Home/Rod Dreher/How To Dance In Chains

How To Dance In Chains

A reader who teaches at the University of California San Diego e-mailed with some background information on the school’s requirement that applicants for teaching positions there fill out a diversity plan. Says the reader:

These situations are often portrayed by outside media and bloggers as a result of militant leftist SJW faculty, and there are some of those here, but from my inside perspective, the big diversity push comes almost entirely from the administration. Most of my colleagues are ambivalent about “contributions to diversity” as a category for hiring and promotion.

Despite the official statements, it’s research that gets people hired and promoted at UCSD, and that will continue to be the case while giving teaching and contributions to diversity their due lip-service.

In fact, administrators aren’t really driving the diversity bandwagon — it’s state politics. The reason certain ethnic and racial groups are underrepresented among UC students is that they don’t meet the academic qualifications for admission, or they have lower high school GPAs and test scores than other ethnic and racial groups and thus are not admitted to
the more competitive UC campuses. But no one can voice this truth in public — the politicians refuse to hear it. It’s easier to blame racism at UC than to fix K-12 education in California (if that were even possible). I don’t doubt there are some true believers among the faculty, but I expect many see “contributions to diversity” as an obligatory charade. Probably the most common view is that it is well-intended but unlikely to accomplish much.

Here’s a specific example of how outside politics drives what happens inside the university. Back in 2010, some students at UCSD held an off-campus party that engaged in racial stereotyping (google “Compton cookout”). A mature response would have been to deplore the conduct of the students but note that the party had no connection to UCSD and that UCSD
as a public institution could not discipline the students for their speech — but a mature response was impossible. The event made a big splash in the media, and politicians flew down from Sacramento to hold grandstanding press conferences excoriating UCSD for its racism. Considering that the
state had imposed a 20% budget cut on the university only a year earlier, UCSD was under great pressure to immediately pacify the activists and politicians.  So a high-level and highly-paid diversity administrator was quickly hired, and the diversity apparatus has grown into every nook and cranny since that time.

That’s really interesting, and plausible.

I also heard from a reader on staff at a university who doesn’t want to be quoted directly. I’ll paraphrase what s/he said, because I think it’s an interesting analysis:

The reader hypothesized that these ever more strict, even radical, diversity requirements imposed on colleges are in fact an attempt to resolve the differences between reality and what elites prefer to believe is reality. It’s like this (according to the reader): if we have failed to achieve complete racial parity in higher education, it can only be because of the persistence of racism, because otherwise elites would have to abandon their belief that everyone is equal in belief and culture. So, if these new diversity efforts fail, the accusations of racism and bigotry will only get more shrill and uncompromising.

The reader suggested that identity politics is not an attempt to destroy our political system and society, but rather is an attempt to resolve conflicts that are impossible to resolve. The reader says: “We’re in a trap, and I don’t see a way out.”

This kind of thing happened a lot in newspaper journalism when I worked there. Within professional associations, there was (and I imagine still is) constant anxiety over the relative lack of black and Hispanic journalists. There were national industry task forces to increase the presence of blacks and Hispanics in newsrooms, and much wailing and gnashing of teeth when year after year, the industry would fail to hit its goal.

The answer (as far as newsroom leaders were concerned) could not be that not enough black and Hispanic people studied journalism in college, or were interested in journalism as a profession. The answer could only be racism and exclusion. Believe me, there was no corresponding anxiety over the even greater lack of conservatives or religious believers in newsrooms. That was not a problem to the people who run newsrooms. Some people are more diverse than others.

Talented black and Hispanic journalists were valued in extremis, understandably, and rose quickly within newsrooms. But there weren’t nearly enough of them to go around to fill these self-imposed diversity quotas. It reached the point where the quality of the journalism newspapers produced didn’t matter as much as whether or not our newsrooms fit into a utopian egalitarian scheme. It was such a weird thing to observe as someone working in daily journalism from 2003-2010, an era when newspapers collapsed under pressure from the Internet. It was like watching stewards on the Titanic rushing around to make sure dining room seats on the sinking ship were diversely allocated.

