Field Notes on the Politicization of the American University

The Syracuse University English Department’s Statement of Concern


In a recent article lamenting the demise of the canon in English departments, Professor Mark Bauerlein calls attention to the homepage of Syracuse University’s department. Where one would expect to find a description of the department, one finds instead a “statement of concern regarding the death of George Floyd and in support of protests against police violence.”

In short, the statement is the Syracuse English Department’s deliberately chosen first impression. Scripted in large font and occupying the entire screen, this document is the web equivalent of a political billboard, confronting all, including prospective students, who might go to the departmental home page to learn about courses offered, requirements for a major, faculty research interests, or other such predictable matter.

Bauerlein’s main concern is with the widespread rejection of cultural heritage by university humanities departments. The Syracuse English Department’s web page provides evidence in support of this charge, but the “statement of concern” is troubling for other reasons as well.

The first thing to notice is that activist scholarship is not merely accepted but is actually mandated by professors in what was, until recently, a relatively popular liberal arts major. The faculty who signed this statement signed a document that requires them to be political activists. “We pledge to bring awareness and justice to our classrooms and to all of our wider communities by foregrounding racialized voices, experiences, and histories in our curricula, our pedagogies [etc.],” the statement declares.

The statement is thus an extension and intensification of a widespread trend begun some decades ago. Longstanding professional standards and admonitions by organizations such as the AAUP that teachers must refrain from irrelevant politicking while engaged in their course work are not merely ignored but have been turned on their heads.

Dialing the clock back thirty years, one would find activist scholarship to be a prominent characteristic of certain newly minted departments, usually those with the word “Studies” attached to them: Women’s Studies, Cultural Studies—the sort of departments that critics came to label “Grievance Studies” or “Victim Studies” on account of the tendentious focus undergirding their activism. More traditional humanities and social science departments were staffed largely (often overwhelmingly) with left-leaning instructors, but only a small number of them would have deemed open political activism in the classroom to be acceptable, much less desirable, much less required.

This has clearly changed in the Syracuse English Department, whose statement may be notable for its extremity, but not for the fact that it exists. It is far from the only academic department to make such a public declaration over the past several months. The progressive political agenda of such scholar-activists is impossible to miss. Conservatives and classical liberals will find it unacceptable; modern liberals will perhaps be confused, and, if honest with themselves, distressed by what their tolerance has enabled.

The question of motive remains. Why would the Syracuse English Department post this statement? The obvious answer may be correct: its members are so involved with the politics of the moment and so sure of their moral and political stance that they feel compelled to parade it. If so, sincerity in no way exonerates the faculty’s relinquishment of long-standing scholarly mores.

The statement might also be seen as an effort to attract clientele to a field of study with a shrunken profile on almost every campus. A more cynical interpretation would find that this marketing is the primary reason for the statement. If this is the case, Syracuse is grandstanding in the vein described by Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke in their recent analysis of “the abuse of moral talk.”

Will the marketing gambit work? “Good luck with that,” as the cliché goes. Enrollments in humanities courses have been dropping across the board, and English departments have not been immune. In a recent New York Times op-ed on the plight of the humanities, Jon Baskin and Anastasia Berg note the “rise within those departments of conceptions of humanistic education that privilege scientistic knowledge accumulation, political activism and the cultivation of ‘analytical skills’ thought to be prized in Silicon Valley.”

Baskin and Berg could use the Syracuse web pages as exhibit A for their case. English departmental self-descriptions, faculty publications, and graduate student research areas all carry a heavy flavor of the social sciences. (One notes Baskin and Berg’s use of the word scientistic rather than authentically scientific.) The needle in the haystack would be quicker to appear than expressions of interest in aesthetics amongst these lovers of literature.

The English Department pages rely on a rhetoric that tries to marry progressive politics with assertions of career practicality. There is little mention of classical texts as objects of extraordinary value. Consideration of the canon as a cultural heritage is so passé that allusions to such a notion are unnecessary. There is no surprise in any of this. Even as they hemorrhage students, modern English departments with status aspirations have taken their intellectual efforts in a different direction for quite some time. The guild has its ways.

One supposes that some percentage of the Syracuse English Department is fervently on board with the statement, some go along with it, and most think it couldn’t hurt and might even help to attract students. If this is so, one wants to ask if the university plans to have an ever-changing set of such postings heading the departmental home page. In contrast to literature, once thought to be the business of English departments, the news of the day is ephemeral, just as student politics will prove to be.

