Heterodox/Orthodox Education

The following post to a writing teachers listserv (WPA-l) was a consequence of an over-spirited conversation among college writing (usually referred to as rhet/comp) teachers discussing the limits of free-speech in college and university environments. I’m reposting mostly because I like to keep track of conversations like this.

Lurking behind the Heterodox/Orthodox (hx/ox) controversy in this listserv discussion lay the general tilt of higher education toward a liberal social philosophy.  

Rather than liberal, I would describe the academic environment as more tolerant of diversity than the public sphere, a consequence of the multiplicity of cultures from which students mix in the new university culture. 

In saying this, I am not imagining the public sphere as singular. The public sphere is constructed of varied spheres as well. But they are more insulated from each other than are the microspheres that form the university culture. The university culture, consequently, tends to be more tolerant (a telling adjective) of diversity than the surrounding general culture. This characteristic gets loosely translated as more liberal. 

My comment on the heterodox/orthodox controversy: 
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Although there have been moments of irritation, the conversation has been thoughtful (I particularly appreciated Eric’s last post), reflecting in many ways the political conversation to which we have been subjected for the last three years. For those of us who assume that the educational industry is only one of many social reproductive mechanisms, this reflection is no surprise. As rhet/comp professors and graduate students, we may fondly imagine ourselves as thinking, in a self-damming phrase, “outside the box,” when we are basically just in a slightly different box than, say, engineers, airplane pilots, or farmers. 

Conversations like these are interesting but essentially not about teaching. My own particular box, constructed largely by 60’s educator-radicals, John Dewey, and Paulo Freire, was framed by my love of writing and the pure pleasure that came from passing that passion on to students in my classes (it would take a long essay, maybe a book, to explain Dewey, Kozol, Britton, and Moffett as the sides and perhaps Berlin and Freire as the top and bottom of the box with me and some of my friends rattling around inside.)

The discussion of heterodoxy and orthodoxy in education (and society, which we mirror) might shift a bit if historicized, beginning perhaps with the free speech movement in the 60s (Mario Savio) as a response to capitalism, the civil rights movement, and the US intervention in Viet Nam and Latin America. As time passed, hx and ox faded into and away from each other, like colliding galaxies, dragging with them parts of the galaxy through which they had passed. 

There was a time the 90’s and early 2000’s when the orthodoxy in our field was that we were the center of the universe (Berlin made this mistake, dragging a host of us with him ). In that frame, the ox was that teachers who imagined teaching as a non-political act were naive. Inside the box (the orthodoxy), all teaching was political.

It is worth remembering the discussion surrounding what was known as the Texas debacle (late 80s, I think) and George Will’s coining of the phrase, “political correctness,” which to many of us has since been coded as a liberal attack on what is ironically framed in this thread as the conservatives’ free speech. With all due respect to Dayna’s posting of links to data supporting the existence of the Heterodox Academy, the first link points to a survey conducted by the CATO institute; many of the items in the CATO survey hinged on the code of “political correctness.” 

For people who have regretted the sometime volatile nature of the discussion: This list is clearly not a safe place. Why should it be? The list is a kind of training ground for publication in the academy, which is also not a safe place. The academy itself is not a safe place (read Jeff Schmitd’s Disciplined Minds); as I noted above, one of our primary (but hidden) functions is to reproduce culture– with some gestures toward what we uncritically imagine as critical thinking, detached from identity politics and experience.

In my career, I argued (as I did in Going North, Thinking West) for teaching writing, not politics. And I really mean the love of writing so that my students would have writing as a passion for the rest of their lives. Like singing. Like dancing. Like breathing.

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