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Can the Humanities Be Saved?

The university’s core mission has been corrupted by pedagogical and political orthodoxy.

by
Janice Fiamengo

Bio

April 22, 2012 - 12:00 am
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As traditional content is removed from courses, it is often replaced by non-academic material, specifically a devotion to “social justice” that masquerades as critical analysis despite the fact that the impartial weighing of evidence so necessary to such analysis is largely absent from its championing of victims. In books such as The Professors, David Horowitz has shown the dominance of Leftist activists at American colleges and “the extent to which radicalism at the very edges of the American political spectrum [has] established a central place in the curriculum of American universities.” A recent report by the California Association of Scholars laments the widespread politicization of teaching, pointing out the extraordinary imbalance of liberal to conservative scholars at California universities (29:1 in the Berkeley English Department, for example), a situation that certainly applies across North America. Many professors in the Humanities and Social Sciences devote themselves less to teaching their particular disciplines than to decrying the presumed crimes of the United States, sympathizing with Islamic terrorists and other violent dissidents, calling for the overthrow of the capitalist world order, and condoning plans for the destruction of Israel.

As Horowitz explains, the radicalization of the Humanities and the decline of academic standards are closely related, with political commitment often necessitating the abandonment of scholarly integrity. Many teachers of English no longer care much about prosody or literary history or correct grammar because such subjects seem trivial beside the grand social struggles that claim their allegiance. It may well seem more urgent to combat racism than to combat the comma splice, to analyze patriarchal privilege rather than Jane Austen’s irony; and when right thinking is more important than rigorous thinking, details can be overlooked in the cause of student enlightenment. Combine this with an administrative emphasis on filling seats and a state commitment to student access, and one has the perfect academic storm, one that sweeps away scholastics and whirls in crude social engineering.

That many of my colleagues seemed sincere in their commitment to history’s underdogs cannot excuse the damage caused by their policies and by their skewed teaching practices — for their ideological convictions were often imported into the classroom, where a balanced overview of course material was sacrificed to the politics of “race, class, and gender.” Students learn quickly enough in such courses that success requires them to adopt approved positions: to be skeptical of Western nations’ claims to equality and justice, to understand their country’s history as a record of oppression, and to look with ready admiration at non-Western cultures, which they are taught to see as superior. Young white men learn early on that history’s villains are usually white men. Lesbian identities, Aboriginal culture, and Sharia law are protected from critical appraisal by charges of homophobia, genocidal racism, or cultural imperialism. Instructors often choose the texts on their syllabus not to represent the traditional scholarly consensus on the important and best literature of the period but rather to represent a range of victim groups presented in noble conflict with the forces of social prejudice. Literature is taught not because it is valuable in itself but because it teaches students to denounce inequality and to empathize with victims, and to feel appropriately empowered in grievance or guilty by association.

Indeed, some students become so immersed in Leftist ideology — a kind of secret society whose code language they have learned in fear and trembling and now exercise with pride — that they believe it the only possible view of the world and have never seriously considered alternatives except as the deplorable prejudices of the hateful unwashed. Their conviction of rightness has revealed itself in a multitude of anti-intellectual and repressive behavior on university campuses across the country.

What is to be done? De-radicalizing the Humanities will be no easy task, for the ranks of the professoriate are filled with instructors who see their primary responsibility to be that of advancing ideological goals. True believers as they are, they will not be easily dissuaded from their cause, and dissenters from Left orthodoxy often feel overwhelmed, beleaguered, and under threat. Yet saving the Humanities for genuine scholarship has never been more urgent, and it is heartening to know that articulate champions of reform such as Horowitz and others, including Richard Cravatts, Stanley Fish, and David Solway, continue to raise their voices in dismay and stalwart hope. Some day, perhaps, if the decline is not irreversible and if more courageous professors will stand against the corruption of the academic enterprise, departments of English might once again become places where professors and students pursue a love of literature.

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Janice Fiamengo is a professor of English at the University of Ottawa, and author of The Woman’s Page: Journalism and Rhetoric in Early Canada (2008).
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