Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Humanities, Pretty Much Dead, Are Mostly a Hunt for Racism and Sexism

A number of prominent liberal intellectuals, such as Leon Wieseltier, acknowledge that the humanities are in trouble. There “really is a cultural crisis,” he said at a recent Aspen Ideas Festival. This is an improvement over the mass denial of a few years ago, when the standard retort to conservatives went something like this: “You just don’t like the direction the humanities have taken” or worse: “You old-fashioned types are angry that the humanities are no longer a Eurocentric dead-white-male thing—get over it.”

But when the politically-correct president of an Ivy League university recounts how far the humanities have fallen at her school, as Harvard’s Drew Gilpin Faust did at the same festival, it’s hard to dismiss the thesis.  The numbers Faust cited for Harvard are astounding.  Currently, she said, about 14 percent of Harvard undergraduates major in a humanities field.  That’s higher than the national rate, but it’s down from the 25 percent rate at Harvard when Faust started her tenure as president nine years ago.  Most of the withdrawal, she noted, was due to students heading toward the hard sciences (not the social sciences).  When it comes to enrollment in humanities courses in general at Harvard, the trend there is downward as well, a drop of ten percent over the same period of time.

Related: Are the Battered Humanities Worth Saving?

We can add to the testimony of liberal leaders at the administrative level a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education about literature professors who think that literary studies have become so cynical and paranoid that they are turning people away.

When English turned into a practice of reading literature for signs of racism, sexism, and ideology, it lost touch with why youths pick up books in the first place, said University of Virginia Professor Rita Felski.  And Duke professor Toril Moi told the Chronicle reporter, “If you challenge the idea of suspicion as the only mode of reading, you are then immediately accused of being conservative in relation to those politics.

And added to that story is the pile-up of reports demonstrating declining majors and enrollments, along with a dreadful job market for recent PhDs (see here, which shows that, in 2014, nearly half of all humanities doctoral recipients —45.7 percent—had no employment commitments:  We can’t dismiss the thesis of decay any more.  We may disagree about the causes of the slide, but everyone agrees that we need to rebuild and reinvigorate the fields.

Related: More Bad Numbers for the Humanities

The San Diego Union-Tribune recently carried a sad story on one attempt to revive the humanities, at the University of California, San Diego. The program foregrounds social themes, not works of beauty and genius.  The photo that introduces the story shows a panel speaking to a room of 30 or 40 people. The caption states the topic: “Challenging Conversations: Race and State Violence. “The question it raises is: Do the organizers really believe that an event such as this one will draw more first-year students into English, Art History, Classics, and French?

The problem isn’t just that discussions of race, violence, and politics have become so predictable and joyless.  It is that nothing in identity-focused discourse steers youths toward the humanities instead of toward the social sciences and fine arts.  If there is a campus symposium on how race played out in the last election, there is no reason to think that a humanistic approach to it will follow.  It sounds more like Political Science or Sociology than English or History.  So does the other event on the “News” page, “Community, Arts, and Resistance.”

The standard response to this disciplinary distinction is to insert humanities materials into the act.  Yes, the professors say, we talk about race and class and other topics traditionally at the center of the social sciences, but in our case, we examine the representations of them in novels and movies and culture in general.  This is not a step away from reality, they contend, because literature, art, music, and media do what is called cultural work.  They shape norms, impart values, construct stereotypes, and reinforce ideologies.  Analyzing humanities works, then, is essential to the understanding of society.

Maybe—but the claim is beside the point.  In this case, that is, regarding the material state of the humanities today, what counts is whether such approaches that foreground social issues in works of art and literature are going to encourage more undergraduates to choose humanities majors and courses. Unlikely.

First of all, if a 20-year-old has a particular passion for racial, sexual, or other identity themes, chances are that he isn’t inclined to filter it through Shakespeare or Wagner or Woolf.  A few of them will, but not because of their identity interests.  History is a stronger possibility, we admit, but when our youth looks at the requirements for the History major, he will find much of it lies outside his interest.  If you’re fascinated with race in America, you don’t want to spend much time on the ancient and medieval worlds.  Much better to choose one of the “Studies” departments.

