Defending the Humanities and Heather Mac Donald

Peter Wood

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on January 12, 2013.

Heather Mac Donald may be the Ida Tarbell of our age: a writer who combines a meticulous eye for facts, intellectual brilliance, a sure sense of the historical moment, and deep moral seriousness. Tarbell is famous for her History of the Standard Oil Company, serialized in McClure's Magazine between 1902 and 1904, and is celebrated today by the Left for her having struck a blow against Big Business. She even merited her own postage stamp in 2002, along with three other women journalists.

It may be a while before Mac Donald wins such philatelic immortality. Like Tarbell, she is a deft expositor of the excesses of large enterprises that have grown unaccountable and corrupt.  But Mac Donald's preferred topics are big city government and, increasingly, academia. The Left has a hard time coming to grips with the prospect that the latter day equivalent of Standard Oil may be the University of California.  

Witness the splenetic rage of Rebecca Schuman writing on Slate. The occasion was the republication in The Wall Street Journal of an essay that Mac Donald first published in City Journal: "The Humanities Have Forgotten Their Humanity." Mac Donald offered a fer instance of why students across the country are forsaking majors in the humanities and minimizing the number of courses they take in the traditional humanistic departments. Her essay explains what happened at UCLA in 2011, when the English Department deep-sixed its requirements in "the cornerstones of English literature" in favor of some theory-besotted junk. Schuman's rebuttal takes the form of a series of snotty rhetorical questions meant to imply that Mac Donald is a cultural ignoramus. 

If there is an ignoramus in the room, it certainly isn't Mac Donald. But I'll come back to that. Let's first revisit the context. 

Why The Humanities are in Trouble

In June 2013 a special committee of the American Academy of Arts and Science issued a glossy report, The Heart of the Matter, calling on Congress to increase support for the humanities. It was, unfortunately all gloss, no gold, though it did help to draw attention to the decline. The report came on top of data showing that only 7.6 percent of bachelor's degrees in 2010 were awarded to majors in the humanities. And it followed on the heels of a report from Harvard that revealed that its bachelor's degrees in the humanities had fallen from 14 percent of all degrees in 1966 to 7 percent in 2010, and that students starting out in the humanities were the most likely to switch to another major. In October, the New York Times reported, "As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry," which spotlighted the situation at Stanford, where 45 percent of the university's undergraduate division faculty members teach—but attract only 15 percent of the students. In December, the New York Times in an article headlined, "Humanities Studies Under Strain Around the Globe," emphasized that the United States is not alone in treating the humanities as "nonstrategic." Australia, Britain, India, Japan, South Korea, Italy, and France have joined the decline. 

So there is abundant reason to wonder why the humanities are in trouble. These disciplines have thrived in the academy in various forms for some 800 years. Why should they be in such steep decline today? One explanation is that students are worried more than ever about their career prospects and, fearing that a major in history or English will reduce their chances of future employment, the students have hived off to study accounting and economics. There is surely something to this explanation. Faced with crushing loads of student debt, students do need to take counsel on how they will pay their bills.

But that explanation goes only so far. Even students who major in accounting could take plenty of history and English courses if they wanted to. To explain their reluctance, we need to look deeper. My answer, offered in various places, is that the humanities have in many cases descended into triviality. They have become aggressively ideological in causes such as race, class, and gender equity; they have turned into engines of contempt for the great traditions of cultural achievement and scholarly inquiry they used to represent; and they have become smugly self-referential, as if the declarations of the professors matter as much (or more) than the deliberations of statesmen and the profundities of great works of art and literature. 

Mac Donald's essay on the forgetfulness of the humanities proceeds in this vein as well, except that she brilliantly illuminated it with her examination of the UCLA English Department.  "Until 2011, students majoring in English at UCLA had to take one course in Chaucer, two in Shakespeare, and one in Milton." Then the English Department changed horses, in its own words, to ensure students were brought into the "alternative rubrics of gender, sexuality, race, and class." 

A Weak Rebuttal

Now, let's take up Schuman's rebuttal, mockingly titled, "Alas, Poor Shakespeare." The tone matters a great deal, since the content is minimal. Schuman begins by characterizing a new genre for literature students to study: writing by conservatives on the theme "Political Correctness Killed Shakespeare." She puts Mac Donald's article into this category of "neoconservative pearl-clutching." 

