Category Archive 'Humanities'

04 Apr 2019

The Left’s Attack Upon the Canon

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Alexander Zubatov, PR’97, describes, and explains, in a must-read article, the crazy Continental Left’s takeover of the Humanities.

Here… is another common sense truth, a proposition so obvious that it is bizarre that I should even need to set it forth: the race, gender, religion, sexuality or physical ability or disability of its creator is not a legitimate component of an art work’s quality. In fact, these are the very kinds of irrational social considerations that have sometimes regrettably distorted the picture of what has—and, more importantly, has not—been deemed canonical but which we, whenever we become cognizant of such errors, should try to discount.

But, in recent times, a strange inversion has taken hold of our thinking on the subject of canonicity. Instead of viewing such superficial aspects of the author’s identity as illegitimate variables the influence of which we should resist as far as possible, we have opened the floodgates in order to admit authors to the canon precisely on the basis of such considerations. Entire courses and majors have grown up around these superficial identitarian affiliations, and works of art—mistaken, perhaps, for democratic legislative bodies—have been lavished with praise because of their success in representing—in the sense of political rather than aesthetic representation­—the experience of this or that subgroup. Moreover, the same people who advocate for this identity genre literature also make a habit of assailing the canon for failures of representation, as though the quality of works could be gauged through a demographic survey. This form of philosophically unsound willful self-blinding to the hard truths of aesthetic superiority—which I would call aesthetic denialism—has become as pandemic in many segments of academia and the left as climate change denialism is on the right and has done great harm to the reputation and status of the humanities.

Lending an air of gravitas to this aesthetic denialism, there has been a proliferation of various branches of continental theory—largely post-structuralist and Marxist—that espouse a generally critical attitude towards existing hierarchies—aesthetic hierarchies included—seeing in these either the reification of indefensible and arbitrary distinctions (post-structuralism) or the pernicious reflections of power (Marxism). To adapt the argument advanced by John Guillory in his Pierre Bourdieu-inspired landmark work, Cultural Capital, during the decades between the downfall of the hereditary aristocracy and the emergence of our modern-day techno-financial elite, university education, particularly classical humanities education, came to serve as a dividing line between an educated aristocracy and common rubes and plebs. In the era of high modernism and prestigious print journalism, university departments conferring such knowledge and its attendant degrees enjoyed substantial cultural cachet and, to dispense such cachet, needed to agree upon a more or less unitary body of learning—the canon—as a boundary between education and inadequacy. But, as the old literary aristocracy gave way to a new moneyed elite, which elbowed its way into the ranks of the upper crust through highly compensated tech and finance industry jobs and needed to know how to read and write nothing more sophisticated than an office memo or PowerPoint presentation, the high school composition curriculum became more than adequate to its needs. Traditional high culture and university humanities were rendered supererogatory, becoming the devalued province of effete and useless intellectuals. Stripped of its most obvious practical function, the university’s role in what Marxist theorist Louis Althusser would have called the ideological state apparatus, serving to reproduce existing power relations—and the humanities professoriate drifted off unmoored into the great unknown. A unitary canon was no longer indispensable because the humanities themselves were no longer indispensable.

This led to two related developments. First, with the humanities no longer closely tethered to prevailing power structures, the stability and traditionalism that a close link to power demands fell away, and prominent humanities scholars with radically anti-establishment views were free to crawl out of the woodwork. Second, the new attitude of disrespect—and, increasingly, open scorn—that the techno-financial elite and much of the rest of society came to exhibit towards humanities academics led to a natural tit-for-tat. If you are disrespected, you are likely to seethe and lash out at your tormenters. You may, in fact, adopt your own posture of hauteur and disrespect, as if those people were hopelessly beneath you and will never understand you, since they are either too committed to the power relations in which they are embedded or else simpletons, blind to those power relations.

In this fertile ground for resentment, the attitude of critique took root, building on philosophical currents which first surfaced in the late nineteenth century and began to assume a simulacrum of their present-day form during the countercultural era of the 1960s. Bloom regularly fulminated against what he aptly termed these “schools of resentment,” which I discuss in more detail here. The approach of these peddlers of critique—sometimes known as the hermeneutics of suspicion—was to question all established norms and power structures, including the hegemonic structures that had allegedly informed the composition of the canon. Thus, instead of looking up toward the works they studied, these new anti-humanist humanitarians looked at them askance and endeavored to expose and unravel their inner tensions and contradictions and the hierarchies that had produced those works and entrenched them as objects of veneration. If the old humanities had once offered access to the upper echelons of society, what the new anti-humanities marketed was an attitude of superiority towards the society that had scorned them.

As new generations of students reared under the tutelage of these scholars entered the workforce and academia, the cultural capital enjoyed by the posture of critique predictably increased. Canonical lists were blown open, infiltrated by works that were aesthetically second-rate, but politically favored. A bevy of majors and departments in all sorts of identitarian oppression studies departments crystallized. Critique went corporate. Diversity became an industry: spawning seminars, consultants, initiatives and company retreats. At a time when our society had never been more tolerant, open and inclusive, media organizations, now staffed by graduates of these radicalized humanities departments, began to make a living trafficking in identitarian hysteria about racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia.

