Fetishizing “Quest for Justice”

The Insidiousness of Kenyon’s Political Philosophers

By Conrad Jacober

The very first class I took at Kenyon was “Quest for Justice,” both as a prospective student and during my first semester. The course I took is a common one for many first-year students; as the recent article on the front page of the Kenyon website entitled “Quest for Knowledge” recently stated, “The College usually offers seven sections of ‘Quest,’ with a quarter to a third of all first-years opting to take a course.” For an introductory course that is a year long, that is an astounding statistic. One may wonder why so many students are drawn to take “Quest,” and the answer may lie in how it has historically been advertised to first-year students.

The Political Science department has historically advertised “Quest for Justice” as quintessential to first-year students before they even arrive on campus. Indeed, the same article on the Kenyon website boasts that, “If there is one class that epitomizes Kenyon, it may well be PSCI 101Y, otherwise known as ‘Quest For Justice.’” This is how the course was sold to me when I arrived at Kenyon. But why does “Quest” epitomize Kenyon? Why not introductory courses to IPHS, Anthropology, Sociology, or any of the other Social Sciences and Humanities? What is so nonessential about them?

“It’s a crock of shit, nothing but self-promotion and an offense to other professors and departments,” said a professor anonymously in response to the Kenyon website’s article. Although some may find this response extreme, I find it perfectly appropriate. When Kenyon consistently advertises the introductory course to one of its departments as quintessential, what is it saying to other departments whose excellent introductory courses and the efforts of their professors go unnoted? Obviously they’re not quintessential; there’s nothing that “epitomizes Kenyon” about them that is so acclaimed of “Quest for Justice.” These grievances, however, go beyond this fetishization of “Quest.”

In the same article, Professor Spiekerman states, “It’s the model we like to advertise: Asking serious questions in the company of students without the agenda of what the answers to the questions are” (my emphasis). Although this unbiased model is what the department advertises to first-year students fresh onto campus, “Quest for Justice” certainly has an agenda. In a 2006 article praising the department and the course, Kenyon alumnus Ben Van Horrick ‘07 states that, “they created an alternative universe where conservative scholars get tenure, multiculturalism is not taught and ‘dead white guys’ are cool” (Human Events: Powerful Conservative Voices). Critics of the course have long noted an agenda, but even those who praise “Quest” recognize the conservative bias.

However, the advertisement that “Quest” is “without an agenda” enters into the course itself. Unlike many professors in other courses, the political philosophers of “Quest” do not declare their theoretical bias. Most first-year students are unaware of the Straussian lens through which the so-called great books are being read. In my first-year “Quest” course, Professor Baumann refused to tell students what his bias was until the very last class, in which he announced that he was a neoconservative. Students gasped; they had no idea.

The problem is that most first-year students do not know the philosophical agenda through which the course readings are being skewed.

In his March 26 opinion piece for the Collegian, Professor Baumann states, “The philosopher Leo Strauss and those of us influenced by him here at Kenyon have been smeared.” The problem, however, is not with the existence of Straussian and neoconservative professors at Kenyon. The problem is that most first-year students do not know the philosophical agenda through which the course readings are being skewed. Furthermore, as Professor Baumann notes in the article on the Kenyon website, “Quest” students “don’t read secondary sources.” Not only does the Straussian interpretation of the course readings go unnoted, but also students are discouraged from engaging with alternative interpretations from the text. Kenyon students are thus left to believe that the Straussian skew on the text is the original meaning of the author. Although some of the political philosophers at Kenyon may believe that such teaching practice is a noble lie – in the Straussian twist on Plato’s original presentation – but I believe it is plainly dishonest and a disservice to Kenyon students.

