Liberal political Philosophy
Just as I began my college teaching career thirty years ago, the whole academy seemed to have accepted as axiomatic the assertion that “Everything is Political.” This self-evident universal truth (curiously, my relativistic colleagues have quite a few absolutes) came to be uttered frequently in response to complaints from a few recalcitrant professors who objected when other professors used their scholarly publications and their courses to promote their political views. The argument was that, since everything is political, all scholarship and all teaching inevitably promote political views. Those who pretended to be objective and apolitical in their writing and teaching were implicitly and unconsciously supporting a conservative position. It is preferable (the argument concludes) to make the political assumptions of one’s courses explicit, allowing the students to consider consciously the ultimate political consequences of the materials on which the professor has chosen to focus. Because this argument makes some sense, it deserves to be considered seriously, but if we think about it in the context of liberal education it becomes incoherent, as I hope to show.
In the early days of my time at Grand Valley State University, a proposal for a new general education core curriculum explicitly adopted the political assumption as one of its basic principles. The proposal spoke of “the inevitably political dimension of culture—the senses in which any cultural expression is also an expression of power relationships based on race, class, gender, religion, and nationality.” This is a dangerous half-truth which should not be adopted as the core idea of a core curriculum. As David Bromwich puts it at the beginning of his excellent book, “Politics is not education; the means make a difference to the end.”
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