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.
In Feminism and Composition Studies, a volume emblematic of the scholarship that teachers and directors of freshman composition participate in, old assumptions about what students should be taught are replaced. Taking issue with such commonsense notions that writing courses are “firmly grounded in the ‘self’ of the writer-student” and “based on the notion of the subject as a rational, coherent individual who, at times, is present to himself,” Mas’ud Zavarzadeh and Donald Morton reveal their agenda: “Writing courses … have become the last bastion of defense of traditional humanism against radical (post)modern critical theory.” My former boss at the University of Georgia, the director of the largest freshman composition program in the state, provides her own contribution to this volume in an essay advocating “a pedagogy based on a feminist politics of friendship”; for support, she cites such theories as bell hooks’s rejection of “phallic logic.”
In the years around and after 1991, when this volume was published, fluid, emotive group experiences, facilitated by the teacher, have become the standard mode. Perhaps, most females, by nature, thrive in such environments. And there is a place for such interaction — the nursery or kindergarten classroom.
The feminist imperative, not to exclude anyone from the playground, however, applies only to those who play by their — new — rules.
Consider this description in The Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Writing of an article in the prestigious journal College English:
Students frequently attack a teacher’s feminist perspective as something personal that does not belong in the classroom. … Feminist teachers should recognize that teaching these students will be a form of persuasion, in which they need to adopt an authoritative but not authoritarian position in setting the course’s ethical agenda. … In seeking to persuade students to feminism, teachers should aim to provoke not only resistance to sexism but also identification … with feminism’s egalitarian vision of the social order.
What about those who resist “feminism’s egalitarian vision of the social order”? Our rapidly dwindling number of male college students, especially in the humanities, may evidence that this new feminine “social order” is smothering to them. At departmental meetings as a temporary assistant professor at one of the low-rung state universities in Georgia, I felt smothered by the preponderance of women, all feminist, in attendance. The fact that I was served cookies by the department head did not ease the pain of watching an older gentlemanly “man of letters,” a Shakespeare scholar, steamrollered over with the ideas of these women as they assertively proposed and incorporated such nonsense as the study of ladies’ undergarments and rap lyrics into the curriculum.
It makes me wonder if women as a group are simply not as suited to the academic or intellectual life. Contrary to the propaganda about the bad old 1950s, women scholars were working alongside men, though not in as large a number. Their scholarship stands head and shoulders above the nonsensical babbling of today’s feminist. And they weren’t driving men out of the classroom either, as my thesis director, a former student of the late Marjory Nicolson, attests.
One would expect that the saccharine gushing from Oprah as a commencement speech would have raised an objection at least from those who are not in her fan base, the men. Adam Gorlick of Stanford News Service accurately sums up her speech as another rendition of her standard theme of “feelings, failure, and finding happiness” — and organized in an associative, fluid manner. According to Jack Hubbard, associate director of news services at Stanford, other than one online letter criticizing the speaker’s lack of intellectual accomplishments, Oprah was “very well-received.” In fact, my call to ask if formal objections had been raised was greeted with a tone of wonder at the possibility of such a question.
Oprah not only gave the pep talk that believing in yourself is even more important than formal education, but left graduates two gifts on their seats, Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth and Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind. A whole new mind, indeed. These books are the popular version of the new philosophy reigning in the academy. Only a couple of my fifteen students last semester recognized the reference to “judge not that we be not judged” in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: “It’s somewhere in the Bible, isn’t it?” they asked.
Need we say more to demonstrate how far our educational system has deteriorated in the hands of women and weak men?