(Caution: This piece shouldn’t be taken as an excuse to ignore the structural issues in our larger society regarding class, ideology, race, and gender, among others. Jesus constantly advocated for subaltern groups in Roman Palestine, and we are called to follow his example. I speak about specific ideological forces in academic settings that I see as both unbiblical and incoherent.)
A number of years ago now, I wrote an article describing why I left my university’s English department and switched to history. It wasn’t an eloquent article, and I sometimes wish I could retract it, if only for the inconvenience it caused me. I never took a class in the English department again even though my dream at the time was to become a novelist; I knew I was a marked man. I burned my bridges and walked forward into a very different future
That article was the first of two critical revelations I’ve had about university (I’ll get to the second later). An angry old Humanities professor named Ron Srigley spelled it out far more eloquently than me two years ago in the LA Review of Books. His argument is that in third and fourth tier universities across the country, the humanities are no longer being taught or learned. This is caused by a number of common complaints, including expanding technocratic culture in academia, an explosion in administrative personnel who increasingly view professors as peripheral to the core needs of their “consumers” (students), and the increasing power of students to demand changes to their educational and university experiences.
Srigley explores a couple of points that I touched on in my article, but didn’t fully understand. This first is what I’ve referred to as the “bullshit factor,” or the ability that my English major friends and I believed we possessed to “bamboozle” our professors with our sparkling prose and strikingly original analysis. It took me into my fourth year to realize that, in my arrogance, I hadn’t realized who was playing who. The professors saw right through our bullshit, but for various reasons were unwilling to call us on it. Instead they coddled us, encouraged us, praised us – and awarded us grades we didn’t deserve.
Srigley (who is harsher than I) calls it a scam. A scam that is propagated by a lack of support for professors in the Humanities, the consequences of grade appeals to the careers of (especially junior) faculty, and a prolonged erosion of Humanities departments in favour of professional faculties and technical training.
He describes such education as the equivalent of the Russian political system, which is a ruse meant to give the appearance that the totalitarian regime beneath is playing by some semblance of democracy. Such shams don’t need to be convincing, but they do need to be entertaining.
“That’s my classes. There is no real education anymore, but I still have to create the impression that education is happening. Students will therefore come to class, but they will not learn. Professors will give lectures, but they will not teach. Students will receive grades, but they will not earn them. Awards and degrees will be granted, but they will exist only on paper.”
This leads to the second point I once made: that students no longer need to actually read the material to get impressive grades, which contributes to both student and administrator scorn for the affected disciplines. This point caused some push-back, since professors and fellow students noted that if I wasn’t reading the material, it was my own fault for not getting the full benefit of the course. I agreed, but countered that if the difference between my reading very little of the material instead of it all was a 10 to 15 percent bump in my final grade, what did that imply about the value of said material to the course? Srigley argues that less than 20 percent of his students even access the weekly readings for his courses, largely because they know they don’t have to – “they can get an 80 without ever opening a book.”
When I entered university at 19, my professors, my peers, and my grades affirmed that I was a good student, although I didn’t do much of the reading, and felt that I was often bullshitting in class. It took me a while to realize that I wasn’t brilliant, just arrogant, and (as Srigley suggests) the professors, my peers, and I were all being played.
The second critical revelation I had about university came later, in the first year of my masters program at a different school. I was forced to take a sociology class from a post-modernist, and discovered that we essentially didn’t speak the same language. It was a seminar class with few students, so I was forced to talk…a lot.
And everything I said was wrong, in one way or another. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. The professor and I would look at each with painful incomprehension, and I would realize that I’d once again assumed some archaic concept like “truth” or “facts.” I learned that there are no absolutes except structures of power (especially those of race, gender, and sexuality) and the sacredness of complexity – all else should viewed with cynicism and deconstructed.
I’m used to being viewed as an anachronism, an academic who has held on to his faith despite the “enlightening” influences of the secular university. But that class was my first experience in which the fundaments of my ontology and epistemology (what we know and how we know it) were utterly alienating. It was heavily implied by other post-modernists that my conservatism created an ideological rigidity which prevented me from understanding other viewpoints. I’d heard this argument before, and I’d mostly bought it, but after that class I began to ask serious questions.
It’s considered cliché in religious circles to point out the postmodernist paradox that there are no absolutes (except that one). This isn’t really an accurate characterization, as there are other sacred shibboleths that cannot really be interrogated, but are integral to the post-modern perspective. It used to deeply upset me to argue with people who claimed to be wholly committed to deconstructing modern society, and yet were entirely discriminatory about which artifices required deconstructing. As an outsider to academia, I figured that I was missing something, or that my religious convictions made me incapable of closing with the argument.
Actually, my failing was not looking a little closer to home for an explanation. As William Deresiewicz explained a couple weeks ago in The American Scholar, the fusion of postmodernist thought and identity politics manifesting at elite schools and seeping through the system is also a form of religion. It encompasses its own belief systems, theological foundations, and moral absolutes. What I’d failed to realize was that my encounter in my sociology class was not with an academic theory, but with another religion – one that also believed in unmeasurable, yet omnipotent and omnipresent forces (although generally ending in –isms)
According to Deresiewicz, this academic religion also has its own dogma or set of correct opinions and beliefs within a very narrow range: “There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to talk and think about.” Secularism is assumed, environmentalism is sacred. Issues of identity (holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality, are the centre of concern. Foucault plays the role Marx once did.
Students are encouraged to emulate the New York Times Opinion section (jab), in that they are highly diverse physically, but all but homogenous ideologically. They are different bodies speaking with the same voice. Divergent opinions are treated as the opposite of dogma, heresy, which “must be eradicated: by education, by reeducation—if necessary, by censorship.” The opinion of individuals are expected to be based upon their identity, and can actually be presumed based upon their identity. Therefore, what someone says is not as important as what they are. The importance of someone’s voice is based upon identity rather than content.
This is of course meant to help offset the omnipresent and omnipotent “-isms” that form the core deities (or demons) of this new religion, but in practice it simply elevates the oppressed to the role of oppressor, without creating the foundation for actual systematic equality. In the words of Deresiewicz, “Progressive faculty and students at selective private colleges will often say that they want to dismantle the hierarchies of power that persist in society at large. Their actions often suggest that in fact they would like to invert them. All groups are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
At my institution, things are not as bad as Deresiewicz describes, and don’t deserve the gross generalizations I made above. I hear the language and jargon of said religion, but it has not been accepted or internalized at a dangerous level. As someone who takes my own religious tradition seriously, I could give some excellent advice about the dangers of rigid theology and polarizing dogma, but I doubt that would be considered helpful. The cautions of the barbarians have never been heeded by those who believe they possess a divine mission to forcefully enlighten humanity, and academics are no exception.
Together, my two critical revelations highlight a disturbing trend. Humanities instruction is become increasingly vapid, humanities students are becoming increasingly ignorant about their own disciplines, and the gap is being filled by a theological conviction that both possess a sacred monopoly on truth. Obviously Srigley and Deresiewicz are discussing two very different contexts, and the two forces are not fully realized nor truly integrated, but both articles spoke to me in a way that is worrisome.
There is truth to both pieces. Not absolute truth, not universal truth, but the description of dark and disturbing potential.
My friend Mannonfire wrote a more critical perspective on the second article here. We had some fun in the comment stream as well. 🙂