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Epirrhematic Syzygy

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The barbarians are at the gate because we sent them an invitation engraved in deconstructionist gibberish and philological minutiae.     –John Heath  

The quote above is from an article called “Self Promotion and the Crisis in Classics,” which was included in a book of essays by Victor  Davis Hanson, Bruce Thornton and John Heath called Bonfire of the Humanities.  It’s a good collection, with a concentration not on the Humanities as such but on  Classics, but for someone wanting to go further with the discussion as it’s been going here,  I’d recommend Who Killed Homer (by Hanson and Heath), instead. 

Still, the above quotation speaks to the point, and I’ll get to it as soon as I clear one thing out of the way.

Although today’s adjunct faculty may appear to resemble graduate student grunt workers, their situation is much different, and it extends much farther.  Graduate students exist only in research universities granting doctoral degrees, for one thing.  More importantly, a graduate student slaving away as a teaching assistant has the reasonable expectation that once she’s paid her dues, she’ll be granted that degree and be hired as a full time faculty member somewhere, with benefits and the prospect of tenure.

Adjunct faculty have no such expectations.  Many of them already have doctorates and have found it impossible to find full time teaching positions anywhere.  Very few institutions are willing to consider their own part timers for full time positions when such positions open up, and many institutions think a record of five or ten years teaching part time is nothing but a negative–if this candidate was any good, wouldn’t he have found a full time position to begin with? 

What’s more, many of the small liberal arts colleges like the ones Mary Fox and I attended now rely very heavily on adjunct faculty and have been steadily decreasing the number of full time faculty in the Humanities for decades.

This is not a good situation, and noto only because adjunct status is often a form of exploitation.  It is also a signal of the level of respect the academic institutions themselves now have for the Humanities.

It’s one thing if people outside the academic enterprise don’t understand what the Humanities are “for.”  It’s another if people inside it don’t, since the people inside it, and especially those at small liberal arts colleges, are at least theoretically committed to the value of the disinterested pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

Robert is certainly right about one thing–a lot of the problems of the Humanities are self-inflicted, in that they are caused by a restructuring of these fields into loci of narcissistic silliness.  When I graduated from college in 1973, English was the most popular major on almost every college campus.  It’s now in the bottom quarter, and not just because we’ve admitted so many students who come only for the vocational end.

But it’s one thing to say that this particular set of Humanities professors is doing nothing important–honestly, there’s nothing important about one more foray into exposing the dark underbelly of white male heterosexual European hegemonic discourse–and another to say that the study of the Humanities is not important.

I think  Robert’s wrong about how long it will take this system to collapse, because it’s already collapsing.  Outside of a few very heavily endowed institutions, fields like English Literature, Classics, Philosophy, Art History and even History are going the way of the dodo, not because politicized legislatures are eliminating them but because students simply will not sign up to major in them.  They’ve heard all that stuff about hegemonic discourse.  They’d prefer to take a class in just about anything else except math.

This does not mean, however, that interest in what the Humanities really teach–instead of what gets offered as courses in too many universities–is nonexistant.  The  Teaching  Company and a few others offer full courses in the Humanities on DVD and audiotape–the nineteenth century English novel, the pre-Socratic philsophers, art and religion in the Middle Ages.   People spend money, often hundreds of dollars, to buy these courses so that they can follow them on the radio in their cars on their way to work or on their television sets at home instead of actually watching television.

If the institutional support and promulgation of the Humanities is collapsing, I think the individual support of the Humanities may be rising. At the very least, there are interested people out there, and my guess is that there would be a lot more of them if more people understood what the Humanities really are.

Then there are the successes of imaginative work and documntaries:  the novels set in ancient Rome or medieval Florence; PBS and BBC miniseries like the ones produced by Michael Wood (In The Footsteps of Alexander the Great); movies of Sense and  Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Vanity Fair.

That there is a market out there for the Humanities, that more people are interested in pursuing them than the present state of college enrollments indicates, is,  I think, fairly  undeniable.  And  I have argued several times in this blog that we should stop thinking of schools as the one and only way to transmit knowledge of any kind.

