feel that the universities have been hijacked by the left and that a “liberal bias” has enveloped the nations’ campuses. But the authors of Closed Minds?  conducted a comprehensive survey of administrators, professors, and students that enables them convincingly to expose the liberal bias as a myth propagated by the right. For, while finding that professors are generally more liberal than their students and students are more liberal than the citizenry at large, the survey showed  that universities were not found to discriminate against hiring conservative professors. Nor are students with conservative points of view disadvantaged with regard to grades.

But what both books lament is that the myth has been responsible for discouraging conservative students from pursuing traditional academic jobs, choosing instead professional schools, think tanks, and business careers.  Interestingly, professors in the hard and biological sciences, who traditionally have been seen as conservative and apolitical, have recently embraced a more liberal stance owing to the religiously-inspired right-wing opposition to such things as stem cell research, evolution, and the biological bases of homosexuality. They have come to regard the liberal posture as more in their interest.  But to their credit the authors under examination here feel that it is incumbent on current administrators to persuade conservatives to reconsider academic careers with a view to enriching campus intellectual life.

As noted, then, education is political, so to oppose the vocational function of the university often leads to the charge of “elitism” against those who feel that the university is a special place where ideas, sometimes even unpopular ones, are pursued as ends in themselves, where knowledge is produced, and where the practical, utilitarian demands of everyday life should not drive the agenda. It is a space where complex ideas are unpacked, dealt with in abstraction, and then recombined in the form of concepts, theories, hypotheses, and, ultimately, policies applied back to the outside world. Therefore university is a space that is quite different from the pub, the football stadium, or the cocktail party and should not be governed by the norms or rules that apply in those venues. Because of this there are those, usually, though not always, conservatives, who feel that political correctness has no place on the campus or in the classroom and who would like to reserve for themselves the right to determine what is and is not fair game in a neutral university. The challenge is both practical and political: in pursuing a balanced and inclusive curriculum, should the professor be required to teach the ideas surrounding Holocaust denial, creationism, scientific racism, and the supposed inferiority of woman to man? Should they be permitted to teach that believing in God is really a supreme manifestation of irrational behaviour, or that a president’s or a prime minister’s decision to go to war is morally reprehensible?

By way of constructive critical commentary, the two books under consideration exhibit a tendency to homogenize and romanticize students and youth and miss the fact that there are as many divisions and differences among students as there are among faculty. Indeed, as Closed Minds? points out, while some professors opposed the corporatization of the university, others did not; and still others who “wanted patronage, found it difficult to live with the patrons.” More globally, the books do not really come to terms with the necessary and defining feature of the wider society and economy – the class inequalities that are rooted in the capitalist system of production and distribution of goods and services. Social inequality is a defining feature of capitalist economies and cannot simply be eliminated by pretending to equalize access to education. Not to recognize this is more than denial; it is to apologize for the system of which these authors are so critical. Yet the core value of these two books resides in their significant and timely reminder: authority must be challenged and closed minds cannot do that.

Anton Allahar is a full professor in the department of sociology at the University of Western Ontario. He is an economic and political sociologist, who specializes in the Caribbean and Latin America, but his most recent (co-authored) book Ivory Tower Blues (University of Toronto Press) is a critical and hard-hitting look at the North American university system today.