I have a new essay at Jacobin on the controversy erupting in the conservative blogosphere over UCLA’s changes (three years ago) to the structure of its English major. While that may seem like an obscure topic for a lengthy disquisition, the article I’m responding to, from the conservative City Journal, reiterates some persistent, pernicious myths about the purpose and future of the humanities. Most people in academia consider these to be arguments so clichéd they’re not worth responding to, but their prevalence and seeming “common sense,” I think, make them worth a detailed response.
Despite their hostility to most of what has happened in the humanities the past half-century, American conservative intellectuals like to think themselves as the true defenders of the humanistic tradition. Within academia, they have often focused on defending notions of reason and objectivity against the “relativism” and “irrationalism” supposedly introduced into the humanities by modern German and French philosophy. Outside the university, their critiques have pursued narrower political goals, attacking disciplines like English and Comparative Literature as bastions of political correctness and anti-Americanism.
Much as conservative intellectuals long ago stopped confronting any vestige of actual Marxism, it is difficult to find within the diatribes of the movement’s humanities police any awareness of the university as it currently exists, of the humanistic disciplines as they have evolved in the past several decades, or of what truly threatens their long-term survival. The conservative humanities critique, like its Marxism critique, has been reduced to a meme that ripples through an airless, dimly-lit blogosphere, never encountering any light of intellectual engagement.
Occasionally, it breaks through into one of the publications that give conservative intellectuals their veneer of credibility, as in the case of conservative author Heather Mac Donald’s piece in the latest issue of City Journal, recently repurposed as an op-ed in — where else? — the Wall Street Journal.
Mac Donald brings frantic news from the front lines of the academic culture war. Actually, it’s three-years-old news about a curriculum change in the English department at the University of California-Los Angeles. In 2011, UCLA restructured its English major, eliminating required courses devoted to specific single authors. The major previously required courses that focused exclusively on Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton; now students can choose from a selection of courses available in each historical period of English literature, which (of course) includes a heavy dose of Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton. In addition to three historical literature courses, they must take a course in one of three areas of literary theory, or in creative writing.
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