Still, the real danger of what is happening on college campuses now is twofold. First, those colleges and universities who claim to be providing a liberal education have too often turned over their Humanities departments to the constellations of Marxist Feminist Multiculturalist Gay Marginalized Problematized Indeterminate Subjects who all seem to be saying the same thing, so that the only distinction between the history of Greece in the Classical Age and the Gothic novel in 19th century Britain is the “text” one uses to give the standard lecture.

That means that some of the brightest students in the country who, given the inadequacies of most American high school education these days, show up at the college gates knowing nothing of the Great Tradition quickly get the idea that there is no such thing.  It’s all the same stuff about oppression and colonialism and cultural genocide repeated over and over and over again, and infinitely boring.

The second problem is that in those institutions where the Humanities have been effectively routed, other students see no evidence that there is any such thing, either.  As my student, and they have no idea what they would study in a course in Philosophy, never mind why anybody would want to bother to study it.

The Humanities are not disposable.  Two and a half millennia ago, a civilization arose in Greece that was fundamentally different from anything that had come before it, and anything existing around it, and most of what would come after it outside the tradition it founded itself.  It proposed not only the fundamental equality of all citizens and the universality of both morality and truth, but a secular and entirely non-aristocratic approach to learning and art that is still the singular characteristic of Western (as opposed to any other) life.

No matter how much we fight about the particulars–communalism vs individualism; religious vs. atheist; whatever–we share this, and in sharing this we are fundamentally different than anything else on the planet.

Which is what I meant, all those weeks ago, when I pointed out that Communists and capitalists are not only both Western, but more alike than either of them are to Confucians.

Written by janeh

May 22nd, 2009 at 9:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Epirrhematic Syzygy'

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  1. “More importantly, a graduate student slaving away as a teaching assistant has the reasonable expectation that once she’s paid her dues, she’ll be granted that degree and be hired as a full time faculty member somewhere, with benefits and the prospect of tenure.

    That wasn’t true in Physics in the 1960s and is even less true now. I’ve been told that the only course with good prospects for PhD students is Computer Science. My informant was a CompSci grad student at Berkeley who said her friends in Physics were bitterly jealous of her prospects.

    She now teaches at one of the California state universities and is up for tenure next year. Given the California financial mess, I have my doubts as to her prospects.

    This is a fairly long article but worth reading


    22 May 09 at 4:43 pm

  2. The minor point first:
    “More importantly, a graduate student slaving away as a teaching assistant has the reasonable expectation that once she’s paid her dues, she’ll be granted that degree and be hired as a full time faculty member somewhere, with benefits and the prospect of tenure.”

    But surely Trollope and Dickens teach one the difficulty of living on one’s expectations? Heyer certainly does. In fact, of my GTA contemporaries, no white male ever held a university position. Not one. (One of the females taught for two years at the University of Swaziland in Kwaluseni–she’s better now–and one of our black contemporaries has now been in minority outreach for pushing thirty years–a shameful waste of a good annales school historian.) WE may have been surprised by the outcome. None of the tenured faculty looked shocked.

    And the major point:
    “… Communists and capitalists are not only both Western, but more alike than either of them are to Confucians.”

    I shall now rant: THIS is what sinks academia. Neither the communists nor their right-wing counterparts are Western at all. When this inchoate “Movement” of racism, feminism, environmentalism and hatred of private property finds a name for itself and establishes its canon, it won’t be Western either. You talk about “the fundamental equality of all citizens and the universality of both morality and truth, but a secular and entirely non-aristocratic approach to learning and art.” I would have added respect for the individual and a sense of proportion, but let’s run with yours.

    “Equality of all citizens? Equality before the State, which a few self-selected “citizens” rule. It’s a system any oriental despot would understand. “Universality of morality and truth?” How about “truth” established by legislation, and denunciations of “Jewish” or “bougeoise” morality? “Non aristocratic approach to learning and art?” How about bonfires of “decadent” art? Rotting animals displayed as art at taxpayer expense because the State decides they’re art? All these are the staples of causes you tell me are Western. You can’t have it both ways. If the Western tradition means what you say, then these people are not part of it.