The Syracuse English faculty seems to think that its stance on Black Lives Matter is the most important thing it can advertise. Anyone looking to enroll at Syracuse with the least awareness of the modern university would already take faculty support of Black Lives Matter as a given. It has probably not occurred to that same person to contemplate what is being lost as standards of academic disinterestedness are cast aside at Syracuse, as they are with ever more frequency in American universities.


Image: DASonnenfeld, Public Domain

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Matthew Stewart

Matthew Stewart is Associate Professor of Humanities and Rhetoric at Boston University. He has published in online venues including City Journal, Law and Liberty, New English Review and The James G. Martin Center. He is the author of Modernism and Tradition in Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time.

5 thoughts on “Field Notes on the Politicization of the American University

  1. All true, but the problem is deeper than that, deeper than the “loss of standards of academic disinterestedness”.

    Rather we see in this Progressive Voguing (Look at me, look at me, look at me now! It is good to be righteous; you just have to know how!), an utter & absolute desecration of purpose.

    Like going to the webpage of a Cardiologist to discover, front & center, a 72 pt. bold proclamation of support for Cool Whales, we ask: What about the heart? What about the patient? What about life & death & why you as a WhaleSaver even sit here in a Cardiac surgeon’s office?

    “Some things are just more important!”, we’re told.
    And so they are. But we didn’t come here looking for Whale Saver Central; we came here to find a Cardiologist.

    We go to Heart Surgeons because Heart. We seek out Cabinetmakers because Cabinet. We hire a plumber because Plumbing… And we study & teach English literature because Literature.

    It’s really very simple.

    We read Shakespeare and Yeats because they are transcendent, because they express with eloquence and unimaginable artistry the truth of the human condition. We do so, most selfishly, because they speak to us …because they move us and inspire us to be something more than what we are or what we were before we read them.

    So then, what do we find, as acolytes and pilgrims, entering this, our Glastonbury? What do those drunk on Faulkner, Eliot, Keats, Dickens, and Conrad…what do they encounter cross that threshold? Why a full-color ad for the latest Pick-Up Truck and SoundSleep Mattress, of course! They find Paid-For-Political Announcements, and Hot-Links to ‘Make a Contribution Today’ opportunities. “Step right up!”, the Faculty Barker says, ” Welcome to the Police Defunding Strike-A-Poses and Systemic This and Activist That Department of What Used to Be English Literature. How can we help ya…what d’ya need?”

    “Never mind,” we say, “What I want you obviously don’t have. What I need you’ve already lost.”

    ““Sometimes love is taken away unjustly, but not until the very end do you stop believing and then it is very bitter. It is bitter because somewhere within you the perfect standard still lives, the pure expectation against which failure and betrayal are contrasted like the dark shadows on a moonlit road.” (Mark Helprin).

    This is the time of dark shadows.

  2. Even thirty years ago, the English Department at the institution where I was teaching history was a sewer of left-wing political activism. The way to deal with such such English Departments and such kindred of offshoots as ethnic studies is to end distribution requirements that force students to take their courses. The myth off a well-rounded general education is an obsolete dream–a practical impossibility given mass higher education. We should return to a totally free choice selection of. courses with the only limitation a minimum set for a given major

  3. Humanities departments need to look around. For those with a love of history, literature or similar subjects the need for an expensive university education is rapidly disappearing. Would-be students can study those fields for free via podcasts or streaming videos. For instance, if you want to understand the history of English, you don’t need to pay Syracuse University thousands of dollars for tuition and board. You can simply listen to this podcast.

    https://historyofenglishpodcast.com

    Take it from someone who majored in engineering, the impact of that change is uneven. Most of the content of the humanities is easily acquired by listening, reading and seeing. I took such courses and considered them a breeze. Studying the hard sciences and math is far more demanding. In those fields, students benefit from the pressures to learn created by professors, classes, test and labs. That’s the only way to beat the grind of learning differential equations.

    Turning those humanities into BLM advocacy is even more foolish. Those who want to get into political activism can just do it. They don’t need to force their parents to pay Syracuse $50,000 or more a year for the opportunity.

    1. I generally agree, but there’s a role for high-level humanities in the Universities. That they are doing a bad job doesn’t change that. I mean, I can lean to code with a bunch of books on my own time, too.

  4. Cornell’s recent move to change the name of the English Department to ” “the department of literatures in English” (Cornell Daily Sun) pales in comparison to the Syracuse English Department’s complete surrender to the woke militia.

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