Preface: those interested in Lacan and Zizek will easily see how Michael Berube's What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts is a perfect example of university discourse: knowledge (S2) supported by power (S1) which must remain hidden under the bar, unacknowledged. Thus, in the place of S2 is critical intelligence or rational deliberation, for him, the very definition of liberalism. My interest (or, better, assignment) here is to set this out in more accessible terms.
My basic claim: Berube demonstrates quite clearly what is liberal about liberal arts. But instead of recognizing liberal arts and liberalism as formations of power/knowledge (and hence as in combat with conservativism and leftism) he views liberal thinking as reason (and hence as a universal norm) and dismisses those who disagree with him politically (those on the extremes of left and right) as irrational. Thus, he slides between the university and the polity, rendering those who are politically unacceptable irrational, as if the same measures or standards or conditions of rationality held politically that he thinks hold academically (or in the university).
Teach your children well or ISA's 101
The underlying supposition of Michael Berube's What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? is that liberal habits of mind (what liberal arts are supposed to teach or inculcate) are necessary (but likely not sufficient) for a liberal polity
I believe that liberal education is fundamental to the future of democracy in ways that many of us have not fully realized (20)
He writes as well of
the imperative to foster rational debate regardless of its ends (22).
So, for Berube a particular kind of politics (liberal democracy) requires a particular way of thinking, a kind of deliberative thinking. Or, more flatly, liberal politics depends on liberal thinking, which is taught in liberal arts. Typically, liberals refer to liberal thinking as reason. So, liberal politics requires reason. Berube seems to share this view when he writes:
I believe that the liberal ideal consists in engaging my most stringent interlocutors, so long as we share an underlying commitment to open-ended rational debate (22).
On the face of it, I don't find this claim outrageous--but of course, it's not a liberal claim. Socialists can easily say that socialist governance requires socialist thinking and socialist arts. Multiculturalists will say that multicultural governance requires multicultural thinking and multicultural arts. So, Berube's underlying supposition isn't liberal per se. It's a political supposition or a supposition about relations of power that enables him to make some points about liberals and liberal education. Educational apparatuses should produce the sort of citizen/subjects necessary for particular regime of governance (or, let's go all Foucauldian here and say, and that's why it's called "power/knowledge").
I'll add that Berube recognizes the tensions between substantive and procedural liberalism (although I find the distinction is overblown--substantive liberalism emphasizes and concretizes the difficult political matters that proceduralism reduces to matters of content or application) and uses them to good effect: deliberation is valuable and necessary because the susbtance of liberalism is open, contested, and undecided.
The empty space of liberalism
What's outside liberalism's rational deliberation?
the radical right's increasingly venomous and hallucinatory attacks on a judical branch most of whose members were in fact appointed by Republicans (22).
and, from the far left (what he likes to call the Monty-python left)
the Ward Churchill's who pop up every so often making outrageously stupid and/or morally obtuse remarks... (93)
So, liberal thought is in between bestiality (venomous), insanity and drug addiction (hallucinatory), on the one side, and, on the other, stupidity and immorality. To my mind, this is not an auspicious beginning for presenting a notion with claims to fairness and some kind of neutrality.
It's also hard to see what makes it reasonable other than the fact that it claims to be reasonable and sees everything else as unreasonable and immoral. In fact, Berube's description of liberal rationality retains from the history of liberalism (I have Locke in mind) the dissociation of reason from the habits of mind of women, savages, and imbeciles. It's as if this "reason" can only appear in the space it establishes through a set of attacks and exclusions. This is really no surprise (return to Foucault refrain, that's why we call it power/knowledge).
Pass the buck (or how to displace one's enabling suppositions onto another)
But, it's not the kind of supposition of power that liberals typically want to ground their thinking in--instead, they prefer to deny their enabling suppositions, which seems to me to be why they are forced to project these suppositions onto others, and in Berube's case, onto those he positions on the extremes of left and right in order to insert himself solidly in the middle (of a spatiality that he produces through these very positionings. If you find yourself disagreeing with this claim, consider the following--Paul's students in constitutional law recently dismissed George H. W. Bush as too liberal; Nancy Fraser, a socialist and deliberative democrat, frequently writes so as to present her own view as in the middle of two extremes; Ann Coulter has derided Ruth Bader Ginsberg as the lunatic left; people like me loathe Hillary Clinton for her unbearable shift to the right).
This framing, with liberal thought and rational deliberation solidly in the middle of these two extremes, reappears in Berube's division of his students into conservatives, liberals, leftistsm and libertarians (120).
