In our March issue, we reported in this space on some for-credit courses on offer at the University of California at Berkeley. There was a course in Blackjack, for students who hadn’t yet learned how to handle cards, and “Copwatch,” an important scholarly offering that, according to one description, advises students “how to safely and effectively assert their rights when interacting with the police.” The pièce de résistance, however, was a women’s studies course in male sexuality in which students visited strip clubs, wrote papers about their sexual fantasies, and watched an instructor having sex.
Well, that was March. When the story about the sex class made the national headlines, embarrassed university officials closed down the course, or at least changed its name. Now Berkeley is back with another educational opportunity. In their on-line catalogue for fall 2002, one finds a class—in the English department, no less—called “The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance.” Here is the original course description for the class:
Since the inception of the Intifada in September of 2000, Palestinians have been fighting for their right to exist. The brutal Israeli military occupation of Palestine, an occupation that has been ongoing since 1948, has systematically displaced, killed, and maimed millions of Palestinian people. And yet, from under the brutal weight of the occupation, Palestinians have produced their own culture and poetry of resistance. This class will examine the history of the Palestinian resistance and the way that it is narrated by Palestinians in order to produce an understanding of the Intifada and to develop a coherent political analysis of the situation. This class takes as its starting point the right of Palestinians to fight for their own self-determination. Conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections.
Nice stuff, no? What’s such a blatant exercise in political incitement doing under the rubric of English? Well might you ask. You might also ask why gross historical falsehoods are allowed to stand in an official course description at one of America’s premier universities. But perhaps the most outrageous thing in this specimen of partisan politics masquerading as academic study is the closing advisory: No conservatives need apply. We all know that “diversity” is the mantra of the month in American higher education. And here we have a splendid example of exactly what academics mean when they celebrate diversity: they mean they will defend to the death your right to think Left—to think, that is, exactly as they do.
When news of this course made the national press, Berkeley administrators once again went into apologetic overdrive, mumbling about a “failure of oversight” and dispensing a few clichés about the importance of “controversy” and keeping the classroom free from “indoctrination.” For its part, the English department excised from the course description the concluding sentence advising conservatives to go elsewhere but otherwise left that noxious piece of political propaganda intact. Snehal Shingavi, the teacher responsible for “The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance,” explained in an interview that by “conservative thinkers” he did not really mean, well, conservative thinkers but rather thinkers whose views were “limited or narrow in scope.” Right. And when we call Mr. Pickwick “a humbug,” we mean it not in the ordinary sense of the word, but in the exalted Pickwickian sense.
In some ways, Mr. Shingavi’s response to his critics was even more disturbing than his advertised effort to discriminate against students who did not share his political views. Explaining why he wished to exclude “conservative thinkers,” he said, “If you can’t accept that Palestinians have the right to self-determination, it is impossible to read resistance poetry.” Really? By that logic you would have to be an English royalist to read Dryden, a conservative Catholic to read Dante, a radical Puritan to read Milton. It used to be that one read literature to broaden one’s horizons. At Berkeley, it seems, one reads literature to reinforce one’s political loyalties.
Officials at Berkeley doubtless hope that by removing the explicit prohibition against students with conservative views they will silence their critics. And perhaps they will. But the problem with “The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance” was not just its exclusion of students with conservative politics: the problem is rather its blatant injection of politics into the humanities curriculum. It doesn’t matter whether Mr. Shingavi allows conservative students into his political rally; he shouldn’t be allowed to peddle that rally as a college English class.
In fact, though, politics is the name of the game in humanities courses at Berkeley, as it is at so many American colleges and universities. The politics does not always sound as if it were scripted by Hamas. There’s plenty of feminist, anti-American, anti-Western politics, too. When you’re done screaming about Israel, you can beat up on Britain in “Revisions of Empire,” which deals with the “British empire in the nineteenth-century, and the legacy of the violence of imperialism.” (What about the good things British imperialism brought—civilization, literacy, the rule of law, improved hygiene, education, technology, and the end to barbaric customs like suttee? Somehow we rather doubt this class will dwell on that side of the story.) You can also take time out to indulge in some feminist histrionics in “female subjects: an exploration of harm” (lower-case in the original), by reading “coming-of-age stories scored by sexual violence, racked [sic] by the dictates of beauty, scarred by what it takes to become ‘American feminine.’” And you won’t want to miss “US Prison Narratives,” in which you can sift through “the way captive narration interrogates liberal tenants [sic] such as ‘progress,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘democracy’”—note the scare quotes—and ponder questions like “What is ‘crime’ in the US context… ?” and “What institutional apparatuses inform America’s current status as the most incarcerating nation in the history of humankind?”
This list could easily be extended. And it could easily be broadened with kindred offerings from other departments. But why go on? The University of California at Berkeley is one of the most glittering jewels in the diadem of American higher education. Its wholesale embrace of the pomo, left-wing, antinomian agenda is a scandal and a disgrace.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 10, on page 2
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