Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Bowdoin Affair

Just ten days ago, the National Association of Scholars, which figured in a post here a couple of weeks ago, released a long report on the curriculum of Bowdoin College, in Maine, one of the leading 30 or so liberal arts colleges in the country. (Some will remember that it was one of the schools Tony Soprano visited with his daughter Meadow in a pivotal episode of the first season of the show that bore their name.) The report has ignited a remarkable firestorm, and googling Bowdoin and NAS returns 117,000 hits as of this morning. The Bowdoin campus, of course, is all agog over it, and I am reliably informed that the Williams campus, where I'm teaching right now, is too, partly because the study was funded by a Williams alumnus. Both Rush Limbaugh and the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal have weighed in, and many more media outlets will undoubtedly do so. The NAS chose to release a draft report, which you can find here. It is very long, too long for me to read it and give it a full evaluation, much less proceed to some of the fascinating comments by Bowdoin sutdents that I discovered yesterday. I am going to confine myself to a few general comments about the trends it reveals, and emphasize my own rather individual view of their political effects.

The picture of the humanities shows Bowdoin in my my opinion to be very much affected by the academic trends of the last thirty years, somewhat more so than our leading universities, where students on the whole show a more practical bent. Even at Bowdoin, however, majors like government and economics are much more popular, evidently, than history or literature. The humanities, as the report documents at length, are increasingly dominated by the study of those racial, geographical, gender and sexual groups who have fallen outside the mainstream of the development of western civilization. That is a big reason why, in my opinion, the enrollment in the Humanities has been shrinking all over the nation. When I taught in the Harvard history department, I distincly recollect that we had between 150 and 200 majors a year. In the latest year for which data are available there are 55. Meanwhile, the total number of history faculty has increased. Eventually, for reasons I shall come to, some one is going to notice that, and it will be a bad day for humanities departments.

I will be delighted if readers are moved to read the report themselves and comment on it. (There don't seem to be many professional academics among my readers--or perhaps they would rather not reveal themselves in comments.) What I am going to emphasize is the political aspects of the report, and especially of the reaction to it. The NAS has in my opinion undergone an unfortunate evolution in the twenty years since I joined. The original membership was made up of academic traditionalists who believed in research, the careful accumulation and analysis of evidence, and the presentation of unvarnished conclusions. It ranged from neoconservatives like Donald Kagan of Yale to Eugene Genovese, perhaps the most distinguished Marxist historian that the United States has ever produced, and it included a few New Dealers like myself. The membership has been shrinking because it was always relatively old. Young scholars undoubtedly got the message back in the 1990s when Stanley Fish, now of the University of Chicago, declared that no member of the NAS should be allowed to serve on a hiring or promotion committee. But it has also swung wildly to the right. The leadership has become quite favorable to religion, which has to say the least a complicated relationship to the kind of free inquiry modern universities were designed to encourage, and it is waging a campaign against the "sustainability" movement that has indeed become very powerful on campus. The report complains, largely accurately I suspect, that Bowdoin's students are more likely to hear highly critical views of western civilization that positive ones, and implies, as does much of the commentary about it, that the faculty is participating in a political movement designed to change the world in a left wing direction. That, I think, is a profound, and critical, misunderstanding.

Undoubtedly a large proportion of the humanities faculty does believe that western society is inherently patriarchal, racist, and heterosexist, but they really have no serious ambitions regarding the future of the outside world. To a remarkable extent--and this also comes out in the report--the contemporary liberal arts college sees itself as a self-contained world ruled by values of tolerance, diversity, and mutual support that it does not expect the rest of the world to hold to the same degree. The administrative staffs of those colleges, which now includes assistant deans dedicated to the presumed needs of students who can be distinguished from heterosexual white males, plays a bigger role in this process than the faculty. A single graffito including a racial or sexual slur can easily call forth at least a week of anguished meetings designed to restore the morale of the supposedly traumatized student body.

But the larger question is: what actual impact is all this having on our political life?--and there I have absolutely no doubt. It isn't helping the left at all--it is helping the right, because the philosophies behind the modern humanities make a disastrous basis for any kind of meaningful liberal or left-wing politics. Indeed, the great irony, as Camille Paglia suggested twenty years ago in her aptly named essay, "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders," is that today's left wing academics are, in their own way, fully in the mainstream of American society, since they care only about themselves.

The great political changes of the twentieth century took place within the Rankean vision of the state and society that I discussed here a few months ago. Ranke, the founder of modern history, regarded the state as it emerged from early modern Europe as the embodiment of the values of society, and the mechanism through which citizens became part of something larger. While that idea of the state originally emerged from its role as the organizer of warfare, it became something else altogether during the twentieth century under the stewardship of leaders like Franklin Roosevelt, Clement Attlee in Britain, Charles de Gaulle in France, and Konrad Adenauer in West Germany, as well as many of their successors. The state became the mechanism for realizing a certain measure of economic justice, for planning the national economy, and for securing the needs of the people that the market failed to meet. And even though these tasks were performed, with rare exceptions, by white males, there was nothing about the tasks themselves or their objectives that had anything to do with race, gender, or sexual preference. Indeed, only the extraordinary success of the mid-twentieth century state in dealing with these problems--as well as the problems posed by the emergence of totalitarian states--allowed large parts of the population to start focusing on issues of race, gender, and sexual preference.

