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On the Legitimacy and Ubiquity of Social Missions

In an effort to defend fellow conservative Brainstorm blogger Naomi Schaefer Riley, Mark Bauerlein just wrote what appears to be—and in fact is—a criticism of Black Studies generally, concluding that “The bigger problem is that any academic discipline that assumes a social mission for itself is always going to have a legitimacy issue.” I daresay this assertion itself has a legitimacy issue.

What about the goal of a humanities education, variously described as producing literate citizens, generating an educated public that appreciates the cultural achievements of civilization, enhancing the public’s capacity for critical thinking, and so forth?  For that matter, what about schools of business, agriculture, mining, aeronautics, or engineering, with which I suspect Professor Bauerlein has no objection? Or education? Doesn’t it have a social mission?

And what of Schools of Public Health? Indeed, how about medical education itself? To be sure, academic medicine exists in part as an intrinsic good, like some of the justification for research and education in classics, or theoretical physics: the expansion of human knowledge and understanding as an end in itself. But anyone living in the real world cannot but acknowledge that medicine is necessarily immersed in its social mission: promoting health. And that’s precisely as it should be, and—someone please correct me if I’m wrong—for all the legitimate criticism one might raise about medicine (especially as it is practiced in the United States), it sure doesn’t have a “legitimacy issue ” … except, perhaps, that it is insufficiently committed to what ought to be its “social mission.”

Let’s go on to one of my favorites: Peace Studies. Something tells me that Mark has no argument with the aforementioned academic fields, despite their undeniable social mission, and I hope that even given his conservative inclinations, he is capable of basic decency and thus allows room for public health (although from what I’ve seen of recent right-wing rhetoric and its outright political and social cruelty, I’m not so sure), but I bet he’s not at all comfortable with peace studies, just as Ms. Schaefer Riley expressed not just discomfort but outright hostility to black studies.

Now I grant that one can be against black studies without necessarily being racist, and that similarly, one can oppose women’s studies without being misogynist, and by the same token, presumably one can be against peace studies as a discipline without necessarily being pro-war … although a moment’s reflection will  suggest that conservative politics tends overwhelmingly to be, in fact, pro-war, or at least reflexively promilitary. Peace studies takes the risk of assuming a “normative” stance: It is pro-peace, just as medicine is pro-health, and law schools are pro-legality, etc.

I suggest that the threats to any field’s legitimacy don’t involve “assuming a social mission for itself” but rather, they arise if the discipline lacks intellectual rigor as well as a legitimate background of factual and theoretical material to be taught and researched, and that what really bothers Mark isn’t when a discipline assumes a social mission, but rather, what kind of social mission: To paraphrase George Orwell: conservative good, liberal/progressive bad. Isn’t that “right”?

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