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The fundamental question
by Judah Bellin
A review of The Victims' Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind by Bruce Bawer
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Camille Paglia famously described Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind as the “first shot in the culture wars.” But Bloom’s masterwork was more likely a dying gasp. Twenty-five years after Closing’s publication, the American university is still hopelessly mired in moral relativism. Indeed, as Bruce Bawer argues at the beginning of The Victims’ Revolution, the faculty and students who supplanted the older order “took on the higher education establishment of their day . . . and won.” Bawer’s book is devoted to chronicling the bitter fruits of their success.
His analysis centers on the transformation of the liberal arts into the study of victimhood. In his account, the humanities are now dedicated to exploring the grievances of their cherished groups—namely, women, blacks, gays, and Latinos. Its practitioners, moreover, view their disciplines as irreconcilable with the Western tradition. The influential feminist bell hooks argued in 1981 that feminism seeks to “reorganiz[e]” society by destroying “the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture.” Women’s Studies is not alone in this venture: Maulana Ron Karenga, the author of Introduction to Black Studies, asserted that his field promotes “critique, resistance, and reversal of the progressive Europeanization of human consciousness and culture.” Accordingly, Bawer finds that the modern university rejects individualism. He interacts with faculty who stress the importance of group privileges over individual rights. They believe the individual is merely a social construct.
Furthermore, these disciplines take specific aim at the United States: A sympathetic historian of Chicano Studies, for example, asserts that the discipline’s focus is America’s “racist and/or capitalist structure” and how it harms Mexican-Americans. Likewise, the widely-cited queer theorist Lee Edelman argues that gays should actively oppose mainstream American society.
As Bawer painstakingly demonstrates, the conflict between the study of different groups and liberalism is not inevitable. In fact, one of the more interesting themes of The Victims’ Revolution is how a number of these disciplines initially situated themselves within the liberal tradition. Feminism was originally steeped in the rhetoric of individualism: Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill both argued that women should hold equal rights so they could discover their true talents. Likewise, the pioneers of Black Studies sought to reap the benefits of the Western tradition. W. E. B. DuBois, the founder of the discipline, described joyful encounters with Shakespeare, Balzac, and Dumas and hoped his fellow blacks would share similar experiences. According to Bawer, even gay studies began in the late nineteenth century in the hopes of establishing gays’ equality in the liberal regime.
Since then, of course, these disciplines have taken a drastically different course; they now consciously reject their liberal origins. Bawer is concerned that this development undermines the shared American creed that sustains our society.
This argument is hardly novel. The Victims’ Revolution is, however, worth reading for Bawer’s impressively detailed look at the humanities. By examining curricula and attending numerous academic conferences, he exposes the liberal arts for the farce they have become. He finds that academics struggle to find victimhood in every topic, from the American anti–sex trafficking movement to veganism. This attitude finds its purest expression in “intersectionality,” a popular theory that encourages finding the multiple, overlapping layers of discrimination in different phenomena. Thus, at the 2010 National Women’s Studies Association’s “Bodies in Question” panel, Bawer hears faculty participants critique Queer Studies specialists for failing to consider the compounded discrimination faced by gay blacks and Latinos. In the minds of many attendees, the discipline is insufficiently serious about uncovering the full extent of subjugation.
Bawer’s investigations reveal that the humanities today are an exercise in repackaging. He discovers that today’s scholars do not pioneer new ideas but simply find new ways to regurgitate older ones. Like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., whose academic research simply marries African culture to well-worn postmodern theories, liberal arts professors have little interest in innovation. When they do innovate, however, their ideas are beyond belief. One of the many examples Bawer provides is the equation of lesbians to runaway slaves because they, too, have escaped the bonds of male patriarchy. Today’s humanities professors revel in the absurdity of their claims. One Women’s Studies professor Bawer cites lauds sex-segregated music festivals for freeing women from “patriarchal expectations,” while a Queer Studies professor argues that liberal regimes are more repressive than Communist ones because the former’s “modes of domination” are invisible and thus “all the more difficult to challenge or oppose.” Ian Barnard, the author of the influential Queer Race, takes particular joy in upending societal expectations. He declares his infatuation with the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer: “him, his voice, his glasses at his sentencing.” Today’s liberal arts faculty has barricaded itself within the impenetrable walls of the academy. That their ideas bear no resemblance to our reality is a point of pride.
It is thus unsurprising that practitioners of the liberal arts promote regressive ideas. One notion gaining steam in feminist studies departments is that racial and sexual groups possess different fixed traits. White men, according to the feminist scholar Peggy McIntosh, are rigid “vertical thinkers” while women and minorities are “relational and inclusive.” Others advocate abandoning the gains made by their particular groups: Bawer shows numerous Queer Studies professors disdaining the increasing public acceptance of gays as a sinister triumph of the “establishment” and “normativity.” One Chicano Studies teacher he interviews is horrified that her Hispanic students believe they are “equal partners” in the United States. She takes it upon herself to teach them otherwise.
The most distressing trend Bawer finds, however, is the disappearance of academic standards. Liberal arts professors tend to eschew scholarship for politics. At a Women’s Studies conference Bawer attends, one professor asserts that she and her fellow faculty should not consider themselves “teachers” but “provocateurs.” Indeed, they must “do more than teach”; they are obligated to train future activists. Likewise, two sympathetic historians of Black Studies consider the discipline a “politicized unit of the academy,” and the founders of Chicano Studies thought the university a tool at the “disposal” of leftists. The editors of Cultural Studies go one step further. They baldly state that their discipline is not meant “to discover or uncover anything in particular about its objects of study” but rather to “impose a view and a set of interests.”
