Can the Humanities Be Saved?

The university’s core mission has been corrupted by pedagogical and political orthodoxy. (Janice Fiamengo)

[…] the emphasis on a vacuous therapeutic empowerment of the student body has led to a drastic lowering of expectations in North American post-secondary institutions. Students now read less than ever before for their courses, and professors are under increasing pressure to evaluate students in non-traditional ways (i.e., outside of tests and essays).

[…] The emphasis in hiring decisions on student evaluations of teachers — see, for example, the public website “Rate My Professor,” in which students’ often crass assessments are posted for all to see (“She’s hot!” “His voice puts you to sleep”) — makes it increasingly attractive to instructors to earn popularity, or at least to avoid attack, by giving high grades and making their courses fun rather than demanding.
As traditional content is removed from courses, it is often replaced by non-academic material, specifically a devotion to “social justice” that masquerades as critical analysis despite the fact that the impartial weighing of evidence so necessary to such analysis is largely absent from its championing of victims.

[…] Many professors in the Humanities and Social Sciences devote themselves less to teaching their particular disciplines than to decrying the presumed crimes of the United States, sympathizing with Islamic terrorists and other violent dissidents, calling for the overthrow of the capitalist world order, and condoning plans for the destruction of Israel.

[…] the radicalization of the Humanities and the decline of academic standards are closely related, with political commitment often necessitating the abandonment of scholarly integrity. Many teachers of English no longer care much about prosody or literary history or correct grammar because such subjects seem trivial beside the grand social struggles that claim their allegiance. It may well seem more urgent to combat racism than to combat the comma splice, to analyze patriarchal privilege rather than Jane Austen’s irony; and when right thinking is more important than rigorous thinking, details can be overlooked in the cause of student enlightenment. Combine this with an administrative emphasis on filling seats and a state commitment to student access, and one has the perfect academic storm, one that sweeps away scholastics and whirls in crude social engineering.

That many of my colleagues seemed sincere in their commitment to history’s underdogs cannot excuse the damage caused by their policies and by their skewed teaching practices — for their ideological convictions were often imported into the classroom, where a balanced overview of course material was sacrificed to the politics of “race, class, and gender.” Students learn quickly enough in such courses that success requires them to adopt approved positions: to be skeptical of Western nations’ claims to equality and justice, to understand their country’s history as a record of oppression, and to look with ready admiration at non-Western cultures, which they are taught to see as superior. Young white men learn early on that history’s villains are usually white men. Lesbian identities, Aboriginal culture, and Sharia law are protected from critical appraisal by charges of homophobia, genocidal racism, or cultural imperialism. Instructors often choose the texts on their syllabus not to represent the traditional scholarly consensus on the important and best literature of the period but rather to represent a range of victim groups presented in noble conflict with the forces of social prejudice. Literature is taught not because it is valuable in itself but because it teaches students to denounce inequality and to empathize with victims, and to feel appropriately empowered in grievance or guilty by association.

Indeed, some students become so immersed in Leftist ideology — a kind of secret society whose code language they have learned in fear and trembling and now exercise with pride — that they believe it the only possible view of the world and have never seriously considered alternatives except as the deplorable prejudices of the hateful unwashed. Their conviction of rightness has revealed itself in a multitude of anti-intellectual and repressive behavior on university campuses across the country.

Can the Humanities Be Saved? by Janice Fiamengo, PJ Media, 22 April 2012.

Janice Fiamengo is a professor of English at the University of Ottawa, and author of The Woman’s Page: Journalism and Rhetoric in Early Canada (2008).

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