HAZARDING THE QUESTION OF POLITICAL TEACHING
Michael M. Logan
Of concern in this essay are the conditions under which pedagogy has its occasions in the contemporary university. Recognizing current momentum toward downsizing, efforts to improve costefficiency, and repeated moves toward privatization modeled after corporate procedures, we assume all of these things will affect those who would teach or be taught in universities. I wish to respond to what I perceive to be a general call to action echoed by various authors who have recently written from within the academy, albeit from different vantage points and for differing purposes, about the current "crisis" of the university. These authors have all located the teaching scenario in various practical contexts, yet what they have repeatedly hinted at or pointed to is that teaching itself needs to be continually rethought if universities are to foster any language or culture capable of thinking alternatives to a dominant liberalism, that hegemony which speaks to American culture at the national level. I should say now that none of the authors I cite in the first brief section of this essay talks about teaching as any kind of political thing per se. I cite them to demonstrate a very general trend, this call to action I have referred to, as regards teaching. This is what I wish to identify, before I argue how even such a call to action to rethink the value of pedagogy rushes past certain sets of questionsquestions crucial to providing some space to think the possibility of what might accurately be called "political teaching." What follows here offers little if anything in the way of philosophical statements about teaching, or about how to "make it more socially relevant;" instead the following essay should be understood as an attempt to take stock of the situationathand, not to arrive at answers about teaching as much as to understand where it is one situates her or himself ideologically, and how exactly one thinks about what teaching is, when one asks if teaching can be "political."
Of the various authors who have recently hinted about the relative value of teaching, many discuss similar reasons for the university s seeming ineffectualness. They suggest the origins of the problem lie in a certain rhetorical overemphasis within various discursive practices, ranging from those evident in the voices of students, of their parents, of their professors, and of university administrative officersfrom students to state officials. What seems to be overemphasized by these various discourses has to do with university economics and administrative policies following corporate models. Accordingly, this pervasive thinking about the site of teaching (the university) in terms of hardline economics comes to be understood as symptomatic of dominant attitudes about the university, those that tend to regard the university as a corporation among other corporations competing in a globaleconomic arena.
For example Mark Edmundson observes, in an essay appearing in Harpers, September, 1997, that American university culture somehow encourages students to regard pedagogy as "lite entertainment." Edmundson goes on to assert that this rather cynical yet widespread university selfimage, in this case read in students, actually results from a cultural environment privileging a "consumerist" world view:
... University culture, like American culture writ large, is ... ever more devoted to consumption and entertainment, to the using and using up of goods and images. For someone growing up in America now, there are few available alternatives to the cool consumer worldview. My students didnt ask for that view, much less create it, but they bring a consumer weltanschauung to school, where it exerts a powerful influence.
Edmundson claims its not because too many weird theories are in the air (which is what some would say) that the current university seems largely ineffective to the general public; rather, its that university culture reflects American culture "writ large." That is, American culture understood in terms of its ties to American national culture, broadly conceived of as middleclass consumer culture, is what shapes university culture, perhaps most immediately through incoming students, and somewhat less immediately through administrative policies responding to growing populations of students bringing in such "cool consumer" preconceptions about knowledge production. Edmundson also suggests that the discourses of the contemporary universityincrisis fail to find language that can acknowledge such an influence. The forces of a powerful set of ideasthose associated with "cool consumerism"seem to widen a preexistent gap between the rhetoric of efficiency that dominates university administrative policy and the rhetoric of the humanities or philosophy generally speaking, understood as a constellation of discourses that might refute the managerial rhetoric of efficiency that governs so many of stateadministrative investigations and assessments. (Often it is these inquiries whose solutions to fiscal problems often justify the downsizing of departments, especially those in the humanities.)
(This text is only a selection. For the complete essay please see our journal)