Old School

Defund the Humanities

May 28, 2008

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I’ve written elsewhere about the gut-wrenching smugness of Stanley Fish, who after having spent a career destroying the study of the humanities at major American universities (especially Duke), has now established himself as an avuncular observer of the education scene at the New York Times. And he wears a different mask; emulating the studied “objectivity” of the Times, he now makes a show of standing aloof from the grim conflicts that dominate classrooms and faculty lounges, and in the frequently grim (and always ridiculous) conflicts between the academic establishment Left and occasional conservative or libertarian dissenters, Fish poses as an impartial spectator. To the centrists or rightists who complain about what we can only call the “hyperpower” of the academic left he even tosses, betimes, a Fish bone. But it always sticks in one’s throat.

This week, Fish reflects on the attempt of the University of Colorado to recover its reputation from the slow-motion train wreck involving Ward Churchill—the cigar-store Indian who crassly and cruelly compared the victims of 9/11 to Adolph Eichmann, because you see the workers in the Towers were complicit in the power-structure which…. No, it doesn’t bear analysis, or even repetition. Churchill’s rantings contained as much intellectual content as the stuff some poor schizophrenic might scrawl on the walls of a state mental hospital—or the racist/ anti-Semitic drivel some losers insist on posting at otherwise thoughtful conservative Web sites. Mind you, Churchill’s comments were only a teensy tad more outrageous than the stuff that passes almost unnoticed at other universities. For instance, a deeply untalented poet at my alma mater named Rodger Kamenetz once told a reporter that “the history of Western civilization is the history of murder.” (Had he left out “Western” he might have had a kind of Augustinian point.) Kamenetz also briefly made a mark by proposing, with a straight face, an entirely new basis for morality in our times. Now, you might think this was overreaching for somebody with just an MFA in English, but that’s what tenure will do to people. So Kamenetz proposed that since we can no longer believe in God, we have no grounds for holding to an absolute notion of the Good. But we do know the Absolute Evil, in the form of the Holocaust. So we should construct a post-modern morality by a kind of via negativa—approving or disapproving of things based on whether or not they would help bring on another Holocaust. (This struck me as rather parochial, as if an Irish poet proposed constructing future moral codes around preventing potato famines. But let’s leave that aside.)

This is the level of thinking which prevails in graduate schools at state universities—even in conservative states in the old Confederacy. I shudder to think what things might be like down the road from me at U.Mass. In fact, the humanities at nearly every major university in America have been, it’s a sad but truthful cliché, taken over by “tenured radicals.” The departments which once were a fair mix of suburban Marxists, Kennedy liberals, and occasional Southern reactionaries, are now dominated by the children of the 60s and 70s, whose own education and pursuit of intellectual fashion have shaped them to hate the very Western civilization and humanistic values on which the modern university is predicated.

Let’s forget, for the moment, the fact that universities in the West were the daughters of the Church, originally centered on theology and philosophy, and accept the sad reality that in most cases the best we can expect from secular (and from many “religious”) schools is kind of melancholy, Matthew Arnold respect for the “best that has been said and thought.” It’s true that in the absence of Faith, such a humane secularism is doomed in the end to bankruptcy, once it consumes the sentimental capital stored up by centuries of Christianity, and stands face to face with the “fact” that man is only a clever primate.

Nevertheless, in such an environment, about which the young William Buckley complained so bitterly in God and Man at Yale, a religious believer could navigate perfectly well, learn to hone his arguments against learned unbelievers in an atmosphere of high-minded mutual tolerance, and emerge with his degree. He might even go on to pursue his Ph.D., and someday teach about Shakespeare or Racine or Schiller—careful not to infuse his classes with catechesis, just as his teachers had not gone out of their way to promote agnosticism. Such a peaceful coexistence among the intellectually incompatible was not as rich or fruitful, I’m sure, as the Paris of Thomas Aquinas—but it wasn’t half bad. I enjoyed the last flickering rays of this Victorian sunset in my own undergraduate years.

But try to go to graduate school in the humanities almost anywhere today, and you’ll breathe quite a different atmosphere—the chemical smell of openly anti-human ideologies. You think I exaggerate? In my first year of Ph.D. study at LSU, I was taught that the “current consensus” in literary theory was “anti-humanism,” a rejection and outright attempt to purge from the study of literature the last traces of Matthew Arnold’s “elitist”, “nostalgic” regard for so-called “higher values.” In their stead, we must study, in a promiscuous selection of works, all the political implications of the unholy trinity of “race, class, and gender.” In other words, to quote the 80s rap band Niggaz With Attitude, “Life ain’t nothin but bitches and money.”

