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Pedagogy 3.2 (2003) 259-262

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Graff and the Left

David R. Shumway

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My task is to talk about Gerald Graff and the Left. But which Left? The identity-politics Left of women's, gay and lesbian, and African American studies? The "traditional," class-based Left of Marxism? Is it what Henry Louis Gates Jr. (1990: 89) calls "the cultural left . . . the Rainbow Coalition of contemporary critical theory"? Or, even more broadly, is it all of "us" not on the right and committed "to an inclusive and controversial academy" (Bialostosky 1999: 397)? It will become clear that it matters which Left we are talking about, but we can begin by asserting that the Left in general has had two basic sets of objections to Graff's proposal that the humanities should "teach the conflicts."

The first set assumes that Graff ignores the goal of "student empowerment," which can be produced by what Henry A. Giroux (1994: 315) calls "political education": "Political education means teaching students to take risks, challenge those with power, honor critical traditions, and be reflexive about how authority is used in the classroom." Graff, according to Giroux, [End Page 259] confuses political education with "politicizing" education: dogmatic, authoritarian teaching that emphasizes methodology and objectivity. This objection is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of Graff's proposal and not in genuine disagreement over pedagogy. Others might say that Graff's proposal perpetuates the notorious "banking model," because it deals with conflicts presented to the students rather than generated by them. Here there is a real difference, in that Graff clearly does believe that students have much to learn from professors, but his interest in engaging students as active learners suggests that he has some common ground with his critics on this point.

The second set of objections is that teaching the conflicts deters the left-wing teacher from presenting his or her own position. Giroux (1994: 315) also touches on this point when he makes Graff out to reject "teaching about oppression" and teaching from a particular political project. A related objection is typically raised from the floor after Graff's papers or lectures: "Why should we give time to the other side when their views are constantly before the public and ours are typically suppressed?" If I, say, team-teach with a conservative, I take time away from presenting the positions I believe in, positions that the students are unlikely to hear anywhere else. Even on Graff's right a similar objection is articulated by Stanley Fish (1996: 171), who holds that teaching the conflicts actually suppresses conflict. Fish contends that staging a conflict contains it by the implicit invocation of some higher principle that both sides share.

This set of objections represents a wider rift between Graff and the Left, though even here there is as much confusion as clear disagreement. Sometimes this type of objection is supported by the theoretical critique that Graff's position assumes the "fiction of liberal neutrality" (Nelson 1997: 91), but no such assumption is entailed. Indeed, the proposal to teach the conflicts stems from the recognition that there is no neutral ground on which a curriculum could be based (Graff 1990: 52). Giroux (1994: 315) urges that academics function as public intellectuals, addressing public issues from the perspective of a "particular political project." He accuses Graff of insisting that these issues be addressed from the perspective of a mere "teaching methodology" and then asserts that "Graff's position is that academics who teach about oppression presuppose some prior agreement among students that it actually exists." What Giroux gets wrong here is Graff's focus, which is not on the students' views but on the faculty's. Graff is concerned about developing a curriculum in an academy riven by disagreements not just over public issues but, more important, over disciplinary ones. Giroux seems to address the individual teacher, whom he urges to teach his or her politics. Graff (1988c) is concerned [End Page 260] about the college or departmental curriculum as a whole, as the title of his article "What Should We Be Teaching—When...


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