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The Oprahization of Academia

University classrooms are starting to look a lot like Oprah as the Western canon is replaced with emotive, postmodern bunkum.

by
Mary Grabar

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July 7, 2008 - 12:40 am
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I suppose I should not have been surprised that Oprah Winfrey gave the commencement address at Stanford University.

My college classroom, if I follow the dominant pedagogical directives, should resemble Oprah’s emotive coffee klatches. The mantra of workshops and orientations is “Be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.” Every time I am advised in an article about pedagogy to be such a “facilitator,” I think of the therapist who “facilitates” a couple with an ailing marriage into pouring out their deepest childhood fears in front of a national audience. Of course, our national facilitator is Oprah, who offers either motherly praise after a make-over or reassurance after a teary public confession.

And it’s something that I sense my students have come to expect, already versed as they are in the mantra of “I feel” and “that’s your opinion.” The hands are quick to pop up when I pose a question like “Did you like the poem?” or “What did you think of the Misfit?” But when it comes time to closely interpret a couple of lines from Paradise Lost, most of the students (those who have brought the book) do not deign even to look at the page. Few bother to note my clarifications or explications. My colleagues repeat similar observations.

Oprah is us. Course offerings on Oprah appear in college catalogs, while those on Milton disappear.

The same fate is befalling living intellectuals. Compare the welcome Oprah got at prestigious Stanford — as first choice of the selection committee and with calls of “I love you” from graduating seniors — to the faculty petition against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas at my alma mater, the University of Georgia, a land grant university with a reputation for parties and football.

I blame it on women, specifically those women who, instead of working their ways into the club through rules of evidence, common values, and objective scholarship, have pushed in their alternate “ways of knowing.” The feminization of education has led to the idolization of Oprah. In the matriarchal upheaval in the academy, the great works of the canon that draw from our Western tradition, like Milton’s majestic Paradise Lost, are replaced by crudely rendered emotive investigations into oppression, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” or any of the “multicultural” offerings in the latest anthology.

In addition to eviscerating the canon to add women’s writing, of whatever dubious value (personal letters, diary entries, popular books), the academic feminists’ project was to attack the base of our way of thinking, which they correctly traced back to the notion of a monotheistic God who created a universe with an order based on reason, however indiscernible that at times might be to those he endowed with reason. The matriarchs’ attacks began on linearity, logic, argumentation — the very notion of the individual thinking self. Theorists promoting the “maternal presence in the classroom” accused even the thesis statement of the freshman five-paragraph essay of having embedded within it masculine goal-oriented thinking that in a rapacious manner eliminates weaker ideas.

Repeatedly, in the literature and in instructor orientations, I have been enjoined to encourage students in “group work,” to use the classroom to promote a more equitable society, to refrain from telling a student her answer is “wrong,” and to encourage the exploration of feelings through assignments.

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