Tag Archives: social sciences

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.

Coping With The Diversity University

Fellow co-believers frequently ask me how I, a “notorious” conservative professor, have survived decades surrounded by loony lefties. My answer—it is not nearly as bad as it appears—usually causes surprise. Appearances are deceiving, I say, and even in the social sciences and the humanities, the left’s stronghold, the batty left’s domination is incomplete—the tip of the contaminated iceberg image is wrong. Unfortunately, the conversation usually stops here; perhaps the upbeat news is not quite believed. It is also a complicated topic, far too involved for lunch-time table talk among university outsiders. But, the seeming contradiction between outward professors-gone-wild appearances and a happier reality is important and deserves a fuller explanation. This is not to say that all goes well within the academy—the oft-discovered abuses are real enough—but it would be a strategic mistake to equate a few loud mouth, often subversive and attention-getting radicals with widespread idiocy. Those wanting to re-capture the academy need to be precise in their surgery.
The primacy of politics among vocal loopy left professors versus and rest of the faculty is fundamental. We are talking about the folk who favor “War in Not the Answer” bumper stickers, plaster office walls with Bush-is-worse-than-Hitler propaganda and consider goofy political buttons and vulgar tee shirts treasured fashion accessories. They are proud of their race/sex/class obsessed lectures and reading assignments. While most professors loath administrative tasks but dutifully shoulder them, radical academics relish this sort of stuff. In a nutshell, they live for in-your-face politics; it vitalizes them and provides meaning to otherwise dreary existences. Attitude towards research is the great divide—serious researchers just lack the time or inclination to save the gay whales. By contrast, among those who find research burdensome, joining the faculty Senate to condemn racism or the Iraqi war is a coveted responsibility. Here they can scheme with ideological fellow-travelers and fill endless hours “helping humanity” while neglecting more scholarly duties.
University rules help fuel this radical clatter. Particularly at research-oriented institutions where a full teaching load is two courses per semester (about six hours or less of actual classroom time), and the same courses are regularly repeated, the activist-minded professor might enjoy 50 hours per week (plus ample vacation time) to agitate. To be sure, his or her non-radical colleague who has likewise abandoned research enjoys comparable leisure, but lack of ideological urgency typically means more time for family, hobbies or just lolling about. As is true for certain evangelical religions, save-the-world radicalism must be expressed energetically; liberals might send checks off to the ACLU or Common Cause but this is weak tea for those frantically rescuing humanity. The urge to propagate the faith is irrepressible.

Continue reading Coping With The Diversity University

The Long Shadow Of The Sixties

In every discussion of left-wing bias on college campuses, a good portion of faculty defenders come to the table with a blunt contention. There is NO bias, they insist. Sure, most humanities and social science faculty register Democrat, but it doesn’t much affect teaching, and besides, campuses have their fair share of conservatism and libertarianism in the business school and upper-administration. Indeed, some add, the charge is but a concoction of fevered or cynical rightists, a weapon to dominate the classroom in the same way conservatives have AM talk radio. So, professors approach the issue not as a proposition to be examined, but an agenda to defeat.

It’s a frustrating reaction, but campus critics shouldn’t always chalk it up to faculty tactics and turf anxieties. Most professors who deny leftist bias believe what they say, and in fact maintain that the university has drifted well rightward in recent years. The notion certainly ticks off conservatives, who sense opposition down to the very first premises of several disciplines, but it’s still worth taking seriously. And one of the best ways of doing so is to go back in time to key moments that signify in the eyes of the most defensive professors just how liberal the college campus used to be—and is no more.

I came across one of them awhile back while perusing old issues of the San Francisco Chronicle. The year was 1968, and the town across the bay was a battle zone. On August 31, a riot on the Berkeley campus left one police officer with a gunshot wound and 13 protesters in jail. Three days later, a story in the Chronicle bore the title, “A ‘State of Emergency’ in Berkeley.” Youths lived under a curfew, and the city instituted a ban on public assemblies (largely ignored). A few miles to the south a trial had begun, flamboyant Black Panther leader Huey Newton facing charges of murdering a cop.

Continue reading The Long Shadow Of The Sixties

Academic Gibberish And The Hermeneutics Of Mistrust

Overwhelming evidence attests to the liberal tilt on our college campuses. Studies show that the faculty at most mainstream institutions are overwhelmingly registered with the Democratic party and give a disproportionate share of their political donations to left-leaning candidates. A recent study of donations by faculty at Princeton University during the current Presidential election season shows that every faculty donation went to a Democratic candidate. Were such unanimity to manifest itself for conservative candidates at an academic institution, one can be certain that our leading academics would decry the lack of diversity.

Anecdotal evidence everywhere further attests not only to the liberalism of most “mainstream” faculty, but the disproportionate share of radical professors in our humanities and social sciences. Innumerable stories have been circulated of aggressive efforts to “destabilize” gender, to question “normativity,” to challenge backward institutions such as marriage and family, to encourage students to break out of pre-conceived social notions they may have inherited from parents and community. A recent article in my campus’s newspaper, The Hoya, reflects this sort of radicalism. In the column, philosophy professor Mark Lance introduces himself thusly:

I’m an anarchist, a rationalist, a feminist, a man, a pragmatist, an evangelical agnostic, a friend, a philosopher, a parent, a teacher, a committed partner of one other person and a nonviolent revolutionary. These labels are all, to different degrees, important to me; they define my sense of self. You could call them my identities, but all are “works in progress,” which is to say that the label stays roughly the same, but my sense of what it means changes and grows. (For example, I still have no idea what I mean by identifying as a man, though over the years I’ve figured out many things I don’t mean. Some days, I wish that one would drop off the list.)

Aside from its unbearable self-indulgence, it’s a predictable indication that Lance would seek to reject the one form of his “identity” that is actually given by nature. This is the one unbearable aspect of identity, because it is not chosen or willed.

Conservatives are often satisfied to register their righteous anger and indignation at this state of affairs, and have tactically adopted the language of victimhood and demands for diversity as a way of combating this left-wing hegemony. This may be politically effective and may in fact help raise awareness of the current campus culture to potential supporters outside the academy. However, these arguments are only tactical at best, and fundamentally obscure deeper investigation into why this state of affairs has come to pass and what would be required to begin a more fundamental reform of higher education.

Continue reading Academic Gibberish And The Hermeneutics Of Mistrust

The State of the Faculty – A Liberal View

The study of professors’ views by Neil Gross of Harvard and Solon Simmons confirms much of what we already knew: there are more liberals than conservatives working in academia, and the ratio increases in the humanities and social sciences, as well as at more elite universities. However, the survey does show an important fact, that a substantial number of professors are moderates and independents, and no simple stereotype of college faculty exists. Certainly, conservatives like David Horowitz are dead wrong when they claim, “Our faculties are 90 percent to 95 percent people of the left.”

One common conservative refrain is that “tenured radicals” have taken over universities and hired only leftists. As Gross and Simmons point out, there hasn’t been a radical left-wing shift among faculty. In reality, the liberal tendencies of university faculty have a long history; William F. Buckley contended that the Yale political science faculty in 1948 supported Truman over Dewey by 23-0. Robert Bork was called by a Yale journalist in 1964 who could find only one other Goldwater supporter on a faculty of 1,000 professors. An analysis in Public Opinion Quarterly of the 1989 and 1997 Carnegie surveys of faculty even concluded that “the replacement of older, more liberal cohorts by younger, less liberal ones has helped to produce a less liberal faculty.”

Continue reading The State of the Faculty – A Liberal View