I get the idea that the same kind of thing is happening in academia now, especially in the humanities, both for reasons internal to academia, and, as the UCSD reader says, for reasons external to it.

Here’s an essay from the Harvard Crimson by Philip Balson, a Harvard student worried that the university is turning itself into a trade school. There’s a lot to think about here. Excerpts:

Last week, one of Harvard’s numerous high-level committees released another report. For those who habitually delete emails from [email protected], the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging came out with final recommendations. Snappily entitled “Pursuing Excellence on a Foundation of Inclusion,” the report consists of almost 80 brightly colored pages and contains eight recommendations. One of those eight, which has attracted notable media attention, changes the school’s alma mater. Its last lines will now read, “Be the herald of Light, and the bearer of Love, Till the stars in the firmament die.” (The latter part replaces “Till the stock of the Puritans die.”)

University President Drew G. Faust proudly asserts this new line will recognize “that the pursuit of truth and knowledge belongs to everyone at Harvard, from all backgrounds and beliefs.” Perhaps. And perhaps seven words in an obscure song do not merit much attention. But I fear the change underscores something else about “the pursuit of truth and knowledge” at the College: Even as Faust runs from Aspen to Davos promoting the importance of the liberal arts, that pursuit is increasingly concentrated in the pure and applied sciences, rather than in the humanities and social sciences. This lyric change, replacing a historical line with a scientific one, seems to ratify that shift.

Balson, a history major, continues:

I mean concentrated literally, since concentrator numbers reflect this disturbing shift. I am not trying to launch an attack against postmodernism and political correctness in academia in and of itself, and those interested in such fare can easily find it. Yet as the scholarship of the humanities and social sciences has become more postmodern, more politically correct, and, yes, more centered on issues of inclusion and belonging, the pure and applied sciences overwhelmingly have not. In response, my peers have voted with their feet. From 2008 to 2016, English, History, and Government departments have seen their number of concentrators decline from 236 to 144, 231 to 146, and 477 to 333 respectively. Applied Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science have meanwhile seen surges from 101 to 279, 17 to 163, and 86 to 363, respectively. This cannot merely be due to rising interest in science and technology, as psychology, a humanistic department that still focuses on method over values, has seen concentrator numbers hold steady.


I value diversity and inclusion, as well as all quality scholarship (including on gender and religious minorities). I am not the enemy here. Empty classrooms are. The fact is that those departments which have prioritized diverse scholarship the most and have moved the furthest away from supposedly antiquated traditional subjects are bleeding undergraduates the fastest. By failing to provide foundational courses undergraduates want to take, they are only speeding the flow from CGIS and Emerson Hall to the shiny new Allston campus. Correlation may not always mean causation. But the laudable push for inclusion and the lamentable decline of the most inclusive departments are perversely linked. With a new president and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences incoming, we now have an opportunity to seriously address this phenomenon of bright flight.

Read the whole thing. 

This makes perfect sense. The young man or woman (of whatever race) who falls in love with literature, art, or history, and wants to study it at college, will not want to apprentice themselves to masters who do not love the same, and seek excellence and wisdom in their study. If you want to be a physician who heals people, would you want to enter a medical school where they do nothing but autopsy the dead, and lament that life is nothing but cruelty?

I am almost 30 years removed from my undergraduate years. After all that time, I recall two professors who left a permanent mark on me. One taught politics, the other philosophy. I knew for a fact that the personal politics of the former was quite liberal, and I assume confidently that the personal politics of the latter was too. None of that mattered. What they brought to the classroom was not only deep wisdom, but passion for the pursuit of meaning, and even a sense of awe. To be in their classroom was to feel that one was in the presence of two masters who loved their subjects — political theory and philosophy — and who were eager to share that love with their students. For them, politics and philosophy wasn’t a power scheme (though that was present, as it is in most human activities), but mostly about the pursuit of truth. This is what inspires me in all the work that I do, as poorly as I may do it. I can remember sitting in those classes — seriously, I’m thinking about it right now, remembering where my seat was — and experiencing the joy of discovery, sitting at the feet, so to speak, of these masters.