Additionally, Bawer finds a lack of critical depth. At a cultural studies conference he notices the absence of debate, how attendees “cheered one another on, like contestants on American Idol.” They see their project as a “collective” venture, an attitude which precludes serious critique. This approach is pervasive. Accordingly, Bawer’s investigations lend credence to Emory professor Mark Bauerlein’s claim that studying the humanities today is merely “catechism learning.” Students curry favor by absorbing and spouting back the academic establishment’s preferred “axioms.” Indeed, the same nonsensical jargon appears at every academic conference Bawer attends. The terms problematize, interrogate, and intervene replace discuss. Attendees nod enthusiastically when professors discuss, among other inane concepts, “sexuality as an artifact of institutionality.”
Thus, Allan Bloom’s argument about the Sixties—that it was an era “when the real conformism hit the universities, when opinions about everything from God to the movies became absolutely predictable”—resonates today. In fact, our situation is perhaps even grimmer than the one Bloom chronicled. Unlike their predecessors, today’s academics make no pretense to open-mindedness. They revel in closing the American mind.
So it is indeed true that the liberal arts have strayed from their origins. However, we must question whether this development truly threatens America’s social fabric. After all, these disciplines have less influence than Bawer thinks. A survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics found that only .04 percent of students major in black studies; .02 percent major in Chicano Studies; .08 percent major in Women’s studies; and .0002 percent major in Gay and Lesbian Studies. American students have chosen to avoid the postmodern humanities, and they are justified in doing so.
This is not to understate the impact of the revolution in academia. For one, the academy’s critique of the West has had a substantial influence on current debates over capitalism. As Charlotte Allen has argued for Minding the Campus, the Manhattan Institute’s website dedicated to reforming higher education, universities have provided the foundation for an attack on the wealthy by creating “inequality studies” departments, encouraging Marxist analysis in many disciplines, and providing an intellectual haven for the opponents of free enterprise. Occupy Wall Street, of course, was a product of the campus: Recall Elizabeth Warren’s famous suggestion that her academic work provided the “intellectual foundation” for the doomed movement. As evidenced by our politicians’ increased reliance on class warfare, the university’s assault on capitalism has successfully changed the trajectory of American politics. It is puzzling that Bawer devotes no time to it.
Bawer instead addresses an equally important consequence of the liberal arts’ decline: the inability of college students to explore the fundamental questions. This is tragic, he argues, because the best thinking is accessible to so many. We have made great strides since the age of Socrates, when only Athenian elites could devote time to thoughtful inquiry. Given our society’s resources, there should be no reason why our young people cannot reap the benefits of an authentic liberal education, “coming to see the world through increasingly sophisticated eyes, and hence experiencing it in a way far richer than one could ever have imagined.” The humanities today, however, are a decidedly unserious pursuit. The victims have destroyed the promise of the liberal arts, perhaps forever.
His final chapter, entitled “Is There Hope?,” is hardly comforting. To reassure his readers he points to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the National Association of Scholars (NAS), two groups that combat the excesses of the university by scrutinizing both curricula and administrative politics. Though they perform an invaluable service, however, they can only resist from the outside. They cannot reform the university’s inner workings. “The ideologues,” Bawer concedes, “have transformed the academy. . . . And there’s no easy route back.”
Bawer’s solutions, moreover, only reinforce the hopelessness of instituting genuine change. He recommends that parents evaluate colleges more carefully and refuse to send their children to schools whose humanities departments have been compromised by postmodernism. He reasons that they will only spend on colleges that are “worth the money.” Washington’s subsidization of higher education through federally-backed student loans, however, means that economic pressures do not affect attendance as much as they should. Parents need not consider whether a given college’s offerings are worth their money, because the federal government supports any major, reality-based or not. This federal cushion renders careful evaluation unnecessary. Moreover, it is unlikely that parents are particularly worried about the state of the liberal arts. Given the perilous state of the economy, they simply want their children to find employment after four years. The existence of queer studies means little to them.
More ambitiously, Bawer suggests creating new academic departments that would restore the older liberal arts tradition. It is highly unlikely that the universities would welcome such a development; recall that in the 1990s Yale rejected a $20 million Western Civilization program it deemed too controversial.
Perhaps recognizing that the universities will resist meaningful reform, Bawer goes one step further and suggests building new liberal arts colleges. There are a number of problems with his proposal. For one, it requires an impossible amount of funding. Additionally, parents and students will almost certainly stay away in favor of the older, name-brand schools. Most critically, though, Bawer’s dream of producing more liberal arts majors fails to grasp the real tragedy of “the victims’ revolution.” The primary value of the liberal arts is not rearing future philosophers, ethicists, and historians, though this is certainly desirable. At its best, the liberal arts empower citizens who choose practical vocations to contemplate their world with heightened appreciation. They ensure that our doctors, businessmen, and engineers possess the critical faculties they need to probe the meaning of their existence and play a constructive role in civic affairs. Bawer has persuasively demonstrated that the humanities have abdicated their obligation. As such, they have earned their irrelevance.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 December 2012, on page 80
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