Still Joking?

Michael Bérubé, an English professor at Penn State, was last encountered here making an argument that was so bizarre one of the commenters on my post said he was joking. He wasn’t. Not only did Bérubé advocate “race norming” of the SAT to ensure that all groups did equally well, but he also favored norming every which way from Sunday: “for sex, income, region and level of parental education,” etc. He would give everyone a group handicap the same way golfers have handicaps.

Now he’s at it again, profiling conservative students in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that, in Erin O’Connor’s incisive analysis,

consistently scrambles the considerable difference between reasoned dissent and unreasonable disruption, so much so that by the end of the essay, he has rendered student conservatism as simply a type of behavioral dysfunction….


To confuse–wilfully and systematically–conservative beliefs with aberrant behavior, as Bérubé does here, is to suggest on some level that conservative students (outspoken ones, anyway) are not only wrong, but sick. Bérubé does not use the disability comparison lightly: he has written at length about his son’s Down’s Syndrome, and is one of the key figures in the emerging field of disability studies. When he says outspoken conservative students are best handled as disabled students, he knows what he is saying and he means it.

I don’t know Bérubé, but I’ve now read several of his articles, and it seems to me that his branding conservative students as sick may be a classic case of the pot calling the kettle [diverse].


Bérubé may find conservative students disruptive by defintion, but the football coach at Texas A&M has gone him one better, blaming conservatives for A&M’s poor season. (Link, again, via Howard Bashman.)

The Young Conservatives of Texas, a conservative student group, recently sponsored one of the increasingly popular affirmative action bake sales, and last week A&M president Robert Gates and Athletic Director Billy Byrne sent out campus-wide emails that were widely regarded as a rebuke to the YCT. Byrne, for example, wrote that “[t]he Texas A&M bake sale plays right into the hands of those who recruit against us, in both athletics and in the general student population.”

In other words, the good coach is saying, we can’t afford to treat everyone equally regardless of race, because doing so would put us at a competitive disadvantage.

UPDATE II – Erin’s brilliant analysis of Michael Bérubé’s essay linking disruptive student behavior with conservative ideology has generated an angry reaction … from Prof. Bérubé, which Erin quotes at length in a new post. She also quotes from a number of responses she’s received that share her (and my) view of what Bérubé wrote. All of this is very much worth reading. For those of you who take the time to read Bérubé’s essay, let me second the advice implicitly offered by one of Erin’s friendly correspondents: imagine as you read that the “John” in the essay is black, and Bérubé posits the same connection between race and John’s behavior that he does between the real “John” and his conservative views. If Bérubé’s reading of his own work is correct, there would be nothing to be embarrassed about in this substitution.

UPDATE III (12/5/03 1:25PM) – Erin’s Bérubé bash continues to generate comment and controversy, all of it interesting. Today, for example, Joanne Jacobs, one of my favorites, gently dissents from Erin’s view that Bérubé regards conservatives as deranged.

As I read it, Bérubé isn’t saying conservatives are disabled; he’s patronizing all students who deviate from his “standards of reasonableness” or his rules of classroom decorum. The problem is that Bérubé’s “standards of reasonableness” are quite narrow.

I usually agree with Joanne, but then I also usually agree with Erin, and my reading of Bérubé is closer to Erin’s on this question. First of all, “it’s no accident,” as we conspiracy theorists are fond of saying, that Bérubé’s case study of unreasonableness just happens to be a loud-mouthed conservative. But beyond this, look at the following comments and observations that, I believe, suggest that the connection between John’s “unreasonableness” and his conservatism is not, in Bérubé’s view, a co-incidence:

He had begun to conceive of himself as the only countervailing conservative voice in a classroom full of liberal-left think-alikes

Of course, if John was the only countervailing conservative voice, then his “conception” wasn’t unreasonable.

I’ve been watching the evolution of campus conservatism for more than 20 years now. I remember vividly the reaction of Accuracy in Academia, Reed Irvine’s slightly nutty group that tried to recruit vocal right-wing students to report on and root out “liberal bias” in the classroom….

