All posts by Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory.

Why History Courses Are Declining

A few years ago, when critics of academia warned that the humanities were sinking, academics shot back with data showing that enrollments were steady and the departments were doing just fine.  They also sprinkled smug remarks about Chicken-Little conservatives who were just upset that the hegemony of the traditional canon had crumbled.

We don’t need to answer this ad hominem.  The evidence speaks for us.  Earlier this month, the American Historical Association released a survey of 123 history departments and found a 7.6 percent decline in enrollments over a two-year period, 2012-13 to 2014-15.  Enrollment slipped in 96 departments and rose in only 27 departments.  In absolute numbers, enrollments in those schools went from 390,000 to 360,000.

This finding expands on the finding noted a few months earlier by the Association that the numbers of history majors dropped significantly from 2013 to 2014.  At the same time, the Association reported that the number of earned doctorates in history in 2014 maintained a steady trend of growth. In other words, we have more history professors to teach fewer history students.

There is an irony to this decline.  When I started graduate school in the 1980s, history had just become THE loaded term in the field of English.  It had a particular moral-political force.  What history was claimed to do was this: to reveal traditional values and concepts as historical constructs, not objective realities.  The difference between high culture and popular culture collapsed, it was alleged, as soon as we put it into a historical context in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in which an elite tried to distinguish itself from a rising middle class.

The literary canon could be shown to be a fairly recent creation, not a sacred corpus from time immemorial.  Western civilization could be dislodged from the center of the history of the world, and American Exceptionalism could be revealed in all its political tactics and demythologized.

Everyone, then, was to study history.  “Always historicize!” was one slogan of the time.  Deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis, reader-response criticism, and formalism no longer had any cachet.  Instead, the trend was New Historicism and historically-inflected political criticism (Edward Said’s Orientalism was the model) and Foucault, whose archival historical work gave his speculations about sexuality and politics great authority.

Many of my peers were mighty exhilarated by it all.  They wielded history as if it were a hammer to take down the idols of humanitas, beauty and Great Books and high art.  But undergraduates don’t seem to feel the same inspiration.  The humanities are, indeed, declining, and it has happened on their watch, the liberals and leftists who run the place.  They insist on the centrality of historical understanding, but they are losing in the competitive terrain of the campus marketplace.  Eighteen- and 19-year-olds are increasingly uninterested in what the history professors have to say.  They are voting with their feet.

Poll Indicates Race Problems on Campus Greatly Exaggerated

The Knight Foundation survey, conducted by Gallup, of where the First Amendment stands among college students and U.S. adults has several interesting findings.  One of them cuts to the heart of all the other issues of the First Amendment on campus today:

There is a real perception that campuses are not fully open environments. A slight majority of students, 54%, say the climate on their campus prevents some people from saying what they believe because others might find it offensive.

Related: Watch Out for the Campus Bias Team

Nobody should find this an extraordinary rate of self-censorship. Instead, we should wonder about the 46 percent who didn’t think that their campus climate suppresses free speech precisely on the grounds of giving others offense. The phrasing of the question doesn’t cover jokes in bad taste, forms of harassment, vandalism, or discriminatory conduct. A bit of discretion and other-awareness is one of the costs of living in polite society. But this goes beyond basic manners and touches on the core of an academic environment — the freedom to press an argument some find disagreeable (as long as you do so with evidence and reasoning).  It asks about people’s intellectual statements, about “what they believe”–opinions, norms, values.

The reply shows how far belief has been submitted to sensitivities. Even 19-year-olds now understand that the measure of their thoughts on topics of race and sexuality is the possible reaction of someone, somewhere, who might not be able to sleep that night after hearing those words. It has only taken a few instances of an indiscreet professor or administrator who muttered the wrong words, aroused a protest, apologized profusely for offending others, and slunk off in shame for everyone to get the message. Keep your head down and your mouth shut.

There is another finding in the study that attributes the shutdown of belief entirely to the sensitivities of the complainers, not to the reality of the campus.  When students were asked about the racial climate of their campus, 26 percent termed it “excellent” and 48 percent good.  That makes three-quarters of all students who have no concerns about systemic racial tensions or problems.  Only a mere six percent rated the climate “poor.”

Within this response, too, we find that only 13 percent of black students gave the “poor” rating.

Related: Race Baiting in the Name of Justice

This makes for an astonishing contrast.  More than half of students see a “chilling” climate for speech, while barely one-in-twenty see a bad climate for race relations.  We know that much of the censorship and offense-taking has to do with race issues, and yet the vast majority of students find that there is no general basis for curtailing speech because of them.

What this suggests is that racial problems on campus have been vastly exaggerated–at least according to the students. The relatively rare racial episode has produced an overreaction. More than two-thirds of students (69%) say that they rarely or never hear anyone make “insensitive comments about someone’s race, ethnicity, or religion.” Given the low bar that the category “insensitive comments” sets, we may assume that the rate of outright nastiness is much lower.

Given the many forms of coarseness that adolescents are disposed to on-line and off-, we should broadcast this finding as a triumph of civility. Indeed, this poll provides abundant evidence against the accusations leveled against colleges in the heated student protests of 2015-16. We all know that Oberlin, Wesleyan, and all the other selective campuses targeted by the students are some of the most progressive and sensitive acres on earth. Now, in this poll, the vast majority of students say the same thing.

I suspect, however, that students know this already.  They also know that they can do nothing about the exaggerations.  They have seen that college administrators and many professors, too, are willing to go along with them and pretend as if they indicated something real and pervasive at work on their campuses.  Again, it only takes one example of the people in power countenancing a patent falsehood for the underlings to realize that truth is no defense.

Let me give you an example.

One year after I arrived at Emory in 1989, a racial incident happened.  An African American pre-med student named Sabrina Collins landed in the hospital, mute and traumatized, after finding racist death threats in her dorm room. Her case became a national story, reported in the New York Times and USA Today as well as in the local media.

On March 5, someone had entered her dorm room, scrawled racial epithets, tore her stuffed animals, and poured bleach on her clothing. She reported the incident, and Emory offered safe haven for her and her family off campus plus options for completing her schoolwork. Collins declined, so more locks were placed on her door and a motion detector and alarm system installed.  She decided to move out weeks later, however, and as she was doing so, she discovered more racist threats written in nail polish on the floor under a throw-rug. That’s what threw her into a catatonic silence that continued while she recuperated in a hospital in Augusta.

Dekalb County police and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation began an inquiry to try to track down the perpetrator. The U.S. Attorney in Atlanta offered to help. Campus officials went into crisis-management mode as protests erupted. One group, Students Against Racial Inequality, judged Emory “a hostile environment for people of African descent.” The leaders of it gave the president 12 demands, including new centers for the study of African American culture, more African American enrollments and professors, and the dismissal of the head of public safety.

I remember the incident and the feeling of disgust.  What coward would pick on this poor girl? I thought. She deserves all the support we can give her. A few weeks later, while driving to work, I heard the issue come up on local talk radio, everyone solemnly denouncing the deed as I presumed they should.  But then one young man phoned in and said in a halting voice something entirely unexpected. I don’t recall the exact words, but they went something like this:

I know this sounds hard to believe, but this situation may not be what you all think. It looks to me like she may have made the whole thing up. That’s what I’ve heard from some people who know.

The host challenged him, and the caller delicately but firmly stuck to his suspicion.  My first response was incredulity. You gotta be kidding.  Who would make up something like this up?

Well, not long after the case fell apart. Yes, Collins fabricated the whole thing. On May 31, the New York Times printed a story under the headline, “Woman’s Claim of Racial Crime Is Called a Hoax.” Investigators said that all the evidence pointed back to Collins—fingerprint analysis, the paper and typeface used to make the threats, and the fact that the death threat misspelled the word “you’re” as “your,” an error found in Collins’ own writing.  Her symptoms—traumatic muteness, holding herself for hours in a fetal ball—were faked.  There was an added speculation by some people that Collins conceived the hoax to distract attention from an Honor Code investigation of her regarding a chemistry exam.

Here is where the duplicity of the administration comes in.  When the truth came out, the administrators played it down. “University officials,” the Times reported, “who have tried to steer clear of assessing blame, had little comment today.”

But the advocates didn’t do the same. Here is one of them, whose remarks conclude the Times story:

Otis Smith, president of the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who earlier assailed Emory, said the new findings were largely irrelevant. ”It doesn’t matter to me whether she did it or not,” he said, ”because of all the pressure these black students are under at these predominantly white schools. If this will highlight it, if it will bring it to the attention of the public, I have no problem with that.”

How familiar has this rationale become?  A victim turns out to be not a victim at all, according to the facts—but then she really is a victim because of a pervasive reality that underlies those facts.  Lying to expose a bigger truth is no lie, even if there is no evidence of that larger truth except for the distraught condition of the victim.  When someone says, “It doesn’t matter whether she did it or not,” and the school leaders don’t come right out and assert, “Yes, it does!” everybody else learns the lesson.  You don’t have to have done something to be convicted of doing it. Emory University and all the white people in it were tried and found innocent of the specific charges but walked away guilty of the general charge of being a “predominantly white institution” that makes life terribly hard for black students.

I didn’t see any news stories on the follow-up treatment of Ms. Collins, but I heard that Emory proceeded to cover all of her medical bills.  Here is how an undergraduate in Emory Magazine recalled the whole episode 20 years later:

A statewide investigation deemed the alleged hate crime a hoax a few months later, but its impact on the Emory community was anything but inauthentic. In the wake of that incident, students banded together to raise cultural awareness on campus.

Again, the same rationale for deceit prevailed. The crime was a sham, but the response “authentic.”  Ms. Collins’ hoax proved to have a salutary impact, raising awareness and uniting students. It’s okay to lie as long as it produces a good outcome.

