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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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On Being a Left-Wing Academic

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Education Secretary Michael Gove has recently been complaining about Marxist professors at university, labelling them as the Enemies of Promise. At the same time, a new book about US universities has suggested that university campuses suffer from a dearth of right-wing perspectives as conservatives are chased out by angry socialists. As a card-carrying member of the Green Party, I guess I had better be added to the club - though I am not going to apologise or hang my head in shame, especially not to a hectoring education secretary who can’t even get his literary facts straight.

However, his comments did get me reflecting on my own teaching, and the ways in which it might or might not reflect my ideological presuppositions. Actually, like a good Althusserian, let’s be honest about this: ideology always affects every action, teaching necessarily included. Given this, the question is how does teaching become “left,” and is it necessarily a bad thing if it does?

It starts with the curriculum. Consider the following selection of texts that I have taught over the last term. My students have looked at Death of a Salesman, with its condemnation of that capitalist error of mistaking money for happiness; that same week I taught The Scarlet Letter, which condemns the hypocrisy of Puritanism – the same Puritanism whose work ethic underpins the American Dream by linking moral virtue to material success. We have examined Waiting for Godot, which draws on Sartre’s humanist philosophy to declare the death of god and the advent of secular values. My contemporary fiction groups have studied Things Fall Apart, a novel which invites us to adopt that empathetic perspective known as cultural relativism (a perspective one does not generally find in the pages of the Daily Mail); Achebe hopes we will understand how, seen in its own terms, a Nigerian tribal system in which children are ritually sacrificed might at least be comprehensible rather than merely “savage” behaviour that should be “civilised.” In a different way, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace suggests that in post-Apartheid Africa, black rape of whites may be a symptomatic recompense for the preceding years of racial and sexual violence enacted by whites on blacks. We have dealt with On Beauty, a novel which comically criticises a conservative art professor who wants to preserve education for the elite rather than for the masses.

As anyone else who has taught these texts will recognise, though, this picture is quite one dimensional. By definition good literature invites us to consider the tension between opposing moral values, to sympathise with realist characters who are trying to figure out the best but always imperfect way to negotiate an imperfect world.

So whilst Death of a Salesman is commonly held up to be a critique of capitalism, my groups also talked around a phrase from the end that seems to be Willy Loman’s epitaph: “he had the wrong dreams, all, all wrong”; it is not the act of dreaming itself but the extreme idealism with which Willy dreamt that was flawed. Indeed we anticipate that the son he leaves behind who presents the most optimistic vision of the future, Happy, will go on to live the American Dream of financial success. Waiting for Godot does not spare from showing us the bleakness of the world when traditional morality systems, such as religion, withdraw from it: it is in microcosm the picture of the broken society that conservatives love to lament. Things Fall Apart certainly hopes we will sympathetically understand why tribal people might behave as they do; but when white civilisation arrives, it is not seen as a wholly bad thing, bringing law to a land where women were previously beaten and children were killed to recompense for the crimes of their fathers. On Beauty balances its critique of conservatism by parodying postmodern theories of art and morality which suggest that there are no such things as truth or beauty – a fact which alienates the left-wing professor from the rest of his family.

A good curriculum – or a curriculum of good literature – does not automatically swing one way or the other, but balances uneasily on the centre ground (modern politicians should be well-familiar with the awkwardness this entails). Of course, that notion of what “good literature” is could itself be questioned and challenged. In my view expressed above, good literature is that which can be examined from two different points of view. The vision of Michael Gove – who would like the history curriculum to focus on Britain and ignore our role in the wider world through colonialism - would probably entail dollops of patriotic war poetry (without the awkward honesty of Owen and Sassoon), some Rudyard Kipling (excluding Kim), and a dosing of Shakespeare (preferably centred around Henry V).