Liberals... tend to be civic-minded, well-informed, and inclined toward careers in education, law, or public service.
Another bunch, further off to the left, finds figures such as Noam Chomsky so persuasive when it comes to American wickedness at home and abroad ... that they become utterly indiscriminate about 'dissent.'
Berube thinks that these left students are likely to 'suspend their critical judgment.' He also trashes Michael Moore and Michael Parenti. The former's grasp of international politics "is shakey and uniformed" and the latter is an apologist for fascism and ethnic cleansing. The risk of these guys, and the problem of the left, for Berube, is a lowering of moral and intellectual standards. I'll skip the conservatives and libertarians and simply note that what Berube finds distasteful from both left and right is their aggressive sefl-righteousness.
A possible indication of the problem of displacing one's enabling assumption onto another is the paranoia that results. Berube writes:
Liberals and progressives tend to be suspicious of people too far to their left, because those people, like the religious right, have a bad track record when it comes to devising policies for fostering pluralism and decentralizing decision-making authority in civil society (288).
It's weird that progressives would be suspicious of, say, those who fought for the 8 hour working day, unemployment insurance, health insurance, regulatory oversight over the enviroment and workplaces. I also find it strange to fault a left--likely socialist--for advocating socialist (centralized) decision making. But, my point here is the paranoia, the suspicion of the extremes that becomes for Berube one of the markers, circumscribers, of liberalism (it's also interesting that by the end of the book he has to ally with progressives, who are not mentioned at the beginning and don't seem to fit with his theme of liberal arts education; the reason, I think, is that Berube wants a little bit more control over the extremes of wealth and poverty than he can get through liberalism alone, one, and that his social views (pro gay marriage) are more deeply held than liberal thought can account for--he thinks there is something deeply, morally wrong about a view that condemns same sex couples. I agree, but I think that his assessment that something is deeply wrong with those who condemn it demonstrates how liberalism is a political accomodation and arrangement of power, not a practice of reason or approach to governance rooted in critical deliberation).
Liberal Love? No, thanks!
The alternative to aggressive self-righteousness, it seems, is critical thinking or critical intelligence--this is what "the liberal arts corner of the campus" loves "more than anything else." (I like very much that Berube has to turn to love here. That he turns to love lets us know that he recognizes the difficulty of finding a reasonable (or non-tautological) argument for reason. It also lets us recognize the complexity of our relations to critical intelligence--love is a complex and extreme emotion, containing within itself hatred, sacrifice, jealousy, self-destructiveness, narcissism, objectification, desire, repugnance, hunger, attachment, etc).
Yet, it seems that liberals are the only ones capable of critical thinking--and this is also not surprising, since this is how Berube has defined liberals and liberalism from the outset. Anything that is extreme (or on what Berube positions as extreme in his particular spatial imaginary) is non-liberal.
This designation of extreme as illiberal appears in Berube's odd criticism of Campus Watch. He says that he finds Campus Watch's claim to respect freedom of speech disingenuous because it created a list of apologists for terrorism. Why is their claim disingenuous? It's as if free speech were not risky or dangerous speech, speech that would incite and outrage--and incite an outraged response. But Berube advocates a liberalism premised on exclusions--so he can't advocate a kind of speech that is outraged. So, he can love critical intelligence, but not critical intelligence put in extreme ways. This suggests a kind of chaste love, or perhaps a kind of chivalry that keeps passion at a distance. (Berube also criticizes the right in terms of its fetish objects--"things the right loves to hate so intensely that no liberal 'defense' of them will suffice (278), again the problem seems to be with intensity, an intensity of passion and conviction that withstands what Berube's corner of the campus loves, critical intelligence; or, better, which Berube understands as withstanding and thus outside of reasonable deliberation.)
I think that the true core of Berube's view of liberal arts and liberal politics appears when he refers to the "true purpose of an elite education" (56). The training in reason he advocates is an elite training, a cultivation of habits of mind that steer clear of extremes, that in fact are only known in relation to these extremes. Does this mean that the masses, the non-elites, are a mass of extremes, of appetites and aversions easily thrown by the rhetorics of right and left, easily drawn to fascism or communism? And does it mean that the liberal elite are the proper steerers or governors of the mass, the ones capable of avoiding extremes, perhaps because of their love for critical reason? Or, are they just an elite trying for political control from a particular power base in the educational ideological state apparatus?
Return to refrain--and that's why they call it power/knowledge.