Riley's Arrow

Peter Wood

Last night I learned that Naomi Schaefer Riley has been fired by The Chronicle of Higher Education from her position as one of the contributors on the Brainstorm blog. It was a poor decision by The Chronicle‘s editors, one of whom, Liz McMillen, explains it in “A Note to Readers.” Ms. McMillen also apologizes “for the distress these incidents have caused our readers.” As it happens, I had just drafted for Innovations a short essay which among other things praised The Chronicle’s editors for not giving in to demands that Riley be fired.

The Chronicle’s change of heart took me greatly by surprise. As a writer whose contributions to these pages have often  been assailed, I’ve come to trust that The Chronicle is pretty sturdy in its defense of the principle that dissenters from academe’s typical left-wing orthodoxies should be heard, and that dialogue–even if sometimes caustic–is better than enforced silence.

So my first response is personal: I feel less sure that The Chronicle will champion that principle the next time I address a controversial topic. If someone mounts a campaign of vilification against me, will I too be dismissed? There are and never were any guarantees against that happening, but the danger seems a lot greater. Whatever else Riley’s dismissal means, it communicates to the mob that The Chronicle is susceptible to its pressure tactics.  That guarantees one thing: that it will try again.

The story of Riley’s article is being widely told, but it won’t hurt to recapitulate it.  On April 30, she posted a brief article, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations,” to The Chronicle of Higher Education’sBrainstorm blog. The reaction was fury. Hundreds of people posted replies, several fellow Chronicle bloggers have weighed in, and a petition was mounted calling on The Chronicle to dismiss Riley.

I come late to the witch burning because I was away and missed both the original post and the gathering throng of those who found it needful to declare their outrage.  The declarations proving insufficiently purgative, some demanded action. Ms. Riley, according to these critics, should be punished for expressing views beyond the bounds of civilized discourse. Riley posted a follow-up article defending her original post and exacerbating the indignation of her critics.

Mark Bauerlein, also posting on Brainstorm, offered one of the few sensible comments on the affair. In “Naomi Riley and Her Respondents,” he observes “the disproportionate nature of the responses.” Some of the rhetoric in these responses was fever-pitch, and even the less hyperbolic writers seem a little carried away. My fellow Innovations blogger, Marybeth Gasman, for instance, wrote, “I am also deeply offended by Naomi Schaefer Riley’s uninformed, dismissive, and downright racist portrayal of the work of black-studies scholars.”

I’m not close to Riley, but I’ve known her for about 10 years; I read her books; and spent time with her at conferences.  She is by no stretch a racist, and while not herself an academic, has spent much of her career reporting on higher education.

That said, when I finally read her original article, I thought it had the characteristics of something she had dashed off. There are shoddy dissertations, trivial scholarship, and ideological claptrap in many parts of higher education. Her decision to use the titles and brief descriptions of several recent Ph.D. dissertations in “black studies” to indict the whole field of black studies erred in both overgeneralizing and undergeneralizing. It overgeneralized by portraying black studies as a whole as meretricious. It undergeneralized by treating a handful of doubtful-looking dissertation titles as evidence of weakness in just black studies and not as part of the larger problem of faulty standards in the humanities and social sciences generally.

Riley may have concluded too much on the basis of too little. Her article, however,  was offered as a “for instance” comment, not a work of social science, and it took its place beside hundreds of other such comments on The Chronicle’s opinion blogs, very few of which are grounded in much research, and none of which are peer reviewed. This is opinion, after all, not scholarship aimed at lasting contribution to an academic discipline.

So why did Riley’s opinion arouse such fury? It fell within the category of unspeakable observations in higher education—unspeakable because to voice them is almost certain to provoke outrage. The outrage is all the hotter because many people share Riley’s view that “black studies” and its variants are intellectually shallow and academically superfluous. To criticize, let alone mock, fields like this touches on higher education’s troubled conscience.

And higher education’s conscience is troubled because of the history behind such fields. Their rise owes less to signal intellectual accomplishments than to university administrators seeking to appease vocal constituencies. We have a collective pretense that the fields (black studies being the preeminent example) that combine identity group solidarity, a program of social change, and a fair amount of advocacy are “real” academic disciplines. It is impolite to call such pretenses into question because doing so unsettles some of the tacit agreements that undergird identity politics in American higher education.

Despite its origins in such administrative concordats, black studies has produced some substantial and important scholarship.  It would have been wise of Riley to register that. But her squib was meant plainly as a provocation and it didn’t tarry to take into account the complications that attend any effort to capture a complex reality.

Riley’s short essay might best be thought of as a contribution to that time-honored sport of satirizing academic self-importance. Senator William Proxmire had his Golden Fleece Awards; Thomas Carlyle in Sartor Resartus lampooned ponderous German scholarship; Dr. Casaubon’s fatuous quest for The Key to All Mythologies blights the life of his young bride in Middlemarch; any number of academic novels of the last few decades poke fun at the combination of triviality, cocksuredness, and grandiose claims that are endemic to academic life.

Judging by the over-the-top reactions, including The Chronicle‘s decision to fire her, Riley’s arrow hit its mark.

I am not eager to go down the same path. I like writing for The Chronicle, not least because doing so does put me into genuine dialogue with people who often disagree with me. If they choose to read what I say, they get to consider some ideas that are not as widely discussed on campus as they should be. And I get to think through some challenging responses.

But that leaves the problem: Was Riley fired because of what she said, how she said it, or how she handled the initial criticisms? In my view she rather unskillfully and imprudently pointed out a real problem. Excellent scholarship on black history, black literature, and black culture doesn’t need to be cabined in “black studies” departments. It could and should be integrated with the relevant disciplines. In that particular sense, black studies as a separate field is superfluous. There was a time when the regular disciplines presented barriers to scholarship on black history, literature, sociology, etc. but that time is long gone. Racism, social hierarchy, oppression, and group identity are mainstream subjects for scholarly investigation in all of the humanities and social sciences.

Could she have said something like this and kept her position as a contributor to The Chronicle? I think so. But maybe I’ll find out for myself.

In any case, The Chronicle’s decision to let her go is disheartening, and points to an even larger problem: the stifling of genuine dissent. Riley’s offending essay was perhaps an easy target for outrage since it is written in a tone of casual contempt for endeavors that many in higher education take with sententious seriousness. That tone of casual contempt is, however, endemic on campus. But it is typically pointed to other targets: conservatives, Republicans, free-market enthusiasts, Tea Party enthusiasts, adherents of traditional religions, doubters of man-made global warming, supporters of traditional marriage, and so on. Deployed on those topics, it is a tone that occasions no special notice.  Flippancy on matters of race, however, is apparently a firing offense.

The silencing of dissenting voices in the press–even flippant voices on serious subjects–should be a matter of common concern that cuts across political and cultural affinities. With Riley’s dismissal, our zone of free exchange of ideas just got a little smaller. And that benefits no one, including those who mistakenly think they just scored a win.

This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on May 8, 2012. 

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