by Bruce Thornton
Bruce Bawer, the intrepid international journalist and Freedom Center Shillman Fellow, has just published The Victims’ Revolution, an expose of “Identity Studies” in American universities. These are the programs predicated on the allegation that certain minorities in America, mainly women, gays, blacks, and Latinos, are victims of continuing prejudice, bigotry, sexism, and racism. Yet the focus on these programs is not on the gritty, pragmatic political slog necessary in a democracy for effecting change. Instead, as though these professors know their charges of endemic American prejudice are overblown, the curricula and scholarship of victim studies are characterized by the once trendy, now passé, postmodern and poststructuralist fads that never stray from highly abstract obsessions with “representation” in language, art, and popular culture, all delivered in jargon-ridden pompous prose laced with progressive bromides.
Anyone familiar with university life today knows how deeply these programs have penetrated the curriculum and the institution. As the review on FrontPage shows, Bawer’s survey is a penetrating contribution to documenting the absurdity, hypocrisy, and sheer mediocrity of such programs. What I find interesting is the response of academic orthodoxy to Bawer’s catalogue of absurdities. Consider the review by Andrew Delbanco, professor of “American Studies” at Columbia, in The New York Times. It is a textbook illustration of how the academic establishment goes after anyone who exposes the corruption of a reactionary, failing institution.
Delbanco’s main tactic is to deny that the problem even exists. According to Delbanco, Bawer’s book contains only a “modicum of truth.” The rest is a “caricature” that is “out of date.” Bawer’s targets are a “shrinking sector of academic life,” a relic of the ‘70s and ‘80s generation now “losing its grip.” This is a curious statement, given how entrenched these programs are in most universities. Even at a middling Cal State university like mine, we have Women’s Studies, Africana Studies, American Indian Studies, and Chicano and Latin American Studies. All offer numerous courses, award majors and/or minors, and employ all together 17 permanent and numerous adjunct faculty. And they have a large presence in the General Education program, with a total of 42 courses. This institutional presence belies Delbanco’s claim that the ideology underlying Identity Studies is “losing its grip.”
As for the nature of these programs, the catalogue description of Fresno State’s Women’s Studies Department confirms Bawer’s analysis:
Women’s Studies is an approach that places women in the center of inquiry. The primary mission of Women’s Studies is to analyze gender. Students acquire both a local and global perspective on gender. Attentiveness to diversity, privilege and power, and women’s unique creative contributions to human experience are central aspects of this training. More than simply a body of knowledge, Women’s Studies encourages students to apply their learning to transform their lives and their communities. Women’s Studies offers a vital perspective everywhere gender impacts our world.
This description encapsulates the central place of dubious postmodern theory in Identity Studies, as well as their focus on victimization. The emphasis on “gender” assumes as fact the highly contestable notion that being a female is not a question of nature, but of cultural and social “constructs” that reflect not nature but “privilege and power.” Note too another corrupting dimension of victim studies: the desire to “transform” lives and communities, a political and ideological goal that sets aside the scholarly demand for truth, sound arguments, and intellectual integrity no matter whose political ox is gored. Thus the Women’s Studies courses focused on rape and incest, not to mention the Victim Services Certificate offered by the department.
An apologist like Delbanco no doubt would argue that these programs are too few and too small to warrant concern. But the theoretical, political, and ideological assumptions behind them can be found all over the university, in traditional departments like history, philosophy, and English that increasingly have abandoned their curriculum for courses focused on victim identity. In English, for example, fewer and fewer students are exposed to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and the other great writers of the tradition. Instead, they take courses that focus on contemporary writers from those minority groups officially designated as victims. Students read novels, essays, and poems that revolve around the experience of victimization at the hands of white, racist, patriarchal, homophobic Western culture. When the old masterpieces are assigned, they are interpreted through the victim studies lens, with generous dollops of postmodern and “postcolonial” theory alleging showing that all literary and aesthetic values and truths are mere arbitrary constructs favoring and legitimizing an oppressive, exploitative power structure dominated by white males. This is why Edward Said’s Orientalism — “a work of malignant charlatanry,” historian Robert Irwin writes, “in which it is hard to distinguish honest mistakes from willful misrepresentations” — is one of the most assigned books in English courses.
Finally, the ideological assumptions of Identity Studies are institutionalized in the university’s various programs and offices promoting “diversity,” policing “hate speech,” and rooting out “sexual harassment.” All such administrative offices are given investigative and punitive powers over the faculty on the assumption that certain “protected groups” are by definition victims of oppressive behavior, hateful speech, invidious exclusion, underrepresentation, and discrimination at the hands of their non-minority colleagues — precisely the assumptions underlying Identity Studies. This intrusive, ubiquitous administrative apparatus, which institutionalizes and validates the bad theory victim studies programs traffic in, makes Delbanco’s claim that they are a “shrinking sector of academic life” either myopic or duplicitous.
Delbanco’s attempt to make the corruption that Bawer documents disappear is buttressed by other tricks of misdirection. He claims, for example, that whatever the damage done to the university by what Bawer calls the “victims’ revolution,” the old university was worse because it excluded women and minorities or failed to teach “social history.” Yet even if true, this fact has nothing to do with the intellectual corruption and politicization wrought by victim studies programs, which is Bawer’s point. If universities had been concerned about correcting these ills Delbanco decries, all they had to do was hire more faculty trained in the disciplines of English, history, or philosophy who would develop courses and practice scholarship in these neglected areas. There was no need to create new departments predicated not on scholarly methodology and disciplinary competence, but on identity politics and newfangled theories.
No more pertinent to Bawer’s critique is Delbanco’s bathetic complaints about the “many young people mired in poverty, damaged by dysfunctional schools, languishing in prison or drowning in debt.” Just how does the jargonish, incoherent scholarship of elite university professors help with these problems? Indeed, many of those students “drowning in debt” did so pursuing useless degrees like Chicano Studies or Women’s Studies, which in most cases only prepare them to be university professors, having given them precious few of what Delbanco calls “marketable skills.”
So too with his hypocritical rhetoric lamenting utilitarian “corporate-minded universities” that exploit adjunct faculty who “struggle to piece together a living with multiple part-time jobs.” The “corporate-minded” university has been a gold-mine for tenured faculty like Delbanco, who make 6 times what a part-time faculty member makes while doing one-third the teaching, and who grow fat on release-time, research grants, travel-money, and other goodies that a lot of that student debt Delbanco weeps for went to pay for. And what could be more utilitarian than the victim studies’ aims to “effect social change” or “transform society” or, Delbanco’s stated goal for education, to “find themselves”? The old liberal education wasn’t about students finding themselves, but about developing a critical intelligence that gave them intellectual autonomy by liberating them from the received wisdom and stale orthodoxy of the sort peddled in the politically correct classroom.
Delbanco’s review illustrates how the university patrols the borders of institutional orthodoxy in order to protect its power and privilege. But Delbanco’s Marxist (as in Groucho) argument — Who are you going to believe, me or your own lying eyes? — is unconvincing for anyone who has seen the dysfunctions and failures of politicized American universities.
©2012 Bruce S. Thornton