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Conservatives Aren’t the Only Voices Silenced by Academia’s Intellectual Orthodoxy

Over the last three or four decades, the humanities have witnessed a shift so massive that it is barely noticed anymore. What was once an upstart movement has achieved the status of a truly successful usurper—normality. The leather arm patched ancien régime has been exiled to the land of past things. Horn-rimmed glasses, tattoos, and dyed hair no longer occupy the periphery, but the center. It is a revolution so thorough that it has completely painted over the canvas of our mental imagery. If you consider the stereotypical picture of a literature professor at a major university today, a myriad of images might come to mind—so many, in fact, that it might be impossible to conjure a single, coherent figure. However, what almost certainly won’t come to mind is a Byron-quoting septuagenarian in tweed.

This revolution has been political. Entire disciplines—Literature, Anthropology, Sociology, and the various interdisciplinary programs that end in the word “Studies” – have all become more strongly associated with a particular species of left-wing interpretation that now influences the broader discourse in journalism and on social media. In some departments, the social categories of analysis—race, class, and gender—have attained complete hegemony. The most recent convention of the Modern Language Association, the most prominent organization associated with the study of language and literature, hosted three times as many panels on post-colonialism as it did on Shakespeare. Like so many other areas of study, a consensus has been reached in English and Comparative Literature that the aims of one’s research should be about more than a body of knowledge or a disciplinary canon. Critique, as it is understood, is ultimately a criticism of the society (not the author) that produced a given text; all literary criticism reduces to social criticism. The contemporary literature professor need not even be an expert on any particular author or literary figure, but can be expected to be a master at applying a particular interpretive lens such as Queer Theory or Critical Race Theory.

The reality that the humanities and social sciences seem to be increasingly attracting one particular kind of person with one, very distinct, understanding of the world can be seen in other disciplines as well. Entire fields and subfields such as Diplomatic History and Military History are on the precipice of extinction, as more and more current and aspiring historians ignore or abandon these fields for the sexier (and more explicitly ideological) fields in Cultural and Social History.

What has happened in Literature and History departments as well as in other disciplines draws attention to something rarely considered in discussions concerning intellectual diversity in higher education. Conservatives will point to statistics such as the imbalance in the ratio between registered Democrats and Republicans as evidence of a political imbalance. Students it is argued are only getting one side of the story. While this sentiment is certainly understandable, it ignores an element of the current phenomena that might be even more deleterious to student learning and thus all the more intractable. The problem isn’t simply one of political imbalance, an absence of parity between Left and Right voices, but the extent to which humanities departments have become politicized.

The possibility that one might read a manuscript or approach a cultural or philosophical question from a perspective that isn’t explicitly political is now often dismissed as either naive or not worthwhile. In this way, the humanities have constructed a sort of ideological prison house for themselves. One of the most compelling features of humanistic study is the inexhaustibility of interpretations—the capacity to engage a text, a cultural practice, or an age-old philosophical question and derive new meanings and new possibilities from it. As the humanities have become subsumed into a larger political project, the possible interpretations that one may entertain have become narrowed to explicitly politicized readings. An education in the humanities risks becoming nothing more than a political education—that is to say, an education that isn’t worth pursuing for anyone other than the already-converted activist.

Imagining the lack of intellectual diversity as an exclusively political problem—a mere injustice to conservatives—fails to grasp the real stultifying effect on our collective intellectual life. The consequences of the hyper-politicization of the humanities go much further than the silencing of opposing voices. The understanding of criticism and interpretation as a primarily political act—one that should “unmask” the structural machinations of power or inform activism—also precludes readings and perspectives from a much wider spectrum of human experience, most of which (despite the protestations of certain critics) is not inherently political. Some approaches to art and culture, such as the contemplation of a work’s aesthetic qualities independent of its political or social content, seem to have been retired along with their tweed-clad exponents. Other paradigms, such as an analysis of literature informed by the current scholarship coming from the cognitive sciences, are aborted before they see the light of day.