Rhetoric watch: two years ago Schuman's colleague at Slate, Torie Bosch, posted an essay, "A Plague of Pearl Clutching," inveighing against the "sarcastic phrase" as an exhausted feminist cliché for "someone as being prudish, uptight, or otherwise too conservative." Bosch thought it was "time to retire the expression," not only because it had become trite but because it had "degenerated into accusatory shorthand." 

As for the trope that conservatives are busy writing essays on PC bardicide, it misconceives the situation. Shakespeare's plays and poems are far beyond the reach of the arrows of the Lilliputian Left to inflict any real damage. Even the most grimly reductionist Progressives know that and have long employed more circuitous routes to their preferred destinations. One approach is to wrap Shakespeare into their preoccupations with race, gender, and class. It isn't hard, after all: Shakespeare's plays are rich with portrayals of sexual conflict and class distinctions. Race is a bit more challenging. After Aaron, the murderous Moor of Titus Andronicus and Othello, the list of Shakespearean characters who are plausibly "people of color" is pretty thin. The most popular PC solution to this dearth of personae that can be dragooned into service on behalf of 21st century racial resentments has been to transform the "savage" Caliban in The Tempest into a refracted image of a poor abused Native American—never mind that he is the native of a Mediterranean island. 

The game could be (and sometimes is) extended further. Shylock in The Merchant of Venice presents ample opportunities to deal with Elizabethan anti-Semitism. And certainly it is within reach to examine the "ethnic" conflicts that fuel The History of Troilus and CressidaAnthony and Cleopatra, and for that matter the wars between England and France that play so large a part in the history plays. What of the Volscian menace in Coriolanus

Contemporary humanists do in fact bring their doubtful lens of identity politics to these plays, though relatively few students actually get to join the fun. That's because there is only so much space in a curriculum, and if you are going to make room for "Introduction to Ethnic Studies" (UCLA English Department's course 100), and "Chicana/Chicano Literature from Mexican Revolution to el Movimiento, 1920 to 1970s"(M105C),  and "Studies in Native American and Indigenous Literature" (106), and "Studies in Gender and Sexuality" (M107B), and "Community-Based Studies of Popular Literature" (M114SL), and "Keywords in Theory" (122), and "Feminist and Queer Theory" (M126)—something else will have to go. 

Unless a student has a wayward fascination with Elizabethan drama or a special fascination with Shakespeare that isn't exhausted by the homoerotic love story in the Sonnets, the English curriculum is bound to have less Shakespeare, the more it has of "Postcolonial and Transnational Theory" (128). The UCLA English Department's course listings by no means show that "Political Correctness Killed Shakespeare." They show pretty clearly, however, that Shakespeare has been cut down to size: one writer to take note of on the path to a broader education. UCLA offers a lower division course, "Shakespeare" (90), "not open for credit to English majors," and three upper division Shakespeare courses, on his "Poems and Early Plays"(150A), "Later Plays" (150B), and "Topics in Shakespeare" (150C). 

Mac Donald plainly knows about these courses. The point, again, is not that Shakespeare has been banished from the UCLA curriculum, but that Shakespeare's works and other "cornerstones of English literature" have been demoted from their status as topics of required courses for English majors to courses that English majors might take if they feel like it. 

I realize this was a long way of saying that Schuman's jibe has no foundation, but the details matter. Schuman proceeds as though she is bringing down the house. Accusing Mac Donald of fixing the "Day the Literature Died" to a day in 2011, she asks:

Was that the day Geoffrey Chaucer was posthumously baptized by the Communists? The day the lesbians (all of them!) invaded Stratford-upon-Avon?

The cultural left frequently comforts itself with depictions of its critics as foot-stomping morons. The predilection is perhaps best explained as a way of avoiding the task of actually thinking anything through. In this case, it sets up her diatribe on why all those courses on figures such as Chaucer were rightly demoted. Schuman explains:

Single-author courses are tough to teach, and can be murder to take. 

These are pretty odd assertions. Often the very best scholars in the humanities regard teaching a course on Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Melville, or some other "single author" as a plum assignment. The authors are inexhaustible and many students respond to courses like these with an intellectual and aesthetic quickening.

