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Why He Gave Up On The Humanities

The reader and personal friend I spoke of in this morning’s post writes about why he decided that he has no future in academia, even though he has spent the last decade acquiring expertise in his field:

When I applied to Ph.D. programs in 2012, I kept telling myself that I had done my due diligence. I knew that the deck was stacked against heterosexual white Christian men. I knew that the job market was awful, and that “success” would likely mean having to relocate at least twice after finishing. I applied anyway, because I had already learned a great deal about my area of expertise—not just in prestigious university classrooms, but through the better part of a decade spent in the real-world environment of my discipline—and I wanted to share what I had learned there with students who were interested to learn it. I loved my discipline, as I loved the university, the pursuit of knowledge and the careful maintenance of a tradition of learning. I was rewarded with multiple fully-funded offers from top programs, and accepted an offer that included an additional internal fellowship.

What broke me wasn’t the exponentially increasing hostility against whites and against men and against Christians in the American university system over the past six years. The rate of acceleration and the biliousness of the hatred have come as something of a surprise, but to some degree, I expected it. That writing has been on the wall for a long time. No, what broke me was not that they hated me, but that they hated the very idea of excellence, the existence of such a thing as mastery.

It’s difficult to explain to people who aren’t in the academic humanities, both because it is a subtle phenomenon and because it is so utterly insane. “Don’t you spend years writing several-hundred-page monographs? Don’t people complain about academics knowing more and more about less and less?” The truth of the matter is that accusations of “overspecialization” need to be carefully qualified. Yes, the nominal objects of academic inquiry have become narrowly circumscribed to the point of de facto irrelevance. But the actual contents of these inquiries are all more or less the same, because every grant, every teaching position, every course demands these inquiries be justified in terms of their “relevance.”

What does it mean for an academic study to be “relevant”? It will surprise precisely no one to learn that “relevance” typically means that the study has left-wing political cash value, in terms of e.g. “social justice.” However, in my view even more insidiously, “relevance” also means that these studies must be “interdisciplinary.” These studies must “contribute” to the “discourse” of academic humanities. They must, in other words, be intelligible to academic humanitarians in disciplines other than one’s own.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with writing for a general audience, nor for a general audience of other academics. The problem is that the presuppositions and requirements of the academic humanities “discourse” have metastasized and taken over all the individual fields of study. Again, it will surprise precisely no one to learn that this discourse is inseparable from a vaguely Marxist, “social justice” left-wing political stance. But the requirements of this discourse are the actual death of scholarship. One must write in a peculiar sort of patois, using words like “frame” and “problematize” and “discourse.” (Example: this essay is framed as a problematization of the discourse of academic humanities). One must never defend the correctness of one’s conclusions, in fact it is ideal to be as vague as possible about what one’s conclusions actually are. The notion that certain ideas or conclusions are correct, and others incorrect, is hopelessly retrograde. Nothing simply is as it is; everything must be “framed.”

Above all, though, one must be “inclusive.” One may not “privilege” any type of literary canon, or those (high status men) who put it together. If for example a literary tradition, Western or non-Western, represents itself as the transmission from highly-learned scholar to highly-learned scholar of a definite body of knowledge—including, most especially, the Western academic tradition up until about 1990—this transmission must be “problematized” and deconstructed. One may study this transmission only as an ancillary feature of something else: its social-historical context, perhaps, or the autobiographical narratives of the women who cooked the scholars’ food. One must prioritize the “subaltern,” the “marginalized.” One must focus on a graffito scrawled on the outside wall of the palace; one can only under great epistemological duress, and with many methodological apologies for one’s prurient interest in “privileged” points of view, be allowed to look inside it. One must under no circumstances simply study texts, or the ideas expressed by texts, in and of themselves. If one is studying a text in a language other than English, for example, it is never enough to simply translate and analyze that text, as was common scholarly practice late into the twentieth century. Such simple projects of translation and analysis are not “relevant” to the wider audience of academic humanitarians, who do not care about the text or the ideas in the text, but for whom one must nevertheless write.

The final result of all of this has been a decline in the quality of scholarship even more precipitous than the plunging admissions standards for undergraduates. This is not about jargon or the infamously turgid academic prose. It is a basic question of standards. And increasingly the only standard in effect is: does this study conform to the expectations of academic humanities discourse? Does it adopt the half-sociological, half-deconstructionist vocabulary of that discourse? Does it possess the correct political implications? If so, a great deal of methodological and analytic error, indeed a great deal of ignorance about one’s supposed area of expertise, may be forgiven. Conversely, the more detailed and technical the study; the more it conforms to pre-postmodern notions of expertise and scholarship; the more it concerns the deep and abiding concerns of human knowledge and human existence; in short, the more it demonstrates mastery of a traditional discipline—the more likely it will be ignored, cast away, punished. Academics in the humanities desire nothing so much as the endless reproduction of the discourse. Anything that threatens this reproduction, or which is not reproducible in the terms of the discourse, is shunted aside.

Naturally, the fewer languages or other skills are required in a given area of study, the more aggressive the cancer. High barriers to entry serve as a natural bulwark against the encroachment of mediocrity. Thus, as the pseudonymous Sandra Kotta detailed in a brilliant series of essays, the rot is perhaps the worst in English literature and Creative Writing programs, where open hostility to the very idea of being educated in a definite body of knowledge (that is, rebellion against “elitism”) is celebrated. But, in essence, all academic writing must now be pitched such that professors of English and Sociology are able to read it, irrespective of whether they possess any prerequisite knowledge or skills. Failure to do so would constitute a politically suspect lack of “relevance.”

And this, in the end, is what broke me. I could perhaps have endured the indignities of dhimmitude, if it meant studying what I loved and teaching it to interested students. But it has become clear that the academic humanities, as a whole and at their highest levels, just are not interested in what would have been recognizable as quality scholarship even two decades ago. There do exist, of course, brilliant people doing great work. But they always have to look over their shoulder, always have to carefully justify themselves, always have to express themselves in the language and thought-patterns of the discourse. No one can simply excel at what they do, everyone must instead be factored into the lowest common denominator. The problem is, as the number of factors in the lowest common denominator increases to infinity, the value goes to zero.

UPDATE:Alan Jacobs says this guy is wrong.  Excerpt:

What my experience — and that of several of my friends, not just Chad — tells me is that the state of the humanities in the American university is far, far more complex and variable than Rod’s friend thinks. Look at how universal his judgments are, how often he speaks of “all,” “every,” “no one,” “always.” These statements are simply incorrect. I know first-hand many exceptions to his universal judgments.

Generally speaking, Christians in the academy have a pretty tough go of it these days. But there are, occasionally, open doors for people who have the wit and the strategic nous to get through them. Rather than throw up our hands and walk away, I think we should redouble our efforts to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. There are some good examples out there for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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