20.11.10

LOSING THE GOOD OF THE INTELLECT. The late Richard Mitchell used that line, from Inferno, to great effect in an Underground Grammarian essay, "The Curriculum from Hell".

"For we have reached the place of which I spoke,where you will see the miserable people, those who have lost the good of intellect."

Here sighs and lamentations and loud cries were echoing across the starless air,so that, as soon as I set out, I wept.

Strange utterances, horrible pronouncements, accents of anger, words of suffering, and voices shrill and faint, and beating hands,

all went to make a tumult that will whirlforever through that turbid, timeless air, like sand that eddies when a whirlwind swirls.

Professor Mitchell's essay is an early reaction to the introduction of the inclusive curriculum. He suggests that, like other fads, it will pass.
There is quite enough contention, and ambition, in the University to provide a testing and weighing of them all. Some will flare for a space and sputter out, and some will get the Mene, mene right away. Some will fall, only to rise again in another age.
But when the [State] University of [New York at] Albany gives some of its humanities departments the mene, mene, all of a sudden the Received Tradition becomes important. For instance, David Foster at Chicago Boyz finds my link to Gregory Petsko's criticism of Albany's decision, and an instructive bull session ensues.

That's not the only place to find reaction to the humor in the humanities establishment's response. Carol Iannone notes on Phi Beta Cons,
I was surprised that the lament over the shrinkage of support for the humanities and for literature was carried on without reference to the deleterious academic fads that for decades have been undermining them — Marxism, feminism, deconstruction, postcolonialism, postmodernism, all of which denied the possibility of truth and objective knowledge, denigrated the classics as foils for the deployment of power by the privileged white male elite, worked to dismantle the great tradition as racist, sexist, classist, and exclusionary, and promoted inferior works that supposedly represented the formerly excluded victims. The [Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers], formerly the [Association of Literary Scholars and Critics], was founded precisely because the Modern Language Association failed to defend the literary heritage but instead enthusiastically championed these trends. You go out of your way to announce that great literature is not really great and perhaps no greater than your average television show, and not surprisingly interest will decline.
That's longer, and more nuanced than, "Deny incoherent beliefs of any kind: enjoy incoherence" but the sentiments are the same.

At Minding the Campus, John M. Ellis elaborates.

Freshman core courses that gave an overview of the achievements of Western culture were soon abolished almost everywhere, mandatory courses in this nation's history and institutions went too, and literature departments even stopped requiring that Shakespeare be an essential part of the English literature major. Even when formerly mandatory courses are still offered as options, they are often presented through the lens of a jaundiced view of our cultural past that tends to discourage further study.

Predictably, enrollments in departments that substituted adolescent politics for the humanities dropped sharply. My own institution tried something that turned out rather like a controlled experiment to test student response. The radical faculty set up a major in World Literature--one heavily invested in the third world and in victimology--as an alternative to the literature department's conventional majors in English, French, German, etc. They waited expectantly for what they thought would be a rush out of the old and into the new. Alas, enrollments in the new courses were so low (mainly single digits while Shakespeare and Dickens were still drawing hundreds) that the Dean was soon forced to intervene to end this embarrassing fiasco.

There was a time when "save the humanities" would have been an appropriate cry, but that was years ago, when they were being dismantled in one department after another and replaced with the intellectual triviality and sheer boredom of endlessly repetitive Marxist identity politics, as cowardly administrators looked on and did nothing. The poverty of intellectual content was masked by an elaborate jargon, but that only made things worse: the remade programs became the laughing stock of their campuses. But now the day of reckoning has arrived. Enrollments have collapsed, to the point where the smaller departments face extinction. Those enrollments are sinking not because students don't value the humanities, but because they do.

It is important to grasp the fact that the cry we are now hearing ("save the humanities") is not about saving the humanities. It is rather about saving the faculty, who long since destroyed them, from the devastating consequences of their own foolish actions. It asks for a bailout, so that those same people can continue enjoying the fiefdoms they created to replace what once were departments of the humanities. And to respond favorably to that appeal would be folly.

Yet the crisis does need a response--but not the one that is asked for. Now that this day of reckoning has arrived, the appropriate cry should be: "restore the humanities." That rather different slogan would suggest that we should take hold of these failed departments where enrollment has collapsed following abolition of the humanities, and bring them back to health.

All the same, the beat goes on, according to Peter Wood.

Another way is exemplified by the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee’s Center for 21st Century Studies. To be sure, C21, as it styles itself, is not in the prediction business. It was founded in the heady days of 1968 as the Center for 20th Century Studies, and aimed at fostering “cross-disciplinary research in the humanities.” It evolved; or perhaps that term is too teleological. It moved along; it encountered trendy new ideas; it coagulated around them. Its Web site explains:

“The Center has long been a leader in the study of modern and contemporary culture, including film, performance, the visual arts, and everyday life, as well as in critical reflection in such areas as feminism, media theory, multiculturalism, postcolonialism, cultural and social theory, and lesbian and gay studies. We do not, however, limit our inquiries to the contemporary world, recognizing that the exploration of the historical, political, and social dimensions of contemporary problems, including race, class, gender, sexuality, and conflict, can only enhance our understanding of them.”

He concludes with the Trenchant Observation of the Day.

"We don’t really need a whole lot more evidence that our current system of higher education has a wobbly future."

Stop being reductive, perhaps you'll learn something.

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