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Jim Sleeper

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A Small But Solid Victory for Liberal Education

Posted: 04/ 6/2012 4:44 pm

Just as the Tunisian vendor who sparked the Arab Spring was provoked not only by one bureaucratic or police affront but also by a long train of abuses, petty and large, that had alienated many Tunisians from the government, so the Yale professors who passed a resolution decisively (100 to 69) over their President Richard Levin's objection, in his presence, on April 5 were prompted by a lot more than the resolution's explicit concern for abuses of academic freedom, civil liberties and human rights by the government of Singapore, with whose National University Levin and the Yale Corporation are setting up a brand-new undergraduate college.

The faculty made clear that it was expressing larger concerns summarized two days before in a Yale Daily News column by Yale's Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy, Seyla Benhabib, the resolution's author (and my wife; this is a blog commentary, not only a report; I provide the links to other accounts below).

The faculty's main concerns were reiterated so explicitly in the two-and-a-half-hour-long, closed-door meeting itself that everyone there understood the resolution's passage as a vote of "no confidence" in the growing corporatization and centralization of governance and liberal education at Yale.

Levin and administration loyalists left the room silently as dozens of people congratulated professors Christopher Miller, Michael Fischer, Jill Campbell, Joel Rosenbaum, Mimi Yiengpruksawan and others, including Victor Bers, the classicist who has really been the William Lloyd Garrison of this movement from the start.

Although the Yale-NUS project, signed and sealed two years ago without the Yale faculty deliberating or deciding on it, will proceed on schedule, things won't be the same at Yale itself now that its company of scholars, or collegium, has rebuked Levin and the Yale Corporation for usurping its pedagogical and civic independence. Let other universities' administrations and faculty take note.

Without such independence, liberal education would have merely the instrumental uses that Singapore's government seeks in its rush to become a global-capitalist entrepot. The professors were rebuking the administration not just for lending their name and pedagogical mission to something concocted by the university's Davos men, but, as I have described here, for instituting bureaucratic procedures and decrees right in New Haven that reduce the company of scholars to a roster of corporate employees, and (as I've argued here and elsewhere) for developing a network of lavishly funded institutes and centers -- nunneries for failed, aging neoconservatives and Vulcan warriors who contribute nothing to scholarship and overawe undergraduates by telling war stories and showing how to fight their last wars, complete with career-counseling and recruitment services.

Now that the resolution has passed, the spin has begun. Yale's Tories -- who tried but failed to eviscerate the measure with amendments during the meeting -- are claiming that its passage indicates that faculty have accepted and even approved Yale's venture in Singapore simply by acknowledging its existence.

The new Yale-NUS college train has left the station, according to this spin, and while some dissidents may have hoped to derail it by dancing a self-righteous dance of protest, those who understand how the world really works will now get on with doing that work.

But one of the reasons for the Yale faculty's revolt is that those who claim to know how the world works have dragged us all through debacle after debacle, from Iraq through the 2008 meltdown and beyond, and then trying to put a nice face on it.

This has happened nowhere more often than at Levin's Yale, which bestowed an honorary doctorate on George W. Bush (Yale Class of '68) three months before he and Dick Cheney (Yale drop-out, 1961) took us on ventures supported by Levin and championed even more assiduously by faculty whom he favored, as I've described here. Some of the same people at Yale envisioned the Singapore venture as a course correction -- less imperialistic, more collaborative -- but, in too many ways, it's more of the same.

The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Yale Daily News both report the outcome and the spin of yesterday's decorous rebuke to the Yale administration. The New York Times gave a balanced anticipation of the controversy just before the resolution was passed.

But, really, the best way to understand what has been sparked here is to re-read Benhabib's short column explaining to the Yale community the main point of the resolution that passed yesterday against Levin's objection.

The is a set-back for Levin's vision of Yale, not only because of some likely negative reaction from Singapore (actually, the Yale faculty acted in solidarity with critics there of Singapore's regime, with which Levin has so uncritically collaborated), and not only because some Yale Corporation members may have been in it for the money (I've argued here that they were probably engaging in the old Yale practice of doing well by doing good, which is not the same thing).

Rather, this is set-back for Levin's vision of Yale for a softer, subtler, but in the long run more consequential reason: His policies and indulgences have abetted what The Economist magazine described at length a few weeks ago as a convergence of an Asian model of state capitalism with the one that's emerging in the U.S. What gets lost in that convergence are the American republic and civic-republican ideal, and this should worry honorable conservatives as well as liberals in America; but neither side is acknowledging or reckoning with it -- precisely the kind of reckoning a liberal education is for. The vote at Yale is the spark of something more promising.