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UCLA Magazine Winter 2004
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Winter 2004
Too Liberal?
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If university education is skewed to the left, can the imbalance be corrected simply by introducing more voices from the right? "The point isn't to represent all ideas, and the point isn't to structure a seminar around right-wing and left-wing views that is not the way to transmit knowledge," says Andrew Aisenberg, chair of the Department of History and the Department of Cultural Studies at Scripps College a liberal sister institution to conservative Claremont McKenna within the Claremont Colleges. "What differentiates the university from other institutions where knowledge is presented, such as the church, is that the university encourages thinking about ideas instead of replacing thinking with preset ideas."

But that's precisely what gives the academy its image of the proverbial ivory tower a place too liberal compared to the rest of society. So the question is, what separates the academy from the larger society? "It's not liberalism, but the idea that identity politics is very strong in the academy," says Getman. "There is a real commitment to black minority rights, gay rights, women's rights, but there is little of the old New Deal approach, which is to join everybody together. Working-class people, who themselves have a lot of liberalism, feel left out."

In short, the disadvantaged who don't fit into one of the interest groups have been excluded from liberal politics. "There is a tendency to lump all white males together, says Getman, adding: "If liberals are for all sorts of rights but leave out a group that has also been historically underprivileged, that's liberal faddishness."

One conclusion that can be drawn from the failure of distributive justice in the United States is that "deep down, this country is profoundly conservative," says UCLA's Lal. "The possibility of dissent is so narrow that the definition of liberalism itself has also become considerably more narrow. There is, for example, no substantive difference between John Kerry and George Bush, and it's illustrative of a strong anti-intellectual streak in this country that one of the worst things that Bush could say about Kerry is that he's a liberal senator."

The problem runs deeper. "Part of the anger toward academia is that academics tend to be snobs who have never really had contact with working-class people," says Getman, who deliberately stopped wearing suits to class years ago so that he wouldn't come across as the Harvard-educated elite that he is. As academics remain aloof from blue-collar workers, he adds, identity politics exacerbates the problem.

Liberals must understand how they come across to the other side, says Getman. "One hopes that one result of the presidential election would be a serious effort by political liberals and academics, who tend to be part of the same group, to make common cause with ordinary people without regard to whether they are enlightened on all issues and whether they are minorities or not."

Ajay Singh is a senior writer for UCLA Magazine.


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