My favorite college memory was the night four of us young men from the Existentialism class got together in an off-campus cafe to study for the final exam. We ran ourselves through Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Jaspers, and Heidegger. My God, we were passionate!At one point, I looked around the cafe, and everybody in it was quiet, listening to us, no doubt amused, but also, maybe, delighted by the fact that a bunch of boys were on fire for philosophy. We loved that stuff, really and truly loved it. And we loved it because Prof. Schufreider showed us the thrill of intellectual discovery, and how philosophy was, at its heart, built on the love of wisdom and its pursuit.

Anyway, I digress. If the problems of our society, including racism and inequality, are ever going to be solved, or in any way ameliorated, it’s going to have to be as a by-product of the pursuit of truth, as old-fashioned as that sounds. To the extent that St. Benedict and his monastic movement “saved” Western civilization, it was not because they set out to do so. It’s because they put the pursuit of unity with God first. Everything else followed. What if we approached the humanities as a (necessarily incomplete) way of pursuing the truth, and as a way to join in the grand pilgrimage of humanists through time on the same search?

Dopey old me, with only an undergraduate education, wrote a book about discovering Dante in midlife, and that discovery radically changing my life for the better. I studied old-fashioned Dante scholarship not for the sake of writing the book, but for the sake of understanding the poem when I was reading it as a drowning man grasping for shards of driftwood. The sensation of joy and awe of discovery that I had many times while reading Dante were recapitulations of what I experienced in Prof. Eubanks’s political theory course, and Prof. Schufreider’s Existentialism class. The feeling of: Yes, this is it! This is how life is! This is how life can be! I’ve found a way out!

In my case, through reading Dante, I found a way out of the prison of myself.

It seems that too often today, the trends in the academic study of the humanities amounts to building higher walls, digging deeper moats, and bullying the prisoners into thinking that they live in Paradise:


That is the way of death. It’s going to die, and take down a lot of people with it. People who really love the humanities are going to have to start taking an academic Benedict Option of their own: constructing communities within which the traditional humanities can survive the Dark Ages upon us. I propose that classical Christian schools are doing just that. But that’s another essay.

Finally, I’d like to bring to your attention this essay, “Dancing In Chains,” by Prof. Hollis Robbins, who reports on her return from lecturing to university students in China. Excerpts:

A prediction: China will produce some of the world’s most interesting scholarship on American literature within a generation. A secondary effect of this production will be a boost for the humanities, if from a most unexpected quarter.

I just returned from my third trip to China since 2011 lecturing to English language scholars about American and African American literature. This time, after giving five talks on five different campuses in China over the course of a week and a half, talking with scores of students and scholars with nearly perfect English studying American authors from Melville to Ellison, Poe to Plath, I am convinced that Chinese scholars pose a real challenge to the academic study of our own literature.

Maybe I am overstating the case. But we are in their gaze. And as Wesleyan president Michael Roth noted a few months ago, Chinese students are asking better and more interesting questions than we are about academia and academic subjects. Free from the invisible social constraints of academic norms — the trends and fashions of academic study — young Chinese scholars are writing with wild abandon about Sidney Sheldon, slave narratives, Emily Dickinson, Margaret Mitchell, “Chick Lit,” and Michael Chabon. I met a scholar studying Neil Simon and Toni Morrison, a combination for which I can’t imagine a supportive dissertation committee here.


The Chinese are fascinated with our scholarship, not just our texts, and are delighted with tales of “political correctness” on America college campuses leaving so many topics unexamined.

Unlike the grim MLA conference in January of this year, there is no gloom and doom about jobs. Pretty much every Chinese scholar studying English or American literature will find a post. If they are not as well paid as American star professors they are at least much more secure than the growing American adjunct labor force. Young academics see that there’s a future in being an expert on the stories Americans tell about themselves.

