Reader NS, a humanities undergraduate at an Ivy League university (I’ve corresponded with him; he’s legit), is having a Samson moment:
I’ve become increasingly convinced that the humanities will only be saved if they are withdrawn from the academy. Despite being a lover of the humanities myself and current humanities major and so invested in the opposite, I know this to be true. In fact, it is because I am currently involved with the institutionalized humanities that I know their salvation must lie outside of the academy. Why? Because the academy is anti-humanist. With very few exceptions, professors do not approach the humanities from a place of wonder and love, hoping to reflect on their lives and respond to the burning of existence through the contemplation of these works. Words like “wonder”, “love”, “genius”, “brilliant”, “hope”, “nature”, “human”, and above all else, “Truth” are entirely absent. To bring up any of them is to be anathema to the entire edifice. It is to invite quizzical glances and derision. It is to be dismissed upon the basis of Foucault and Queer Theory, to be condescended and seen as alien. Indeed, I have had a professor say “We should just assume that Queer Theory has done away with gender.” The worst part about it is that the “queering of soybeans” isn’t even the problem.
Let me re-phrase, it’s only part of the problem in that it is the end result of an even bigger problem. The real problem is that the humanities are approached absolutely devoid of any notion that what is being written about and discussed in these texts has any connection to human life as it is lived. Any insight into human life is routinely delegitimized as “universal psychologizing”, a declaration that has been foisted upon me numerous times when I have attempted to speak about something called Truth. The origins of this lie in the attempt by literary critics to transport the objective methodology of science into their profession in the 60s and 70s. In the pursuit of this they foist texts onto the operating tables and cut them open, peer inside them to dispel any mystery, and then throw them off the table without having the decency to sew them up. It’s all about breaking. I hear this verb used constantly along with others indicating destruction. Works of art are meant to be broken open, their binaries shattered, their hierarchies deconstructed. In pursuit of this they make a mockery of the English language, routinely making up words such as “regendered”, “performativity”, and “plurivocity”. In due course, notions such as “emotional resonance” and the imagination were ruthlessly ejected. This is logical from their standpoint. How to establish a science of literary criticism if one is constantly interjecting unquantifiable phenomena such as emotion and imagination? And so after gouging emotion and imagination out of the endeavor, what was left was the feeble, useless process of cutting up language this way and that.
This, however, was not the end. The attempt at turning the study of literature into a science occurred simultaneously with the political excesses of the 60s and so the academy and its method of teaching literature became ruthlessly politicized, further despoiling it. The relativisms of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud joined the fray and so the non-existence, indeed the impossibility, of Truth was added to the this already ravaged picture producing the toxic hybrid of a science without objectivity. And so now their is a totally impoverished methodology married to absolute purposelessness. This is the state of the humanities. This is what allows the queering of soybeans to be a legitimate topic of debate.
The critical side effect of this was the transformation of the professoriate into a priestly caste. They believed that understanding literature was their provenance and theirs alone because it could be only understood adequately through the language and methodologies they had developed. Their logic went like this: one could only understand a text through deconstruction (or some other incarnation of theory. Eve Sedgwick has said that no part of Western civilization can be understood without exploring homosexuality) and so only professors of literature who had read Derrida and de Man and had practiced deconstruction truly understood literature. And thus a priestly caste was formed. Of course, like any priestly caste, it is concerned not with Truth but with the preservation of their status and so they privilege obsfucation over Truth in order to maintain the illusion that they are experts.
It is all so discouraging. One walks into literature classes expecting to discuss the great questions of human life and instead you are reduced to speaking about “disability studies” and Foucault and “narrativity”, engaging in pedantic close readings intended to destabilize meaning.
So, I say, carry on Gov. Jindal and Walker and defund the humanities. Gut them. Let the anti-humanists destroy one another.
Only then can we rebuild.
Man. That’s something. Whatever you think of the prospect of Jindal et alia defunding the humanities, it’s criminal how these cultural Marxists have eviscerated his sense of wonder.
UPDATE: Reader JB writes from Paris with encouraging news:
Can I just interject here and say that “French Theory” is an American creation and that it doesn’t exist in France? In fact, the French term for “French Theory” is “French Theory” (often misspelled as “french theory” because of the majuscule/miniscule thingy in French grammar. whatever.): it’s not translated as “la théorie française”, because it is recognized as this foreign thing done in them thar parts based on thinkers from these parts. Foucault is great, and so was Deleuze, and Derrida and even Badiou, etc., etc. But philosophers and literary types in France don’t get all, I dunno, Jim Jones-like and start drinking the post-modern kool-aid like they do in the American university Department of “fill in the blank” Studies.
I think the non-debilitation of philosophy – and the humanities, for that matter – in France is to be attributed to the way in which philosophers are schooled and culled from the ranks starting in high school. Schools have a very dry, scholastic and teaching-for-testing kind of pedagogy, but at the same time it is very demanding and very rigorous. All French high school students have to sit and take the Baccalauréat towards the end of high school, and part of that multiple-day test is the section on philosophy – no multiple choice questions, you have to write well-thought out essays in good, correct, French. And high school students are not studying and writing about some random fool from god-knows-where: they write dissertations on texts taken from Bergson, or Pascal or Descartes, or Aristotle. Dead White Males, mostly.
That’s what practically every 17/18 year old does.
As for those who take a liking to philosophy and strive to maybe teach it one day, well this tiny fraction of the French high school population goes on to either university or they go for two years prepping & cramming for the entrance exam to the breeding ground of philosophy professors in France, Ecole Normale Supérieure. These kids are not reading fools – and if they do read fools, they’re reading heavy fools like Badiou, Althusser, Marx who have/had incisive minds despite being fools. This tiny fraction of the student population who are prepping and cramming have had a good 5 to 8 years of reading some pretty heavy stuff. Note: the French Theory Usual Suspects (Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, etc.) are treated as great philosophers on par with great philosophers who preceeded them. Philosophy doesn’t begin and end with them. They are but some figures in a long line of other great figures stretching back to beyond Socrates.
