Having won the culture wars, the tenured humanities professoriate has dug in, ideologically petrified with guild seniority, at a potentially lethal cost to venerable disciplines losing their luster and prestige.
Whole fields of study are languishing. “The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness,” Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker writes in the New Republic. “And they have failed to define a progressive agenda.”
The question is: can they recover? Aging hipsters and their acolytes control entire fields. For everyone not in on the game, their postmodern vamping never made much sense, even when it was white-hot. Today the relativism, transgression, and revisionism seem formulaic and even passé. While the Race, Class, and Gender trifecta rules as an idea system across whole courses of study, it is increasingly death at the box office.
But at State U no problema — not if you are tenured and featherbedded.
The Woman in Black, the one with the dangly Merovingian earrings who dances around her classroom reading Outsider poetry, is Alpha Dog at today’s full-house Department Meeting. She has immense energy and conviction. Her colleagues think of her as a buzz saw. The Woman in Black is beset by what in other venues is called Histrionic Personality Disorder.
With a dare-me glint in her eye she has — again — derailed the meeting with her pet project, the Cross-Cultural Curriculum Awareness Initiative (CCCAI), widely rumored to float its own boat with Open Society Foundations money. She repeats the acronym, CCCAI, rat-a-tat-tat, using PowerPoint and a laser pointer for emphasis.
Today she is promoting Transgender Sensitivity, which she calls the “next step” in the Cross-Cultural Future. She proposes queer theorist Rei Tareda from Cal Irvine for this year’s Endowed Lecture with the fat $7,500 honorarium.
An extract from Terada’s website and c.v. comes up on the whiteboard in Helvetica bold:
Acceptance of the world ‘as is’ is coerced by canonical epistemology and aesthetics. In guilty evasions of this coercion, post-Kantian thinkers cultivate fleeting, aberrant appearances, perceptual experiences that do not present themselves as facts to be accepted and therefore become images of freedom. This ‘phenomenophilia’… informs romanticism and subsequent philosophical thought with a nascent queer theory.
Heads begin to nod in agreement around the semi-darkened room.
As chair of the department’s Graduate Studies wing, the Woman in Black is not to be trifled with. She is capable of delivering discretionary funds, fellowships, and job goodies to her favorites. One protégé — tenure track at Cornell right out of the gate, the graduate students whisper in awe — specializes in “Senegalese urban music cultures, global hip hop, African music, postcolonial studies, urban ethnography, feminist and gender studies.”
It’s cutting edge stuff. The Woman in Black is in with Amy Gutmann on multiculturalism. She is close with Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology at Columbia, who is “developing a critical theory of late liberalism” to “examine the governance of the otherwise in late liberal settler colonies from the perspective of the politics of recognition.” So much energy! She’s such a networker, the Woman in Black, the junior faculty and adjuncts say to each other with admiration.
Her chief ally this morning is a pioneer in Post-Colonial Latina/o Queerness. Urging his colleagues to pursue “non-binary consciousness, long overdue,” he adds that he will be speaking at the “Theories of Ambiguity” workshop next month. The gray-maned preppy in Birkenstocks mentions Acquisitive Society and Commodification of Genders. The Tenured Vanillas keep their heads down, say little, and try to avoid confrontations. The People of Color wonder WTF but go along with it.
Professor Big, the department’s celebrity intellectual, is not at the Department Meeting today. You haven’t heard of Big? Oh no! He’d hate hearing that! You’ve seen him — of course — on the NewsHour, wearing a banded $200 shirt and charcoal Armani.
Today Big is at Bellagio on Lake Como, keynoting the all-star humanities conference called “Beyond Elitism: Rethinking the Humanities in the 21st Century.” Big has range. Big is a visionary. Big is also droll and entertaining, as he none too subtly pitches Hollywood Wins, his latest crossover book from Knopf, to surrounding luminaries.
Big is featured on the State U website, since he is a recognizable name and face for any parent or potential donor paying close attention. But Big is never on campus. Adjuncts and T.A.’s are doing his scut work back home.
For his preferred dinner companions on the moonlit Italian terrace, Big is doing Jean-Michel Basquiat and Philip Glass, Cultural Conquest and Mid-Century Comic Books, whatever is needed to run the conversation and dazzle his companions. He’s on autopilot, waiting for the Sunday Times book review.
