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Among the Anti-Humanists

Portrait of an English grad student? (katalinks/Shutterstock)

I have been moved, both in anger and in sadness, by the stories some of you have told here about how the academic study of humanities disciplines you once loved — history, English, etc. — drove you out of academia. Last night, one of you wrote a lengthy, detailed account of how the hyper-politicization of the literature field made him drop out of grad school, only to return as a (cynical) student in the hard sciences. He wrote that there was one class in particular, on a subject he passionately loved, but the professor — a leading scholar in the field — taught it according to strict and wildly implausible feminist ideology, which destroyed his passion for it.

(I say “wildly implausible” because the writer sent me links to the work of his professor, and if I told you the topic to which she was applying feminist analysis, you would laugh out loud. It would be like building a whole career on Marxism in the biography of John D. Rockefeller. But that particular scholar’s take is edgy and transgressive, and so … . The letter-writer asked me not to publish his letter or identifying details, because his missive is filled with specifics.)

I can publish this short excerpt without violating confidences:

And all around me, the stories I heard were of how impossible it was to find employment as an academic! So, the picture I came away from my year in [that university] with was 1) that getting a PhD required one to study increasingly mundane peripheral topics, 2) butcher everything interesting in that topic, 3) and be unemployed.

Well. In the humanist magazine The Point, Lisa Ruddick, an English professor at the University of Chicago, publishes a remarkable essay about the death of the spirit in her field. (Thanks to the three different readers who sent it to me.) It begins like this:

In the course of interviewing some seventy graduate students in English for a book on the state of literary criticism, I’ve encountered two types of people who are having trouble adapting to the field. First, there are those who bridle at the left-political conformity of English and who voice complaints familiar from the culture wars. But a second group suffers from a malaise without a name; socialization to the discipline has left them with unaccountable feelings of confusion, inhibition and loss.


I have spoken with many young academics who say that their theoretical training has left them benumbed. After a few years in the profession, they can hardly locate the part of themselves that can be moved by a poem or novel. It is as if their souls have gone into hiding, to await tenure or some other deliverance.

Ruddick cites one academic article as an example of how academics in thrall to theory embrace vicious ideas that destroy our sense of humanity. Judith Halberstam wrote an analysis of The Silence of the Lambs in which Buffalo Bill, the psychotic serial killer, is equally a “hero” because his cutting the skin off of his female victims and wearing it “challenges the . . . misogynist constructions of the humanness, the naturalness, the interiority of gender.”

Halberstam isn’t a nobody. Now calling herself “Jack,” she is a professor of English and director of feminist studies at USC. She expanded her reading of Buffalo Bill into a subsequent book, and the essay itself was honored within the field, Ruddick reports. Ruddick adds:

In place of compassion for the fictional victim, Halberstam offers a heady identification with the “hero” who dismantles the victim to the glory of a field-honored theory about the artificiality of gender. The abstractions trump the human realities: this is the mark of sexy academic thought.

Kill what is human, because it is impure.

Ruddick goes on to write about how the radical ideology controlling literary scholarship denies the existence of the self, condemning it as a constructed artifact of bourgeois thought, and so forth. The examples Ruddick gives are eye-opening to someone like me, who is far outside of academia. These people are Dostoevskian devils. Ruddick surveyed nine years of the prestigious journal of literary criticism ELH: English Literary History, to test her sense that literary scholarship has suppressed the sense of the authentically human.

She found what she was looking for. I’m not sure she can give an adequate account of why things are as perverse and nihilistic as they are, but the piece she wrote is still a startling piece of work. In her study, over and over, Ruddick found that what most people would consider the normal idea of something as basic as the self, and boundaries of the self, is treated with radical suspicion, even contempt:

Yet there is a near silence as to whether there exist any positive, beneficial forms of self-organization, individuality, inwardness, or self-boundaries. The stigma of “humanism” has made these ideals look retrograde. Those pieces in ELH that do speak affirmatively about inwardness tend to take a muted, historicist approach. I think, for example, of a lovely article about the Quaker “inner light,” which, alas, views the latter as an effect of “early modern masculinity,” something contemporary academics would hardly identify with. By contrast, those who think little of interiority can reject this concept outright, with decades of theoretical opinion behind them. They can say, for example, without spending time defending their views, that “the truth of inner life” is a construct of “enlightenment thinking about selfhood” and an extension of “humanist” and “Christian” ideology.