To my mind, then, and implicit within most university English syllabuses, literature performs a function of perspective. Rather than pandering to our expectations, literature invites us into territories we would rather not consider, or would prefer to categorise as the domain of the other. Those who throughout history would have identified themselves as conservatives (with a small c) would have suggested women belonged as the “angel in the house”: the staples of the curriculum Jane Eyre and A Doll’s House would beg to differ. Some would argue that slaves, blacks, Africans do not deserve to be credited with independence of thought and personal autonomy: Beloved, The Colour Purple, Things Fall Apart show that is not the case. The lower classes fall beneath the notice of the ruling elite: Great Expectations shows how dangerous this might be.

Even though it is my contention that good literature shows us a spectrum of ethical values, the centre of that spectrum is often around those in society whom, without education, we would probably ignore. Thus whilst good teaching should acknowledge and refuse to settle on one point of view of a text, by default the fictional vehicle takes us on some uncomfortable journeys.

The question that extends from this, though, which lies behind Gove’s grumblings, is whether teachers should foreground this ethical process. Should we seek to explain just what values are being taught? Or let the literature alone do the teaching? Reflecting on my own practice, I am inclined to be overtly polemical.

This has been clearest to me in teaching critical theory. I am lecturing a full course at the University of Sunderland this year. On numerous occasions in lectures – usually when I start drifting away from my notes and start ad libbing – I have noticed myself adopting a strident tone. Teaching feminism, I got genuinely angry when telling my students the fact that should grab them by the throat and make them realise that feminism still matters: that within three years of graduating, before maternity leave and childcare come on the radar, female students in the lecture hall will be earning on average £1000 less than their male counterparts. I find myself continually reiterating the stranglehold of ideology, and reiterating Marx’s vision of how the economic base of society conditions the way we behave towards each other. In teaching deconstruction I presented my students with the binary of “immigrant” and “English” and invited them to show how the rhetoric of the right-wing tabloids falls apart as soon as one tries to pin down the national characteristics upon which it is predicated. In a lecture on race I spoke of how biology has proven that less than a tenth of one percent of our genetic material influences characteristics (such as skin colour) which might be identified as being “racial,” such that a black person and white person sitting next to each other might actually share more genes than two people seemingly of the same ethnic group; social constructivism has won the day, and down with anyone (anti-immigrant politicians in particular) who tries to tell you that racial integration is a bad thing.

Perhaps I should not have been so explicit. Perhaps I should simply have lit up my Powerpoint and let the slides and theories do the talking. Gove had some snide remarks to say about the academics who wrote a letter condemning his education reforms. He noted that the signatories teach “from a classical Marxist perspective”; study “how masculinities and femininities operate as communities of practice”; examine the “intergenerational ethnography of the intersection of class, place, education and school resistance.” Presumably, if classical Marxism is wrong, I should be serving up an equal dose of Thatcherism and explain how free market capitalism is a great thing (naturally I would have to conveniently ignore recent history if I did this). If masculinity and femininity are not gender roles performed in and affected by the communities people inhabit, I should be explaining that biology determines behaviour such that the women in the room should kindly get back home and dust the dresser. If the way intergenerational differences affect class and education is not worth studying, then I should ignore the fact that my students are paying £9000 a year for an education that their parents could in principle have got for free.

Well, forgive me, Mr. Gove, but I am not going to apologise for failing to offer a greater sense of balance. The reason we academics teach what we do is not because we have some secret agenda to turn our students into lifelong Labour voters. It is rather because we believe based on hard-won study that we are right. I am not going to say that racial differences are biologically determined when they are not. I will not imply that one’s biological sex determines that the only job women should do is bring up their children. I am not going to say that Marxist critics were wrong to highlight the power of ideology when we live in a society in which the poor single mother who suffers the biggest burden of spending cuts is represented as a “lazy scrounger” or a “benefits cheat.”

Like it or not, theory and literature have the capacity to change the world by opening our eyes to its sometimes messy realities. We are not the Enemies of Promise but the Idealists of Opportunity. Without feminist literature, women might not have the vote today; without Uncle Tom’s Cabin, black people would still be toiling the cotton fields of the deep South. These victories are good things. I stake my flag: I’ll shout from the lectern, and continue to march alongside those whose complex and tortuous lives literature invites us to live with.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:43 am

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