This way of handling falsehood is an important factor in the self-censorship that afflicts so many people on college campuses. The Knight poll shows how many of them hide their thoughts, and they may be wise to do so in light of the Collins hoax and so many other double-dealing campus episodes of recent times.  If people were confident that allegations of harassment, discrimination, and bias would be settled because of the truth, then they might not choke down their beliefs even if those beliefs proved troubling to others.

But if they assume that they may be denounced no matter what the facts are, so long as one party is distressed—particularly a representative of a historically disadvantaged group—then they certainly will take the safe route and be quiet.

How Student Protesters Cheat Themselves

One common complaint of protesting students is the old multiculturalist argument that the curriculum is too white and male and Western.  The petition filed by students at Seattle University is a case in point.

Once again, we have outlandish allegations of racism and harassment leveled against one of the most progressive enclaves on Planet Earth, the liberal arts campus.  The students term it “a longstanding history of oppression,” and their “concerns are urgent and necessitate an immediate response” (another feature of the protests is the note of desperate need on the students’ part).  How else to respond to “being ridiculed, traumatized, othered, tokenized, and pathologized”?

In this case, the curriculum bears a big part of the blame.  The humanities departments at Seattle don’t induct students into the civilization of Sophocles, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Rousseau, and Mozart, the petition says.  They don’t raise the humanitas of the students who pass through it.  No, the curriculum does the opposite.  It “ignores and erases the humanity of its students and of peoples around the globe.”

And so they demand a “non-Eurocentric interdisciplinary curriculum.”  This new formation will “decentralize Whiteness,” which means that John Milton will enjoy no more prestige than do contemporary African writers.  The old themes of faith, courage, mortality, and love will give way to “a critical focus on the evolution of systems of oppression such as racism, capitalism, colonialism, etc.”

In accord with the personnel side of campus identity politics, the students insist that these new courses be taught by “prepared staff from marginalized backgrounds, especially professors of color and queer professors.”  (The students don’t explain how queerness advances the non-Eurocentric focus.)  The instructors are to follow, too, a “decolonizing and anti-racist pedagogy.”

The puffery is absurd, of course, but there’s a pedagogical point to make as well.  Any administrator and professor who accede to these demands is guilty of academic fraud.  The reason goes back to E. D. Hirsch’s argument about cultural literacy made three decades ago.

When his book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know appeared in 1987, it was interpreted as a conservative brief against multiculturalism. Critics said that it reinforced Eurocentric and patriarchal values at a time when minority and women’s voices were on the rise.  That’s because Hirsch and his colleagues had compiled a list of facts, names, dates, and other items of information that an American needed to know in order to participate fully in civic and professional life.

Yes, the list was heavy on European-derived materials, but this was only because the culture of American civic and professional life was the same way.  Indeed, one of Hirsch’s reasons for including an item in his list was that such things commonly found their way into op-eds in the New York Times.  Hirsch, himself a lifelong Democrat, reasoned that if disadvantaged students were to rise in American society, they had to know such things.  If they didn’t they wouldn’t do well on SAT and GRE exams, would struggle in college classes, and would feel out of place in professional settings.  Teaching cultural literacy, then, Eurocentric and traditional in content, was a solid progressive project.

Hirsch’s arguments remain firm.  American mass culture has grown more diverse in the last three decades, but the deep references found in civic life and professional spheres, not to mention on standardized tests, are still predominantly Eurocentric.  I just picked up the Times op-ed page, went six paragraphs into Charles Blow’s contribution (“Trump’s Chance to Reboot”) and found the words “narcissism” and “protean.”  Does anyone doubt that a little knowledge of Narcissus and Proteus enriches a reader’s understanding of the opinion?

In demanding a non-Eurocentric curriculum that highlights racism et al, students not only implant an adversarial mindset of resentment, one that despises the only society in which they will find success and happiness.  The students also deprive themselves of the background knowledge they will need as they strive to improve their lives.  They are setting themselves up for estrangement and insecurity.  And, sad to say, instead of realizing that the inferior education they have received is one reason for their future dissatisfaction, they will use the anti-Eurocentrism position as an explanation for it.

Yale Lets the Abusive Protesters Win

Among all the idiocies on campus in the last year, there is no more dispiriting statement than a line quoted in The Wall Street Journal on June 3rd.

In an op-ed entitled “How the Yale Halloween Vigilantes Finally Got Their Way,” an undergraduate named Zachary Young records the final episode of the whole affair in New Haven.  The Christakises have resigned as master and associate master of Silliman College.

Young notes that after Erika Christakis wrote her infamous Halloween email and Nicholas Christakis was denounced and cursed by an undergraduate on Yale grounds, things got even worse.  People scribbled attacks in chalk outside their home and “posted degrading images of them online.”  They left a sombrero and Rastafarian wig outside their office.  At this year’s graduation ceremony, several students receiving their diplomas refused to shake Nicholas’ hand.

None of the perpetrators seemed to recognize the value of the Christakises’ work.  An op-ed in The Wall Street Journal last January, Paul McHugh called Nicholas “one of America’s outstanding physician-scientists.”  And Erika’s book The Importance of Being Little, published earlier this year, has been one of the most discussed education books in 2016.  (My review of it appears here)

But the students’ conduct is not the dismaying part of the latest information.  It is, instead, what Nicholas wrote in the couple’s letter of resignation.  After suffering harassment and insult all year long, he still manages to be conciliatory:

“We have great respect for every member of our community, friend and critic alike.  We remain hopeful that students at Yale can express themselves and engage complex ideas within an intellectually plural community.”

That doesn’t sound like the expression of a flesh-and-blood man.  It’s the voice of a bureaucrat whose words have been approved by higher-ups.  Respect for the student who shrieked the f-word at him?  Respect for people vandalizing their property?  Gimme a break.  Can you really say with a straight face that Yale is an “intellectually plural community”?

The op-ed notes that during the year “the Christakises have met one-on-one with offended students.  They have invited their critics over for a group lunch to ‘continue the conversation.'”  Our only response is, “You call this a conversation?!”

Let’s be clear about why students are acting in this high-handed, commanding way.  It’s because they know their superiors will take it.  When the students confronted Nicholas Christakis on the quad, they knew who he was, and they knew that he wouldn’t do much of anything if they bullied and berated and humiliated him.  They wouldn’t do any such thing with an authority disinclined to tolerate their tantrums.

Mr. Young concludes with an optimistic note: “With luck, the sorry episode at Yale will cause students to spend less time vilifying professors and more time engaging with their ideas.”

Nope, it will do the opposite. The students got exactly what they wanted.  They were rewarded for their nastiness.  They’ll do it again.

When Diversity Dictates Lower Quality Hires

Progressives at Tier 1 research universities and top liberal arts colleges sit at the summit of the higher ed hierarchy, where their eminence rests upon high standards of academic work.  But they are fervently committed to hiring and retaining more persons of color.  They have attempted affirmative action of the official and unofficial kind for a long time, but gains in the percentage of professors of color in elite departments have been disappointing.  If you listen to them, you can hear a rising dismay in their voices.  They want so much to have more non-white colleagues, but the years pass and nothing seems to change.

This is a case of bad faith.  People are in bad faith when they think and act in way that deny the reality of what they otherwise enjoy.  The behavior is to demand more non-white hiring and promotion and retention.  The reality is a combination of the meritocratic system of selective schools plus the limited pool of minority candidates.  The number of African American and Hispanic PhDs falls well below the proportions those groups constitution of the general population.  And in the humanities, Asian Americans, too, are underrepresented.

‘Inclusivity’ vs.  Prestige’

This means that superior institutions must compete vigorously for faculty of color who have the qualifications that put them into the ranks of high-achievers.  Inevitably, they must lower the bar for them, setting up a showdown between a top school’s prestige and its “inclusivity.”

It has happened recently at Dartmouth College.  A female Asian American English professor has been denied tenure even though the department’s tenure committee voted unanimously to promote her.  The headline of a story on the case at  reads “Campus unrest follows tenure denial of innovative, popular faculty member of color.”  Aimee Bahng, a UC San Diego PhD, has been an assistant professor at Dartmouth since 2009.  The titles of her various writings indicate the nature of her expertise:

“Extrapolating Transnational Arcs, Excavating Imperial Legacies: The Speculative Acts of Karen Tei Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rain Forest

“Queering The Matrix: Hacking the Digital Divide and Slashing into the Future”

She has also supported Black Lives Matter and was co-founder of the Ferguson Teaching Collective at Dartmouth.  In other words, all her interests fall nicely within Dartmouth’s reigning identity politics.

But the higher-ups rejected her.  Why?

Not Close to Dartmouth’s Standards

Bahng’s colleagues say that the Dartmouth administration isn’t sufficiently committed to raising ‘the number of underrepresented minorities on the faculty.  They don’t accuse the leaders of racism, but they do allege an unpleasant climate on campus and little appreciation of the special pressures and burdens faculty of color experience.  Reporter Colleen Flaherty interviews a SUNY-Buffalo professor of transnational studies who claims that people of her profile end up doing extra service work on diversity committees and programs, and they do extra work mentoring students of color who seek them out.  That cuts into their research time.  Additionally, she claims, research on race, gender, and sexuality “has less cultural capital” (tell that to Judith Butler, Cornel West….)

Nobody who turned Bahng down speaks in the story, but it isn’t hard to see why they did in fact speak out.  Flaherty includes a link to Bahng’s CV, and it displays a research record that doesn’t come close to meeting Dartmouth’s tenure standards.  All English departments at major institutions want to see a book in hand and several research articles.  But all Bahng has is a book “forthcoming” from Duke University Press in early 2017.  By itself, that counts for nothing.  We need, at the very least, a contract from the Press stating that the manuscript has passed through peer review, been approved by the board, and has a production schedule.  Bahng’s defenders don’t say anything about it, suggesting a contract doesn’t exist.

