How does one critique an entire academic discipline?
For many conservative writers, it’s as simple as listing the names and topics of typical courses or papers and then counting on the reader to conclude that there are better things to which a bright young person might dedicate his time. For example, Naomi Schaefer Riley was recently fired from The Chronicle of Higher Education for a blog post arguing that black studies should be eliminated. Her evidence consisted of Northwestern University grad students’ theses — which The Chronicle had highlighted in a recent article, and which included “So I Could Be Easeful: Black Women’s Authoritative Knowledge on Childbirth”; a paper arguing that the government’s efforts to promote single-family homes in black neighborhoods in the 1970s was racist; and a thesis claiming that black conservatives such as Thomas Sowell are engaged in an “assault” on civil rights.
That’s fine, as far as it goes. Universities, even the “private” ones, receive plenty of taxpayer money, and the general public deserves to know what’s going on in them. This sort of critique is a superb way of providing a snapshot to — and provoking a snap judgment by — the layperson.
But such a critique will rarely influence the people who can most readily make a difference: those inside the academy, and those thinking about entering it. It offers no protection against the simplest rebuttal: “I disagree. I believe that this topic is worthy of study; that the author writes with precision, not jargon; and that the argument made here deserves serious consideration.”
Bruce Bawer takes a rather different approach from Naomi Schaefer Riley’s. Not content merely to snicker at modern academia, he dug deep into identity studies, and he reports what he found in this new book. He dedicates a full chapter each to women’s studies, black studies, queer studies, and Chicano studies, and yet another chapter to assorted other “studies.”
Bawer didn’t just start with an open mind and flip through some journals; he thoroughly immersed himself in these disciplines. He read their foundational texts and attended their conferences. And as an openly gay man with a background in the humanities, Bawer is ideally suited to criticize these fields. It’s not that he doesn’t “get” these areas of study, it’s not that he has no sympathy for victimized groups, and it’s not that he thinks higher education should be nothing more than career training. Rather, his extensive experience with identity studies has led him to conclude that they should be deeply reformed, at the very least, and he presents his case in full detail and with a reasoned tone. This is exactly what the debate about identity studies needs.
The problem with identity studies is not that gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity are not important. In fact, many of these disciplines have their roots in serious discussions that began decades ago. For example, Bawer’s chapter on women’s studies commences with a meeting of intellectuals in 1971 New York City. Norman Mailer is moderating a debate on women’s liberation, and the presenters include Jacqueline Ceballos of the National Organization for Women, the author Germaine Greer, the intellectual Diana Trilling, and the journalist Jill Johnston. Betty Friedan and Susan Sontag are among the participants in the subsequent Q&A. The conversation is intense, sometimes bizarre, and often profane — but (in Bawer’s words) “there are, in fact, real ideas being exchanged here,” and there is a “sense that the entire social order is at stake.”
Bawer then fast-forwards to the 2010 conference of the National Women’s Studies Association. It turns out that academic feminists are no longer principally concerned with patriarchy, sisterhood, and women’s place in the world; instead, their chief obsession is “intersectionality,” or the study of how different forms of prejudice (sexism, racism, homophobia) interact. While women’s studies is “by far the biggest of all identity studies,” it is also “the one that most often appears to have the least to do with its ostensible subject”; “the focus is often at least as much on race, class, and sexual orientation as on the battle of the sexes.”
What ensues, to borrow a term from NR’s Jay Nordlinger, is a “clash of liberal pieties.” One panelist mentions the hijab — not as a symbol of male oppression, but “as an innocuous form of attire the sight of which causes many Western women . . . to look down upon and (in effect) oppress the women who wear it.” Then a debate breaks out about a previous panel, at which some Muslim women were supposedly “silenced” for “hog[ging] the mike” and trying to steer conversation away from male oppression (they preferred to talk about “water supplies and shelter”). In women’s studies today, academics can’t quite bring themselves to address sexism when it’s practiced by anyone who isn’t white.
And perhaps more important, today’s women’s-studies departments are open about the fact that their purpose is political proselytizing as much as teaching or discussion. Some of the field’s leading texts refer to it as “the academic wing of feminism” and note its style of “politicized learning.” In assignments, students are directed to criticize patriarchy without having been presented a range of views about it. By the end of the chapter, Bawer has given up hope for the discipline — there are glimmers of original thought here and there, but intersectionality and indoctrination appear to be the way forward.
The story of black studies is a little different. The discipline grew out of the civil-rights movement, and the first departments were established through a combination of student protests and the manipulation of white administrators’ racial guilt. Some of the best original material in The Victims’ Revolution comes courtesy of Shelby Steele, a right-leaning commentator who helped found black studies as a young radical. He explains to Bawer how easy it was to pressure university administrators to create departments — even though he and his fellow activists had little to no vision of what black studies was or should be.
As Bawer describes it, today’s black studies offers very little of value — it is led by Henry Louis Gates Jr., who writes dense academic prose that says almost nothing, and Cornel West, a man who considers himself a prophet but, in Bawer’s view, has produced no notable scholarly work. And one of the most popular textbooks is Ron Karenga’s Introduction to Black Studies, which advances the almost certainly false thesis that African Americans are descended from the ancient Egyptians (whose already impressive accomplishments Karenga inflates).
Bawer similarly tracks the development of queer and Chicano (or Chicano/a, or Chican@) studies. His discussion of the former is especially enlightening — Bawer himself has been active in promoting gay rights, but he finds little to relate to in the field that was called “gay studies” before its “slide into irresponsibility, irrelevance, and incoherence.” He attacks the late French philosopher Michel Foucault, one of the leading figures in queer studies, at length — highlighting Foucault’s bizarre theory that social norms are a more dangerous form of power than is totalitarian government, as well as his belief that anonymous sex and sadomasochism are “a philosophical and moral response to institutional power” (Bawer’s words). And queer studies, like women’s studies, has fallen prey to “intersectionality”; the discipline is wary of white-male homosexuals, because they’re not oppressed enough.
The end result of all this is that students are taught to have a skewed view of the world, denied access to non-leftist points of view, and given degrees that mean little outside of academia. Bawer is rightfully appalled by what he finds at conferences and on university discussion boards: Students are either spewing jargon without analyzing the underlying issues, or committing basic errors of logic and grammar without being corrected by their instructors. A student who dares to dissent is often shamed into conformity.
In The Victims’ Revolution we have, at last, a serious and thorough dissection of identity studies. Anyone with a stake in these fields — from prospective students to their parents to university administrators to professors — should read it.