Now, we’re not even done yet seperating the wheat from the chaff in this drawn-out selection process that produces France’s philosophy professors. So, there is that tiny fraction of crammers & test-takers that passed to get into Normale Sup, rue d’Ulm. There are also students elsewhere in the universities who can also aspire and hope to be a professor someday but being from Normale Sup’ is the royal route which makes things alot easier for those who get in. The absolute must for becoming a philosphy professor is passing l’Agrégation. This is just the bomb when it comes to selective exams. You got to be sick to want to do this. You are sick if you want to do this. I spent a year studying Spinoza, Plotinus but I dropped out of it because I couldn’t do Fichte. I just hit the prosaic wall, I guess. The average age of the other students who blew right by me onwards to eventually sit for the Agregation exam must’ve been about 24 or 25. Most could read either Latin or Greek or both. They could all certainly read both German and English.
Those few (10%?) who pass the Agrégation will go on to do doctoral studies and write a PhD thesis, likely under the direction of a professor who went to Ecole Normale Supérieure. Once submitted, they will also sit and defend their 400 page thesis for five hours before a jury. Five hours. In the UK, they orally defend their philosophy theses for 1 hour. Hah! Peanuts!
And, once they are qualified to apply for positions as associate professor – because it isn’t just any old fool who can apply for the position of philosophy professor at university – you have to have permission from the corporation of philosophy professors to do so – they’ll then go for their “second thesis” which habilitates them to become research/PhD directors. And sit and defend their work before a jury for about 3 hours.
All along this process, assume that such persons converse and “spar” intellectually with friends and colleagues who’ve gone through the same, grueling, 20 year process of producing philosophy professors.
They may be disproportionately “liberal/leftist”, they may have cut themselves off from the “real world” after so many years reading, cramming and dwelling in theory, but these people have sharp, sharp minds. All they’ve known throughout their lives is that the bar is raised real high in terms of intellectual rigor. All this tomfoolery of post-modern philosophers & literary/cultural critics one hears about in the US – I really don’t know about this stuff because it doesn’t penetrate the intellectual shell that the French reproduce for themselves over and over again. One hears of some things, some times – the big names, I guess. But how could such idiocy not be spotted and called out by people who’ve spent their whole life cutting down and criticizing ideas from deep thinkers? Overall, France is preserved from such nonsense. Its rigorous selection process of selecting philosophy professors, which must be a centuries-old tradition, preserves itself from the kind of decadence that may be affecting US academia. The humanities are not consubstantial, to paraphrase Maritain, with the humanities professorship in American universities. Maybe its time for Americans to read the humanities in other languages – French, German, Italian, Latin, Greek. The Humanities tradition is a living thing. It’s actually doing okay – from my perspective, I’m noticing an uptick in interest in Camus – hooray! The humanities in the West will live long beyond some Random Fool College in the USA drops its Department of Irony and Snickering Studies.
Reader Richao worries about where to send his kid to college:
As a parent on a high school student, I find myself able to think of little else besides the state of higher education in contemporary America. As a cultural conservative with a profound love of the ideal of a liberal education, I find myself increasingly dismayed as we look at schools with reputations for academic excellence only to realize that neither the faculty nor the administration has no idea what a humanistic education should be, and that they are utterly agnostic as to how students are formed during their four years on campus (as long as any “formation” is consensual! and safe!). But as others point out, the rot goes much deeper, as the educational mission is subordinated to bureaucratic and economic and athletic objectives. In my more pessimistic moments (say, after reading “College Unbound,” written by an author largely sympathetic to the universities), I find myself thinking that the entire system of higher education in this country is utterly corrupt and beyond saving.
Fortunately, we were able to find a gem of a high school for our child that puts the kids through a rigorous four-year program of reading and discussing and writing about original texts. The humanities curriculum is structured as a daily seminar, focused on discussion in which the teachers demand close attention to the text of the readings and on essays that are not responsive but analytical. Our child is already a more perceptive reader than either of her parents.
Here’s the problem: Our child has fallen in love with the ancient Greeks and will almost certainly pursue a degree in classics or a related field in literature or history. This education has provided the tools for critical assessment while also opening our child to wonder and admiration for the beautiful. The last thing we as parents want to do is to send our child to a program that will quench that wonder, that openness to truth and beauty, under layer after layer of political critique and anachronistic judgment. I see the results all too frequently among my younger acquaintances: A jadedness, an inability to respond to the beautiful, an attitude of suspicion toward anything outside fairly narrow horizons, a quickness to critique and dismiss without even making an attempt to understand (because categorization apparently substitutes for understanding). In our circles, these people have all gone to stellar schools. Oh, and it’s not an ideological phenomenon; we see different valences of the same fundamental attitude across the political spectrum.
I have no idea what we’re going to do. Some friends suggest that in the current environment for college grads, it’s foolish to allow a child pursuing a humanities degree unless he or she is attending one of our elite schools, because even if the education is worthless, the credential is not. My current inclination is that I’m not keen on encouraging our child in playing that game, as the obsession with credential, prestige, and economic outcome just contributes to the rot and the decay, that the wise option is to urge our child to attend a school – if we can find one – that will continue to nurture this desire for beauty and knowledge and perhaps even wisdom and that will actually teach her how to think and write, even if not particularly prestigious. A variation on the Benedict option, I suppose – even at the cost of missed opportunities to hobnob with the future elite.