Goodbye Humanities—Hating White Males Is Not a Curriculum

As the humanities continue their steady slide toward the margins of the campus, the faculty still can’t look in the mirror and face the sources of the problem. Last month in the Chronicle of Higher Education, four assistant professors of English responded to a previous essay about the state of the field and unintentionally revealed why the humanities have become considerably more unpopular among undergraduates.

The respondents faulted the original essay because, in their eyes, it “invest[ed] in a certain kind of white male fantasy.” Written by Andrew Kay, a fellow who earned his doctorate a few years ago but failed to win a tenure-track post, the original essay was of the genre invented many years ago by Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball: the eyewitness account of the Modern Language Association annual convention by someone who isn’t looking for a job and is not a regular faculty member. The essay didn’t impart much institutional memory–Kay showed little knowledge of the MLA world was like in 1990 or 1980 or 1970–but it did skip from scene to scene with a fair amount of wit and a clear-sighted awareness of how the humanities have contracted. (Kay includes at the beginning a few of the more dismal statistics on jobs and program closures.)

But the four young professor-respondents didn’t like it. Kay looked back upon the years when jobs were plentiful–the Sixties, that is–as a Good Ole Days era. He also drew an ominous correlation: literary studies declined in popularity and lost their prestige as they became more diverse and multicultural. Kay doesn’t say that the latter caused the former, only that they coincided. He identifies other causes, including anti-intellectual Republicans such as Wisconsin governor Scott Walker.

[The War Against White People]

But no matter. The respondents didn’t like the implication, not even the mention of coincidence. To them, it smacks of the “white male fantasy” noted above. However much Kay asserts his progressive commitments–as a graduate student in Madison, he sympathized with the public sector workers who occupied the state capitol in 2011–the respondents sense a lingering racial-sexual desire in his MLA critique. Their essay is intended as a reminder of how BAD things were in those Good Ole Days.

And so they proceed with another characterization of the academic past. If you regard literary studies in the 1950s as a time when tweedy scholars were putting together standard editions of canonical writers such as Emily Dickinson, the respondents recall something else, “a moment in which white men possessed the power to determine the worthiness of the things around them.” If you think the job market was an embarrassment of riches for everyone in the field, you have only glamorized those “halcyon days of overabundant employment for white men whose purported civility wasn’t, it turns out, so civil.”

There is more. If you have any nostalgia at all for those boom times, you fail to recognize “the very necessary unsettling of white male dominance.” After reading that line, you know that a list of previously excluded identities will soon follow. Sure enough, the respondents stick to the historical-disadvantage script to the letter, delivering a grandiloquent list of all the “others” the Good Old Days kept out:

But at no point does Kay appear to reflect upon how the inequities of this profession are magnified for those who are not white, straight, and male: people of color, women, queer and trans folk, the nonnormatively bodied, first-generation-college grad students and scholars, single parents, the economic precariat–the list goes on.”

Yes, the list goes on, and it will continue to go on while these identity-fixated people control the disciplines.

[The Campaign to Indoctrinate Students Against the West]

And so will the diminishment of literary studies. The respondents seem to assume that they are defending the field, but in truth, they are submerging it in a wave of negativity. For how many 19-year-old students want to take a class taught by teachers with such a racial and sexual chip on their shoulders? Apart from a batch of social justice kids who relish blaming the White Man for all social ills, few undergraduates find the approach appetizing.

We can be sure, too, that those professors run a politically correct classroom, that any student who challenges their version of history as white supremacy and patriarchy will suffer. These professors take as a moral mission the creation of a PC habitat that, for everyone else, isn’t any fun. Identity politics don’t allow much room for humor, irony, imagination, or play. They sentimentalize some groups and demonize others, a set-up that is ripe for satire, yes, but you better not go there. These teachers won’t accept any irony as legitimate except for the predictable sarcasm directed against the usual target, the white man who denies his own privilege.

What happens to the 18-year-old guy who likes Jordan Peterson videos and enrolls unawares in a course taught by the identity-based professor? If he expresses his opinion, he may expect a rebuke, not a reasoned rejoinder. The girl who loves Jane Austen and wants to hear more about her work won’t cotton to hearing Eve Sedgwick’s thesis on “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl.”

