Life At Deathworks University
Staying on the college topic, reader Richao writes about the coddling culture on campus (the editorial comments are his/her own):
As my child is in the midst of college application season, we’ve been discussing this issue on an almost-daily basis, and we are already basically where Haidt expects an increasing number of parents to be in the coming years: With one or two exceptions, we are not encouraging our kid to apply to any top-tier colleges, notwithstanding the kid’s stellar credentials.
But I was reminded this morning of my deeper concern, which is the decline of the humanities in the contemporary academy by this blog post, about a brewing controversy at Cambridge. I’m not particularly interested in the controversy itself, but rather in what this professor of medieval literature has to say about how she teaches her field:
In my lectures, I don’t talk as much about racism as I wish I could [poor dear! -ed]. I do lecture a course on Middle English romance, and in that course, I talk about the ways these popular medieval fictions generate and perpetuate bigoted stereotypes – misogynistic, racist, disablist, xenophobic and Islamophobic, amongst other things [no, please, not other things, too! -ed]– in forms that have endured to the present day. I find this course hard to teach [no doubt. -ed]. The first time I delivered it, last year, I limited by topic to misogyny: there, I felt on firm enough ground to discuss these texts from a personal perspective, to bring in what had always been left out in my own experience of Cambridge English Literature, to open up space to recognise rape myths and victim-blaming, to identify the tropes of the Bad Mother and the deviant sexualised woman. But I also found that, more and more, I was looking at the ways these texts dealt with race [the most original minds invariably have PhDs in English lit. -ed]. And, while I’m a white woman who has little business lecturing anyone about racism [privilege check, well done! -ed], I found I couldn’t ignore it. I had students in my lectures who were frowning or nodding, asking questions or emailing me, trying to get a grip on what this literature they were reading was telling them about the way European and British culture has represented men and women who looked like them.
I’m curious to get the views of our resident academics (Eamus Catuli and others) on this excerpt. As an educated layperson with a literary bent, I read this and think: The humanities cannot come crashing down fast enough. Of all the things one could teach students in a class like this, you focus on the anachronistic obsessions of 21st-century Britain? Rather than making a contribution to the academic community that only a class on medieval literature could make, you hit the very notes that every other department plays (and that many other departments play much more convincingly)? In a class you could leverage to teach your students about literary technique, medieval folkways, the reception of scholastic theology, rhetoric, and on and on and on, you focus instead on two obsessions that will give them neither the ability to engage closely with texts nor the tools to make creations of their own?
In fact, the cynic in me reads this and thinks – after I’ve savored the thought of the collapse of every humanities department in the land – that what she’s doing is diabolical, in the sense that it’s merely destructive. She is introducing these texts to her students only to teach them that the texts are worthless, that their only value is in helping us understand why we’re so f—-d up, that they’re not worth engaging (notwithstanding their flaws) for enjoyment, for lessons on style and technique, for a fuller understanding of how past generations thought and felt and lived. In other words, to the cynic in me, she seems to be giving her students only the tools to keep these texts forever at a distance, easy and glib bases for never needing to take them seriously. She teaches to destroy: To destroy the texts themselves, if she can; barring that, to destroy her students’ ability and desire to truly inquire into the texts.
But then I read on and realize that I am no cynic. In fact, her objective is a world where these texts are expunged from our literary tradition and are rendered unread (and, if she has her way, I’d wager unreadable):
I felt that I had to talk about the gaps in the course they study, about the biases that keep us looking at literature that smooths over Britain’s history of racism, and Europe’s medieval culture of racism, which leaves a legacy right up to 2015. I had to show that the same tired old images of blackness and Judaism, the same images of foreign ‘Others’ and violent invaders and benefit-grabbing immigrants, have been the stuff of popular fiction for centuries.
I’d say that the only consolation is that once she’s achieved her goal, she’ll be unemployed, but the world is too perverse to hold out that hope.
You ought to read that entire blog post, by “Jeanne de Montbaston,” the nom de blog of teaching assistant Lucy Allen, who sounds like a perfect feminist pill. She’s spluttering about a promotional video Cambridge University made featuring the well-known Tudor historian David Starkey, a graduate of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. I would like to have seen that video, but it was taken down by the university after faculty and student protests:
Dillon’s letter stated that: “It has come to my attention that a significant number of colleagues, students and alumni have been deeply offended by the choice of historian David Starkey to front the campaign video, a man who has a well-documented and undeniable history of racism and sexism.”
Following the 2011 London riots, Starkey gained criticism for commenting on Newsnight that “the problem is the whites have become black … a particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic, gangster culture has become the fashion”.
Speaking to The Cambridge Student on the video, Starkey commented: “I did not put myself forward. I was asked to contribute by the University, which I love, and to which I owe a profound debt.”
A spokesman for the University’s Development and Alumni Relations said: “We are already re-editing the film for different launch events in different parts of the world, as we intended. The film has already been replaced online with another campaign film … We appreciate that [Starkey] is an academic who has made controversial statements in the past. However, in the video, he was representing his affection for the University and its values (the positive impact of learning and research on people’s lives)”.
David Starkey is rude as hell, and thoroughly English. He is openly gay — a campaigner for gay rights, even — militantly secular, and a Tory. This past summer, he sniped at the monarch for being, in his judgment, forgettable, and was denounced as “a venomous old queen.” Which he may well be; he is certainly an old-school sort who doesn’t suffer fools gladly — and he seems to think most everybody is a fool. Certainly he scorns some of the beliefs that I hold sacred.