    Shouldn’t it register somewhere that communism and fascism are quite readily exportable to other (non-western) cultures? Try to export freedom and individuality, and see just how far you get. Then ask yourself which is Western.

    For generations, academics have accepted raving fanatics who despise precisely what makes the West unique as long as they knew a smattering of Greek or could compose sonnets. Now they’re down to not wanting to “privilege” grammatical English, and counting chopped-up ungrammatical prose as poetry. They have accepted teaching opinion as the same as teaching fact. And now when the curtain is rolled back and the little man exposed, they whine that they aren’t respected. The first step is to fold the con. When the universities set standards for themselves, they can start demanding the respect of others.

    The rant is ended. If it’s bitter, it’s because I’d once hoped for better. But now my expectations are in line with objective reality and sound reason. That’s not the comfort it might be.


    22 May 09 at 5:47 pm

  3. Robert, what is GTA? I assume its where you went to university.

    Communism and fascism are exportable as regimes imposed by force on people.

    I suggest that Democracy evolves as people in a scoiety take control of their own government. Hence, it can’t be exported.

    As for your rant, I spent 19 years on the admin staff (no teaching) of one of the smaller Australian universites. I wa not impressed by history courses with a title “The Making of Modern Australian Woman”.
    I have to agree that the universities have destroyed themselves – at least in the classical tradition. The hard sciences and engineering still do their jobs but they have the external constraint of nature. Do a poor design job and the bridge falls down.


    22 May 09 at 6:14 pm

  4. I assumed GTA = Graduate Teaching Assistant.

    Academic jobs at universities are extremely thin on the ground and hard to get – tenure-track ones, that is.

    But that’s mainly of interest to those university students who either love the academic life, love their field of study (or the research or teaching aspects of it, in the case of engineering or medicine) or (preferably) both.

    It doesn’t apply to the vast majority of students who don’t have a passion for the material – or who think they do, and discover they don’t on further acquaitance with it – who are mainly in university because that’s what people do after high school, or because that’s what you have to do to get a good – or even decent – job. Or so they think – I liked John’s link. The author basically said what I’ve been thinking and saying for years. There are lots of bright people who are probably a lot better suited to non-academic work than they are to the so-called knowledge industry. There are also (although this wasn’t dealt with in the article) lots of people who aren’t bright enough for an academic career or to work as master electricians, but who nevertheless can make very useful contributions to society in spite of being unable to achieve at a university or colleges, should they somehow manage to gain admittance to one.

    The K-12 system needs to provide something for everyone, of all level of abilities, and with increasing use of distance ed, even small rural schools can provide more support for a broader range of abilities than in the past. It’s not a panacea, of course, since students need a certain level of maturity and skill to make good use of such opportunities.

    And individual post-secondary institutions need to decide what they are. Are they merely businesses selling certification for tuition fees? If they are instead educational institutions, what are they teaching? To whom? I think most of them know this, but some of us don’t like the answers they’ve come up with.


    23 May 09 at 7:37 am

  5. GTA – thanks Cheryl, I was confused because in my time they were called TAs.

    On the subject of universities, perhaps its time to rethink tenure. It requires that the University hire someone at 30 and guarantee life time employment for the next 35 years. But I don’t think its possible to predict the future that far ahead. Moreover, I don’t think its healthy for people to stay in the same job for that long. Perhaps 10 year contracts with a maximum of one renewal should be considered. There is too much truth in the term “ivory tower”.

    Now I’m going to RANT! Why did so many intelligent people fall for post-modernism? Why did the Pope consider it necessary to apologize for the way the Church treated Galileo 500 years ago?

    There was a newspaper story sometime ago about some Europeans touring Muslim countries apologizing for the crusades. That was a 1000 years ago. And why is there no demand for Muslims to apologize for destroying the Christian North Africa that existed in 500AD? Or the Muslim conquest of Spain in 700AD? Or the Turkish invasions of Europe that swept to the walls of Vienna in the 1600s?

    Why do historians go on and on about the evils of Western Colonialism and ignore Ghengis Khan, or the expansion of China over several thousand years or the various Indian empires?

    Why has it become fashionable for intellectuals to hate their own country and culture?

    End of RANT


    23 May 09 at 3:40 pm

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