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.
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.
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 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.