Conservative Mark Bauerlein says humanities faculty are in denial about their own role in the decline of the humanities

Historians in the News
tags: education, humanities, history crisis, Mark Bauerlein



Mark Bauerlein is Professor of English at Emory University and Senior Editor at First Things Magazine.

... Undergraduates will sign up for courses in 19th-century novels or 19th-century opera because they’ve gotten a taste of Jane Austen or La Traviataand want more—or because the ones who teach those courses are charismatic and word has spread. When I attended UCLA in the ’70s and early ’80s, one of the hardest courses to enroll in was in jazz, taught by Paul Tanner, even though the class held 400 students. Not many of the sophomores loved Thelonious Monk, but the teacher was funny, cool, and clear, and he knew his stuff and loved it.

Liberal arts professors don’t seem to have those kinds of passions anymore. Or rather, they save their passion for something else, the predominant themes of theory and politics and identity. Nothing gets them excited like intersectionality does. King Leardoesn’t galvanize them, but the politics of one transgression or another certainly does. When I began in English as a sophomore in 1980, the teachers I had and the scholars I read argued furiously over how to interpret “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Today, only sociopolitical issues generate the same ardor in the liberal arts. Among the professorate, the significance of Keats just isn’t very interesting.

They save their passion for something else, the predominant themes of theory and politics and identity. Nothing gets them excited like intersectionality does.

Moreover, the reigning sociopolitical passions in the liberal arts are mostly negative. Identity politics springs from envy and resentment, not dignity and brotherhood. When a critic caught up in identity issues reads Paradise Lost, he doesn’t marvel at Milton’s poetic talent, Satan’s extraordinary ego, or the idea of the Fortunate Fall. He focuses on the belittling treatment of Eve. He cares more about victims than heroes. He plays up guilt over honor, groups over individuals. And he has a generalized resentment toward the past, which he sees as fraught with social injustice.

You can see the growing divergence between students and faculty. Undergraduates sign up for humanities courses because they feel, in one way or another, good about the works on the syllabus. Teachers of those courses tend to feel not so good about those works. Or rather, they mistrust an uncritical appreciation of them. Their pedagogy, then, aims toward disabuse. Humanities professors don’t wish to encourage a positive relationship between American students and Henry David Thoreau. They wish to undo it, to turn that (putatively) naïve attitude into a consciously critical one. Needless to say, they regard this instruction as a moral necessity.

But how do undergraduates experience a course such as this? As a downer, a discouragement. ...

Read entire article at James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal

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