One definition of fundamentalism is the tyranny of a single interpretation—the insistence upon the exclusive veracity of a single reading of a text, of one lens through which to view the world, or of one way of existing in it. Much of the humanities have entered into a new theocratic age, unable to imagine an intellectual life outside of a narrow set of political concepts. Far from achieving human and artistic emancipation, the fallout of this political turn has resulted in a new captive mind lingering behind the bars of its own ideological commitments, bound by its own lack of curiosity.

The solution to hyper-politicization involves more than “affirmative action” for the Right, in which a Marxist-feminist reading of Middlemarch is balanced by a conservative-libertarian reading. Instead, the humanities are in desperate need of a perestroika that opens up the possibility for scholars and students to pursue the full range of intellectual interests, political or otherwise, that might lead one to embrace the life of the mind in the first place.

This is unlikely to happen anytime soon. As political polarization deepens, both sides are more likely to entrench themselves further in the institutions that they see as their turf rather than concede ground. Nevertheless, the first step toward liberating the captive mind is to believe its emancipation to be possible.

 

James Walker is an American writer and critic. You can follow him on Twitter @jamesdcwalker

 

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36 Comments

  1. This outcome was foreordained when research surpassed teaching as an academic’s primary duty and function. A teacher needs to love an intellectual field and desire to convey its beauty to a new generation; a researcher needs to generate papers and get them reviewed and approved by peers. The latter is an inherently political activity, and it attracts people whose talent and passion are for assessing the zeitgeist–political, social, intellectual–of a particular community, catering to it, and winning a position of social status in it. It should surprise no one that such people share many traits, and are inclined to disdain–and use their political skills to exclude–those whose intellectual approach is very different from theirs. Nor should it surprise anyone that the research output of such people is of little use to anyone but themselves, and contributes only to their own career advancement.

    • Actually, many many researchers are inspired by the love of an intellectual field, and a passionate desire to figure out how something works. We just don’t get to work in the academy any more.

  2. The politicisation that you’re describing goes hand-in-hand with a disregard for writing prose. If the academic thinks that their job is to audit all of the political interpretations of a work of literature, then their own prose becomes bloodless and pseudo-scientific. Compare the literary criticism of a century ago with that of today. Ours is often unreadable and, to outsiders, it seems almost deliberately uninspiring. In the future, hopefully scholars will accord most of the literary criticism from 1970 to 2020 junk status.

    When I’ve read the PMLA journal in the past, it’s a case in point. A literary insight that might have made a good aphorism or a rhyming couplet has been stretched into thousands of words of repetitive mush (with another thirty pages of footnotes). So yes, please, let’s get back to a little more art-for-art’s-sake.

    • “Hopefully” scholars will bin the last five decades of critical theory gibberish? I think it’s a given.

  3. John Wright says

    Excellent discussion. Often times the political imbalance you mention is used as a broader critique of academia–a critique you, too, engage in and one I agree with. Too many professors, especially in the humanities, are simply walking billboards for progressive political causes.

  4. Horatio says

    I completely agree – humanities studies are generally political, but I disagree with your diagnosis. We should push for a perestroika of politics in all fields so that their political implications can be understood. Maybe then we can see the ‘left’ humanities as a very tiny part of an overall conservative university system.

    • Kurt says

      Re: “Maybe then we can see the ‘left’ humanities as a very tiny part of an overall conservative university system”

      You can’t be serious. But now that I think about it, it is cercertainly true that conservative academics, with the obvous support of hard core right wing administrations, have really been dominating and flexing their muscles lately.

      It is truly shocking how anybody that doesn’t espouse right wing political dogma is physically intimidated and even assaulted in the overall conservative university system. Examples are everywhere. Those right wing university systems at Berkely, Middlebury, and Claremont McKenna come to mind. I hear liberals have no influence and can hardly step foot on those conservative university systems without a police escort.

