Who Wants These Professors?

By | 2019-01-24T20:44:23-07:00 January 24th, 2019|
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Last year, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the industry periodical for academia, published a commentary under the title “The Whitesplaining of History Is Over.” The first sentence went like this:

When the academy was the exclusive playground of white men, it produced the theories of race, gender, and Western cultural superiority that underwrote imperialism abroad and inequality at home.

The rest of the commentary cited women and minority historians who are steadily correcting that white male supremacist record compiled by white male scholars in the past.

The author, a historian at Stanford, wanted to present the revision work taking place as a story of triumph. But as you can see from the denigrating first sentence, there is no joy in her expression. She can’t get past her own bitter resentment. As I read the piece, I didn’t quibble with the thesis. Instead, I wondered, “How many 19-year-olds want to spend 14 weeks in a class with her?”

The year before, the classics web site Eidolon published a commentary by a professor at Denison University with the headline, “We Condone It by Our Silence: Confronting Classics’ Complicity in White Supremacy.” In one paragraph, citing the “Greek Miracle” that produced the extraordinary burst of genius in the arts, philosophy, and literature, the author terms it a myth and adds:

It is a myth that gets trotted out frequently in the pages of elite magazines by those among us who wish to promote the study of the classical world as valuable to the present and by those who may be (un)consciously trying to continue to hide the field’s racism and misogyny behind a sanitized story of (white, male, Euro-American) greatness.

Again, I didn’t bother to weigh this alignment of the myth of greatness with racism and misogyny. The other question came up again: “Does this make sophomores want to enroll in humanities courses?”

Judith Butler, a Berkeley professor, is incoming president of the Modern Language Association. In an interview in New York Magazine, she had this to say about the word lady.

I always feel rude when I interrupt someone to say, ‘No, don’t call me that, that’s not okay,’ ” Butler tells me. “I feel like, Ugh, I’m the police, I’m patrolling everybody’s language. On the other hand, I don’t want to live with gender references that are really offensive to me.” A particular conundrum is getting addressed as a “lady” in restaurants. “It’s just like — Oh my God, I have not been in the struggle for this long to be called a ‘lady.’”

That an elite and revered academic should be so bothered by a waiter’s word, which is intended with all due respect, is beyond our understanding. But it does make us ask: “How many young men want to enroll in her classes?”

It’s not a casual question. Thirty years ago, conservatives assailed humanities professors for politicizing the curriculum. You can see from the examples here they were right. But conservatives pose no threat to the professoriate any more. Political correctness has carried on since the 1980s and only looks to get worse.

No, the real threat comes from the 19-year-olds. They don’t argue with the professors. They simply go elsewhere.

This is what has happened. According to a report by the American Historical Association, the number of history majors in the United States has plummeted more than 30 percent since 2011. English and foreign languages have fallen more than 20 percent. If these were private businesses, they would consider filing for bankruptcy.

The professors have to take some responsibility for this. They blame financial pressures that push students away from the liberal arts, but we can certainly say that the attitudes above only confirm their decision to major in other fields. Students come to the humanities to be inspired. They seek beauty and sublimity in art and music, compelling characters in fiction with whom they may identify, and more knowledge about the creators of them. They had a teacher in high school who turned them on to Jane Austen or Beethoven. They want to deepen their experience.

What they don’t want is for pampered scolds to tell them that the things they love aren’t really great at all. They don’t want lectures filled with guilt and accusation. The humanities are crumbling, yes, because the thrill is gone . . . thanks to the PC professors at the podium.

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About the Author:

Mark Bauerlein
Mark Bauerlein is a senior editor at First Things and professor of English at Emory University, where he has taught since earning his Ph.D. in English at UCLA in 1989. For two years (2003-2005) he served as director of the Office of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. His books include Literary Criticism: An Autopsy, The Pragmatic Mind: Explorations in the Psychology of Belief, and The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. His essays have appeared in PMLA, Partisan Review, Wilson Quarterly, Commentary, and New Criterion, and his commentaries and reviews in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Boston Globe, The Guardian, Chronicle of Higher Education, and other national periodicals.