As for essays, since her hiring in 2009, Bahng has only two of them in print.

Making it all Go Away

The situation is clear. The department was willing to lower Dartmouth standards in order to meet identity needs (and, possibly, friendship).  Higher officials weren’t.   She has delivered 37 lectures, and she lists 19 fellowships and grants on the CV, but those awards and activities haven’t produced much in the way of the written word. However much Dartmouth wants more faculty diversity, the output was just too low.

I don’t think it will be too long, however, before the scruples of administrators in these kinds of situations soften.  the identity demand is growing too shrill, and in the humanities, research is increasingly meaningless.  Who cares whether someone has just published the 4,210th essay on literary transnationalism?  Soon, administrators will ask themselves whether it is worth it to insist upon strict standards of published research when they run against the diversity mandate, incense other professors, and bring on bad publicity.  A simple and quiet acquiescence can make it all go away.

Let’s Reject This Endorsement of Free Speech on Campus

Today in the Wall Street Journal, an op-ed by Michael Bloomberg and Charles Koch explains “Why Free Speech Matters on Campus.”

Many conservatives might jump to endorse this article as a welcome indictment of liberal censorship and bias by two powerful campus donors. But that would be a mistake.  Look more closely at what Bloomberg and Koch are saying.  

Whether in economics, morality, politics or any other realm of study, progress has always depended upon human beings having the courage to challenge prevailing traditions and beliefs.

Got that?  Prevailing traditions and beliefs are a hindrance to progress. They are the obstacles to overcome. We must stand up to them, and that means saying things people are going to find uncomfortable. Bloomberg and Koch say nothing about education as the focusing of young minds on religious, political, and artistic traditions.  Nothing about how you cannot “challenge prevailing traditions and beliefs” intelligently until you have studied those things.  No, it’s all about innovation and reform and progress.

Bloomberg and Koch’s examples show how misguided is the approach.

Many ideas that the majority of Americans now hold dear–including that all people should have equal rights, women deserve the right to vote, and gays and lesbians should be free to marry whom they choose–were once unpopular minority views that many found offensive.

This is the standard justification, and it’s a misleading one.  It overlooks a giant contrary category: things that came along and were hailed as forms of progress but sooner or later exposed as terrible mistakes.  Some instances: early-20th-century eugenics, open classrooms in secondary education, the destruction of Penn Station . .

Bloomberg and Koch compound their blindness to the dangers of progress in the very next sentence.

They are now widely accepted because people were free to engage in a robust dialogue with their fellow citizens.

To claim that the same-sex marriage controversy has been settled through a “robust dialogue” is to rewrite history.  Has any conflict in recent times been less civil and open than this one? 

The progressives on this issue have used tactics of shaming, demonization, intimidation, and litigation, not those of debate.  There is no tolerance for differing opinions, which Bloomberg and Koch hail as a proper effect of liberal education.  They believe in a society in which “individuals need not fear reprisal, harassment or intimidation for airing controversial opinions.”  We don’t have one right now, not on this issue.

The problem in Bloomberg and Koch’s declaration is a discursive one.  They praise progress, in the process setting the status quo as a roadblock to it.  But what, then, about people who believe in the status quo?  And what if the conflict turns upon deeply held beliefs, perhaps religious ones, that won’t be managed and accommodated so smoothly by a marketplace of ideas. 

Let’s face it: some commitments run deeper than that.  Moral positions can be visceral.  Bloomberg and Koch think that “open minds and rational discourse” may proceed if we only show more tolerance. 

But to Bloomberg and Koch tolerance is simply a pathway to shedding principles important millions of students.

A Pointless Glut of Ph.Ds

After years of decline, the number of PhDs is rising again—despite obvious signs that the job prospects for the holders of all these new doctorates are far from good. In 2009, the number of doctorates awarded in the humanities dropped significantly.  In 2005, the fields in total produced 5,210 of them, but four years later only 4,891.  That was the year the housing crisis hit academia and created an even worse job market for tenure-track aspirants than had been the case in preceding decades.  (The market for humanities PhDs has been weak ever since the mid-1970s.)  But while the job market has only gotten worse since 2009, the opposite has happened on the production side.  The number of doctorates award in the humanities last year jumped to 5,486, a gain of 12 percent since 2009.

The numbers come from the Survey of Earned Doctorates.  They raise an obvious question: why increase supply when demand falls?  Why do humanities departments take in more people, many more, than there are jobs?

It can’t be over-optimism.  For a long time, nobody has predicted that the market for humanities professors is going to improve.  The last prominent claim I know of happened in 1989, when a study headed by William Bowen forecast a shortage of professors in the humanities and social sciences unless the pipeline flows wider and faster.  A New York Times story on the report termed it “a major shortage.”  Bowen was quoted as saying, “We need to increase overall production of new Ph.D.’s by two-thirds.  In the humanities and social sciences, we need to double the current numbers.”  The main reason for the coming “serious staffing problem” was the expected retirement of all those professors hired in the late-60s and early-70s.  Upcoming job candidates with advanced degree in hand would be in the driver’s seat.  It would be a buyer’s market, with only 30,934 new candidates and 37,091 positions.

Well, many people did retire—and they were replaced with non-tenure-track teachers.  That led to a swelling population of adjuncts and one-year visitors and teaching post-docs, not regular professors.  And they’re bitter as hell.

We can’t blame them.  We should blame the departments that took them in and promised them a bright future, however implicitly.  The departments taught and trained them for seven or eight years.  They had students serve as teaching assistants in large survey courses and gave them their own freshman courses to run.  Then they pushed them out the door at age 30+, into the swirl of hiring, and forgot about them.

We can guess why the number of humanities PhDs jumped last year.  When the crash hit in 2008, college seniors faced a downsizing economy.  Why not go to graduate school?  You get a stipend, you’re good at reading and writing about books, and you can stay in the safe space of the campus.  Many of them, in fact, have spent little time working off-campus, and to continue in the academic realm when the real world is so competitive and unpredictable strikes them as a solution.

So applications went up in 2008, and now we have reached the time when many of them have finished.  The music they avoided facing eight years ago hits them today with the jolt of the opening chords of Schumann’s 4th.  Most of the people trying the job market in English this year, some for the 3rd, 4th, 5th time, walked away with nothing.

But the regular faculty couldn’t resist.  In 2008 and 2009, the applicant piles grew.  That thicker and stronger roster stroked their egos and met department needs.  “People want to come study with us!  We can have a few extra TAs to help with grading.  I can use a research assistant, too.”  More graduate seminars were needed, which allowed professors to shift from teaching a course with 35 more or less uninterested sophomores to a course with five graduate students who want to be in the teacher’s shoes.  When the thought of the job market crossed their minds, perhaps they rationalized it away by claiming to provide a superb humanities education that is sufficient justification for the graduate program.  Or, they believe that cream rises to the top and the rest must pay the price of inferior talents.

We would hear something different from the 32-year-old adjuncts and one-year lecturers who came to grad school with reasonable expectations of regular employment if they worked hard and did what they were told.  Any suggestion that their failure to get a tenure-track job was their own fault would be met with a huff.  “If I wasn’t good enough to join a college faculty, then why did you praise me in the seminars I took, pass me on the qualifying exams, approve of my teaching, sign off on my dissertation, and award me a doctorate?”

To the part-timers, the outcome feels like a betrayal or a dismissal.  It is especially annoying for them to see the number of PhDs rising at a time when they can’t get off the adjunct treadmill.  All those new ones are competitors!

But the fact remains: the numbers keep going up.  Or maybe not for long.  Perhaps fewer students enrolled in graduate humanities programs in 2012 and 2013, and we’ll see fewer completions in 2017 and ’18 and ’19.  But the problem of overproduction won’t be solved with but a tick of a few percentage points downward.  We have so many under-employed strivers piled up over the last ten years that it’s going to take years of large-scale retirements and a vastly shrinking pipeline for the market to even out.

Meanwhile, the craziness goes on.

Shrinking the White Male—and His Culture

Last September, the English Department at Colby College in Maine posted a job opening for Associate or Full Professor of American Literature. It’s a plum position, one that hundreds of professors would love to have.

As with all academic job listings, the ad files a diversity statement at the bottom, assuring applicants that some identities are more desirable than others. Bluntly put, Colby prefers anyone over white males.  Part of the statement reads:

Colby is an Equal Opportunity employer, committed to excellence through diversity, and encourages applications from qualified persons of color, women, persons with disabilities, military veterans and members of other under-represented groups. Colby complies with Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in an institution’s education programs and activities.

Nothing unusual there.  Every posting says pretty much the same thing.  But in this case there’s something wrong with the statement—factually so.  It doesn’t jibe with the actual demographics of the English faculty at Colby.

The department Website shows the full roster of faculty and staff, and I count 15 regular professors, tenured and tenure-track (not visitors or fellows). The advertisement lists “women” #2 in the list of identities that will improve diversity, but the faculty is already more than half female, with eight women. Women are not an under-represented group.

The first category is “persons of color.” Here things are more complicated, but still inaccurate.  Two of the English professors count, an African American man and an Indian man, making the department 13 percent “persons of color.”  That rate nearly equals the rate of the persons-of-color in the student body and far exceeds the minority population of the state of Maine, which is 97 percent white.

In other words, the demographics of the Colby department are just fine on those identity categories.  No more diversity is needed for the department to meet realistic goals of proportionate representation.