Over dinner a glow of self-love radiates from the table, fortified by the fabulous Barolo. Non è meravigliosa la vita, Big exclaims with absolute sincerity.
In Central Hall back home the Vice President for Community and Multicultural Development is not quaffing the Barolo.
She is a worker bee with many, many assistants and campus liaisons. Staff is busy writing new codes and policies. The VP has an important three-day intercollegiate conference on Community Education in Miami next week. She is strong and confident, with a cold, perky, false-friendly demeanor. She radiates enthusiasm for the promise of racial and gender equality.
Ready and able to quote federal, state, and institutional regulations, she is blank on the humanities. Her degrees are in Organizational Sociology and Higher Education Management. These days she is working closely with the Woman in Black to create an LGBT major. She also wants money for the Interfaith Alliance and to make the University Chapel “user friendly” to Muslims. Some of that Open Society money could help, she is thinking.
Her President is in Manhattan and Washington, D.C., accompanied by his public relations and “communications” team. He is doing STEM and “workplace readiness” for foundation and institute program officers. Development is home, dialing for dollars to build the new 90,000-capacity football stadium, using sophomores on work-study as bait for small-fry alumni.
Say amid all this you are a Tenured Vanilla and an old-school scholar. Congratulations. You deal with isolation and frustration daily. Rei Terada is going to be this year’s Endowed Lecture, like it or not. Your enrollments in European History since 1500 are falling. There is talk of folding — after 95 years — the esteemed and notoriously difficult German Intellectual History course. You remember when your field was more popular.
You still have it. Your last book sold 1,300 copies hardback and on-line, don’t ask about paper, compared to Big’s 50,000, but it was a critical hit in the journals. It’s just that the students are into different things today — and so are your colleagues, many of whom you consider to be shallow or showily exotic. The temptation is lighten up on the grades and reading list to draw better student evaluations, maybe work up a course called “Nazis and the Culture of Death.”
At all costs you avoid the Woman in Black and CCCAI. You delete the new and unread LGBT sensitivity codes in the morning e-mail. All the time you count your lucky stars for having an academic paycheck and tenure, a summer place up at the lake, unlike the poor adjuncts and gypsies, abandon hope all ye who enter here.
The re-imagined humanities are flopping. Heavy-handed moral politics and esoterica are no sales. Morale is shot, funding’s drying up, and no one outside the humanities cares. Theology and classics — almost dead. Philosophy, literature, music, and history — on the ropes. Cultural anthropology, critical studies, and assorted identities: antic, subversive, and invasive. Madcap theories and protected classes create intramural rapture.
Meanwhile, the audience is walking out.
No thank you, sensible young men and women say, as they head for the STEM or economics lectures. Can you blame them? Medicine, law, engineering, architecture, technology, and finance promise value added. Wouldn’t there be greater inner peace — and possibly greater integrity — in trading bonds at Goldman Sachs or selling a Hollywood screenplay than in becoming a humanities professor?
In today’s circumstances few first-rate, really original minds are willing to spend five years in Sterling, Widener, or Butler Library working for the Ph.D. Who would go into the humanities today without making race, class, and gender major considerations? Without the right ascriptive credentials to flash, who would dare risk failure or discrimination if tagged insufficiently or inauthentically multicultural?
The best and the brightest of whatever color, male or female, especially students coming from diverse, less privileged backgrounds — exactly the students that colleges and universities have eagerly sought in the last generation — demand pragmatic academic fare. They cannot afford the bogus and confected.
The economics of higher education are rapidly changing. MOOCs and electronic learning remain wild cards. Off-campus humanities programs are often low cost and artfully conceived. When money is tight, folding humanities professorships and graduate programs at second-rate institutions will be inevitable, and in many cases, a purgative.
The reality check will be all those empty enrollment lists and classrooms, which even the most sympathetic administrators know means the end. The spoiled, self-absorbed portion of the senior humanities professoriate, counting on Teflon-like tenure to shield it, is likely to retire avant le déluge. These academics have reaped the benefits of the system but have gutted it. Their successors will be left to pick up the pieces.