Michelle Kamhi is the co-editor of the online arts review Aristos, and a mild-mannered, well-spoken New Yorker with a love of art and intellectual integrity. She is also the cause of a heated controversy that has broken out in the world of art education. The source of this conflict is an op-ed Kamhi wrote in the Wall Street Journal last June entitled “The Political Assault on Art Education.” Presenting a condensed version of a longer piece she had written in Aristos in April (“The Hijacking of Art Education”), Kamhi took aim at a movement that merits heightened public scrutiny and discussion: “social justice art,” a branch of the broader “visual culture” movement in art education. By thrusting this issue onto the stage, Kamhi has provided us with information about a disturbing trend in art education, and with an opportunity to hold a needed public discussion about education and the arts in a democratic society.
Art education is part of the educational mission regarding the young, which unavoidably entails making normative (and perhaps political) choices about the types of citizens we want to shape. But because liberal democracies are dedicated first and foremost to individual freedom and conscience (Lincoln said we are “consecrated” in liberty), state power and politics are limited. This means that art education in a liberal democracy will eschew the politicization of art, freeing the individual student to learn art for its own sake in a manner that cannot be reduced to politics and the state. This model of art education differs from the art education espoused by such thinkers as Plato and Rousseau, and various activists whose vision of art education is political, not aesthetic and individual. The “social justice” art movement points us decidedly in the direction of Rousseau than James Madison.
Just what is social justice art? In terms of definition and purpose, it is art in the service of such socially “progressive” causes as identity politics (“recognition”); greater equality through redistribution of resources; the environment; and critiques of the present social, economic, and political arrangements in the United States. The movement is propelled by a partnership between “art activists” and education school faculty, and it draws its inspiration from such sources as “critical theory” and the pedagogical theories of Paulo Freire. Freire’s classic book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, was written to address the severe repression of peasants in Brazil in the 1960s. Applying Freire’s logic to the United States, education activists have come up with such concoctions as “Radical Math,” which incorporates radical politics into, of all things, mathematics. (See Sol Stern’s “The Propaganda in Our Ed Schools”: http://www.mindingthecampus.com/originals/2010/10/the_propaganda_in_our_ed_schoo.html ) The list of potential subjects for radicalization is vast; so enter art education.
Continue reading Social Justice Art and Liberal Democracy
Inside Higher Ed took a look at the controversy over the “Crying Wolf” project, in which a committee consisting mostly of academics will pay for works of “scholarly integrity” dealing with contemporary public policy issues. Scholarly “integrity,” in this case, means reaching the conclusion before assembling the evidence.
Defenses of the Wolfers, alas, confirm critiques of the project. Take, for instance, the case of Michael Les Benedict. Much like Wolfer board members Tom Sugrue and Nelson Lichtenstein, Benedict is hardly a fringe figure in the academy. He has published numerous, well-regarded books on Civil War and Reconstruction Era political and constitutional history, and currently serves as AHA Parliamentarian. This background makes his defense of the Wolfers’ project all the more troubling.
“Those who contribute to Crying Wolf,” Benedict writes, “already have studied the subjects they will write about.” Actually, nothing in the Crying Wolf manifesto lists such a prerequisite. Moreover, the decision to open the scholarship-for-pay project up to graduate students (few of whom, given academic realities, would have any publication records) suggests that having studied the subject in any depth isn’t a requirement for payment.
Continue reading The Wolfers Dig a Deeper Hole
Part II, The Solution
(The first part of this essay can be found here.)
Restoring good sense to universities means allowing levelheaded academics to compete with radical imposters who proliferate by printing up their bogus currency. In a phrase: restore the gold standard of discovering and imparting truth. It is unnecessary to re-write university regulations to stop Ward Churchills or stipulate “good” and “bad” scholarship (which, in any case, is legally impossible and futile). The radicals have created a huge infrastructure, everything from journals to foundations, which, together with skilled back scratching, permits them to multiply virtually unchecked. A well-funded counter-weight is necessary. This is not about re-stocking the university with right-wing professors. The aim is encouraging non-ideological, unbiased let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may research. To paraphrase Orwell, victory will be announced when a professor can stand before his class and say, without fear, 2 +2=4.
Research requires money, often relatively small sums, and these are often difficult to obtain for those with the “wrong” views. University research boards, the traditional sources of seed money, are often controlled by PC forces. My own personal experiences here was that no hare-brained leftish proposal, no matter how technically flawed, was denied, even when damned by reviewers. If endangered species faculty are denied support, they will be enticed away by rivals, so it is better to give $10,000 to study cross-dressing Latina truck drivers than recruit a hard-to-find replacement for the “unappreciated” scholar. This is just supply and demand. As for the legitimate researcher seeking funds, a single impassioned rejection is sufficient no matter how ideologically motivated.
Similar obstacles are encountered when appealing to large foundations—requests to fund project that might “offend” politically protected groups are probably DOA, and so unlikely to be submitted in the first place. More generally, and this certainly includes nearly all “right wing” foundations, few foundations favor small grants or small projects—processing is just too labor intensive. Better to give a million to a single program than tediously scrutinize hundreds of requests for $25,000 or less. The Olin Foundation’s $25,000 for Allen Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind is a rare exception but one worth emulating (even Olin favored large scale, institution-building investment, however). To my knowledge, the only conservative benefactor that currently plays this seed money role is the Earhart Foundation, but their resources are modest and, I am told, like Olin, they are about shut down voluntarily (Disclosure—I have received several Earhart grants).
Continue reading Rescuing The University, II