If you were to point those numbers out to most academics at Colby and elsewhere, however, they wouldn’t carry much weight. That’s because diversity-by-proportion only operates as long as we have disproportions. If things balance out, another kind of diversity takes hold, hegemonic diversity.

If numbers of hirees balance out, another kind of diversity takes hold. It covers the ideas, values, outlooks, approaches, and practices of a discipline. It’s not enough to hire African Americans to teach in the English department.  We have to make the materials on the syllabus more African American, too. Feminism says that patriarchy isn’t just material dominance by men in the workplace.  Patriarchy also works by sedimenting “male” values into seemingly neutral practices and orientations. Efforts to create this kind of diversity can continue forever, since they apply to such fuzzy realities.” Call this hegemonic diversity.

So even when white males are scaled back to disproportionately small rates (they make up 33 percent of the English department, but they make up around 48 percent of the state population), we may still have a white-male-oriented curriculum and outlook. Because of the long history of white-male domination, we need more women and more persons of color, not just equal representation.

This will never stop. Today, girls make up nearly 60 percent of the undergraduate population, but one hears virtually nothing about the shrinking male side from diversity advocates.

Mismatch: The End of a Liberal Dream

The most disturbing thing about mismatch research (examining the contention that a student can be adversely affected attending a school where her level of preparation is substantially lower than that of her typical classmate ) is that it demonstrates a tense inequity: recipients of affirmative action at selective colleges are not as smart as non-recipients. That’s the blunt truth, and nobody likes to acknowledge it.

Smart means something specific and local, of course, in this case math and verbal aptitudes. Those are what the SAT and ACT tests measure, and they are what calculus, freshman composition, organic chemistry, and dozens of other first-year courses demand to greater and lesser degrees.

If two students enroll in a statistics course and #1 scored 150 points higher on the math SAT than #2, he is a whole lot smarter in that class. It is entirely possible that #2 exceeds #1 in other aptitudes, such as the skills that go into drawing and painting, but those won’t help in Statistics 202. Student #2 is inescapably cognitively disadvantaged. In order to compete with #1, #2 must work twice as hard, logging more hours of homework, stopping by the instructor’s office each week, and using the school’s math tutoring service. Sadly, that is unlikely to happen, and #2 shall soon enough shift out of STEM fields and head toward an easier (for him) major or drop out altogether.

This is the mismatch catastrophe of affirmative action, and the strongest current argument against it.

But progressives don’t believe it.  They can’t, because if mismatch is real, then a crucial article of progressive faith will fall.

The article is this: people are products of circumstances, and if we alter the circumstances, we can improve them. That premise obviously applies to affirmative action. Yes, the progressive admits, Student #2 comes into college less prepared than #1, but that’s not because he is less intelligent. It’s because he came out of an environment that didn’t cultivate math aptitudes as well as #1’s environment did. Once we place #2 in the same environment as #1, aptitudes will equalize sufficiently for #2 to function competitively among his peers. That’s the progressive rationale.

If only it were true. But the fact is that aptitudes are not so fluid. It is true that recent research has demonstrated that cognitive gains can happen among adults, but in those studies, the gains were highly specific relative to a single task such as the ability to comprehend patterns in matrices.  Furthermore, the subjects underwent specific training in completing it.

No cognitive psychologists believe that the ordinary life of a college student provides the kind of deep-intelligence training that will enable him to raise his SAT math score 100 points after a semester on campus. Even if we allow a near-total influence of environment on intelligence (that is, reducing the “heritability” factor to nothing), a change of environment cannot produce significant changes in aptitude fast enough to benefit Student #2 in the first year. By the time a person reaches age 19, intelligence has hardened too much to rise with a semester of higher education, no matter how much academic support and the company of high-achieving peers surrounds him. It takes longer than that, even with total and concentrated immersion.

The only way for affirmative action policies to overcome the mismatch problem is for colleges to create a wholly separate extracurricular habitat for recipients. This means extensive daily tutoring and other academic support. They won’t raise math aptitudes much, but they will enable students to complete the coursework and perform on exams at a higher level. Some of the campus protests made recently by African American students, including the Black Students at Emory (my home campus), add this component to the list of demands.  In this aspect, the students are correct. They need more help, and universities that have admitted underprepared students through affirmative action are duty-bound to provide it.

But it’s a necessity that proponents don’t want to acknowledge. Progressives don’t like genetic or other biological explanations for group differences in intelligence. They smack of fate, and they (supposedly) dissuade us from working for progressive reform. But environment, too, is fate, for all practical purposes. That’s the sad truth, and for supporters of affirmative action to ignore it is to show them as ideologues, dogmatic and anti-science.

More Bad Numbers for the Humanities

By Mark Bauerlein

In recent years, several critics have chided those of us who say the humanities are fading by citing statistics on undergraduate enrollments that show no real declines at all since the 1980s.

One reason for the rebuke is that many arguing the “crisis” do so on the basis of intellectual decline, specifically, the rise of identity politics in the humanities, which have often made the disciplines a joke across the quad. (See here.)

Liberal defenders of race-class-gender-sexuality-disability-queerness-etc. studies don’t like to admit that their enthusiasms haven’t brought more respect to the fields, much less any material gains in recent years. And so, they call upon the numbers and sprinkle smug remarks against the other side among them, as in this piece by a past president of the Modern Language Association.

But the bad news keeps coming. The Job List of the Modern Language Association came out this month, and for the third straight year, the openings declined significantly. The number of jobs in English (1,015) for 2014-15 fell 3 percent, while all the foreign languages (949) saw a decline of 7.6 percent.

If we go back to 2009-10, English jobs this year fall 7.7 percent, while foreign languages are 7.3 percent lower. When we pull out tenure-track positions, things look worse. This year, 67.3 percent of the jobs available are tenure-track, a tiny rise of 0.8 percent from last year, but still way below the number of doctorates awarded in any calendar year. For the foreign languages, tenure-track jobs make up only 50.4 percent of the whole list, a slip of 2.1 percentage points from 2013-14. In previous years, tenure-track positions made up 75-80 percent of English jobs and 60-65 percent of foreign language jobs. Clearly, schools are shifting more and more teaching duties to adjunct positions and one-year lectureships.

What this means is that the build-up of bitter, frustrated job seekers continues. Many of those PhDs from 2010, 2011, 2012 . . . who didn’t get tenure-track jobs in past years are still out there sending applications to every job listing that comes close to their expertise, creating a pool of thousands of qualified people for hundreds of jobs. Tell them that the humanities are doing fine.

There are two other trends to factor into this dismal picture. We had a crushing decline in job openings after the 2008 economic crisis. As the Inside Higher Ed story notes, “The low point for jobs in that economic downturn was 2009-10.” People expected that some good financial years for private university endowments and public university state budgets would yield a steady recovery.

But, as you see above, that hasn’t happened. The other trend that should have spurred tenure-track hiring was the retirement of Boomer professors. Many of those people hired in the 70s have lingered in their posts beyond the traditional retirement age of 65, holding their posts through the 00s. They are now leaving, but it appears they aren’t being replaced with regular faculty lines. I suspect this is because the number of majors in the departments doesn’t justify their full replacement.

This is a hard fact that the-humanities-are-doing-just-fine crowd can’t spin out of existence.


Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory.

The University as Nursery

One of the implications of the shift of pressure against free speech from left-wing faculty and administrators to undergraduates is that the ideological framework of liberal bias doesn’t quite apply.  Yes, we have language of “racism” and “sexism,” along with demands that relics of US history that fail the PC test be torn down.  But the political thrust doesn’t gibe with talk about safe spaces and microaggressions.  That’s an idiom of therapy, not politics (even while it is used as a tool of power).

One prominent critic of higher education discerned the difference at work way back in May 1992 in a commentary in TLS.  The title was “The Nursery-School Campus,” and the author was Camille Paglia.  Here is the relevant passage:

By the early 1970s, American universities had become top-heavy with full-time administrators who took to speaking of the campus as a “community,” which faculty soon discovered was governed by invisible codes of acceptable speech, opinions, and behavior. . . . Many of the students, neglected by their prosperous, professional parents, are pathetically grateful for these attentions. Such coddling has led, in my view, to the outrageous speech codes, which are designed to shield students from the realities of life.  The campus is now not an arena of ideas but a nursery school where adulthood can be postponed. Faculty who are committed to the great principle of free speech are therefore at war with paternalistic administrators in league with misguided parents. 

Paglia gets right at what stands out in the protests today: not the political content, but the childish demands.  Grownups listen to them march, chant and think that it all looks more like a tantrum than a revolution.

This is not a trivial point, or a dismissive one.  We should take the brattiness seriously, but see it as a result we have created, not a starting point to which we should respond.  Paglia locates the evolution in the hiring back in the 1970s of higher-Ed administrators who had no teaching duties and no academic research background—in other words, bureaucrats.  They were hired to manage the swelling population of Baby Boomers flooding the colleges and requiring more and more investment in the overall college experience (and less focus on coursework).

Hence the emphasis on “community.”  It’s a word nearly all my colleagues, even the most liberal ones, wouldn’t use to describe their classrooms. But administrators loved it, especially those most invested in attracting and keeping female and minority students.  The term sounds warm and welcoming, especially, the administrators assumed, to youths whose parents never went to college and who might feel out of place.  The message was simple: “We shall take care of you—we care about you.”

But the old story of paternalistic dreams played out once again.  To create utopia, the social engineers had to order and regulate the conduct of the inhabitants.  The “codes” arrived, the underside of community organizing.  I’ve seen it happen repeatedly.  The people most fired with goodness and concern are the first to act—and overreact—against disrupters.  It’s not enough to maintain liberal principles of free speech and freedom of association and rights of conscience.  Those are formal rules that don’t have any positive content.  They don’t tell people what the True and the Good are.  They allow people the space to form their own conceptions of the True and the Good.  With that freedom, unless everyone arrives at the same ones, the community foundations crack and tumble.

