Knowledge at the Modern University


A couple weeks ago, Damon Linker wrote an article attempting to explain why there are so many fewer conservatives in the faculties of American humanities and social science departments.  Linker’s explanation only served to highlight the heavily ideological character of  many modern humanities departments.

Linker writes:

Professors are trained as graduate students to become scholars — and scholarship in our time is defined as an effort to make progress in knowledge. The meaning of progress in the hard sciences is fairly obvious. But what does it mean to make progress in our knowledge of, say, English literature? One possibility is to find obscure, previously neglected authors and make a case for their importance…

Another possibility is to bring new questions to bear on old, classic texts. But where will those new questions come from if not the concerns of the present? This is how professors end up publishing reams of studies (and teaching gobs of courses) on such topics as “Class in Shakespeare,” “Race in Shakespeare,” “Gender in Shakespeare,” “Transgender in Shakespeare,” “Intersectionality in Shakespeare,” and so forth. To tease out those themes in texts that have been read, studied, and debated for centuries certainly constitutes progress in knowledge, since those who publish the research have said something genuinely new about something old and familiar.

Conservatives, by contrast, he says, are more interested in:

Such topics as “Love in Shakespeare,” “Friendship in Shakespeare,” “Justice in Shakespeare,” “Death in Shakespeare,” and “God in Shakespeare”…

These are classical subjects that centuries of people have written and thought about while reading the great playwright and poet. What’s new to say about them? Probably nothing.

Implicit in this argument are several large assumptions.  One of them is that studying, say, “Intersectionality in Shakespeare” is a subject that truly advances human knowledge.  On the contrary, I would suggest that such a topic has limited enduring value for human knowledge and is instead almost exclusively a masturbatory vehicle to peddle an in-vogue ideology.

The reality is that heavily ideological readings degrade the humanities’ pursuit of knowledge.  Firstly, the range of conclusions and richness of opinions arrived at by studying “Death in Shakespeare” is bound to be far richer than “Intersectionality in Shakespeare”, given that the latter topic is pre-designed as a tool used by cultural Marxists whose aims are already pre-determined before the text is even opened.   The topic may advance the righteous struggle, but not human knowledge.

Secondly, by presenting such ideologies as the knowledge worth pursuing, humanities departments succeed only in enervating themselves, since such topics do not speak to anyone but “social justice warriors.”  In a course on “Queerness in Jane Austen”, only students who are highly politicized and support the ideological end to which Ms. Austen’s works are being turned would be interested in attending.  The conclusions arrived may be slightly different in degree, but identical in kind.  The predetermined nature of the inquiry is the very antithesis of scientific knowledge.  After all, do you expect to discover from a course in “Gender in Shakespeare” that traditional gender roles are worth reinforcing?

“Justice in Shakespeare”, by contrast, could easily speak to issues of contemporary justice to people on all ends of the political spectrum.  Just a couple months ago, a production of Julius Caesar portraying Trump as the would-be dictator made international headlines, proving the enduring relevance of contemporaries of such themes.  Traditional topics allow us to tease out and play on ideas from Plato or Kant, enriching the human mind’s ability to draw parallels and arrive at unexpected conclusions.

This is not to say that the topics that Linker highlights as advancing human knowledge have no place at a university.  Clearly, they can play a useful role in the exploration of a number of contemporary topics.  But their role is highly limited by their strong ideological character which inherently limits free thought and the arrival at a diversity of conclusions.  Even worse, the preponderance of social justice-theme courses at universities is so overwhelming that it reaches far beyond merely diminishing returns in human knowledge to the point of negative erosion.

In twentieth century communist states, art and literature was held to be of value only when it advanced human progress, i.e. where it depicted the struggles of the workers and the peasants against the bourgeoisie.  It appears Mr. Linker – and so, so many of his academic contemporaries – are riding the same ideological train, albeit one newly painted for the twenty-first century.

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