With the eruption of student protests calling for genocide, along with the Ivy League college presidents who defend this idiocy, many Americans are understandably concerned about the state of higher education. Even though the cost of tuition climbs substantially each year, what these institutions produce seems to deteriorate in quality. Most parents want their children to have a comfortable middle-class lifestyle that normally comes with a college degree. Now, they have to worry about their children turning into ignorant, debt-ridden activists.
To be fair, most conservatives have sounded the alarm for decades at this point. Leftist ideology pervades most faculties, and DEI policies have systematized ideological conformity and reverse discrimination. Thus, the usual conservative advice is to either send kids to one of a handful of conservative universities, have them major in STEM, or encourage them to become plumbers or electricians. As for reforming universities to foster intellectual diversity and end wokeness, this is a pipe dream. Academia is past the point of recovery, and no one who works in it can even see any problem with how things are going.
At least, almost no one. In a recent essay for The Atlantic, college professor Tyler Harper offers some reasons for the collapse of the humanities departments, which has taken a toll on the general academic culture at college campuses. He acknowledges that humanities departments have been captured by leftist revolutionaries and have spread to other disciplines, but he blames market forces and conservative college administrators for the problem: “the humanities are being thrown under the bus at public universities now that the squeeze is on from the reactionary right.” While professors are “trying to safeguard their fields from the progressive machinations of their bureaucratic overlords,” opportunistic “presidents, trustees, and politicians” are forcing more politics and gimmicks in order to attract more students.
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In Harper’s telling, the humanities have always suffered from the popular notion that they are useless and won’t lead to a lucrative career. In order to counter this claim, college administrators demand that humanities curricula be redesigned to become more useful and “culturally relevant.” This translates to more leftist activism and less scholarship. Referencing a recent critique of literary scholar John Guillory, Harper explains, “Reading and interpretation are redefined as a kind of activism, and thus as an endeavor like policy work or criminal defense.” Thus, while some students attend college to learn a marketable skill, students in the humanities can flatter themselves that they are learning how to fight social injustice.
As counterintuitive as this sounds—and, frankly, Harper’s logic has more than a few holes—there’s actually some merit to this argument. The leftist wackiness of today’s college campuses—which manifests itself in all departments now, not just the humanities—is largely the result of administrators trying to attract students anyway they can with as little effort as possible. However, it’s not because this is seen as useful or aligns with people’s actual politics but, rather, because going woke is so easy.
What ties together most leftist thought and criticism beyond its use of postmodern terminology and emphasis on collective action is its utter lack of imagination. Whether it’s literary analysis, political theory, or applying various “critical lenses” on cultural phenomena, leftist scholarship is almost always reductive and contradictory. When everything is a matter of Marxist narratives (i.e., oppressed and oppressor), one can just skip the reading, slap on some buzzwords, and be rewarded with a good grade, or publication, or even millions of dollars of funding.
Accompanying this is a profound cultural relativism that has gradually dissolved objective academic standards. Instead of teaching “the best of what is thought and said,” and expecting high-quality work from their students, humanities professors opt for what is most politically correct and expect bullsh** from their students. As humanities scholar John Agresto argues in The Death of Learning, this descent into mediocrity was the real goal of protesting Western Civilization classes, not broadening the literary canon or expanding the humanities disciplines.
Under this framework, decline is inevitable. Courses in the humanities and other departments become more political, trendy, and decidedly unacademic, making for an unserious college experience at best. I remember my alma mater offering classes on Harry Potter and then Twilight. I even had a colleague who wrote her graduate thesis on whether Hogwarts Academy qualified as a character in the popular YA book series. At worst, this leads to radicalized morons preaching hate in the name of fighting hate. Courses in the humanities and other departments become more political, trendy, and decidedly unacademic, making for an unserious college experience at best.Tweet This
In the long term, the combined effect of unimaginative leftism and cultural relativism yields a crop of remarkably dull yet partisan administrators and professors. Harvard’s president Claudine Gay is the perfect representative: unaccomplished, inarticulate, dishonest, and profoundly hypocritical. To say that she is the result of market forces and utilitarianism, as Harper suggests, is completely wrong. She is what results when standards and usefulness have been erased.
Unfortunately, for those hoping to revive the academic culture of today’s colleges, they have no choice but to rely on charlatans like Gay. Even if “hard-nosed and practical” professors like Christopher Newfield want to “build a public reputation as a set of important research disciplines and a research infrastructure to realize that,” this will be impossible to do with third-rate intellectuals who have no incentive to change anything.
This is not to say that it’s not worthwhile to revive humanities instruction as a means of reforming higher education. As things stand, the world at large is suffering enormously from a humanistically illiterate population. Supposedly educated Americans can’t read, write, or reason well, and most have a servile mindset, depending on others to tell them what to do and say. They are easily misinformed, misled, and placated. They are also unhappy, lonely, and increasingly incompetent.
By contrast, a generation of Americans properly schooled in the humanities would be far more productive, innovative, creative, moral, and united. This is demonstrated by past Americans who were far better instructed in the humanities. They revolutionized government, overcame slavery, won world wars, triumphed over communism, eliminated segregation, took part in nearly every major scientific discovery in the last two centuries, and built up the largest economy in human history—to name just a few things.
Ironically, they also happened to be the least formally educated, which points to the way forward for the humanities today. Rather than argue over how the humanities should be taught, we should consider where they should be taught and in what context. Perhaps it would be better to treat humanities classes as a supplement to other majors than as majors in themselves. Maybe students could read and write more for all their classes instead of doing this solely in classes with the “humanities” designation. Or most shocking of all, it might be better to have young adults cultivate a habit of serious reading and writing on their own time at home, not just at school.
As it happens, a handful of Catholic trade schools around the country have emerged in recent years that incorporate this logic, offering both a rigorous humanities education as well as an array of vocational skills and apprenticeships. Thus far, the immediate success of their first graduates and the high demand for this kind of training strongly suggest that this will be the winning combination for colleges going forward.
True, making these types of colleges the norm would put professors like Claudine Gay and Tyler Harper out of work and kill the sanctimonious vibes of young leftist activists, but taking a different approach to the humanities would be far more beneficial for today’s college students as well as society at large. In order to thrive, humanity needs the humanities. And these days, colleges are only getting in the way of this endeavor.