This meant that dour, paisley-frocked Baptist girls from Shreveport and red-faced Irish-Americans from New Orleans would be trained to study literature for grimly ideological purposes. Go through every chapter of ... (fill in the blank) a Jane Austen novel, a Shakespeare play, or a memoir by a transvestite crack whore. Find every incident where poor people, non-whites, or women get a raw deal. Deplore these incidents, cite some incomprehensible French homosexual theorist in a dozen or so footnotes… and get your guaranteed A- or B+. Then move on to the next work, feeding everything through the same meat-grinder, producing reams of academic chopped meat. This Stakhanovite approach to literary study has reached the point of self-parody by now. One brilliant academic who survived the slog toward a Ph.D. with his wits intact has created a Web-based “Postmodernism Generator,” which will on demand produce an entirely persuasive, utterly meaningless tissue of jargon—and one which would certainly have gotten a decent grade in most of the English Ph.D. classes which I took. One professor, may God bless him and keep him, Alan Sokal, produced such a willfully meaningless paper on purpose, and got it accepted in an academic journal, Social Text—generating a lengthy and self-important debate among the drones who fill faculty lounges across America.

Of course, if one is a graduate student of right-ish views attempting to get a degree under such a conditions, it’s extremely tempting to hide or even give up his dissenting views—for fear of the likely bad grades, the ugly ostracism peculiar to lifelong dweebs who finally have the whip-hand over someone, and the blackballing that will probably make it impossible for him ever to get a job.

Now, to rectify the grim situation at their school, and cozy up to the taxpayers who fund it, the University of Colorado has proposed a $9 million program to attract some conservative faculty members to its campus. This sounds like one of the less pernicious uses of taxpayer funds I’ve heard this year—and of course, since it appalls Stanley Fish, one is tempted to support it. Certainly, if conservatives can use some leverage in their state legislature to counteract indoctrination on public campuses, they should do so. But I question whether it really does much good to try to locate and hire the occasional conservative who somehow squeaked through grad school without going native or insane—then set him up in a special chair designed to “counterbalance” the mainstream opinions in his department.

First of all, it’s dead-bang certain that most such jobs will be nabbed by neocons, who are simply better at soaking up money, seizing cozy sinecures, and generally getting by in the world than those of us with real conservative principles. (“The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.”) Which means that the best we can expect from initiatives such as Colorado’s will be Fox News in tweed with elbow patches. I for one, would rather have Ward Churchill to kick around than find myself “represented” by Professor Dinesh D’Souza, or Dean David Frum.

More importantly, as someone who pursued and completed a Ph.D. in English at such a university, and who now teaches the liberal arts at a college, I have really come to question the usefulness, in our cultural situation, of advanced studies in the humanities. For every scholar who turns up something genuinely new to say about Faulkner, or Shakespeare, or even The Matrix, there are dozens who spend their careers training young people to view literature (or painting or religious studies) through a jaundiced ideological lens—essentially spoiling “the best that has been written and thought” for these people, perhaps for life. Much better if, in universities where the faculty have been so thoroughly corrupted—which is to say, most of them—we didn’t offer any literary study at all. I’d much rather take my chances that my kids would read Metaphysical poetry for fun than have the works of Donne and Crashaw forever poisoned for them by some grim, embittered feminist. So here’s my proposal, stark and simple:

Defund the humanities. State legislatures should cut off the money required to support higher level classes, and force the tenured radicals to offer the grimly pragmatic courses they really hate (and usually fob off on starving grad students): Freshman comp, business writing, and technical writing. As for courses in literature, art history, and the like—we should simply stop offering them. If young people want to learn about art or literature, they can go to a tiny liberal arts college where they are properly taught—and I know of one or two. Or they can do what people did in the 19th century, before any literature aside from Latin and Greek was taught at universities: They can take out books from the library. (They’d do best to stick to studies published before, say, 1975.) Or else they can use the Web. Form book clubs in their spare time, and pursue the rare beauty, complex considerations of reality, and extraordinary range of human experience that literature offers free of the methane cloud which has descended upon American academia.

I think this would lead to a rebirth of love for literature and the arts. And that would be wonderful. But mostly, I just want to see creeps like Stanley Fish reduced to teaching Freshman Comp. Hey Stanley, remember how to diagram a sentence?

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