Professor Baumann states in his Collegian piece that the “point of all this rather shameful name-calling” is “ to intimidate anyone (and here mostly students) who might want to keep an open mind.” On the contrary, the critique of “Quest” and its Straussian agenda is precisely that it discourages open mindedness while claiming to do exactly that. Students should be exposed to conservative ideas, but the way to do that is not by presenting conservative interpretations as the original intent of an author, hiding your conservative bias, claiming that your course is “without an agenda,” and then discouraging your students from consulting alternative interpretations. Such lies are ignoble; their myths distort the truth rather than conveying it.

If the goal of “Quest for Justice” is for students to keep an open mind – and that is a serious if – then the professors who teach the course need to make a few changes. First, you should declare the particular theoretical lens through which you interpret the text. Second, you should encourage students to read secondary interpretations of the text, such that they keep their minds open to alternative understandings and keep you honest in class with defending your particular interpretations. Third, you should actually teach Leo Strauss, so that students can understand and perhaps even appreciate the framework you bring to bear on the so-called great books of the Western canon.

In addition to this, the political science department ought to hire theorists of alternative theoretical perspectives. Though I applaud the department’s focus on the theoretical side of Political Science rather than the typical emphasis on the applied side, such a mono-paradigmatic approach in the social sciences is dangerous and leads only to dogmatism and close-mindedness. Students can still be exposed to conservative political philosophy without that being their only choice. If the department really wants students to have an open mind, creating an environment for debate and contrary theories is the best approach. Though I believe the reasons that the political science department has done none of this and the administration has failed to intervene towards such theoretical diversity are dubious, I do not believe it is too late for the department to change its disposition going forward.

Kenyon needs to stop fetishizing certain courses, such as “Quest,” and give fair dues to the efforts of all its professors in their introductory courses. Repeatedly calling one course quintessential is an insult to other professors and departments, and it is one that ought to stop. Students should decide on courses based on their interests, not because of some quintessence they are sold through advertising; indeed, this quintessence becomes all the more insidious in light of the many shortcomings and interpretive biases that “Quest for Justice” purports, which by no means “epitomizes Kenyon” as a whole. Going forward, I hope that both the College and the political science department become more honest to Kenyon students. The so-called noble lies need to end.

8 Comments

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  1. This is a brilliant statement of what many faculty have been saying for DECADES (not an exaggeration). Even the title of the course is intellectually dishonest. Can they defend the implication that only the West has a concept of justice? Are they even aware of equivalent or analogous concepts in Buddhism or Confucianism? Obviously, no. So how then can they justify the title of the course?

  2. David Donadio 8 May 2015 — 2:52 PM

    Dear Mr. Jacober,

    Take a deep breath. Try to remember that you’ve got a lot of life left ahead of you, and you’ll most likely spend it a long way from Gambier.

    To your credit, you’re writing something that wasn’t assigned for class, which bodes well for your intellectual future. (I always wished I’d had more luck enticing people to do that when I edited the Observer, but then — as now, I expect — we could never pay anyone.)

    Like yourself, I saw the ads, and took that hallowed year-long course, Quest for Justice. I also took the Integrated Program in Humane Studies. I don’t recall it being a prerequisite of either that I burn Perry Lentz in effigy, or renounce English 101-102 on grounds that thou shalt have no other gods before Leo Strauss. Nor do I recall it changing anyone’s politics very much.

    As my classmates and I plodded through the kinds of books I’d come to Kenyon to read — enduring works that have preoccupied people for centuries — I recall realizing that all of us, from the most liberal to the most conservative, sat on a remarkably narrow strip of political spectrum between the likes of Marx and Nietzsche. Ultimately, we agreed on far more than we disagreed, and we — most of us, anyway — learned how to disagree without being disagreeable.

    One of the students with whom I took a number of political science courses was Tommy Vietor, who later drew on his Straussian indoctrination in his work as a senior spokesman for a famous conservative/dead white male/Likud Party shill by the name of Barack Hussein Obama.

    I look back on Quest for Justice fondly because the books were good, the professors smart, and the conversations wonderful. Students in other departments no doubt also read books they liked, studied with professors who impressed them, and had good discussions. Political science was a popular major, but far from the only one.