When the campus engineers say, “We need to build a stronger sense of community,” then, what they really mean is, “We need to suppress the dissenters in the room, across the campus, throughout the discipline.”  People who oppose affirmative action, revere the classics, vote Republican, oppose abortion . . . they spoil the local culture. They make others feel bad.  How smooth and positive might our school and our department be if they were gone.

You see how the bureaucracy prospers in this set-up, whether it fails in its aims or achieves them.  To create a community in academia, you need a lot more than professors. You also need a legion of counselors, diversity officers, and various “campus life” personnel.  And when the inevitable frictions arise, such as disputes over admissions policies and student-faculty relations, you need more administrators, including lawyers to draft new speech and conduct codes. And when THOSE cause more collisions between a student religious group and anti-discrimination policies, then you need more officers to handle infractions and . . . . That’s how bureaucracy works: the more it stumbles, the bigger it gets.  And it justifies itself in the right and proper name of “community,” which is to say, student well-being.

As long as those efforts were confined to administrators, “community-building” practices were usually contained to passive-aggressive forms of advocacy and policing.  Officials generally knew not to step over the line into outright censorship or harassment.  They knew that bad publicity and upright alumni and donors wouldn’t like it.

But now that the safe-and-secure, racism-free, sexism-free, homophobia-free community-building vision has been adopted by the undergraduates, those constraints are gone.  Sophomores don’t care about bad press. They don’t listen to donors and alumni. They can demand and occupy and march all they want, and nobody will tell them “Stop!” They have lots of time on their hands—after all, they study only 14 hours a week—and they have solid peer pressure backing them up, which means a lot more to them than the authority of the faculty and president and deans.  We are, indeed, in the nursery-school campus. The difference is that the day-care providers don’t know how to say “No.”

The Coming Ideological Takeover of Music

It has been nearly 30 years since Jesse Jackson led a group of protesters around the Stanford University campus chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has gotta go!”

The target back then was patriarchal Eurocentric content, the books, art, words, and ideas of Dead White Males.  The solution was a more multicultural syllabus, plus more non-white-male professors, the advocates said.  I went on the job market in 1987, the same year, and the word at the time in English was that it was going to be an all-female hiring season.

Once we had a revised syllabus, students would leave college with a wider sense of history and culture, not just Hemingway-Fitzgerald-Faulkner, but Cather, Hurston, and Ellison, too.  The High Modernism of Pound and Eliot, Joyce and Proust, would come down from the exclusive pinnacle of literary art and join other styles on a diverse plateau of interesting objects. The multiculturalists never said, “Don’t read James and Stevens.” They just wanted (so they claimed) equal time, and no more, “You MUST read James and Stevens.”  They didn’t even argue much for the excellence of new names added to the syllabus.  Sheer diversification was enough.

And so one Western Civ requirement after another has fallen out of the higher ed curriculum.  One recent episode unfolds in the work of a task force created by the College Music Society a consortium of post-secondary musicians and teachers housed in Missoula, Montana. The project was started in 2013 as a process to review the teaching of music theory and performance in the United States. The first draft of the report is the topic of a thoughtful essay at the Pope Center web site by Andrew Balio, which neatly points out the ideological nature of it.

The subtitle of the report sets the tone: “A Manifesto for Progressive Change in the Undergraduate Preparation of English Majors.”  You know what’s coming next.  The “creative and expressive dimensions of music have been progressing rapidly over the past several decades,” and academia hasn’t followed suit.  Instead, the “academy has remained isolated, resistant to change, and too frequently regressive rather than progressive in its approach to undergraduate education.”  This resistance is no virtue.  Indeed, the document takes entirely for granted the progressive premise that if the world changes the classroom must keep pace.

The authors add to the charge of hide bounded-ness the worry that enrollments may soon drop as “sophisticated high school students seek music career development outside the often rarefied environments and curricula” of U.S. colleges.

The solution, the authors say, is to change the focus.  Teachers need to shift away from “the prevailing model of training performers in the interpretation of older works.”  An “experience” should take its place: “in a global society, students must experience, through study and direct participation, music of diverse cultures, generations, and social contexts, and that the primary locus for cultivation of a genuine, cross-cultural musical and social awareness is the infusion of diverse influences in the creative artistic voice.”  The documents emphasize especially African-derived music.

All of this is so familiar and routine that it feels like a waste of time even to point out the many tendentious assumptions and biased aims in the statement. Balio quotes one of the most fatuous lines from the text:

A strong argument can also be made that the transformed model of music study advanced by TFUMM will shape a new generation of artists/visionaries who will transmit their broad and transformative wisdom to society and positively impact many of the most pressing issues of our times. Ecological crises, poverty, famine, disease, violence against women, child abuse, ideological and extremist tensions...

As he notes, a “laughably tall order.”  But it probably takes this kind of moral puffery to justify the changes on order.  After all, we read, the organization regards “the culturally narrow horizons of music study as nothing short of a social justice crisis.”  And the emphasis on the “European classical repertory” is more than just an overly narrow education. It is a denial of “genuine global artistic identity,” a hindrance to “responsible citizenship.”   It is “notably out of step with this broader reality.”

Reading these sentences is a dreary process.  There are no surprises along the way, the progressive agenda so scripted and witless that anybody can rehearse it.  Successful academics have learned how to play this game quite well.  Balio provides a good example in the official description of the new head of a state university music school.

An ethnomusicologist, her research interests include African American music, feminist theories, queer studies in music and the social sciences, and race in American popular culture. [She] pursues these interests in…a study that tracks the emergence of black feminist consciousness in women’s music. The latter is a network that emerged from a subculture of lesbian feminism in the early 1970s…. Her] research into the interactions of race, gender and sexuality concerning African American music cultures is complemented by her personal and professional advocacy on behalf of women, people of color, and other underrepresented constituencies in departments and schools of music. 

Note, as Balio does, that there is nothing here about her musical accomplishments.  That’s not what counts.  Instead, we have the race-gender-sexuality dance, along with a testament of her activism.  This is no armchair identity politician–she really means it!  The language is so worn and clichéd (“interactions of race, gender and sexuality,” “constituencies”) that you can’t even satirize it.  One could attach it to hundreds of other professors and administrators with no change, and the effect would be the same.  This is the right person for the job.

Young people just coming up in the academic profession don’t know that this routine went stale more than 25 years ago.  But it’s still the going habit, and (usually) it has to be carried out if hiring and advancement are to happen.  But if they expect this turn to relevance and diversity is going to boos enrollments, they should look at English and see if those very turns have made the discipline more popular and prestigious.

‘White Only’ and ‘Black Only’

A bizarre incident happened last week at University of Buffalo. Someone posted signs reading “White Only” or “Black Only” at the entrance to bathrooms and above drinking fountains around campus. Students were shocked and outraged, USA Today and other outlets reported. Police were called in to remove the signs and investigate.

The Black Student Union called a meeting to discuss the incident, in the course of which the affair crossed over into a wonderland. As the members deplored the signs and the racist legacy they invoked, a black graduate student rose and admitted that she placed the signs herself. It was a performance art project, she said, created to fulfill an assignment for a course, “Installation in Urban Spaces.”

Attendees got angry and walked out. Some started crying.

The student has followed up with a long letter to the Buffalo student newspaper that only aggravates the situation. After describing the course assignment, she switches abruptly to herself. “I am in pain,” she says. She studies art at Buffalo precisely to express her suffering and to advance the process of “healing.” Her “symptoms” (she uses the term) include self-hate, trauma, and “an unbearable and deafening indignation.”

The cause is white racism, inflicted upon her for years. Snide jokes, the n-word, and ubiquitous white privilege have taken their toll and produced a “frightening” reality she and others of her race must endure. The system “threatens, traumatizes, brutalizes, stunts, and literally kills non-white people every day in the United States.”

She apologizes for “the extreme trauma, fear, and actual hurt and pain these signs brought about.” To recall Jim Crow was no doubt distressing for students on their way to class that morning. But the student has no regrets: “I do not apologize for what I did. Once again, this is my art practice.” Suffering must be allowed its moment. Without expression, suffering simmers inside forever. Furthermore, “hurt was necessary to call us to action.”

The statement goes on for 2,170 words. As you can see, it is chock full of erratic, overheated identity-politics contentions that provide ample fodder for satire, ridicule, denunciation, and head shaking.

But it’s the kind of episode conservative and libertarian critics of the university should avoid. However misguided this student may be, and however much we might want to say that she misunderstands herself and U.S. history, there is no point in making judgments. No doubt, students on campus are talking non-stop about the incident, and any corrective to the student’s actions should be left to her peers, not to us.

It’s not just because we shouldn’t go after such an easy target, or because we shouldn’t wade into race issues that are already a dismay and an embarrassment for Buffalo students and teachers and administrators.

Rather, it is because the best way of dealing with them is to follow the university’s own course and pull back, letting it wear out in a process of “dialogue.” Here is the statement the administration issued in response to the whole affair.

The University at Buffalo is a community that strongly values inclusiveness and diversity. Faculty, staff and students from all backgrounds and cultures challenge and inspire each other to explore, discover and expand their world view.

We are committed to ensuring that the University at Buffalo is welcoming and supportive of all members of our community. On a daily basis, our faculty and students explore sensitive and difficult topics in an environment that values freedom of expression, and this week’s student art project is generating considerable dialogue.

The university is encouraging our community to discuss how we negotiate the boundaries of academic freedom in a safe and inclusive environment that values freedom of expression and further builds a culture of inclusion.   