Of course academic life in China has its own severities and worries. The stories of government censorship and self-silencing are alarming. Within a few days of arriving I heard the phrase “dancing with chains” to describe the situation of Chinese scholars working in the social sciences on projects that may be uncomfortable or inconvenient to the Chinese government.


For me, the absence of identity politics in China is liberating. Chinese scholars do not care about my background or ancestors, only my arguments and my evidence. I’m seen as objective. During my talk I remarked that two Jewish scholars whose talks included old photographs of family members killed in the Holocaust were engaging in a very American form of scholarship. American eyebrows shot up, but not Chinese. The Chinese scholars sharing the panel could not — and would not — make a personal appeal during an academic presentation. An “unspoken assumption” of Chinese interest in Holocaust studies, a prominent Chinese scholar remarked, is that while comparisons to the Nanjing Massacre may be made, one must be warily respectful of American scholars’ emotional attachment to their topic. The personal attachments that are the norm in American academia are absent in China.

“Do you really think the politics of personal identity has no place in academia?” an American graduate student challenged during the Q&A. The phenomenon of aligning one’s ethnicity, gender, gender orientation, religion, class, et cetera, to one’s scholarship is only a few decades old. It is too early to tell if this new subjectivity is normal or good but it should be noticed that China is taking a very different path. Chinese scholars dancing with chains to negotiate strict state limitations on their own academic freedom are keeping a close eye on the self- and socially-imposed constraints binding American scholars.

I was peppered by Chinese graduate students after my talk for examples of fear limiting academic discussion in America. I mentioned the student protesters protesting a humanities course at Reed College in Oregon last year.

I also mentioned an earlier University of Minnesota controversy after the Charlie Hebdo murders. A poster announcing an academic discussion had featured a fairly benign cartoon drawing with CENSORED stamped on it. Some students complained. A months-long formal university investigation followed that found no wrongdoing but cautioned faculty to be careful about what subjects should be publicized. Ah, “dancing with chains,” one student said, and everyone laughed. The Chinese can’t get enough of these stories.

Those arguing for the uselessness of a university education should recognize that American literature is quite obviously useful to the Chinese. I am brought back to the foundations of why we study literature and history in the first place: to understand a culture and a country. The Chinese scholars studying ethnic and minority literature specifically are interested in questions of what constitutes or separates a culture and whether courses devoted to specific literatures brings people together or drives them apart. These are questions worth asking and what the Chinese are learning from the American experience is grim.

Read the whole thing. 

I once gave a lecture on studying Dante. In the Q&A, a young (white) woman stood and asked (“asked”) why on earth I thought we had anything to learn from Dante, given that he was a privileged white man? I thought at first that she was trolling me, but no, she was serious. I could hardly believe the sheer stupidity and arrogance of that remark. After the talk, a professor in the audience told me that alas, that’s how so very many students are taught to think about Dante today. This young woman did not approach Dante humbly, with the idea that there is something valuable to learn from him, given that his great work has endured for so many centuries. She read him so she could learn whom to hate.

That’s how I think about the academic study of the humanities: they ought to be about learning how to live, how to be fully human. But in too many places, they are about how to die to all things authentically human, and even to murder those things, and to feel righteous about it.

If the humanities in the West are going to survive, they are going to survive because enough people loved them enough to build communities of resistance to those who hate our civilization. This is going to be very, very difficult to do, especially in an emerging culture that regards excellence as white supremacy, or some related form of evil. But it has to be done, and we had better get about doing it.

The question I would like to put to old-fashioned humanists within the universities is this. Remember this from the final paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue?:

A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.

Do you think that the current model of the university, and university scholarship within the humanities, can be saved — both from the barbarians in state legislatures, and from the barbarians in faculty lounges —  and that therefore traditional humanists (whether religious or not) ought to stay at their stations, shoring up that particular imperium? Or is it time to construct “new forms of community” so that the love and study of the humanities can be sustained amid the darkness?

And if it’s the latter, what can we do? What can academics do? What can the laity do? What can philanthropists do?


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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