    If it bothers you that Kenyon’s political science majors are having a good time, that probably has more to do with you than with them. It took me until I was about 30 to grow out of that, and some days I still have trouble with it. With any luck, you’ll get there by your five-year reunion.

    In the years since I graduated, I’ve drawn on the abilities I developed in Quest for Justice to write on Pashtun politics for French leftists, U.S.-China relations for a moderate Republican who orchestrated the first-ever meeting between a President of the United States and the Dalai Lama, Arab reformers, a Democrat who served as ambassador to Russia under President Clinton, economists, bioethicists, engineers, you name it.

    This morning, I interviewed the granddaughter of an Ayatollah from Basra, who fled Iraq after participating in the Shiite uprising of 1991. Not a Straussian. Thinks the U.S. military should get more involved in the Middle East than I do.

    And we both have a point, don’t we? Justice means different things to different people at different times. Which is why Quest for Justice starts with Antigone, and involves reading the Melian Dialogue, and Things Fall Apart. (I grew up in Vermont, where the public schools required us to read Achebe at least 25 times a year until the age of majority, so to me, reading earlier so-called canonic works was actually quite liberating.)

    That I’m still willing to take time out of my day to write a letter in support of Quest for Justice, 15 years after I took it, while working long days and raising a family, should tell you something about the impact it’s had on my life. I wonder if any of the courses you’re now taking will make such an impression. I hope so.

    It may come as a shock to you to hear this from someone who’s been so thoroughly poisoned by Kenyon’s political science department, but after you graduate — and if you’re paying attention to the right things, even before — it really doesn’t matter what schools of thought people come from. What matters is whether or not you can learn from them.

    Best,
    David Donadio ’03

  3. To whom it may concern,

    Mr. Jacober expresses some strong opinions regarding the course entitled, “Quest for Justice.” Though I don’t share them, I’ve spent the past dozen years or so in and out of academia and have had frequent occasion to reflect back on Quest – one of my earliest introductions to higher learning. Mr. Jacober seems unable to decide whether his chief intention is to attack or constructively criticize the course, but assuming the latter, I’ll just address a few problems he raises that are presented as being specific to “Quest,” but that I happen to believe are intrinsic to teaching both political thought and survey courses.

    First, he indicates that the “Quest” syllabus exclusively promotes dead, Western, conservative males, possibly implying a not-so-secret agenda at work (perhaps our translations differ, but Marx and Nietzsche, conservative? Really?). If there is a secret here, however, it is this: every course of this nature represents a tortured compromise with the vast body of worthy literature: How many thinkers can we reasonably squeeze in? Whom should we read? And which works? As for the inevitable claim that more non-Western authors should be included, fair enough. But one benefit of “Quest” is that it presents a series of thinkers consciously engaging in dialogue or monologue with one another. Arranging this tradition in a manner that is compelling and comprehensible is already far more difficult than it looks. One certainly welcomes the study of non-Western political thinkers, but comparative political thought remains a young field, and I have yet to see it taught successfully in an introductory context. There is of course nothing that precludes students from pursuing such studies thereafter (I presently have two colleagues working on the history of Chinese political thought).

    Second, Mr. Jacober suggests that secondary literature should serve as the prism through which the older texts are read. He may or may not be aware that what he is describing there is in fact the norm, not the exception, in most such college courses. A similar problem, however, arises: which interpretive methods should we apply? Foucaultian? Marxian? Skinnerian? And how does one choose? Mr. Jacober seems to think that the alternative is to be locked into a Straussian interpretive agenda, but it is not clear what exactly he thinks Straussianism is or how “Quest” incarnates it.

