Daphne Patai on ‘Dispositions’

By December 20, 2005

The invaluable Daphne Patai, who serves on FIRE’s Board of Directors, recently sent me some interesting thoughts on the abuse of “dispositions” and other vague, political standards in the modern academy. As loyal Torch readers know, students like Ed Swan at Washington State University and Bill Felkner at Rhode Island College have been the victims of universities’ attempts to require students to show a commitment to concepts like “social justice” seemingly without understanding that no two people likely agree exactly on what terms like that even mean. Such standards are an excuse for, and an invitation to, establishing official political orthodoxies in academia—and only impoverish the academy’s “marketplace of ideas.” Here is what Daphne recommends to students faced by these attempts at imposing ideological uniformity:

In this age of challenging binaries, polarities, and other fixed categories, it would be hard for most academics (adhering as they do to postmodernist intellectual games) to defend equating “social justice” or a “progressive” disposition with their particular politics (in opposition to some other purported politics) without falling into major intellectual contradictions. Classical liberals have no trouble making such distinctions, but few adherents to a “social justice” or “dispositions” agenda these days would label themselves as classical liberals. 

Given this reality, one obvious way of undermining current campus orthodoxies is for students to use their wit and ingenuity to act on their own visions of what “social justice” or a “progressive” agenda might be. I.e., since when is fighting censorship not progressive? Or defending high intellectual standards and refusing to reduce them all to politics? Or working for some political party that may not be the one supported by one’s professors? Is there anyone in the country who does not believe their own politics promote “social justice?” It’s not the label, but its definition—which have been narrowed in a way incompatible with genuine education (vs. indoctrination)—that is the problem. Why should students (or anyone) allow an institution to determine which of their activities, dispositions, and endeavors are appropriate to someone else’s understanding of “social justice?” To capitulate to this seems to be giving up before the fight has even begun. 

So, next time students are told they must participate in a “progressive” internship, promote “social justice,” or have their “professional disposition” evaluated—I propose that they not waste time challenging the labels but focus quickly on their own definitions of such activities and proceed to creatively comply with the assignment. I’d like to see a school actually punish someone who complies with the schools’ apparent demands but infuses them with their own politics and ethics. This would certainly be a clarifying exercise.

Schools: Rhode Island College Washington State University