Second, if students do come into college loving Victorian novels or foreign films or Elizabethan drama or Beethoven, it probably isn’t due to the identity content of those materials.  They love Dickens because a high school English teacher dramatized Miss Betsey so well, or because the students identified with David Copperfield (which is a whole different kind of identity-formation than the one academics have in mind when they discuss identity).  It’s not that undergraduates already interested in the humanities discount identity issues.  They accept them as part of the work, certainly.  But those issues are not the source of inspiration.  The first draw isn’t race, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc., in American film.  It is Intolerance, City Lights, Ambersons, Vertigo . . .  Students want works of art first, social themes within them second.

And so when the UCSD project breaks the humanities up four areas—Equity, diversity, and inclusion; global arts and humanities; public arts and humanities; and digital arts and humanities—one has little hope.  Why is equity at the top, especially when we consider how much great art emerged out of unequal societies?  Why invoke the bland divisions of global, public, and digital?

Here are the sentences that follow the four-part breakdown on the Institute’s web page: Through these wide-ranging and cross-cutting themes, we view the arts and humanities as a vibrant collection of different fields—including the humanistic social sciences and STEM fields—that interrogate the humanistic enterprise from complimentary [sic] and sometimes disorienting perspectives. The IAH thus values difference, cultivates exchange and prioritizes transformative ways of thinking and working together.

The language here is deadeningly abstract — “cross-cutting . . . interrogate . . . prioritize”—the very opposite of a humanistic turn of mind.  The statement goes on to claim that the Institute offers “exciting programs,” but where in this conception is the excitement of the haunting search for Anna on the island in L’Avventura and the uncanny sequence of images in the last five minutes of L’Eclisse?  Does this ethnic/politics focus for the humanities make space for the grand spectacle of Act II of Aida?  Does it allow for Nietzsche’s fiery words about nihilism in The Will to Power?  Does it respect the dark sublimity of the last paragraph of The Dead?

These are the things that lure students to the humanities and keep them there, not this adversarial social framework that turns the humanities into sociology for people who like art.

Books for Book Virgins and Book-o-phobes

The annual controversy over books assigned to freshmen as summer reading is upon us.  Spoiler alerts.  Odysseus makes it home. Hamlet dies. The Whale wins.

Oh, not those books.  We are talking more about White Girls (by Hilton Als, 2013) and Purple Hibiscus (by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2003).  White Girls, as one reviewer puts it, is “an inquiry into otherness” by a writer for the New Yorker, who is a black male.  Purple Hibiscus is a novel by a Nigerian woman that depicts the travails of fifteen-year-old girl who has to cope with her violent and cruel, fanatically Christian father.

In 2014, the topmost assigned book (17 out of 341 colleges that have such programs) was Wes Moore’s account of a convicted murderer who shares his name and his beginning as a fatherless black child in Baltimore, The Other Wes Moore (2010).  Second on the list (eight colleges) was Dave Eggers’ novel about a woman who works for a privacy-destroying internet company, The Circle (2013), and third was Rebecca Skloot’s account of the poor black woman whose cervical cancer cells were the first human cell line to be kept growing in a lab,  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks(2010).  In 2015, according to Inside Higher Ed, it appears that Bryan Stevenson’s memoir of his efforts to exonerate wrongly convicted prisoners, Just Mercy (2014) will be the winner.

Books Younger Than Their Readers

For the last six years, the National Association of Scholars has been assiduously tracking all the books selected by all the colleges that do this sort of thing.  We call them “beach books,” but the usual term is “common readings.”  NAS executive director Ashley Thorne has pretty much single handedly turned a minor campus phenomenon into a subject of widespread controversy—the subject of annual conferences, legislative hearings, and mass media attention.  The latest reverberation was a report on July 23 on NPR.

This year 93 percent of the books assigned to “first-years” (the new PC term for freshmen) are younger than the students who are asked to read them.  There are many threads to the beach books story, but the extreme youth of most of the books is the most revealing.  Why so much emphasis on hot-from-the-presses titles?

We’ve heard three answers. First, the program coordinators insist that the best way to engage students is to bring the author to campus to speak.  That makes for a nice income stream for some contemporary writers, and too bad for Mark Twain.  He had his chance.