      It’s a shame the left humanities has only a small influence at these places. If the left was stronger maybe people wouldn’t be physically intimidated, assaulted and even sent to the hospital so often, while the conservative university system looked the other way.

      • Thank you Kurt. Horatio’s assertion was ridiculous. And yet, it’s not the professors who have control, it’s the Administration who control who delivers the lessons. None are centrist and certainly not conservative.

  5. Great article.

    “The possibility that one might read a manuscript or approach a cultural or philosophical question from a perspective that isn’t explicitly political is now often dismissed as either naive or not worthwhile.”

  6. Santoculto says

    Leftists have on avg highly ambiguous thinking style and this mean that they are highly predisposed to interpret the world based on the gradient of the spectrum and not by the dualistic opposite poles that shape realities. Conservatives have the opposite overall pattern.

    It’s also a battle between feminine style and masculine style, just think in the number of name colors women and men tend to use.

    ”One definition of fundamentalism is the tyranny of a single interpretation—the insistence upon the exclusive veracity of a single reading of a text, of one lens through which to view the world, or of one way of existing in it.”

    So, some clever one can argue: a multiple interpretations will be also tyrannical…

    two things matter here

    first: no matter if a group B have a diversity of opinions or interpretations BUT what will be the winner ”opinions” or ”interpretations”

    second: no matter we have only a diversity of opinions and interpretations but CORRECT opinions and interpretations, in the way the VERY incorrect ones can’t be accepted or must be supressed.

    We don’t debate only because it’s funny [usually it’s not] or intelectually motivating but to reach a consensus TO apply it in the real world.

  7. Alka says

    Great article – and very accurate. Further departments based on academic disciplines move away from disciplinary knowledge and entailed procedures, the more the socio-political characteristics of individuals come to be valued over intellectual ability. In past an academic could be an ‘outlier’ socially or culturally, but still find a home due to his/her ability to think and write.

  8. Literary theory is like a sausage machine.

    It doesn’t really matter what meat you feed into it, what comes out at the other end is just sausages.

    • Yes, and academia for many decades has been about the regurgitating of the ‘original thoughts’ from the student which are actually the ‘original thoughts’ of the tutor. In addition, the selling of education to Third World students has dramatically lowered standards to Third World levels.

  9. Left and Right are distracting and erroneous terms. Many people take what is called a Left view on some issues and a Right view on others and spend a lot of time in the middle.

    Censorship is not confined to one side or the other and to claim it is, is simply wrong.

    Freedom of speech and robust debate where all views are allowed is the foundation of intelligent and informed discourse.

    • Santoculto says

      ”Left and Right are distracting and erroneous terms.”

      The better word is

      divisive

      but

      people because they are quite [socially] instinctive, they on avg can’t surpass their instinctive modes and try to understand the macro-reality via neutral ways.

    • Constance McGillicuddy says

      rosross: “Many people take what is called a Left view on some issues and a Right view on others and spend a lot of time in the middle.”

      That is true in much of the world. In the Academy, it is nonsense. In the Academy, the overwhelming majority take the Left view on all issues and a few silenced malcontents take some middle or Right views on a very few issues.

      rosross: “Censorship is not confined to one side or the other and to claim it is, is simply wrong.”

      A remarkably absurd assertion in the face of very clear facts.

      Here let me try: Unicorns have overrun modern society and present and clear and present menace to us all. To claim otherwise is simply wrong.

      See? I can say absurdly wrong things with no evidence too.

      • I was talking about the public in general. Systems drive behaviour but then the system allows it to happen.

        The unicorn comment makes no sense.

  10. Santoculto says

    (((Frankfurt School))) make a excellent job to find the internal divergencesamong people and to create two quasi-complete opposite narratives to fight one each other.

