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.