This is no way to recruit youths to the major. Undergraduates choose English because they love the material and are inspired by the teachers. English can’t rely on the kind of pipeline effect that feeds psychology, chemistry . . . whereby students choose those fields to “become” them (psychology majors become psychologists, chemistry majors become chemists. English has, at best, a weak parallel; English majors becoming English teachers.

This is to say that English thrives only when its subject matter is treated affirmatively, and teachers have some charisma. How many students want to listen to identitarian teachers stand at the podium and complain about racism and sexism for 15 weeks?

[The Cult of Diversity Shows Its True Face]

The respondents in the Chronicle piece aggravate their negativity by chiding their disciplinary parents. They should show more respect, that is, to the generations of scholars that preceded them. Listening to the young professors describe the history of their field, one might assume that Berkeley-Yale-Hopkins-Chicago-et al had formed a conspiracy to keep anyone not-white and not-male out of the faculty ranks. They truly believe that. Their version of the past is simple and satisfying–at least it is to them, if not to anyone else. It casts today’s young profs in the heroic role of rectifying the sins of their fathers.

In this sense, the fixation on a white-male past is nicely self-congratulatory. It feels good to them, but students discern the self-serving element a lot better than the identitarians suspect. The profs’ whining about white male dominance is a downer. They are a joyless, half-learned lot, aiming their passions at presumed oppressors instead of fulfilling their professional duty to pass the beauty and sublimity of the West along to the next generation. The humanities won’t recover as long as these people are in charge.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory.

16 thoughts on “Goodbye Humanities—Hating White Males Is Not a Curriculum

  1. Of course the New Harpies object. It’s what they do.

    Their professional existence is defined by this constant, whining objection — the identification & decrying of yet another of the million-and-one systemic, micro-aggressions which oppress them. Those listed above, of course, are just a “few of their favorite things!”

    But this is normal, to be expected.

    In the relativist wilderness of Post Modernism, past the River of Deconstruction, down trails blazed through the theoretical thickets of Critical Obfuscation…..reality is only what it perceived to be.; what it is said to be. In such a place, It is the ‘saying’ which is key.

    “When I use a word,’ Prof. Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

    Here in the ultra-subjective Now, Art is recognized only an exercise in Identitarian Power. And Truth, and Beauty, the notion of Quality? Those are just artifacts from the Old Dead White Guy Mausoleum….that place & time “in which white men possessed the power to determine the worthiness of the things around them (for obviously Worthiness & Value exist only ever as a political valence, selfishly assigned).

    It is so unutterably tragic.
    That in our post-modern obsession with ‘precariat’ silliness we have managed – quite enthusiastically, with malice aforethought – to tear and rend the very thing we were (in those Bad Old Days of cisgendered, transphobic, racist, misogynistic, patriarchal. heteronormative Oppression) once sworn to protect.

    Is it possible, still, to read…to feel: “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,”… to return to it, time & again, and every time to know it, always, for the first time? Or do we hear those transcendent lines only as the crabbed, White-privileged maundering of yet another toxic male?

    We know the answer, of course. Shakespeare is dead. The Humanities are dying.
    And all we hear from the carrion birds is “Hallelujah.”

  2. Thank you Mark,
    The destruction of the humanities has been long been a visible, painful, drawn-out and incomplete affair. Your post captures the struggle that the left wages to destroy what remains of a pillar of our civilization.

    As a graduate student my father studied that T.Johnson 1955 edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson, leading to a long and joyful career as a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, the poet’s hometown. By his retirement in the early ‘90’s the field was polluted with identity contrarians who mythologized ED in one projected fantasy after another, and with aggression questioned how a man could ever understand a woman’s poetic voice. I’m glad that he took the challenge with good humor and appropriate (which is to say, little) seriousness.

    My dad attended those MLA annual meetings throughout the 60’s, avoided them if he could in the 70s, and swore off them except as required in the 80s and 90’s. He delighted in referring to the queer antics of the MLA conventions in his introductory remarks before lectures and appearances when he wanted to see his audiences groan in commiseratory self-recognition. Oy.