    [New] Left [socially/sexually liberal, ambiguous thinking style, guilty culture] is real as well [Old] Right [socially/sexually conservative, binnary thinking style, shame culture]

  11. Bill Haywood says

    To the list of English department shortcomings we can add the death of evidence. This article makes sweeping claims without one name, citation, villain, or example,

  12. Killer Marmot says

    At one time, professors saw their job as one of education. Now many in the humanities see their job as one of advancing a specific political cause.

    Exposing a student to a multitude of viewpoints makes sense for the former job, but not so much for the latter.

  13. Some of this is for the obvious reason – academics in the humanities have to come up with something original in order to be recognized, get tenure etc and frankly there is not much left that is original (unlike the STEM fields where every day there is something new). What can you say about Bronte that hasn’t already been said by 500 graduate students already. So their ‘solution’ is to come up with garbage and pretend that is it some revolutionary

  14. Walter says

    History departments are much less guilty of politicized one dimensionality than English ones as a rule but this is a real problem for sure.

    • Constance McGillicuddy says

      And hippos are much less heavy than elephants, as a rule.

  15. Non leftists do not all politicize everything. Politicising everything is explicitly frowned upon by [American] conservatives and libertarians. In many ways both groups organized specifically to protect having private spaces in life against the progressives (individual rights exist so you can have your own private life outside a collective). You may get your multiple points of view back by promoting having more of them on staff (vs it being affirmative action for another single ideological viewpoint). IMO…

  16. Luke says

    Eventually there will either be no college student loans at all, or they will only be available for STEM majors and skilled trades. The fuzzy-studies departments are going to see their enrollment decline by over 80% within a decade, I expect. What I’d like to see is a grant made to each department, and loans given out by major, and repaid there. The chemical/electrical/petroleum engineering departments would get repaid, and would flourish. The ones that are all about “I hate logic/math/requirements to think and write clearly, and anything icky, but still think I deserve a $100K/year job because of my feelings” would find that even employers offering minimum-wage jobs would want little to do with them, and would soon shut down.

    Excellent book on how to pick college majors: “Worthless”, by Aaron Clarey.

  17. Carl Eric Scott says

    Good essay, good comments. But alas, what I would say about English and many typical humanities depts w/ marginal exceptions made for rare history depts and less-rare philosophy depts, likewise sociology and most social science depts, except political science and economics, is that THEY HAVE BECOME IMPERVIOUS TO REFORM. They might shrink to insignificance through declining enrollments, but they will never change. And they will block any way of moving forward to a better model within their institution. Unless you go after tenure and dept independence in hiring, both highly tricky and problematic moves, the people who created this mess will remain in power. They will hire, and only hire, their own. We’ve had essays like this one appearing and winning plaudits for thirty years. And nothing has been done by those who really hold the power, except to shift more defacto power to an ever-bloating class of administrative workers and even “instructional design” technocrats who are if anything more toxic to real liberal education than the tenured lefties. University President statements, “centers” for the study of Western Heritage or American Liberty, welcoming conservative speakers to campus, are gestures which do so little as to amount to nothing. At least on most campuses. Now the hard sciences and profession-training depts can suffer damage from the PC trends, but only so much. So the key battle is over instruction, esp. who is hired to instruct, in the humanities and social sciences. That battle is over before it begins at 9 out of 10, more likely 19 out of 20, of our universities/colleges. Those seriously concerned, who want to do more than sigh and lament, have to realize that the only options now are to a) support with money and political struggle those exceptional conservatives, moderates, old-school lberals, a-politicals, and traditional educators at those exceptional places, and to b) START NEW INSTITUTIONS FROM SCRATCH. And b) is what is really needed.

  18. They had to go someplace. Minds like that don’t survive in the real world. Hey, I was right there 40 years ago. Let the kids be kids. It’s the grownups I’m worried about…

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  23. Emelio Lizardo says

    But the whole point was to turn universities into indoctrination & activist centers. Enlightenment is no longer the goal, except that it is subordinate to and serves the revolution.

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