Our profession’s devaluation of selfhood, passed from one generation to the next, softens members up for the demands the profession makes on their own selves. If it is “bourgeois” to care about your identity and your boundaries, perhaps you might throw your own identity and boundaries on the altar of your career. I am struck, too, by the fact that current scholarship reflects a strong bias toward noncommittal sex. Our journals offer scant encouragement either for communion with oneself or for abiding connection to a partner—both experiences that could offer leverage against the encompassing group.

… I am aware of possibly sounding like a tub-thumper for monogamy. But the profession’s cynical attitude toward love is just one small aspect of its drive to flatten anything (except politics) that might nourish a human being with its aliveness. Our journals subtly discourage readers from believing that the world offers them a range of “integral objects”—a term the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas uses to describe any entity or experience whose unique form and vitality enrich our inner world.

It is telling that even in an essay like this. Prof. Ruddick anticipates that her mild, restrained criticism of what the academy does to the idea of ordinary human romantic love might get her hauled into the dock as a monogamist.

Ruddick goes on to talk about how “a small subset of work in ELH glamorizes cruelty in the name of radical politics.” She cites an essay about the work of Henry James, one in which the language of theory euphemizes what its author seems to be calling for: the acceptance of pedophilia. Ruddick writes:

One wonders who really believes in this kind of thinking. (And I would hardly assume that the author himself inhabits, for purposes of real life, the values here expressed.) But when the author’s book-length treatment of the same ideas appeared, even more explicit in its brief against the criminalization of pedophilia, colleagues did not criticize it in print. The book was evidently a hot potato, as it went virtually untouched by reviewers, pro or con. What would be so bad about saying that something is wrong here?

Indeed. Ruddick concludes by saying that young people trained in English scholarship learn to censor any thoughts or sensitivity within themselves that might get them denounced as “conservative” and “moralistic,” and affect their professional advancement.

“We do not teach our recruits any of the contemplative practices that might help them to keep their self-compassion intact in the face of such an abasement of self,” Ruddick laments. To save the academic study of literature, she says, scholars will have to discover the courage to be uncool.

The Russian novelist Evgeny Vodolazkin says that when he was a kid, Soviet ideology was so soul-crushingly dull and lifeless that he escaped it by reading Old Russian books — tales of the Middle Ages. There was life in those texts, despite what the ideologues insisted. The commissars on the humanities faculties can kill these books for many of those young people who come to them asking for bread, but who only get stones. But there will always, I think, be some people who love the tradition, who love life, and literature, and who are keeping the flame burning. We have got to help them. We have got to be those people. A friend of mine who is in academic publishing read my Dante book, and speculated that the reason so few reviewers and others in the mainstream media knew what to do with it is not so much the Christian content, but the fact that somebody actually turned to a work of great literature looking for solutions to his problems, and worse, actually found them in its pages. Having read the Ruddick column, I have a better idea of what he meant by that.

Anyway, read the whole Ruddick piece, and share it with your friends. It’s important.

Is it like this in other humanities disciplines, or is English a special case? I put the question to you readers who are in the academy. I have to tell you, to the extent that Ruddick’s take exemplifies the state of humanities scholarship, it deserves to die, and to be ruled a suicide.

Couple of thoughts from me. What happens in the academy doesn’t stay in the academy. Ruddick’s point about the fixation of English literary scholarship on “the thrill of destruction” — especially the destruction of anything that seems “normal,” even the self — is applicable to a significant degree to popular culture. This is especially true in the area of gender and sexuality. We find ourselves at a point where many people will watch this short video and — well, watch it first:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MbiAHnjHlHg?rel=0]

The short video is about a middle-aged Canadian man with a lumberjack build who decides that he is actually female, then leaves his wife and children to take up life as, get this, a six-year-old girl. I’m not kidding. He speaks tenderly about the elderly couple who has “adopted” him, and who serve as his “Mummy and Daddy,” and how he plays with their grandchild. This video was produced not as an audition for the Jerry Springer Show, but as part of the Transgender Project, an undertaking funded by the Canadian government as an attempt to normalize behavior like this.

