In National Review this week, George Weigel writes a pointed commentary on another example of humanities professors undermining their own field. It’s a curious phenomenon, but one you often see. A scholar-teacher steps forward to condemn or distort the materials of his own field, or to rebuke past and present practitioners of it, not realizing the consequence of his actions. I just opened the Chronicle of Higher Education website and found an essay at the top of the Opinion section entitled, “The Whitesplaining of History Is Over.”
It’s written by a history professor at Stanford who begins by noting how the academy used to be “the exclusive playground of white men [who] produced the theories of race, gender and Western cultural superiority that underwrote imperialism abroad and inequality at home.” Fortunately, we are told, women and people of color are now correcting that vile record of white supremacy and changing the profession for the better.
Many conservatives might judge the Chronicle harshly for publishing an essay so packed with ressentiment and clichéd in its reasoning. Instead, however, we should thank the editors for revealing the presence of such bilious attitudes among the elite professorate. It helps explain why history enrollments are plummeting. Would you like to spend an entire semester at Stanford proselytized by this personality?
Weigel’s exhibit comes from College of the Holy Cross. There, he reports, the incoming chairman of religious studies wrote some years before this about how the Gospel of John presents the last days of Jesus:
Oddly, John defines Jesus’ masculinity with a body that is open to penetration. . . . Even more oddly, Jesus’ ability to face his “hour” is repeatedly associated with his acknowledging and communing with his Father (12.27–28; 14.12,28; 16.10, 17, 28; 17.1–25; 18.11), who is, as Jesus explicitly states, “with me” (16/32) throughout this process, which Jesus describes as one of giving birth (16.21–22). What I am suggesting is that, when Jesus’ body is being penetrated, his thoughts are on his Father. He is, in other words, imagining his passion experience as a (masochistic?) sexual relation with his own Father.
This is beyond parody. We would wonder about the mental state of the author if such readings weren’t so common. As Weigel notes, it is “exceptionally inane,” just another hack rehearsal of queer interpretation, one that says more about “the exegete and his imagination than about St. John and his intentions.” It has a high “yuck factor,” too, but that hasn’t stopped the author from enjoying considerable authority at his Catholic institution.
One thing we can be sure of when we read such things by the Stanford historian and the Holy cross theologian: they don’t give a thought to the impression they make on outsiders. Their colleagues may nod in approval, but the vast majority of Americans, including students who attend such schools, realize instantly that this is a teacher they shall avoid.
If you love history and learned it from popular historians such as Bruce Catton and Stephen Ambrose, you will learn from the Stanford prof that those figures were just a pack of “whitesplainers.” And your enjoyment of them is shameful. If you’re a devout Christian who regards the Last Supper as the first step in the “holy hush of ancient sacrifice” (to borrow a line from Wallace Stevens), the Holy Cross theologian’s speculations are sickening. One couldn’t imagine a mathematician “queering” topology in this way. An engineer can’t denounce the white men in his own field and profit from it. Progressives are, certainly, trying to introduce identity politics into STEM fields, of course, but the empirical element and analytical rigor are steady forces of resistance.
No doubt many humanities professors would praise these and similar figures as brave and edgy intellects, but that’s only comforting pretense. The truth is the opposite. A scholar who shows gratitude for traditionalist projects such as Great Books of the Western World is the one who risks his reputation among those who count—that is, among the people who will review him for hiring and promotion.
There is a greater sin than self-regard here, though. These fools don’t realize that you can’t knock your own field and be an advocate of it. As long as history and English and theology were secure in the undergraduate curriculum, with enrollments high and resources steady, one could play the adversarial game, treating your own field and colleagues with a hermeneutics of suspicion. But now that the Golden Age has passed, when Boomers poured onto campus and the humanities fields were a default major, the professors must think more about their image.
And there’s the problem. They don’t want to do it. To inspire students with the greatness of the materials of their field, they would have to believe in that greatness. They don’t. To allow students to savor literary and history and art would be to fall short of the critical thinking professors say is essential to humanistic study. These figures prefer guilt, or risqué irreverence, or demystification. They don’t realize how much of a downer they are. They have presided over the fields during their downfall, but they won’t look in the mirror and acknowledge their responsibility. Their shtick is set, and it’s worked for them for so long that they don’t see any reason to change.