26.12.16

TEACH THE CONTROVERSIES.

That "Problem of Whiteness" course at the University of Wisconsin, which is drawing fire from state legislators, serves as a useful case study in the way intellectual inquiry ought to be done, and the ways the inquiry is being done wrong.  Start with Wisconsin attorney Rick Esenberg, who notes, "Silly course, but curtailing academic freedom isn’t the answer."  The course title might be silly, or it might be a bit of marketing, using a title more provocative than "Contemporary Social Hierarchies," or it might be a fallacy of presumption at work.  That appears to be Mr Esenberg's thesis.
Race has mattered in our country and it is reasonable to think that our interactions with each other continue to be affected by it. The historically disadvantaged social position of African-Americans is unlikely to be wholly irrelevant to where we are today. We may not always be aware of how race affects attitudes and actions.

But as with so much on the academic left, these commonplace observations are often turned into an elaborate and vapid political contrivance in which highly problematic propositions about economics and race are treated as unassailable gospel.

In Sajnani’s class, students are to “learn” how white people “consciously and unconsciously perpetuate institutional racism and how this not only devastates communities of color but also perpetuates the oppression of most white folks along the lines of class and gender.” Students are to “consider” the notion that “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.”

Of course, it just may be that, in the 21st century, race plays out in a more complicated and less cartoonish manner. Perhaps the way out of our racial past is not to double down on race consciousness and polarization. But neither the course description nor reading list hints that such views will be explored or tolerated. It seems that indoctrination and not investigation is what is on offer. We must march, my darlings.
It might be more precise, and less provocative, to suggest that intersectionality theory produces testable hypotheses (do white people unconsciously perpetuate oppression?) whilst the course treats these as maintained hypotheses.  (An alternative, if you're curious:  there are survivals of kinship ties that offer ways for insiders to identify or to communicate trust with other insiders, to the exclusion of outsiders.)  To Mr Esenberg, the course description comes off as dismissive of those other interpretations, which he suggests are unavailable thanks to higher education's epistemic closure.

In The Federalist, David Marcus has an essay about the pedagogical errors of urging students to confess to their privilege rather than thinking more carefully about the possible downsides of conventions that favor insiders.
The recurring, tired refrain that we should have a white history month if there is a black history month, or white student unions on campuses, is unintentionally being given new life by the Left. Celebrations or organizations of whiteness do not exist because we don’t need them. White people do not face the same kinds of systemic discrimination that people of color do. But progressives are doing a very good job of convincing white people that they do.
Or, put more simply, every month is Insider Month. Noting the accomplishments of various sorts of Outsiders might make Insiders more receptive to bringing Outsiders Inside.  But privilege-shaming the Insiders well might backfire.
One can teach against white supremacy by encouraging students to treat everyone as equal, or at least as individuals not defined in important ways by their race. Privilege theory does not allow for this approach. It demands that differences be front and center and that we always consider a person’s race in considering him. This focus on “valuing differences” over “the colorblind model” unlocked the door to the white supremacist revival that today’s anti-white rhetoric has kicked open.
Mr Marcus's focus is on social developments well outside the classroom, but his argument that compelling Insiders to confess guilt for their privileges can lead to unpleasant things is also a suggestion that perhaps, instead of "interrogating" Whiteness (yeah, I'm going to mock the use of that term whenever it doesn't involve darkened rooms, knuckle-dusters, and polished jackboots), which often deteriorates into affirming the consequent, social scientists ought let students confront the controversies.

That appears to be what Christina Berchini of Wisconsin-Eau Claire is doing.
My students (all 34 of them) and I examined race and racism in text (novels, music, and other forms), institutions (schools, prisons, and others), and our own experiences.

What does this mean?

It means that we examined our assumptions about race, and the foundation upon which our experiences with race rest. It means we examined racialized privilege and identity development. Which, by design, means we examined whiteness. I warn my predominantly white students in advance that the content we cover is provocative; it is rhetorically powerful. I clue them into the reality that painful emotions might emerge while engaging the kinds of concepts and ideas about race and whiteness that we cover during our 15 weeks together. I remind them that anger, resentment and hopelessness are perfectly normal responses to topics in a course that centers on the experience of race in the United States.
It's a short column in a newspaper, not the best place to do deep inquiry.  I'm not sure, for instance, what "examining assumptions" means: do we start with premises and see what testable implications follow, or are the students being asked to consider what evidence would lead them to revise their prior beliefs, or something else.  Thus I'm not assured that the readings over the fifteen weeks aren't full of consequent-affirming.  But I'd rather students raise questions such as "What other explanations might there be for this author's stance?" with the expectation of a serious answer, rather than a privilege check, or a guilt trip.  Alas, that's missing from the article's comments.  (Article comments are never for the faint of heart.)

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