Like that of a 6’2″ man in his early 50s who decides that he is really a six-year-old girl, and expects the world to treat him this way. “I’ve gone back to being a child,” he says. “I don’t want to be an adult now.”

The man, called Stefoknee Wolscht, has gone missing this week, by the way, and police are looking for him. At the very end of the video clip, which is designed to portray him as happy and healthy, Wolscht lets slip that he’s had to be on psychiatric medication, and has had suicidal thoughts. If, God forbid, he turns up dead, I’m sure the usual suspects will blame society.

Back in 2007, which seems like an eon ago in this context, the libertarian thinker Will Wilkinson, contemplating the resistance of voters to gay marriage, said that liberals should not back away from their support for it, but instead should adopt a quasi-religious approach to fighting for their beliefs. Excerpt below; emphases mine:

Religious doctrine and religious feeling can and have been trimmed and shaped over time to accommodate the full plurality of liberal society. Illiberal patterns of feeling bolstered by religious sentiments, like disgust for homosexuality, can be broken through slow desensitization, or a shift in the way the culture recruits that dimension of the moral sense. In dynamic commercial societies, this happens whether we want it to or not. But we have something to say about how it happens. The culture war is worth fighting, one episode of Will & Grace at a time, if that’s what it takes.

Liberals must understand the profundity to others of feelings that are weak in them, but shouldn’t pretend to feel what they don’t. They can lead as well as follow. And it remains true that all Americans, conservative and liberal alike, are wide awake to the liberal emotional dimensions of harm and reciprocity. The American culture war is about how thoroughly the liberal sentiments will be allowed to dominate. If a thoroughly liberal society is worth having, liberals will have to spot the points of conflict between the liberal and illiberal dimensions of the moral sense, drive in the wedge, and pull out all the rhetorical stops—including playing on feelings of quasi-religious elevation and indignant moral disgust—to make Americans feel the moral primacy of harm, autonomy, and rights. When the pattern of feeling is in place, the argument is easy to accept.

Brilliant. The culture within English studies that Lisa Ruddick describes is an Orwellian orthodoxy that intentionally renders it impossible to think ordinary human thoughts, which the guardians of orthodoxy find impure. No wonder the souls of young literary scholars are dead or dying. But the same kind of radical proscriptiveness has emerged solidly in the popular culture around issues of sexuality and gender. LGBT activists and their fellow travelers in academia, media, law, and business, began to succeed when they “drove in the wedge” and “pulled out all the moral stops” to demonize dissent. And indeed, when the pattern of feeling was in place, the argument was easy to accept.

In short, the cultural left waged an essentially religious war, and are still doing it, and will not stop doing it until all heretics are silenced or otherwise crushed. This is not primarily about logic and argument, but about feelings, which come prior to logic and argument. We are slowly being desensitized to all sense of normality, as a precursor to destroying any thoughts, practices, customs, and institutions that stand in the way of the Choosing Self.

This is happening. And, as Wilkinson says, apparently with approval, this happens in “dynamic commercial societies,” whether we want it to or not. Unless you consciously resist, you are going to be compromised without even being aware of it. Whether people want to sell you a product, a service, a practice, an identity, or a lifestyle, the ultimate goal is to dismantle the normal human sense of right and wrong to get you to let down your guard and open the city gates to the barbarians in the dead of night.

Finally, I want to draw your attention to a line of Ruddick’s that she mentions almost in passing, about future literary scholars:

We do not teach our recruits any of the contemplative practices that might help them to keep their self-compassion intact in the face of such an abasement of self.

Think about that: a veteran literary scholar laments that professionals in her field don’t teach student apprentices how to stay humane (or, I would say, sane) in the course of doing their work. It’s as if they were training to analyze and teach literature, but to investigate child porn or torture animals.

The humanities. The anti-humanities.

You know how I feel about Donald Trump, and it’s not favorable, but let me say this: In a world gone as insane as our own, it ought not surprise us that to a lot of ordinary people, Trump is far from the craziest person on the public stage. I think he’s a dangerous man, but very far from the most dangerous man, or woman, in America. The thing about Trump is he’s willing to be uncool — and people like that about him.

There is power in not giving a rat’s rear end what people think. It can be used for ill, or it can be used for good. In the case of the humanities, it’s the only thing that will save them. And not just the humanities.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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