The University at Buffalo stands strong in our commitment to ensuring that such discourse occurs in a safe, inclusive and intellectually open environment.

The idiom is familiar, and it serves a managerial function. When an affair like this happens, campus staff drowns it in bureaucratic words—“welcoming and supportive,” “inclusiveness and diversity,” “culture of inclusion,” “save and inclusive environment.” As the hack clichés pile up, your eyes glass over . . . and that’s precisely the point! The words don’t mean anything and they’re not supposed to mean anything. The point is to blunt and soften, deflect and delay, smile and nod, sympathize and support.

They are wise to do so. There is nothing to gain from going after this student for posting hate speech, summoning a police investigation, and bringing heaps of bad publicity down upon the school. She has freedom of expression and campus identity politics on her side. Better to reiterate the prevailing truisms and get back to work.

There is a lesson here for conservative and libertarian critics of the academy. Don’t waste time with single episodes unless or until they rise to a level of significant immorality or illegality. No sensible person needs to be guided through this affair, just as no informed person needs to be told that some nutty things happen on campus these days. Let us save our critique for the actions that deserve it.

The Duke lacrosse is an obvious qualifier, and K. C. Johnson’s blog and book (with Stuart Taylor) were gold standard models of how to proceed. Cases like this one isn’t.

College Prep: Put on a Suit and Tie

There is no shortage of silly proposals on college campuses.  We have, for instance, the University of Tennessee Office for Diversity and Inclusion asking students to use gender-neutral pronouns such as ze in order to create a more welcoming campus. Transgender people, you see, don’t fit this gender binary, and so a foundation stone of the English language must be changed.

But every once in a while a policy surfaces that is so wise and appropriate that it deserves applause from even the sharpest higher-ed critics. Dillard University has one in place, and it should spread across the country.  It’s a suggested dress code for male students.  As insidehighered.com reported it two weeks ago,

when the academic year begins today at Dillard University, faculty are expecting to see far more professional attire, as male students are encouraged to don suits and ties for the first day of class.

Yes, 19-year-old males, who typically prefer t-shirts and caps and jeans and cargo-shorts and other middle-school-appropriate attire, are urged to dress up and look like professional men.  The initiative originated not in the administration, either.  It was the conception of a Dillard senior, one Jerome Bailey, who realized at the end of his undergraduate career in 2012 that he didn’t realize at the beginning the meaning and value of proper deportment, including the type of clothing you wear.

The goal of the program is “to elevate the standard for the appearance and image of Dillard men.”  That adds a peer-pressure factor to the idea, which probably ensures its success more than would faculty and administrative support.  For entering students who have no suit or tie, the school keeps a shared “closet” from which they can borrow the apparel they need. Professors and upper-classmen will assist them in learning how to tie a tie, too.

At present, about 40 percent of the undergraduate males show up on Day One looking like junior professionals. The dean of students tells the reporter, “On the first day now, there are suits everywhere on campus. And it’s a fantastic look.”

We might add another justification for sharp dress besides decency and manliness. When organizations query employers about the deficiencies they see in younger workers and candidates for jobs, the respondents often highlight poor “soft” skills. One poll by CareerBuilder asked them to name the skills recent college graduates lack the most. Topping the list was “Interpersonal or people skills,” which drew 52 percent. Math skills came in at only 15 percent, computing and technical prowess at 13 percent.

Another CareerBuilder poll reported that 77 percent workers report witnessing adolescent behaviors on the job, including whining, pouting, gossip and tattling, cliquishness, and outright tantrums.

Managers are worried, and any evidence of adolescence they see during the screening of candidates will be a disqualification. Another survey by the National Association of Manufacturers found that among the “most serious skill deficiencies” in the workplace was “Inadequate basic employability skills (attendance, timeliness, work ethic, etc.).

The suit-and-tie program at Dillard addresses these deficiencies by setting a better tone.  Males coming into college live largely in a world of pseudo-masculine youth culture. It is anti-intellectual, anti-eloquent, sloppy, irresponsible, and irreverent. Dillard is a historically black college, so we should add the hip-hop culture of misogyny and aggression to the mix.  The values that go with it are contrary to the values of most workplaces. You can’t talk in young male lingo in a job interview, and you can’t dress that way.  Everything must change—posture, diction, and manners. Put a young male in a suit and tie, and we see that process begin to happen.

The Dillard case forms a worthy contrast to what happened at Henderson State University recently when the school posted signs stating that saggy pants are prohibited.  One news story blasted, “’Sagging pants’ sign causes uproar at Henderson State University.” The sign included profanity, excessive loudness, and rude behavior, but the sagging pants got all the attention. That’s because many critics pointed out that this targets African American students, who make up around one-quarter of the student body. Two students have called for the university to hire an “official diversity officer” so that such racial insults don’t happen again. Henderson sign

The ACLU (of course) objects to all such bans as “an affront to the Constitution.” Its press release from a few years ago stated that such rules license police to stop people on the street and search them merely for committing a “fashion crime.”

In opposing ordinary rules of decency, critics borrow the old argument that standards are just social constructs and can be revised, especially when they have a disparate impact, if not a racist motivation.  If colleges buy that argument, then the only standards of conduct left are those demanded by political correctness. The sad consequence is that when many of these liberated and affirmed youths enter the job market, they’re going to hit a wall, and not all the cries of injustice and racism are going to help them one bit.

The Fading of Liberal Education

The best ranking of undergraduate institutions by their general education is ACTA’s What Will They Learn? project. The evaluation looks at seven core subjects (composition, literature, foreign languages, U.S. government or history, economics, math, and science) and tallies whether schools require all students to show sufficient knowledge and proficiency in each one. The ACTA approach goes straight to the heart of learning, the content of the curriculum. Not the applicant size and selectivity, not diversity, not faculty research or Federal dollars, but only the courses students have to take in core subjects. ACTA has reviewed the requirements of 1,098 schools and scored each one on the standard A to F scale.

The degree to which higher education in America has abandoned the mission of liberal education may be measured by the number of schools that made ACTA’s A List. Today, fully 43 percent of all grades given in college are A grades, a bizarre leap from the 15 percent rate in 1960. But ACTA gave only 22 schools its highest score, or really only 21 if we combine St. John’s Annapolis with St. John’s Santa Fe. That makes for a rate of less than 2 percent.

How are we to square this meager commitment to general education with the findings of Academically Adrift, the opinions employers have of the knowledge and skills of recent graduates, and the rising cost of tuition?

There is something else worth noticing in the A List, apart from its microscopic size. We have 21 schools. Three of them are military: West Point, Air Force Academy, and the Coast Guard Academy. Interestingly, the most represented state is Georgia, with Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, Kennesaw State, Georgia Southern, and University of Georgia. Most noteworthy of all is that ten schools, nearly half of the list, are religious colleges:

Bluefield College

Clark Atlanta University

Colorado Christian University

Gardner-Webb University

Pepperdine University

Regent University

Southwest Baptist University

Thomas Aquinas College

Thomas More College of Liberal Arts

University of Dallas

My secular colleagues at research universities might be surprised by this commitment to breadth at religious institutions. In the eyes of many, higher education means thinking your way out of parochial perspectives—and religion IS parochial. When Thomas Aquinas on its home page casts the goal of “A Liberating Education” as preparing youths “to live well the life of the free citizen and of the Christian,” it can only strike secularists as a narrowing process, not a broadening one. Bluefield designs the curriculum as the creation of a “Christian academic community,” a term the irreverent professors regard as oxymoronic. Academia and Christianity don’t go together. Does Southwest Baptist have a vibrant queer theory collective?

But here we have evidence of the opposite, religious schools demanding more history, languages, and science than do their worldly competitors. The number of religious institutions on the list suggests another conclusion: that religious understanding is an opening, not a closure—indeed, that the secular departure from religious aims in the curriculum counts as a constraint, not a freedom.

Progressives Shoot at Shakespeare

Dana Dusbiber’s statement in The Washington Post deploring the teaching of Shakespeare in high school English courses evoked universal scorn and laughter. Her thesis is simple: Shakespeare is too old, white, male, and European for 21st-century American students, especially those of color.  His language is dense and unfamiliar, enough so that Dusbiber herself can’t always understand it.  He is the result of white people’s tastes.  He’s a routine, not a fresh discovery.

The Common Core English Language Arts standards (quoted by Dusbiber) require a play by Shakespeare in high school, but she treats the rule as a hidebound imposition.  It makes for a boring and alien class experience.  When are bureaucrats going to realize that the student population needs something else?  When will they stop peddling old-time, non-diverse classics to youths who don’t like them—and with good reason?  We need to assign words, images, and ideas closer to their real lives.

Commentators jumped on Dusbiber for anti-intellectualism, low standards, and incompetence. But why attack Dusbiber for voicing standard progressive premises? Her opinions are not the complaints of a narrow-minded and eccentric individual. They are entirely in keeping with multiculturalist notions.  True, she delivers a blunt and inexpert expression of them, but her conclusions and practices follow logically from the race and gender focus of reigning education theory of the progressive kind.  She says nothing that gainsays the following truisms about the English class:

  • Students need “representation”—black students need to see black authors and black characters (humanely portrayed), and it’s best if they are presented by a black teacher.
  • The past is irrelevant or worse—history evolves and mankind improves (if steered in the right social-justice directions); to emphasize the past is to preserve all the injustices and misconceptions of former times.
  • Contemporary literature is better—it’s more diverse and more real.
  •  Classics are authoritarian—they deny teachers and students the freedom to chart their own curriculum and take ownership of their learning.