Second, the coordinators tell us they have to meet the students where they are. Many are “book virgins” who reach college never having read any book cover to cover.  Such students need to be coaxed by assigning them a book that is “right now.”

And third, the coordinators are convinced that the past is over and done with anyway and, regardless of what the students think, the focus should be on contemporary social issues.

This last one concerns me most, but the other two are lame as well.  College students should get used to reading books by dead people.  If you can’t read Edith Wharton or Mary Wollenstonecraft without her in the room, hire an actor.  As for book virgins and book-o-phobic first years, why not get them started on the real thing?  If Hemingway is too hard, try Aesop’s Fables.  If Aesop’s talking animals are above their level, try Mother Goose.  Am I exaggerating how bereft of literary foundations these students are?  I hope so.

No Dead Writers, Please

But the third point—that education all by itself requires that the beach books be molded from the freshest, most up-to-date progressive sand—deserves a little more attention and, let’s say, a lot more opprobrium.  Among the responses to the recent NPR report on summer readings came this crystalline summation from an undergraduate named Kai:

Good literature teaches students about our world now, about the challenges our society faces and will continue to face. Climate change, inequity, and—this is the big one—discrimination (especially racial). Real world issues start to be acknowledged when college kids read about them in books like “A Long Way Gone,” “White Girls,” or “The New Jim Crow.” And that’s why college reading programs SHOULD NOT contain the classics. College reading should be controversial, inspiring, provocative contemporary literature.

Kai is full of youthful arrogance.  He’s read someone named “Vergil” in the original.  But he sees the need to get beyond “institutionalized, oppressive traditions.”  The literature that “has shaped the predominant modes of interaction in western civilization” may be “fun to read—indulgent, even,” but it is time to move on.

I don’t mean to make too much fun of poor Kai.  He is clearly an eager student who has diligently taken in the premises of his college and enthusiastically made them his own.  But his is the voice of someone imprisoned in “now,” for whom “good literature” is writing by contemporary social activists.  He is oblivious to the need to learn about the past and the deep ways in which great literature from previous eras bears on the present.

We all, of course, live in the present and need to pay attention to its particular demands, which include listening to people prose on about “climate change” as earlier generations prosed on about other supposed menaces.  Inequity and discrimination?  Kai might be on firmer ground if he knew more history and understood how much inequity and discrimination are endemic to the human condition.  Virgil, for example, has something to say on the topic of oppression.

Devaluing the Past

The saturation of college students in what might be called present-tense books should worry us.  Higher education cannot of course erase the past but it can radically devalue it.  Introducing students to college-level reading by feeding them candy bars of social outrage is about the poorest way I can imagine to develop their taste for serious ideas expressed with power, imagination, and intelligence.

The problem is not new.  We noticed this extreme focus on contemporary books in our first study of common readings in 2010, when we found the “vast majority” of assigned books in the 290 colleges we studied to have been published in the preceding decade.  But back then, we did find ten colleges (3.4 percent of the total) that had reached back further.  Thoreau’s Walden made an appearance, as did Marx’s Communist Manifesto, Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, and Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country.  More daringly, two colleges had assigned Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

We have redone and expanded the study each year since then.  The list of books that are assigned changes dramatically from year to year—as naturally it would if the college is set on chasing the winds of ideological fashion.  But what doesn’t change is the relentless focus on books that are in their dewy youth.  In 2010, it was the world of Steve Lopez’s account of a skid-row violinist, The Soloist (2008); Greg Mortenson’s account of his building schools for girls in Pakistan, Three Cups of Tea (2007); and Sonia Nazario’s account of a child from Central America illegally slipping in the United States, Enrique’s Journey (2006).

The Soloist is now off playing by himself in a different skid row.  Mortenson’s cup ran dry when he was exposed as a fraud; those Pakistani girls’ schools were made up.  Enrique went underground for a while but has resurfaced in view of current illegal immigration.

The relative youth of a book is no knock against it as a book, but it is a knock against making it the one (and usually only) book that a class of college students will read together.  I’ve elsewhere made my own suggestions for better books for the first-year beach babies.  I’m moderate about this.  If Don Quixote is too long and Crime and Punishment too dark, try The Right Stuff or Life on the Mississippi, or perhaps better yet, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.

This article was originally published on the National Association of Scholars site.

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.