June 24, 2006

It's the idea, stupid, not the network

And this morning, I get to combine two major topics of this blog, academic freedom and (mostly K-12) education policy, with the following message: a social network is not a conspiracy, but it can embody a worldview.

Case 1: NCLBlog (of the AFT) has pointed out that the response to a Freedom of Information Act request about a modern (suited and not trigger-happy) Pinkerton agent Richard Berman coordinating an anti-union publicity campaign notes a whole lot of people at least tenuously involved in Berman's activities, including bloggers.

Case 2: Last Friday (June 16th), Alan Jones penned a column at Inside Higher Ed, trying to "connect the dots," as the headline put it, in funding of conservative groups who criticize higher ed. His central claim: "the same funding sources that brought Horowitz’s organization into being, also created and sustain a large and integrated network of ideologically defined think tanks and centers both outside of and within the higher education establishment.... The relentlessness with which columnists and experts with direct funding relationships with Olin, Scaife, Bradley, Koch and Coors level charges of academic bias and assert the need for legislative reform of higher education is remarkable. The goal of this narrowly focused and ideologically driven public relations campaign can only be understood in terms of its fostering of a political climate in which federal regulatory “reform” of what is universally recognized as the finest system of higher education in the world, will be tolerated."

Sample response in case 1: Andrew Rotherham (who was apparently mentioned in the documents) writes, "I'm shocked! Next they'll tell us that the NRA and the Republicans are in cahoots!"

Sample response in case 2: After point out some egregious factual errors, Jones target Cathy Young writes, "Jones's diatribe resembles nothing so much as David Horowitz's attempt to sniff out George Soros's money behind every left-wing venture."

A FOIA request is not a conspiracy theory, but I hope that the AFL-CIO (with which I'm affiliated because of my membership in an AFT local) is careful in describing the social networking, because it's embarrassing when someone like Alan Jones goes way overboard. Social networking and funding is not, in itself, evidence of some conspiracy or inappropriate twisting of a democratic polity. It seems that conservative funding agencies and think tanks (and wannabes) have not tried to hide their links. This is different from the efforts of very wealthy families to establish front organizations deliberately to fight the estate tax. The key officers and staff members in the Reason Foundation, Manhattan Institute, American Enterprise Institute, Hoover Institute, etc., are not fronts. They're true believers or serious intellectuals (or both). And there are serious intellectual differences among the think-tankie types (to borrow from a Tom Chapin song).

The way to respond to the arguments of a social network with a coherent worldview (when there is one) is ... to respond to the arguments. If you're truly afraid that a network of funding will wash over the efforts of hundreds of folk, remember that we have the internet now. Michael Bérubé can now wield almost as much force through his blog as David Horowitz can with his minions at Front Page. We'll be in trouble if Horowitz ever hires a fact-checker, but the nice thing about the wild ones is that they generally think they don't need fact-checking.

So how have social networks blinded conservatives and others in talking about either teacher unions or academic freedom?

In the area of education and teachers unions, the key blind spot is the inconsistency surrounding material interest. Whenever you hear someone describe unions as "interest groups" or as organizations devoted to "adult interests," not "children's interests," listen carefully to arguments made about the motivation of teachers. In many cases, the same folks who disaparage unions for looking after the material collective well-being of teachers want to impose some rationalistic carrot-and-stick system to motivate teachers through ... oh, yeah, material interest.

In the area of academic freedom, the key blind spot is the conflation of political perspective with academic perspectives. (Not incidentally, this is their common criticism of faculty.) While many of the voter-card-check studies of faculty are methodologically weak, they're also beside the point. Who cares whether a majority of faculty in a department are liberal, conservative, libertarian, socialist, whatever? What matters in an academic context are the academic perspectives. Physicist Alan Sokal is a pretty liberal guy, from what I remember, and yet had no problem poking fun at postmodernists in the Great Social Text Hoax of the 90s. A neo-Marxist perspective (and my brain is spinning right now trying to think of a true Marxist in sociology these days) is very different from a Weberian (e.g., David Labaree) who is very different from a Tocquevillean (e.g., Theda Skocpol), but you can find Democrats among them all. Yet they have no problem disagreeing on the fundamental ideas. Incidentally, the best exchange to come out of the Alan Jones imbroglio is between Timothy Burke and KC Johnson about the larger issues involved in academic freedom and the judgment of different arguments.

And, finally, worst come to worst, you can always turn to your friendly Think Tanky Type and say, "Oh, so that's now the conventional wisdom?" They hate being identified as spouting conventional wisdom. No, that's not quite true, but it's a guaranteed conversation starter, if you happen to bump into them. I'm jesting, but the best ground for fighting ideas is still in the realm of ideas, not poking away at funding sources.

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Posted in Education policy on June 24, 2006 7:30 AM |