Certainly not every student. For some, Shakespeare is murder. But for such students, literature itself tends to be the enemy. Some are in class seemingly to demonstrate their command of the lexicon of sneering: 

            Not everybody likes Chaucer enough to spend 15 weeks on him, and that's OK.

No, not everybody likes Chaucer, but a student who chooses to major in English really ought to be prepared to move beyond his initial likes and dislikes. Getting seriously acquainted with works of literature that have been admired by discerning readers for some 600 years seems like a pretty important thing—important enough that "15 weeks on him" is justified.

Schuman's snarky, "that's OK," is hyperlinked in the original to a YouTube clip of Stuart Smalley intoning, "I'm good enough. I'm smart enough. And doggone it, people like me." The underlying idea is that a student who majors in English should relax into self-approbation and not be bothered by little discomforts such as a failure to enjoy Chaucer. 

Misunderstanding the Humanities

I have to resist Fisking the whole of Schuman's article, as that would take a good deal longer than the 15 weeks required for a Chaucer class and would be a good deal less edifying.  But here are the lowlights: 

            Listen. No literature, if it's any good, is timeless. Ever.

This bit of doctrine is what is usually called historicism. It asserts, in effect, that when reading literature we should always foreground the immediate and local references and emphasize the political and social contexts. There is no harm in seeking such knowledge and it often enriches a text. In reading books from bygone eras, we often need some help. But there is an important difference between reading newspaper accounts of World War II in the Pacific and reading The Naked and the Dead. The former provide abundant local details and lots of context, but Mailer's novel subsumes those into a background that provides a powerfully different account of the war. That's what all literature does and why we distinguish between even very good journalism and works of transcendent imagination. 

This doesn't make literature "timeless," at least in the sense that it escapes into an eternity in which language and culture disappear and we stare into the Ether. But the reality is that we can indeed read Homer with rapt appreciation even though we have only a faint idea of the historic context of the Bronze Age world of Mycenaean Greece.

As it happens, Mac Donald, in fact, did not use the word 'timeless' in her critique, and it is out of keeping with her view of literature. Schuman is waving her sword at phantoms of her conjuring. Schuman's snarling put-downs of Mac Donald also come with an attempt to flatter the English profession as the vanguard of the future. She cites a blog by Natalia Cecire, a postdoctoral fellow at Yale, who asserts, "Humanities scholarship is incredibly relevant." Well then. According to Cecire, the humanists in the English departments are raising "uncomfortable questions," which, adds Schuman, lead to more of that "pearl-clutching by those who insist on the humanities' irrelevance."

Mac Donald and those of us who write in a similar vein have never insisted on the irrelevance of the humanities. No one wastes time on irrelevancies. The humanities in the sense of studying and cultivating an interest in the really important and enduring achievements of the human imagination are as "relevant" as they ever were. That they are increasingly submerged in a sea of triviality is deeply unfortunate and it is a matter of genuine importance. But not because the people who have wrested away control of English departments have "uncomfortable questions." Generally speaking, they have no questions at all, but just a string of reductionist formulas they endlessly wind around everything that comes to hand. They are, in plain English, bores. And the humanities are boring themselves to death. 

So we have a tale of two boredoms. Schuman and company can't summon a flicker of interest in Chaucer. Others of us yawn at the idea of English majors taking courses on "Detective Fiction" (115D) or "Studies in Disability Literature" (M103). Schuman laughs off Mac Donald for decrying "a discipline that's abandoned the classics in favor of playing the victim." The irony, according to Schuman, is that Mac Donald herself is playing the victim and championing a new victimology: "helpless Shakespeare against a rising tide of James Baldwins (he was Black and gay, so, doubly oppressive.)" 

No, Shakespeare isn't helpless. James Baldwin is no enemy, though not exactly a first-tier writer either. And Mac Donald is a powerful voice whose essay on UCLA is part of her testament to these troubled times. The folks who are now ascendant in English departments across the land seem to enjoy the conceit that they see around the corners of our culture and behind all the masks that oppression wears, and that their special calling is to enlighten the rest of us who might otherwise wallow in ignorance. It's a vapid conceit. No one needs an English department to discern abuses of power. We see them plainly enough every day. Rebecca Schuman thinks she is rebuking the revanchists of the fading empire. But all she is really doing is shilling for Standard Oil.

Image: Public Domain

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