Dusbiber adopts all of these assumptions.  Her error lay not in her ideas but in her inarticulate version of them.  A more sophisticated rendition would have blocked much of the hostile response, but reached the same conclusions.  We should aim criticism not at her, but at progressive education in general.  Everything she said she heard before in teacher training programs.  Shakespeare can’t survive hack teachers, and he can’t survive progressive principles, either.

One particular response recognized the threat progressivist to the Bard and aimed to dispel it on progressivist grounds.  Written by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, “The Progressive Case for Teaching Shakespeare” appeared in The New Republic. For Bruenig, Shakespeare is defensible even in the non-white urban American classroom for two reasons.

One, his distance from us compels us to reflect upon our own condition.  As we enter the world of Hamlet and Henry V, we must imagine a world of different values and beliefs and mores. This in turn excites in youths a “political imagination,” Bruenig says, that makes us regard our own time more critically.

The second rationale has a political meaning, too, but a concrete one.  Politicians often invoke historical references to bolster their positions.  It is crucial, then, for youths to know these references in order for them to assess their political uses and abuses.

It is hardly necessary to note that if this is the best progressive argument for Shakespeare, he hasn’t a prayer.  One doesn’t need to read a whole Shakespeare play in order to pick up historical allusions in contemporary politics.  A Wikipedia entry will do.  The same goes for encountering the strangeness of the past.  Why struggle through the scenes of King Lear in order to understand the situation of the poor in Renaissance Europe?  (Bruenig chooses the poor as her example.)  You could do the same by choosing more accessible materials such as paintings and videos and museum artifacts.  Nothing Bruenig contends justifies Shakespeare over anything else.

The problem is that progressivism can’t make the argument. Shakespeare endures in the classroom on aesthetic and cultural grounds that progressivism refuses.  It casts aesthetic excellence as a political tool, the imposition of one group’s tastes upon everyone else.  And it marks the culture at whose pinnacle Shakespeare stands (the English literary-historical canon) as an outdated authority.

To say that Shakespeare is central to our cultural inheritance—beloved by audiences in the 19th-century American west, quoted by presidents, source of countless American idioms—is to dispel the multiculturalist breakthrough of the mid-20th century.  If progressivism reigns in secondary and higher education, Shakespeare, Pope, and Wordsworth are doomed.

Why Is He $82,000 in Debt?

Kevin Carey hates college.  Or rather, he hates the higher education industry, the system, the establishment.  An encounter on page 39 of his new book, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere indicates one reason why.  Carey sits down at a Starbucks in Washington, DC, with a junior at George Washington University, “Hugh,” a working-class kid with a “neat ginger beard” who wears a “standard collegiate uniform of hoodie, jeans, and sneakers.”  The chat turns on Carey’s question: how much money has Hugh borrowed to pay for college?

“Eighty-two thousand dollars,” he said.  “By the time I graduate, a hundred and ten.”

Carey has two reactions.  First, the raw amount shocks him.  It shocks me, too.  I secured a loan to cover tuition at UCLA in my fourth year, and the episode bothered me from beginning to end.  I didn’t want any debt at all, and I worked part-time throughout my undergraduate years.  When I signed that paper, I felt a handcuff tighten on my wrist.  You will laugh when you hear the total: $1,800.00.  At that point, UCLA cost less than $1,000 per year, so I didn’t need much, though cost of living in West Los Angeles was high.  But still, debt didn’t seem right, not at age 21 and with no regular job.

No Censure for Hugh

With that memory, I can’t get my head around Hugh’s burden.  It’s inconceivable, it’s insane.  That brings us to Carey’s second reaction.  Hugh mutters these numbers as if he were listing his height and weight, and that casual attitude shocks Carey even more than the six-figure dollar amount does.  He’s barely 20-years old, well short of graduation and with no job prospects lined up, but he doesn’t appear to recognize the risks of his decisions.  Carey writes, “I don’t think he entirely understood what it meant to have a six-figure indenture hanging around his neck.”  He assumes everything will work out.  He works hard, Carey notes, he’s ambitious, and he’s done all the right things: kept out of trouble, attended a good college, and remained goal-oriented.  Why shouldn’t everything end up okay?  Debt is just one of the hurdles high-achievers must leap.

In a way, Hugh’s cluelessness follows from the aspiration that landed him in deep debt.  You see, while finishing high school in Rhode Island, Hugh fixed upon a career in international relations.  But the job market in that field is tight, so candidates must attend a selective school and earn a high GPA.  George Washington University fit the profile, and it has the added attraction of a uniquely pertinent location, Foggy Bottom, home of American diplomatic thought.

But annual costs at GW are $60,000, and so Hugh had to max out on federal loans and add more from Sallie Mae.  Those funds will get him to graduation.  After that, he plans to work for a Swiss firm that runs international science conferences, then take the Foreign Service exam and begin a career as a foreign diplomat.  That’s the projection.  Nothing in Carey’s description indicates Hugh takes the monthly financial drag into his planning, or that he has a back-up plan should this streamlined one collapse.

Financial Quicksand

Carey has no censure for Hugh, but he should.  After all, High could have saved $100,000 by attending a public college, two-year or four-year, in his home state, then transferred to GW for junior and senior year.  Besides that, we can blame Hugh (and his parents, perhaps) for selecting a sole career path from Day One of college, and that one a competitive long-odds pursuit.  We shouldn’t allow 17-year-olds to solidify their aims and limit their options so early.  Unless they choose a field in which all graduates of Tier I-III schools are hired upon graduation (speech therapy, for instance), every youth needs to keep his options open.  To let Hugh attach so exclusively to international relations is to give in to follow-your-passion sentimentality without regard to consequences.

But that doesn’t fully explain why this vignette in The End of College imparts Carey’s anger at the higher education system.  Yes, the obvious blame goes to the $60,000 sticker price of GW.  If it were lower, so would Hugh’s debt.  But the guilt runs deeper than that, though Carey only implies it.  If Hugh graduates on time, gets his preferred job, passes the exam, and winds up a successful diplomat, all the while delaying gratification and paying his bills, the system swill have worked for everyone involved.  Hugh had some lean and hungry years, but he did what he loved.  If, however, a job at the Swiss firm never materializes, nor anything similar at another organization, or if a personal circumstance pulls him back to Rhode Island or keeps him in DC where he gets by with service jobs, then the whole plan will have proved a disaster for him.  If he couldn’t make his loan payments, he might be stuck in a financial quicksand for 20 years.  The dream of foreign service would end.  Taxpayers might have to cover his loans.  The banks would add another default to their books and feel more political pressure to stop these profitable loans that pass risks on to others.

GW, the Only Sure Winner

But no matter what Hugh’s fate, one party thrives: GW.  It gets paid before Hugh faces crucial thresholds.  Hugh leaves campus before financial success or failure happens.  This is the systemic culpability of higher education.  GW has no financial incentive to discourage Hugh from borrowing so much money and choosing a dicey major.  In fact, if the low-prospect offering of international relations is what lured Hugh to GW instead of to another school, then GW must count the field a triumph.

This is just one of many abominations Carey recites in the book.  The “limited learning” that happens from freshman year to graduation pops up in discussions with Richard Arum, and Carey mentions the overemphasis on research and other standard complaints, too.  What makes the book different from other critiques is Carey’s insistence on a looming historical answer to them all: none of them matter.

All the problems we find in higher education today are real and damaging, Carey agrees, but they have no future.  Digital technology has arrived, and in spite of all the false starts and annoying hype, it is going to transform higher education and nothing can stop it.  Carey terms this new formation “the University of Everywhere.”  In the near future, the physical campus will give way to the virtual campus.  Resources “that have been scarce and expensive for centuries will be abundant and free,” he predicts (p. 5).  The whole notion of admission to college will become a curious anachronism.  Instruction will be personalized and individualized, much of it enacted by artificial intelligence, not a human being.  Carey gets euphoric about this cheaper, easier, and more efficient higher education: “Students will be part of a rich global community as small as a half dozen people working intently together and as large as millions of students contending with timeless questions and monuments of human thinking at the same time” (p. 6).

No Help for the Curriculum

For some conservative and libertarian critics who have for years decried the distortions of higher education, the first response to Carey’s vision may be: “You mean all our efforts to expose and dispel liberal bias have been pointless?”  If digital technology breaks the monopolistic grip the higher education industry has had on the higher education of American youth, then right-oriented reformers and commentators, if would seem, shall find their labors unnecessary.

Sadly, this isn’t the case.  The break-up of traditional campuses and the spread of digital modes of delivery will affect the personnel of higher education, reducing the dissemination of progressivist ideology through the teaching corps.  But it won’t affect the content of the curriculum, not on this score.  A traditional course in U.S. history may stack the syllabi with Howard Zinn-like materials, and an innovative virtual course in U.S. history may do the same.  Bias and indoctrination can happen through a screen as easily as in a lecture hall.  Carey’s University of Everywhere doesn’t change this need for conservative reform at all.

Bill Moyers’ America—Ugh!

At Salon Magazine, Bill Moyers has an essay penned in direct response to criticism of Barack Obama for his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast.

People have assailed Obama for his scolding tone, bad timing , poor history, and moral equivocation.

And here is Bill Moyers expanding President Obama’s point, an opinion piece entitled: “When America behaved like ISIS: Jesse Washington and the Bible Belt’s dark history of public lynchings.”

It is a tissue of misrepresentations, recounted in Moyers’ typical insufferable pseudo-solemnity.

Moyers recalls a gruesome lynching that took place in Waco, Texas in 1916.  First, we have a photo of Klansmen in regalia, then an account of the savage torture and murder of this young black man.  A photo of his charred body tied to a tree trunk follows. Moyers notes the cheering crowds, 15,000 people, and the distribution of relics and souvenirs after the barbaric ritual ended.