    Finally, Mr. Jacober seems to think that the solution to the (general) problem of indoctrination is for all instructors to disclose their political commitments at the outset. Perhaps so, though he only assumes the superiority of this approach rather than arguing for it. Interestingly, he presents Prof. Baumann’s end-of-term revelation as a damning one, though I’m not this story says what he thinks it does. The surprise of his students would seem to suggest that Prof. Baumann in fact did NOT indoctrinate them. Or did they all leave neoconservatives? Clearly, Mr. Jacober didn’t (I’m guessing here). In fact, Prof. Baumann seems to have given his students more credit than Mr. Jacober gives them or himself – that they were eminently capable of encountering tough ideas without being made into political or theoretical stooges.

    I think in the end, that this good faith assumption about undergraduates is a hallmark of courses like “Quest” and of Kenyon overall. In the absence of this kind of trust, Mr. Jacober wants to backstop students with better methodology or preferred hiring practices as a kind of security against the dangers inherent in teaching and learning political philosophy. But to paraphrase Saul Bellow: the name of the game is not security. The name of the game is Give All.

    Students encountering political philosophy are ineluctably thrown back upon their own resources. There is ultimately no substitute for one’s own evaluative judgment, and courses like “Quest” can serve as invaluable training grounds for our judgments – not by imposing upon students a readymade canon, but by forcing them to make and defend tough choices between powerful but often mutually exclusive claims about political life. One can criticize the limitations of this mode, but such limitations are inevitable. An introductory course like “Quest” is best thought of as the beginning, not the end, of one’s investigation into political life – which suggests that the title of the course is an apt one.

    All best,
    David Polansky, ’03

  4. Danielle Danielle 11 May 2015 — 1:46 PM

    I am a first year student who just completed the year-long Quest for Justice course, and, in accordance with my experience, most of your criticisms and accusations are exaggerated and/or downright false. In my class, we as students were encouraged to create and defend our own views with reference to classical texts. There were many times that the class could not reach a consensus on the intended meaning of the author and text at hand, and the professor never insisted that only one interpretation was correct. In fact, most of our paper topics revolved around our unique interpretations (provided that we could support our argument). I actually have become more liberal and MUCH less conservative as a result of the analytical thinking that I engaged in during this course. I am familiar with Straussian ideology, and I do not feel that we read through a Straussian lens; rather, we read through multiple lenses and spent an equal amount of time on each. I would like to suggest the possibility that your criticisms have more to do with the particular professor who taught your course than with the department as a whole.

  5. All politics aside it was simply a great course in 1986-87, so much so we are having a Quest reunion during our 25th. It will be a mix of liberals, independents and conservatives enjoying the company of a great teacher and friend.

    It is ironic (and pleasing) that The Observer is the forum for this debate.

  6. Brendan Keefe, '90 12 May 2015 — 1:10 AM

    One of the best classes I took at Kenyon. I remember it as fresh in my mind as the crunch of stones beneath my feet on middle path. Kenyon students are smart enough — or should be — to critically think for themselves, and to discern when a professor leans one way or the other. Thinking about it now, the millennia that Quest covered, from Socrates and Plato to the Federalist papers, weaving it all together as a singular theme is indicative of the magic of Kenyon’s classical approach. Kenyon has never been about indoctrination but about inclusion of ideas which are weighed on their own merits, not discarded out of hand when viewed through one’s own political lens.

  7. Mr. Polansky’s comment is correct: “In fact, Prof. Baumann seems to have given his students more credit than Mr. Jacober gives them or himself – that they were eminently capable of encountering tough ideas without being made into political or theoretical stooges.”

    Quest for Justice with Professor Baumann was easily the highlight of my time at Kenyon. It absolutely made me more open-minded. It revealed the fact that my worldview was based almost entirely on knee-jerk reactions and false assumptions; it taught me to receive new ideas thoughtfully and critically; and it provided historical and philosophical context for debates over current events. It made me not just a better student but a better person. I know this to be the case for many students, liberal and conservative alike.

    – Jessica Miller Shea ’10

  8. The author repeatedly states a connection between Straussianism and “conservative bias” and presents this in a negative light, but fails to explain why these are necessarily interconnected. I suspect this reveals his own bias.

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