The numbers confirm this story. They show a pronounced leftward shift in humanities departments since 1990, around the same time when the tech sector, which contributed markedly to the marginalization of the humanities, began its economic takeover.


HT: Katarina Apostilides.

25 Jul 2016

Fed Up With Humanities-Trained “Experts”

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Michael Ginsberg is fed up with experts trained neither in facts or real skills, but in the Humanities-style “How to Think in General” kind of elite education.

I trained to be an engineer in college and graduate school. When I went to college, I viewed it as job training. School had a purpose, and I had a mission: prepare myself for the working world by developing skills and a vocation. It was hard work: hours upon hours in labs, in libraries working on problem sets, or studying in my dorm room. It wasn’t easy, but I kept going because I believed engineering was one of the most essential disciplines to Americans’ quality of life and the defense of the nation.

Yet throughout my time in school, it always gnawed at me that my fellow classmates in other disciplines—the students of government, political science, and policy, masters of words, theories, and rules—were going to graduate, occupy positions of power, and determine how I would be able to live my life and run my career. Never mind that many of them started their weekends on Thursdays and probably never took a class in the hard sciences while I was sweating away night and day in the engineering library. They were going to grow up and make decisions that would control my life.

I went to an Ivy League school, and the piece of parchment with the school name was going to open the doors to the gilded life that would allow them to, as one of my schoolmates put it, “rule the world.” Use the school name to get the right internships and make the right connections, and the world would open up for them. (Instead, I repeatedly had job interviewers tell me, “I didn’t know your Ivy League school had engineering.”) I resented it deeply.

That resentment dissipated over time, but never quite went away. …

My resentment, long in remission, came back and crystallized in the following thought: Americans are governed by politicians who see fit to reimagine entire sectors of our economy and, indeed, our lives despite having little, if any, experience in the areas of life they seek to reform wholesale. This means Americans, seeing the failures of government from Obamacare to the Veterans Affairs, from the Environmental Protection Agency dumping toxic materials into a Colorado river to the Dodd-Frank regulations strangling local community banks, have had just about enough of their credentialed but utterly inexperienced supposed betters reordering their lives and livelihoods.

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip to the News Junkie.

26 Oct 2010

“So You Want To Get a PhD in the Humanities”

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“It is important that I go to Yale. They have Harold Bloom.”

Hat tip to Matt McLean and Emmy Chang.

29 Sep 2009

Decline of the English Department

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Willam M. Chace, in the American Scholar, identifies the decline in study of the Humanities in general with the internal collapse of the English Department following the overthrow of the idea of the canon.

Perhaps the most telling sign of the near bankruptcy of the discipline is the silence from within its ranks. In the face of one skeptical and disenchanted critique after another, no one has come forward in years to assert that the study of English (or comparative literature or similar undertakings in other languages) is coherent, does have self-limiting boundaries, and can be described as this but not that.

Such silence strongly suggests a complicity of understanding, with the practitioners in agreement that to teach English today is to do, intellectually, what one pleases. No sense of duty remains toward works of English or American literature; amateur sociology or anthropology or philosophy or comic books or studies of trauma among soldiers or survivors of the Holocaust will do. You need not even believe that works of literature have intelligible meaning; you can announce that they bear no relationship at all to the world beyond the text. Nor do you need to believe that literary history is helpful in understanding the books you teach; history itself can be shucked aside as misleading, irrelevant, or even unknowable. In short, there are few, if any, fixed rules or operating principles to which those teaching English and American literature are obliged to conform. With everything on the table, and with foundational principles abandoned, everyone is free, in the classroom or in prose, to exercise intellectual laissez-faire in the largest possible way—I won’t interfere with what you do and am happy to see that you will return the favor. Yet all around them a rich literature exists, extraordinary books to be taught to younger minds.

Consider the English department at Harvard University. It has now agreed to remove its survey of English literature for undergraduates, replacing it and much else with four new “affinity groups”—“Arrivals,” “Poets,” “Diffusions,” and “Shakespeares.” The first would examine outside influences on English literature; the second would look at whatever poets the given instructor would select; the third would study various writings (again, picked by the given instructor) resulting from the spread of English around the globe; and the final grouping would direct attention to Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Daniel Donoghue, the department’s director of undergraduate studies, told The Harvard Crimson last December that “our approach was to start with a completely clean slate.” And Harvard’s well-known Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt also told the Crimson that the substance of the old survey will “trickle down to students through the professors themselves who, after all, specialize in each of these areas of English literature.” But under the proposal, there would be no one book, or family of books, that every English major at Harvard would have read by the time he or she graduates. The direction to which Harvard would lead its students in this “clean slate” or “trickle down” experiment is to suspend literary history, thrusting into the hands of undergraduates the job of cobbling together intellectual coherence for themselves. Greenblatt puts it this way: students should craft their own literary “journeys.” The professors might have little idea of where those journeys might lead, or how their paths might become errant. There will be no common destination.

As Harvard goes, so often go the nation’s other colleges and universities. Those who once strove to give order to the curriculum will have learned, from Harvard, that terms like core knowledge and foundational experience only trigger acrimony, turf protection, and faculty mutinies. No one has the stomach anymore to refight the Western culture wars. Let the students find their own way to knowledge.

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