    In the intervening 25 years this childishness has continued with disastrous effect: English literary history, the academy, and our society have suffered greatly. The humanities are no longer a serious area of study, nor an attractive or enjoyable experience for young creative and energetic minds who want to engage with the text, as opposed to the epidermis.

    As all life is being systematically bled from the humanities, your point about the rarity – and necessity – of charismatic and positive teaching is an important one. I fear that the most promising students of such constitution are actively discouraged from developing into professors who could lead restorative change. Those who fully develop the knowledge, skills and inclination to present themselves as faculty change agents do, and will, face terrible opposition.

    Like so many contemporary issues this is a battlefield, and a long war, and still one that is eminently worth fighting. Press on.

  3. “…including anti-intellectual Republicans such as Wisconsin governor Scott Walker.”

    Let’s try this again as the first comment never appeared. Why would you write something like that? So petty and stupid. Who is the anti-intellectual with your childishness?

  4. The recent events surrounding author Naomi Wolf bear out Dr. Bauerlein’s thoughts on English Departments today perfectly. Dr. Wolf used her doctoral thesis in English at Oxford as the basis for the apparently totally inaccurate book that she just had published. Why is someone who aspires to be an English professor writing about 19th Century history as their dissertation, and how could it have been approved by the dons of Oxford? What makes it more ridiculous is that the good professor and her advisers from a prestigious university were totally thrown by the definition of an archaic English term, which you would think that they would be the experts on, if there are any.

  5. The problem with humanities is that they’ve destroyed the canon and haven’t replaced it. When everybody studies different works, nobody has anything in common to discuss. Today, every professor has a different list of “must read” books, none or very few of which actually are “must read” – other than if you want to get a good grade in that class.

    Right answers start to look pretty appealing after constantly reading nothing by nobody and being told it’s really something by somebody – who nobody outside of class has ever heard of.

    I can quote Shakespeare (occasionally). What do today’s literature students quote when they want to make an allusion that all educated people will recognize?

    1. “What do today’s literature students quote when they want to make an allusion that all educated people will recognize?”

      Harry Potter

  6. The number of professors of English literature capable of teaching the “Great Books” in any kind of coherent way is so diminished that they’ve become the modern day equivalent of medieval monks, toiling away in solitary as purveyors of dogmatic ignorance raze all around them.

  7. I think schools that accept student loans for tuition should also accept this stipulation. If a student graduates with a degree, and after effort, that student cannot get a job in their field within 5 years of graduation, the school must pay off the remaining loans. I suspect you’ll see cutbacks in the number of useless majors, and higher requirements for the rest.

    1. Max, what I think you’ll see is that such students will be shut out of college. I also think it’s a losing proposition, socially and politically.

      1. But the secondary effect – unemployment of those ridiculous professors – is worth the pain.

        The English Dept. and the other Identitarian Depts. need to be purged. If that means that the faculty are cast out into the job market without a fallback in Education, so be it.

    2. If the student fails to find work in the field, then the school which granted the degree is obligated to find work for or to employ the student directly. Going to have some very large sociology departments.

  8. I remember the “good ole days” when Emory English professor Thomas J. J. Altizer was all the talk of the MSM for his (“Hegelian”) riff on “Moby Dick” which included the oh-so-popular phrase “God is dead” — which inspired, if I recall correctly, a major magazine cover with that title and a movie, “Rosemary’s Baby.” That things have gotten immeasurably worse in the Humanities since that time is an immense (negative) accomplishment!

  9. When the 1st U.S. Marine Company, 18-year old Female Division, fixes bayonets to charge Little Round Top, San Juan Hill, Belleau Wood or Hurtgen Forest, it’s quite certain “fur with fly”. But whose?

    Recall the IDF’s experience with female recruits… problem with taking the field wasn’t just endurance, mobility, physical strength, but the fact that these tough bunnies held their fire to put on combat makeup (!). To which a veteran Israeli CO said, “Powdering your nose ain’t camouflage” and added “If beauty sleep’s your thing, you’ll wake up dead.”

    As for femmers’ tremulous White Male Syndrome (WMS), it pays to recall that Kings are made but Queens are merely born.

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