June 5, 2008

In Defense of “Studies”

By: Phoebe Maltz

Conservative students today — in college as well as high school — find themselves in much the same situation as elementary school kids whose parents take their children’s side whenever there’s a conflict with a teacher. Accustomed to reading journalistic indictments of the current state of academia, right-wing students come to class expecting the worst and are predisposed to dismiss professors altogether the moment they hear the words “gender,” “Foucault,” or “studies.” And when a right-wing student finds himself rolling his eyes when assigned a paper on colonization’s impact on women of color, he can easily find articles by well-respected commentators denouncing broad swaths of academia, with no mention of any of the undergraduate experience being worthwhile. These critiques lack the rigor of even middling academic articles, and have the effect of biasing students with conservative impulses against recent scholarship. It’s all nonsense anyway, right?


Maybe not, as can be seen in situations like the one that recently unfolded at Dartmouth, in which a prof’s unchecked political correctness met with undergrads’ unfettered confidence in their professor being a fool with nothing to teach them. To sum up what is now yesterday’s news, a lecturer named Priya Venkatesan threatened to sue her class at Dartmouth for their resistance to her ideas about postmodernism and the patriarchy — and, failing that, to write a tell-all book about the students in question.


Venkatesan’s behavior was, predictably enough, used as fodder for several conservative denunciations of academia. National Review Online’s higher education blog, Phi Beta Cons, took the bait, as did the Wall Street Journal’s Joseph Rago. Rago points out some of the sillier aspects of the affair, including Venkatesan’s claim “that some of her students were so unreceptive of ‘French narrative theory’ that it amounted to a hostile working environment” as well as her belief that (presumably all) scientific findings are mere social constructs. He then proceeds to praise the students for their “Counter-Revolution” against the offending prof. All of this seems to be true, but it’s also worth noting that these students did not merely challenge their instructor’s ideas, but, according to some accounts, heckled her, with other students applauding the hecklers. As Gawker points out, it’s one of those stories in which no one comes out looking good.


The conflict between politically-correct instructors and self-righteously rebellious students is not limited to the university level. Recently at New York City prep school Horace Mann, high school students — with the tacit support of their parents — rebelled against political correctness by forming a “Men’s Issues Club” on Facebook. These students’ defense of traditional values consisted of crude insults about female teachers’ looks and an ALL-CAPS DEMAND that women stay in the kitchen.

It’s a shame that to see young conservatives spouting this sort of risible idiocy, as though insulting authority figures and sexist sloganeering are somehow in keeping with conservative mores. It des appears the students had some legitimate grievances: There is nothing wrong with “challeng[ing]” an instructor’s “focus on liberal politics and civil rights,” nor with“proposing to write [a] class research project on plagiarism in Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches.” Ideally such behavior should not be considered out of line (and something needs to be done if it is). But the line between justified speaking-out and and genuinely obnoxious behavior is simply not that hard to draw, and it appears that at both Horace Mann and Dartmouth, the line has been crossed. Both incidents suggest the core problem with conservative criticism of academia: its insistence that higher ed today is plagued by absurdity, which implicitly asks students with a right-wing or contrarian bent not to take school seriously.


There are two main components to the critique. The first is apocalyptic: Everything is wrong with academia today. The second is partisan: Everything wrong with academia is the fault of the left.

To the first point, consider The New Criterion’s May issue, which, according to editor Roger Kimball, sets out to“provide a series of pathologist’s reports on contemporary liberal arts education in an age when traditional ideas about the civilizing nature and goals of education no longer enjoy widespread allegiance,” thus setting the reader up for what will be an all-out denunciation, not a nuanced and negative-when-necessary analysis.

As for the second idea, well, when Heather MacDonald links campus sex workshops to date rape, the idea that the two are related isn’t entirely convincing, but she at least makes the case that loose sexual mores are a left-wing idea. When George Leef blames grade inflation on “the political Left,” though, it’s too easy to be reminded of the “Seinfeld” in which George Costanza blames Astroturf on the Jews. Campus silliness abounds on the left and the right, but for the most part, it’s apolitical. It is hard to picture finding too many fans of Venkatesan’s behavior in even the most left-wing of academic circles.


Next, the phrase “conservative identity politics” illustrates the paradox of any right-wing critique of academia. Conservative discussions of higher ed bring out language one would expect from the left. Calls for reform and diversity (at times verging on demands for affirmative action) join forces with words of praise for the brave youth who stand up to the establishment. It is thus difficult for conservatives to complain about poor representation without coming across as hypocrites.