But so what? He is also a fascinating man who emerged from a working-class background, conquered physical disability, and went on to make terrific documentaries about the monarchy and other subjects in British history. God save us from these horrible academics who would suppress the voice of a David Starkey. Whatever his personal faults may or may not be, the man can make history come alive like few others (watch his Monarchy series on Netflix if you doubt me). The thing is, Starkey is a thousand million times more interesting and effective a communicator of historical knowledge than the dreary, hyperpoliticized drones like Lucy Allen, who suck the life out of any passion anyone has for history or literature with their skull-crackingly dull ideology. Is it too much to aspire to humanities professors actually showing some signs of being interested in humanity?
I’m with Richao: the academic system that empowers deathworkers like Allen cannot collapse fast enough. What do I mean by “deathworkers”? I take the term from Philip Rieff’s final book, My Life Among The Deathworks. The term is explained in this excerpt from Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn’s review of it in The New Republic, which, alas, is no longer available online:
For Rieff, a deathwork is ‘an all-out assault upon something vital to the established culture.’ Much of today’s cultural expression, in his view, consists of deathworks aimed at destroying not just an older traditional culture, but also the foundation of culture itself. Rieff’s complaints are very large. He believes that, in America, transgression has now replaced creation as a cultural ideal; that creativity in our time has more to do with the urge to destroy.
I know that there are universities in this country where teachers are not ideologized, and where they actually love what they study. I visited some this fall. It is now necessary for we who will one day be sending our children to college to work hard to find the schools where they can find light and intellectual life among the faculty, and not darkness and endless ideological consternation. Humanities teachers like Lucy Allen, the beneficiaries of 2,500 years of Western thought, have sold their birthright for a pot of message.
UPDATE: I was thinking just now that even though I find Richard Dawkins a sneering bigot and ignoramus about religion, I respect him as an eminent scientist, and would not at all object to him being featured in an advertisement for my university.
Anyway, Lucy Allen responds graciously:
Richao, I saw your comment come up in my blog statistics, because you linked to it. I noticed you say:
‘She is introducing these texts to her students only to teach them that the texts are worthless, that their only value is in helping us understand why we’re so f—-d up, that they’re not worth engaging (notwithstanding their flaws) for enjoyment, for lessons on style and technique, for a fuller understanding of how past generations thought and felt and lived.’
I wanted to reassure you this absolutely isn’t the case. I love teaching medieval literature (you can see that from the rest of my blog). I very often do focus on all sorts of different aspects of texts, including their language and imagery, their rhetoric, their theological and philosophical content, and so on. Many of the texts I teach are incredibly beautiful and sophisticated, and very little studied.
In fact, the romances I refer to in the post you discuss are quite rarely taught – there wasn’t a lecture series discussing them before I wrote my course, so I certainly don’t want to stop people reading them. I want to make people feel excited about discussing them.
The same is true of issues of race and gender: I don’t feel a ‘poor dear’ because I don’t get to discuss everything in a single lecture, or even a single lecture series. I feel excited and challenged – and I try to communicate that to my students.
You really don’t need to worry this is some kind of project of censorship, or belittling the literature of the past: it’s not!
And Jones, who is a conservative Muslim, writes sensibly:
“The humanities cannot come crashing down fast enough.”
My first thought is: that’s a deeply irresponsible thing to say. Although it depends on whether you really mean it.
Look, there are many excesses. And English seems like one of the worst fields for this kind of thing. But just as you respect the rights of total right-wingers to present their take, this sort of leftist stuff is not something you can simply rule out of bounds.
But much more importantly, there is still a lot of really important work being done in the humanities broadly. I have to speak from experience here. I went to a small liberal arts college that is known in the public eye only as a garish cartoon of degenerate leftist excess. And, to be honest, it was that.
Yet, at that school, I got a classical liberal education of a quality that is only available at a handful of institutions anywhere in the country. Most of my professors were incredible people. In fact many of them are far on the left. But they were never, ever delinquent in their pedagogical duties. To the contrary, they were the best teachers I have ever had. They were deeply responsible people with a profound appreciation for the humanistic tradition. As a result I have had a humanistic education that is one of my most precious possessions.
I would fiercely and personally resist any attempt to undermine the fragile circumstances that made my education possible.
I would add that knowledge is fragile. The first and most important function of scholars is to keep the tradition alive; to make sure someone knows and understands what exists in those libraries. Without humanities scholars, the living embodiment of our humanistic tradition, those libraries are just filled with meaningless, impenetrable stacks of paper. Therefore, if you want to bring this enterprise “crashing down,” high culture will not magically spring from the ruins. It will just be in ruins.
I could relate other experiences that prove that students are not as prostrate before postmodernist excess as you imagine. Most people in most generations are mostly on the right track.
I think it’s important not to fall victim to a very un-conservative temptation to let social media, viral videos, and outrage culture delude you about the reality of higher education. Yes, there are some people trying to “destroy the foundations of culture.” But the foundations of culture also only exist in those very same departments: my former teachers.
UPDATE.2: Lucy Allen/Jeanne de M. responds further in the comments thread. I will assume that she is being honest about the way she presents her subject in class, despite her personal views on it detailed in her blog post. That being the case, I retract my harsh judgment on her teaching, and apologize. I still think it’s terrible what she and others at Cambridge have done to Starkey, though. Personally, I wouldn’t care how obnoxious her stated personal views were to me, if Lucy/Jeanne were a superb teacher who was fair in the classroom and who made her subject come alive, I would consider her a credit to my university.
(I’m keeping the Starkey clip below the updates for the sake of easier reading of the updates; I’m going to put it below the jump, in fact.)
For your entertainment, I give you this clip from 2012, in which Starkey refuses to take guff from a feminist SJW. It gets good at around the 1:40 part, but watch till nearly the end, where she ends up conceding that he had her dead to rights (but she tries to save herself by painting him as some kind of patriarchal bully for telling the truth about her):
Note well readers that I’m adding updates above the Starkey clip.