Moyers offers the case as an example of America’s violent racial past, then asserts the existence of Continue reading Bill Moyers’ America—Ugh!

Would These Profs Make You Major in English?

A recent Inside Higher Ed story documented an alarming trend in the English departments at University of Maryland, George Mason University, and Florida State University.  The numbers of English majors there have plummeted in the last few years.

Maryland lost 88 majors in 2012, 79 majors the next year, and 128 majors 12 months later, the story reports.  That makes a 40 percent drop overall.  The former chair of English terms it a “death spiral.”

George Mason had 800 English majors 20 years ago.  Now it has 422.

Florida State has suffered a smaller decline, only 10 percent since 2013.

Those numbers don’t surprise me. When I joined Continue reading Would These Profs Make You Major in English?

Presidents and Students, Adults and Children

Last month, we had two cases of college presidents at high-profile universities join in student protests over the grand jury’s decision in the Ferguson case.  Here is a story on President Eric Barron, head of Penn State, standing amidst students with hands raised.  The students had spent two days gathering on campus, shouting slogans (“Black lives matter!”), and laying on the ground in a “die-in,” mimicking Michael Brown’s body on the street.  In the photograph, Barron adopts the “hand up, don’t shoot!” posture along with the 20-year-olds in the crowd.

And here is Amy Gutmann, head of University of Pennsylvania, at a campus Christmas party at which protesters showed up and stretched out on the floor in a die-in.  Gutmann played her part, too, lying down and crossing her arms as you would a corpse, as you can see in the photograph under the headline.

The reactions to each action were severe, with politicians and police officers denouncing the presidents for indulging uninformed undergraduates and trashing policemen.  The president’s offices came back with customary bureaucratese, such as this from Penn:

I can assure you that her laying on the ground was not solidarity against police.  It was solidarity with students who are expressing their personal opinions. There’s not a doubt in my mind Continue reading Presidents and Students, Adults and Children

A Way Past the Asian-American Challenge

There was a thoughtful op-ed in the New York Times last week on the Asian American challenge to admissions procedures at Harvard University.  It was written by a political theorist who teaches writing at Harvard, and it acknowledges that Harvard “engages in ‘racial balancing,’” a procedure that keeps Asian American admissions to the college at a consistent 17-20 percent even though the group’s competitiveness has risen significantly over the years.  Yascha Mounk, the author, compares the practice to Harvard’s restrictions on Jewish enrollments earlier in the 20th century.

But then Mounk takes in interesting turn.  He explains the general tolerance for this discrimination on the grounds that many academics think that if Asian American enrollments would go up, African American enrollments would have to go down.  This is a common sense assumption, and we may imagine that it puts affirmative action proponents in an uncomfortable position of discriminating against one minority in order to help another one.

But Mounk has a nifty way out for them, and it’s an argument conservatives and libertarians should recognize, if only to inform themselves of the other side’s thinking.

Continue reading A Way Past the Asian-American Challenge

The Battered Humanities–Are They Worth Saving?

A particular nostalgia is at work in academic discussion.  We still talk about of liberal education, the liberal arts, and the humanities as if they remain viable activities in higher education, threatened, yes, and losing ground, but open to revival.  Universities have grown ever more “corporate,” students flock to business and vocational programs, the sciences get all the money, parents want kids to major in job-related fields, and humanities professors have social sciences interests (race, imperialism, sexuality), but commentators nonetheless regret the impact of those trends on liberal education as if it were still an active conception.

The latest example is a thoughtful essay by Gilbert Meilaender in The New Atlantis, “Who Needs a Liberal Education?” In it, Meilaender makes several accurate observations.

Continue reading The Battered Humanities–Are They Worth Saving?

Yale Muslims: Hurt Feelings but No Arguments

As Lauren Noble wrote two days ago here at Minding the Campus, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s speech at Yale on Monday night was a success, despite the discomfort felt by the Yale Muslim Students Association (MSA).

I say “discomfort” because that is what the MSA itself emphasized in its September 10th letter to the Yale community protesting her visit.  Hearing about the invitation to Ali, a resolute critic of Islam, the MSA drafted this nine-paragraph statement and posted it on Facebook, and it circulated quickly throughout Yale and the conservative media.  The tone and content are worth examining because they mark the most illustrative aspect of the whole affair.

Continue reading Yale Muslims: Hurt Feelings but No Arguments

US News Rankings: Not Quite Ho-Hum

Well, the 2015 U. S. News & World Report rankings are out, and here are the elite Top 10 for “National Universities”:

1. Princeton
2. Harvard
3. Yale
4. Columbia
4. Stanford
4. University of Chicago
7. MIT
8. Duke
8. Penn
10. California Institute of Technology

And here are the rankings of the Top 10 liberal arts schools:

1. Williams
2. Amherst
3. Swarthmore
4. Wellesley
5. Bowdoin
5. Pomona
7. Middlebury
8. Carleton
8. Claremont McKenna
8. Haverford

Nothing to notice here.  Princeton was #1 last year and so was Williams.  Middlebury slipped from 4th to 7th, while Dartmouth fell out of the top 10 . . . to number 11.  My university, Emory, tied with Georgetown at number 21.

Continue reading US News Rankings: Not Quite Ho-Hum

The Undead Are Rising on Campus

Scores of colleges, from Goucher to Harvard, now feature “Undead Studies,” that is, academic work on zombies and vampires. Depending on your point of view, this is either yet another indicator of the debasement of higher education, or a playful way to attach serious thinking to not very serious expressions of popular culture. Frivolous or not, it takes its place among all the  other “studies” that  have come and gone (and sometimes stayed) in teaching research.  This one will last as long as the popularity of the canonical texts of Undeadness do, including movies and TV shows such as Night of the Living Dead, The Walking Dead and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
 
The Undead made a lively breakthrough this summer as one of the nation’s best legal blogs, The Volokh Conspiracy, edited by  UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh, opened itself to an ecomomic analysis of how humans could respond to  a serious assault from zombies.
 
The lead bloggers were Glen Whitman and James Dow, editors of a new book of essays on the undead, Economics of the Undead: Zombies, Vampires, and the Dismal Science. The book includes chapters on the investing secrets of wealthy vampires, preparation for economic recovery after the zombie apocalypse, and optimal taxation of zombie labor. The book has been praised, sort of, by economics columnist Megan McArdle, who wrote: “Those who are looking to get their finances in order for the coming Zombie apocalypse should definitely buy this book…”
 
The rise of the undead in academia owes something  to despair (“These kids don’t read and we have to do something to engage them” ) and something to faculty leisure, and bloggers this time are nicely free of resentment in their discussion. To traditionalists who favor high culture over mass culture and pop culture products, Whitman and Dow have two responses.  “First, lighten up!” they say.  Let’s not get over-earnest about our jobs and kill the joy—”Zombies and vampires are fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”  That’s a refreshing admission, and one can appreciate the authors’ common-sense perspective on their topic.  I have seen enough of the opposite, humanities professors talking about Terminator films and Lost as if they were heralds of 21st-century thought, the only thing, in their rendition, more significant than Arnold’s inhumanity being their own recognition of it.
 
The second response reminds readers that the field is economics, not the humanities where legitimacy has become a real question, in part because many humanities professors have so often relished provocatively frivolous topics.  Added to that, the authors claim to handle their discipline rigorously in the volume, ever “scrupulous about making sure the economic concepts and reasoning were sound.”
 
Indeed, they even concede that the substitution of “schlocky zombie novels” for Shakespeare and Jane Austen in English courses “might be a problem.”  While off-campus observers from Right and Left would largely agree, among academics this counts as a significant concession.  To uphold a hierarchy of art objects, to raise high culture above mass culture and popular culture, is to rehearse malicious social hierarchies, the objection runs, especially if one can track the division in racial or class terms.  That Whitman and Dow can maintain it, even half-heartedly, suggests that economics departments are in better shape than humanities departments.
 
But then come three statements that show precisely how far economics departments are from understanding the doubtful trends affecting humanities curricula.
 
First, they assert, “if the goal is to impart basic writing skills . . . those skills can be learned by writing about pretty much anything.”  Not so.  Writing about zombie novels is not just as helpful in inculcating comp skills as writing about Shakespeare, precisely because working with Shakespeare acquaints students to richer vocabulary, syntax, metaphor, irony, and the rest of the resources of language.  Writing is a habit that follows from exposure and practice, and exposure to better expression makes for better student stylists.  The thing one studies isn’t as benign as the authors think.
 
Next, they ask, “Why must English composition always be paired with (classic) English literature?”  Here we have a remarkable anachronism.  What the authors don’t realize is that composition studies rejected classic English literature in the freshman writing classroom long ago.  Starting in the 1970s, an anti-literature animus emerged and spread until literary classics became a decidedly backward approach to writing.  Look at the syllabi of freshman writing classes today and you find a mishmash of digital media, visual culture, topical readings, writing-across-the-curriculum, and identity politics.  The old tradition of English prose masters from Addison to Charles Lamb to Chesterton looks like a dinosaur these days.
 
Finally, the authors betray precisely the anti-intellectualism that has proven so damaging to the humanities.  They refer to topics that “are equally pointless in terms of students’ long-term prospects,” then ask a rhetorical question: “How much good did that whole semester on Faulkner do you, anyway?”  A query like this one undercuts precisely the common-sense distinction between great art and “fun stuff” that made the blog post enjoyable in the opening paragraphs.  Why take a shot at a canonical author whose corpus includes four of the most important American novels of the century?  The act suggests that the authors aren’t fully confident that their escapade in undead art can stand on its own unless further deterioration of the monuments takes place.