The critics’ real flaw, however, is their unwillingness to learn about the very subject they purport to criticize. Too often, right-wing take-downs of academia seem to consist of little more than drawing up lists of all the programs whose names include the word “studies,” because it is apparently a given that such programs are both left-wing and pointless. In an otherwise sensible 2007 City Journal article noting the dangers of race-segregated college graduations, John Leo mixed up those ceremonies with those held by women’s studies and Chicana/Chicano studies, placing all under the umbrella of “identity-group graduations,” as though these “studies” departments were identity clubs rather than academic departments. Victor Davis Hanson’s 2007 piece in The Americanendorsed by George Leef on the Phi Beta Cons blog,argues that “our youth for a generation have been fed a ‘Studies’ curriculum. Fill in the blanks: Women’s Studies, Gay Studies, Environmental Studies, Peace Studies, Chicano Studies, Film Studies, and so on. These courses aim to indoctrinate students about perceived pathologies in contemporary American culture — specifically, race, class, gender, and environmental oppression.” A search for the word “studies” on Phi Beta Cons reveals endless mockery of everything that anyone anywhere in academia has ever studied in a department with “studies” in its name.


Here, I feel obligated to demystify what “studies” is all about, seeing as I’m a doctoral student in a French Studies program. “Studies” means, in simple terms, interdisciplinary. The term refers to the possibility of writing a paper that is, say, part historical and part literary, looking at a wide range of source types to answer a question. In fact, it’s a lot like the University of Chicago’s “Fundamentals” major, but with a less right-wing-friendly name. If conservative commentators could see the names of the people my classmates and I study, they would be amazed to find the number of Dead White Men (Balzac! Diderot! Montesquieu!) on our reading lists. But no, one mention of “studies” and it’s clear that we all stand in a circle, hold hands, and ponder gender identity in the banlieues, using rap music and teen fashion as our primary resources.


There is nothing inherently political about French studies, and the same is true about women’s or African studies. One can approach these fields from the left, the right, or even — hard to believe — apolitically. There is no reason to ignore half of humanity, nor an entire continent, when examining the human condition. That we associate “studies” programs with the left has more to do with the fact that humanities departments tend to be left-wing than it does with anything particular to area studies.

It is almost impossible to imagine what a constructive conservative approach to academia would look like. For one thing, the incoherent makeup of the conservative coalition quickly becomes problematic. Coalitions such as the one between left-except-on-Israel American Jews and evangelical Protestants, for example, might work in high politics, but they’re bound to fail in the dorms.

Furthermore, when conservatives ask for a return to academia as it once was, when was the Golden Age in question? Nostalgia for what once was greatly exceeds articulation of what exactly was once the case and demands reinstatement. Kimball is on the right track when he notes, “Criticism, satire, and ridicule all have an important role to play, but the point is that such criticism, to be successful, depends upon possessing an alternative vision of the good.” What might this vision consist of? “We all know, well enough, what a good liberal education looks like, just as we all know, well enough, what makes for a healthy society. It really isn’t that complicated… What it does require is patience, candidness, and courage, moral virtues that are in short supply wherever political correctness reigns triumphant.” So… something not like what exists today. That much was clear all along. Yet the question remains: What, exactly, is this fantasy curriculum? Is it whatever we’ve got today, minus Things Fall Apart and everything by Toni Morrison?


And then there is the question of the student body: Must a curriculum that celebrates the West and accepts that men have written most of the worthwhile books be matched with a white, Christian, and male student body? Because traditionally, at elite institutions, the two went hand in hand. Studying the Western canon was no less studying one’s own culture at the Ivies in the 1950s than majoring in Africana Studies as a black student is today.

Right-wing critiques of higher ed must explain what is of universal value in the classics, and not rely on a knee-jerk audience that sneers at the mention of any book by or about queer Latinas. The critiques must also display some minimum of understanding of what does go on in academia. Not everything that sounds like babble from the outside appears as such once you’ve spent five minutes reading about it. Maybe there’s something there, but if there isn’t, critics should be able to articulate the particulars of the problem rather than simply spout buzzwords and mockery.

Indeed, this approach has diminished the power of the critique. From the perspective of academics across the political spectrum, the standard right-wing critique is not merely wrong but inconsequential. When conservative commentary exists in large part to mock academia, it’s no wonder grad students and profs hit the journals, the stacks, and the archives — but not the National Review.

If I am pessimistic about a more productive conservative approach to academia coming any time soon, it is because conservative critics implicitly insist that it is unnecessary to defend Western values in clear terms or admit the limits of its canon. To do so would be to capitulate to the left’s relativistic demands.

Yet the balance of academic power remains tilted toward the left, which means that conservatives must learn to speak the language of academia. Until the demand for a dialogue exceeds the urge to scoff at the other side, it’s likely that everyone will continue to talk past one another, and classrooms like those at Dartmouth and Horace Mann will become the norm.

Phoebe Maltz is a student in New York University’s joint doctoral program in French and French Studies. She blogs at whatwouldphoebedo.blogspot.com.