The changes in the humanities in the last forty years began largely in reaction to the Vietnam war, which was a betrayal of the nation by the state, albeit one of the kind which every state is likely to commit from time to time because of human nature. And those changes have all been designed to destroy the idea of a unified national community in favor of an idea of diversity. They have taught that states inevitably serve the interests of dominant groups. Many of the ideas of the new humanities implicitly give up on the idea of justice, since they revolve around images of eternally oppressed nonwhitemales. And that is why so many liberal young people emerge from our colleges and universities without any idea of how a renewed national community might solve our huge and growing economic problems. They know they favor gay marriage--as I do too--and they know the women among them will do just as well on the job market, such as it is, as the men, but economically and politically they are floudering in a world they do not understand. And that can only benefit, hugely, the well-organized and well-funded political groups on the right, who also reject the idea of a meaningful national community in favor of an every man (or woman) for himself jungle, a laboratory of social Darwinism. The left has been unwittingly collaborating in its own political eclipse.

In the last two presidential elections the Democratic Party has prevailed largely by appealing to women, minorities, and gays. It enjoys the overwhelming support of the young people who have gone through the current educational mill. But I wonder whether identity politics will hold that coalition together if the economy does not improve. In any case, that coalition has not been able to make a serious attack on inequality or the structural weaknesses of our economy. We no longer have much of an idea of how to do so. That--not political correctness--is the biggest failure of modern colleges and universities.

3 comments:

Aunt Katie said...

Professor
Thanks for this essay.
"The changes in the humanities in the last forty years began largely in reaction to the Vietnam war, which was a betrayal of the nation by the state, albeit one of the kind which every state is likely to commit from time to time because of human nature. And those changes have all been designed to destroy the idea of a unified national community in favor of an idea of diversity. They have taught that states inevitably serve the interests of dominant groups. Many of the ideas of the new humanities implicitly give up on the idea of justice, since they revolve around images of eternally oppressed nonwhitemales. And that is why so many liberal young people emerge from our colleges and universities without any idea of how a renewed national community might solve our huge and growing economic problems. They know they favor gay marriage--as I do too--and they know the women among them will do just as well on the job market, such as it is, as the men, but economically and politically they are floudering in a world they do not understand...."

This passage appears to hint, quite properly, to me, at modern deluded liberal globalism, which followed on New Deal interest group leftism, and has left the center and leftist elements of the country so weakened and unmoored.

As i have noted, we always zigged when we should have zagged with respect to leftism.

all the best,

Emmanuel Colbus said...

Hello from France!

I would like to make some observations with regards to the mention of Charles de Gaulle, but I think a German could say the same with regard to Konrad Adenauer.

I think that history unfolded quite differently in mainland Europe and in the English-American world. Here, the idea that the state had to act for economic justice emerged slowly and gradually - I remember reading about peasants asking the state to build them an irrigation channel and help them obtain better access to credit in 1848. The eight-hour day law was passed in 1919, annual leave was made mandatory in 1936, and so on. In fact, the main actions of Charles de Gaulle were :

a) giving the state a (noticeably) better constitution, and
b) handling decolonization.

However, in social matters, he simply was a continuator, not a revolutionnary.

More generally, and please excuse me if, by holding this view, I sound like an arrogant foreigner (I'm just giving my outsider's vision, certainly not trying to insult anybody), but I think the very existence of those "saviors" of US history, be they named Lincoln or Roosvelt, is very disturbing.

Firstly, a nation is not supposed to be in a need for salvation, except eventually in extremely dire military situations.

And secondly, no matter how well-intentionned, social changes imposed from the top to the bottom may bring excellent results, but lacking broad and deep support from the popular mentality, these will always remain on shaky foundations, at the mercy of contrarian top-down impulses (think Roosvelt vs. Reagan).

Since changes at the top tend to happen more quickly than mentality changes, this seems (to me) as creating more instability in the US social organization.

Not that this instability is necessarily bad per se - if it were, the US wouldn't have been such a major center in the second and third industrial revolutions. Yet I fear it has a cost.

(Additionnaly, if I may mention it : while these saviors have always turned out well for the US, in other countries, the experience has sometimes been very different. When France looked for one, it got Napoleon, Germany got Hitler, and Venezuela Chavez. But then, perhaps the US democratic tradition protects them better in this regard.)

longitude said...

Dear Professor Kaiser,
this one has nothing to do with your last post, but with the current situation in Watertown. As I know, that you moved after your retirement right to the spot, the entire world is currently looking upon, I just want to express my hope that you are fine and everything is as alright as possible. Stay safe - Gunnar Jopp, NCC 2012