If John’s aberrant behavior were purely individual, and not a result of, or at least closely associated with, his conservatism, why mention “the evolution of campus conservatism”? Why even mention the “slightly nutty” Reed Irvine and his Accuracy in Academia? What are the quotes around “bias” meant to signify if not the suggestion that liberal bias exists is, at best, mistaken and, probably, unreasonable?

Stanley Kurtz’s argument about anti-Americanism on campus is based on “paranoid logic.” David Horowitz is not simply wrong but “is exaggerating hysterically when he claims that campuses are one-party states and that 99 percent of all commencement speakers are Democrats, liberals, or Greens.” (My emphasis) Prominent conservatives are thus nuts; John is a conservative; ergo….

… and yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, although John and students like him might occasionally feel threatened or uncomfortable in classes like mine, they aren’t really in any danger at all.

By now is there any real doubt that when Bérubé says “students like him” he’s referring to other loudmouthed conservative students? What do we usually call people whose view of reality is fundamentally flawed? Nuts. People who unreasonably regard themselves as in danger? Paranoid.

The problem with Prof. Bérubé, in short, is not simply that his definition of reasonable is too narrow, but that it is skewed to the left. He is always loaded, cocked, and has his labeling finger on a hair trigger ready to fire away at conservatives for being “nutty,” “paranoid,” “hysterical[],” and “unreasonable.” I have no doubt that Prof. Bérubé would be equally frustrated by any student, of whatever political persuasion, who behaved as “John” did, but, based on this essay, I have strong doubts (that’s actually a polite understatement) that he would have digressed upon the history, “bias,” and distorted view of reality of campus leftism if he were discussing a liberal “John” whose version of “reasonableness” was closer to his own.

Say What? (12)

  1. Claire December 4, 2003 at 1:28 pm | | Reply

    A&M’s just got a crappy team this year, and the coach is looking for someone to blame so he doesn’t get fired. After Texas stomped them so hard it was embarrassing, he’s hanging by his fingernails.

    Talk about your bastions of conservativism, look at A&M – predominantly white male, good-ol-boys, dumb as a post and proud of it. Where the rest of the world tells Polish jokes, down here in Texas we tell Aggie jokes.

  2. Michael Berube December 4, 2003 at 11:41 pm | | Reply

    Oops! Go read your comments about the SAT essay, from your October 13 post. I *was* joking, you silly sod. Please, slow down, read more carefully: no one would seriously propose golf handicaps as a model for social justice. Really, you seem like a nice guy– you don’t want to become as careless as that Erin O’Connor character. A tip of the hat to Claire and Shanghai Mike, who have a clue.

  3. Nick December 5, 2003 at 12:35 am | | Reply

    If you are going to ridicule Texas Aggies, which I do regularly since some of my best friends have been Aggies, please get it right. It wasn’t the coach who made the remarks about conservatives, but someone in the administration (possible the person who shut down the bake sale?). Further, Claire should note that the Aggie coach was fired last year, so that the current coach is new. Finally, it was Oklahoma, not Texas. who really “stomped” the Aggies. As I recall O.U. did a pretty good job stomping Texas too.

    On a serious note, this is a wonderful blog – keep up the good work.

  4. Richard Nieporent December 5, 2003 at 1:47 am | | Reply

    I just read the good professor’s article and I have come to the shocking conclusion that he is, in reality, a closet conservative. He was just attacking the conservative student to prevent his liberal colleges from discovering his true ideology. How can I make such a statement? Just consider the following:

    and I can even imagine some particularly hypersensitive conservative undergraduates might be intimidated by the forbidding presence of liberal-leaning cartoons on faculty members’ office doors. But I don’t believe that universities should be in the business of ensuring their students’ comfort in such matters.

    Could he make any statement that was more politically incorrect than that? Isn’t that exactly the environment that a university should have? And if you think that statement was taken out of context, how about the following quote:

    In this class, I said, we are not in the business of pursuing reductive identity-politics enterprises like looking for “positive images” in literature, regardless of what group images we might be talking about.

    Right on, professor. Can one make a stronger anti-multiculturalism statement than that?

