Summer Reading List

Summer is here…or close enough.  What are people planning to read?  Seems like everyone and their brother are publishing their summer reading lists.  Hoping to beat Oprah’s 2013 list to the punch, here are a few from ILYBYGTH’s idiosyncratic dream library:

1.)    Jason Rosenhouse, Among the Creationists.

This is one I’ve been excited about for a long time.  Rosenhouse is an atheist mathematician with a familiar hobby.  For years he has traveled to creationist conferences and interacted with creationists and their ideas.  From the publisher’s description:

After ten years of attending events like the giant Creation Mega-Conference in Lynchburg, Virginia, and visiting sites like the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, and after hundreds of surprisingly friendly conversations with creationists of varying stripes, he has emerged with a story to tell, a story that goes well beyond the usual stereotypes of Bible-thumping fanatics railing against coldly rational scientists. Through anecdotes, personal reflections, and scientific and philosophical discussion, Rosenhouse presents a more down-to-earth picture of modern creationism and the people who espouse it. He is neither polemical nor insulting, but he does not pull punches when he spots an error in the logical or scientific reasoning of creationists, especially when they wander into his own field, mathematics.

Right up my alley.  I’ve got the book on my table, top of my list.

2.)    Amy Binder and Kate Wood, Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives.

As we noted here earlier, this book suggests that higher education is a more ideologically complicated place than many pundits suggest.  Many self-identified conservative intellectuals have panned the book as “patronizing.”  Bruce Bawer at Minding the Campus skewered the title as an example of “the insularity and obtuseness of the academic left.”  I’m looking forward to reading the book more carefully myself.  Do these criticisms hold water?

3.)    Charles J. Holden, The New Southern University: Academic Freedom and Liberalism at UNC .

For my next book project, I’m considering a look at conservative Protestant higher education through the twentieth century.  Holden’s new book examines the flagship “Southern” university in Chapel Hill during the formative decades between the World Wars.  As reviewer Wayne Urban noted in an H-Net review, Holden focuses on the ways UNC served as a bastion of “liberal” thinking and culture during these decades.  In my study of conservative evangelical Protestantism in the 1920s, I found that UNC did indeed often lead the charge for a politicized vision of what it meant to be both “intellectual” and “Southern.”  As I think about diving deeper into the world of “fundamentalist” university life, I hope Holden’s work will help broaden my understandings of the meanings of higher education in this period.

4.)    Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age .

This title is not particularly new, nor is it focused tightly on the areas I usually read about. That’s why I think it will make good summer reading.  According to a gushing review in the New York Times, Dreyfus and Kelly begin with the assumption that “The gods have not withdrawn or abandoned us.  We have kicked them out.”  Since I spend so much of my time reading arguments for the continuing centrality of ferocious, doctrinal monotheism, this argument looks like an intriguing counterweight.

What else are people planning to read this summer?  Books from outside your usual “work” fare?  Books recommended long ago but put on the ever-growing “to be read” pile?

Liberal Education or Left-Wing Indoctrination?

What is college for?  Should students stretch their minds by considering all sorts of competing, even conflicting ideas?  Or should young adults learn to intone the hackneyed, ideologically purified phrases of a single viewpoint?

Many conservative pundits these days insist that too many colleges have become left-wing reeducation camps.  But does that match our experience?

In a recent review of Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty for the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas, Bruce Thornton heartily agrees that too many institutions of higher education have slid into the heavy mire of politically correct intellectual conformity.

unlearning_libertyA self-proclaimed “liberal,” Lukianoff’s Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has led a campaign to open college campuses to true intellectual controversy.

As Thornton notes, Lukianoff’s book chronicles example after example of over-eager campus authorities cracking down on students’ free speech rights.  For instance, one Yale student was punished in 2009 for wearing a t-shirt that quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The offending shirt proclaimed—in the run-up to a big football game—that “all Harvard men are sissies.”

These and a host of other speech clampdowns are led by an army of humorless, vindictive student enforcers, whom Thornton calls “sensitivity commissars.”  The problem, as Thornton relates, is that “in orientation programs, only one point of view, the progressive-leftist one, is allowed a hearing, and students who resist it are subjected to sanctions and shaming exercises worthy of religious cults.”

The pattern of repression, Thornton insists, is not applied equally.  “Christians,” Thornton writes, “are particularly singled out for censorship, as are Republican organizations and other conservative groups, especially pro-Israel ones, whose publications are often vandalized, campus events attacked, and speakers shouted down.”

These notions of an oppressive left-wing campus Red-Guardism seem widely shared among conservative writers.  But do they match our experience?

I teach at a large public university in the northeast.  Perhaps I’m not sensitive enough to it, but our sprawling campus seems to welcome a real variety of speech, student and otherwise.  We have student groups for a variety of religious viewpoints, some of them resolutely conservative.  Self-identified “conservative” students with whom I talk report that they do not feel particularly shut out or victimized.  The campus is peppered with outside speakers who promote a kaleidoscope of ideas, from Biblical literalism to aggressive atheism.

Colleagues report similar experiences.  One science-education academic from a large public university in the Southeast tells me his education colleagues repeatedly indoctrinate their pre-service teachers with a message of Christian religiosity.

These are admittedly sketchy and anecdotal reports, but some more careful research seems to back it up.  David Long’s ethnography revealed a host of creationist students and faculty at public, pluralistic colleges.  Amy Binder’s and Kate Wood’s study of two leading schools revealed plenty of opportunity for conservative students at such schools, even if some students reported feeling victimized or shut out of campus life.

Perhaps the answer lies in broadening the lens.  Elite schools such as Yale might have rigid thought-police regimes.  However, we must remember two important facts: not many college students go to Yale, and even Yale produced William F. Buckley.

Binder on “Becoming Right” at College

Since long before William F. Buckley published his enfant-terrible critique of rampant secularism and slouching liberalism at Yale, conservative intellectuals and activists have attacked the culture of American higher education.  As I argued in my 1920s book, such critiques have always been a central part of the educational culture wars.

A review of Amy Binder’s new book at Inside Higher Ed suggests that conservative worries about campus leftism may be misplaced, or at least oversimplified.

Binder, whose first book was a must-read study of creationism and afrocentrism, told the reviewer,  “I was really surprised at how university context makes a difference in how  students experience being conservative.”

Binder argues in her new book Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives (Princeton University Press, 2013) that the type of school may have a bigger effect on young conservatives than most people have recognized.  Along with co-author Kate Wood, Binder studied conservative students at an “Eastern elite” university and a “Western flagship” school.  In the Eastern school, conservative students tended to adopt a conversational style of activism.  In the West, young conservatives got more combative.

In addition to the differences a campus can make, Binder & Wood find a much broader spectrum of student experience on “liberal” campuses than the traditional story suggests.  Some students even find themselves converted to conservatism by the liberal atmosphere.

One wonders what William F. Buckley would say.