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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

When I finally landed a tenure-track position at a Canadian university, I was ecstatic and full of hope — exhilarated by the opportunity to teach students about literature and ideas and to have conversations with colleagues equally in love with literature and ideas. I didn’t realize that my experience as a university teacher of English would have much less to do with these passions than with the distortion of the university’s core mission in the name of pedagogical and political orthodoxy.

To begin with, the student writing that came across my desk left me aghast. I had taught before, but I was unprepared for the level of illiteracy, the stunted vocabularies, near-complete absence of historical knowledge, and above all the extraordinary apathy of many English majors. The most basic of expression rules — the difference between it’s and its, the incorrectness of “would of” for “would have,” the role of the apostrophe or semi-colon, the fact that “a lot” was two words — were beyond the grasp of the majority, no matter how often I reviewed grammar or devised mnemonic devices. And the sheer sloppiness and muddled thinking in the essays, where the titles of poems and authors’ names were frequently misspelled and dates were wildly inaccurate, suggested a fundamental indifference to the subject matter.

Not only was my students’ writing appalling, but I soon encountered their resentment at being told about it. “Who are you to tell me I can’t write?” was the attitude — once expressed in those very words. More than one student insisted that her other teachers had always rewarded her with high marks for her “creativity.” Most believed themselves more than competent. After sitting with one young woman explaining the cause of her failing grade, I was befuddled when her only response was a sullen: “This doesn’t exactly make me feel good.” When I responded that my job was not to make her feel good, she stood haughtily, picked up her paper with an air of injury, and left my office without another word. In her mind, I later realized, I had been unforgivably cruel.

I was up against it: the attitude of entitlement rampant amongst university students and nurtured by the utopian ideology that permeates modern pedagogy, in which the imposition of rules and identification of errors are thought to limit student creativity and the fostering of a hollow self-esteem takes precedence over the building of skills on which genuine self-respect might be established. In the Humanities subjects in particular — and in English especially, the discipline I know best — such a philosophy has led to a perilous watering down of course content, with self-validation seen as more important than the mastery of specific knowledge.

With this philosophy has come a steady grade inflation. The majority of students in English courses today can expect a B grade or higher merely for warming a seat and handing in assignments on time. The result, as I soon discovered, was a generation of students so accustomed to being praised for their work that when I told them it was inadequate, they simply could not or would not believe me. They seemed very nearly unteachable: lacking not only the essential skills but also the personal gumption to respond adequately to criticism.

When I mentioned my dismay to fellow teachers, a number were sympathetic, sharing stories of student resistance and unwarranted smugness. One told me of her humiliation at being hauled before the department head by a posse of disgruntled students who alleged that the grades she had awarded were at least 5% lower than their average, and must therefore be raised to correspond with their accustomed level. Rather than laughing them out of his office, the department chair undertook to investigate the matter, informing the instructor that if the allegation was found to be correct, her marks would have to be revised. In the end, the case was not as straightforward as the students had claimed and my colleague’s marks were allowed to stand, but the damage to her sense of authority — and the outrageous notion that a professor’s marking could be determined by precedent and forcibly harmonized with previous grades, regardless of quality — had already taken effect.

Other professors with whom I spoke were not so sympathetic. They stressed the personal challenges students faced at university, the need to consider so-called alternative pedagogies to pique student interest. In other words, the problem was mine if students did not “feel good.”

One colleague suggested — when I complained that not a single student had read the assigned novel on the day we were to begin discussing it — that I should show a film on a related subject for a change of pace. At a professional teaching workshop designed to re-ignite one’s teaching passion, I was told that group discussion need not be stymied by the fact that students came to class unprepared; a student who had done the assigned reading could explain the reading to the others in the group so that all could participate and benefit. The message was clear enough: being hip and cheerful and expecting little and demanding nothing were the keys to happy classroom encounters. And student happiness — not commitment to the subject — was unquestionably the goal.

As Mark Steyn analyzed in his recent book on the decline of America, the emphasis on a vacuous therapeutic empowerment of the student body has led to a drastic lowering of expectations in North American post-secondary institutions. Students now read less than ever before for their courses, and professors are under increasing pressure to evaluate students in non-traditional ways (i.e., outside of tests and essays). The burgeoning number of students who register with a disability complicates evaluation: teachers are expected to accommodate invisible learning problems — their nature undisclosed due to privacy considerations — which mandate that they provide extra time on in-class tests, refrain from imposing late penalties, provide their lecture notes to students, or allow them to write exams on a word processor. The emphasis in hiring decisions on student evaluations of teachers — see, for example, the public website “Rate My Professor,” in which students’ often crass assessments are posted for all to see (“She’s hot!” “His voice puts you to sleep”) — makes it increasingly attractive to instructors to earn popularity, or at least to avoid attack, by giving high grades and making their courses fun rather than demanding.
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.

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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