Enthusiastically aided by Academia, the late 20th century saw such English Lit stalwarts as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and the Lake Poets dismissed as passé. In their place came the likes of Alice Walker, Rigoberta Menchu and Amy Tan, some talented, others fraudulent, but all with impeccable credentials: they were neither dead nor white nor male.
And then came the backlash. The outrage expressed by Alan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind), E.D. Hirsch (Cultural Literacy) et. al., was followed by hoots and catcalls from all but the congenitally humorless. Every bright frosh–to say nothing of seniors heading out to the real word of jobs and responsibilities–knew that Black Studies, Queer Studies, Feminist Studies and all the other Now majors would outfit them for only one thing: teaching Black Studies, Queer Studies, Feminist Studies and all the other Now majors.
Of course, there were students who undertook those studies anyway. But for the most part the courses were laughed at behind the professors’ backs. In the New Millennium, however, the merriment has turned to misery. Parents, anxious to equip their children with sheepskins, are being fleeced–and they know it. The proof lies in virtually every college catalogue. In three quarters of the top tier universities, for example, the study of the Shakespearean canon is no longer required. When the Bard is discussed, the courses tend to bear titles like “Shakespearean Sexuality” at Vanderbilt University, or “Shakesqueer” at American University.
In an ongoing effort to push classics off the cliff, Barnard offers a course in “The Road Movie”; Wisconsin focuses on “Daytime Serials, Family and Social Roles”; Vassar completes with “Vampires, Lunatics and Cyborgs: Exploring the Uncanny Recesses of Romantic Consciousness.” Meanwhile, Cornell students study Cyberfeminism, and Georgetown undergrads write papers on “Philosophy and Star Trek.”
Comics, a favorite of those who move their lips when looking at pictures, are a main part of many English Department curriculi. In Profession, a journal published by the Modern Language Association of America (MLAA), Professor Hillary Chute announces that “This coming spring, the cartoonist Alison Bechdel [author-illustrator of the strip Dykes to Watch For] and I will be co-teaching a mixed undergraduate course called ‘Lines of Transmission: Comics and Autobiography.'”
And the list goes on. As one undergraduate observes, “Deep down it’s shallow.”
The yearly cost of a college is about $20,000 for public institutions; four-year private institutions charge some $40,000 per annum. “Now” courses may still get snickers from undergraduates who can cruise through them undisturbed by thought or insight. But while the kids are laughing, their parents are tearing up, dreading the day when the bills come due and no employer wants to hire the youth who spent all those hours studying “The Horror Film in Context” (Bowdoin), “The Phallus” (Occidental College) or “The Philosophy of Obama” (Johns Hopkins.)
In his celebrated 18th Brumaire, Marx declares that history occurs twice, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Quite the reverse, Karl. Stay after class.
Stefan Kanfer, a contributing editor of City Journal, is a novelist and critic who writes widely on political, social and cultural issues. Two of his best-known books have just been published in Kindle editions: Journal of the Plague Years, his classic study of blacklisting, and a novel, The Eight Sin, the story of a Gypsy survivor of the Nazi death camps.