    I am sorry professor Berube, but you have just been outed.

  5. baa December 5, 2003 at 10:33 am | | Reply

    Wait a second. Is it Professor Berube’s position that his NYT article proposing ‘norming’ of SAT scores was a joke? That’s not how I read it. Professor Berube, if you’re out there I’d really like to know — do you think SAT scores should be ‘normed’ or not?

  6. ogged December 5, 2003 at 2:44 pm | | Reply

    I’d like to know if that’s in fact a comment from Prof. Berube, but baa, how can you possibly read an essay that contains the sentences “a sport whose country-club associations belie its deep structural commitment to redistributionist justice: golf” and “And if only the SAT were as well organized and as egalitarian as the U.S.G.A” as anything but tongue-in-cheek?

  7. December 5, 2003 at 8:01 pm | | Reply


    In Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Berube, a Penn State English professor, praises his own forebearance in tolerating a conservative student he calls “John” who dominated class discussion. His conclusion led many readers to think Berube is equat…

  8. Roger Sweeny December 5, 2003 at 10:35 pm | | Reply

    I think “John” and people who agree with him should start calling themselves “Oriental.” Then they can accuse Prof. Berube of Orientalism.

  9. Michael Berube December 6, 2003 at 1:36 am | | Reply

    Hi, baa. Yes, that was my comment above, and yes, it’s my position that I was joking about the SATs, because–really– I *was* joking about the SATs: to truly “norm” them for all relevant scoring “gaps” would be to norm them out of existence (not that that’s a bad idea, either). Kudos to Richard Nieporent for outing me as a conservative, but truth is, I really am on the left– I’m just awfully impatient with some of the foolishnesses of the campus left I live with, and, of course, I’d never attack a conservative student. That’s a silly suggestion, Richard. But speaking of outing, maybe I’m gay! I never thought about that before. Gotta go now–

  10. Richard Nieporent December 6, 2003 at 10:27 pm | | Reply

    But speaking of outing, maybe I’m gay!

    Michael, I guess you would know better about that than anyone, but what relevance does it have to the discussion? Yes, I know that was meant as a joke. Given your other attempts at humor, here is a bit of gratuitous advice. As far as your ability as a humorist is concerned, you better keep your day job.

    However, I am glad to see that you are impatient with what you call the foolishness of the left. If it were just foolishness, there would not be such a problem in academia. What the left does goes far beyond foolishness. It is not foolishness when conservatives are prevented from speaking on campus, and students are disciplined by the university for exercising their free speech rights because it makes other students uncomfortable. How can a university carry out its mandate to educate students if only one set of ideas is allowed to be presented? Unfortunately, what we have at most universities is indoctrination, not education.

    By the way, while far be it from me to disabuse you of the notion that you are a leftist, if you really believe the statements that I highlighted in my previous post, then maybe you should start questioning your credentials as a leftist. Assuming you were not once again joking, it appears that you would be a lot more comfortable with the political positions of your conservative students than you are willing to admit.

  11. baa December 8, 2003 at 3:51 pm | | Reply

    Thank you to Professor Berube — My requests for clarification to Bill Safire take much longer! ogged, shouldn’t you be in bed? But by way of defense, an article with tongue-in-cheek elements may largely serious. That’s how I read the NYT article (and it seems I wasn’t alone). I can’t say I shared Erin O’Connor’s reading of the chronicle piece. Here, I think, we’re seeing the disadavantages of coming into an interpretative situation with both barrels loaded, as it were. I actually read O’Connor first, and was surprised when I went to the primary source. I could see elements of the chronicle piece that would irk O’Connor, but it didn’t seem to *equate* being conservative with being disruptive in the way she objected to. Perhaps O’Connor (who on other matters I’ve found reliable) is so involved with has one particular war that it’s easier to for her to read (largely) unrelated text as a skirmish in that fight.

  12. On Whom Is The Joke? October 4, 2011 at 1:17 pm |

    […] the others who commented on it. Indeed, when the latest Bérubéian controversy erupted I labeled my contribution to the discussion “Still Joking.” Then, a couple of days ago, someone identifying […]

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