It seems we are now at the point where the great theoretical experiment with identity politics and critical studies that has been conducted in our universities for the last couple of decades is finally beginning to bear some empirical fruit…and the results are, as this report shows, troubling.
I’ll admit I’m somewhat late to this party (story of my life), as I only really began to have serious concerns about the harm the humanities was doing to students about five or six years ago, when I started work on posthumanism and the posthumanities. Some more prescient than me saw this coming a long way back and were sneered at for their trouble; but it suited many, many more to turn a blind eye and build their careers.
What’s been decisive for me on this topic is the emergence of evidence showing that many of the so-called ‘critical theories’ (and the dogma they foster) peddled in humanities’ programs have actually been harmful to the humanities. The great theoretical experiment has failed and it seems to me irresponsible to keep pushing the ideas that drove it: instead, we need to figure out what to stop things getting worse.
The problems facing literary studies as a result of this failed experiment are particularly bad, according to the MLA study linked above:
Jobs in English are down 10.7 percent from last year.
Jobs in foreign languages are down 12 percent from last year.
English had 851 jobs listed last year, which is lower than any year on the chart (which goes back to 1975-76).
Foreign languages came in at 808, which is also lower than any other year listed.
Both areas are well below the numbers for jobs in the year after the recession hit, 22 percent fewer in English and 21 percent fewer in foreign languages.
This has been a problem long in the making for literary studies: student enrollments are dropping (why study something that will only indebt you to the tune of thousands of dollars and won’t even qualify you for a job at Starbucks?), high-quality hires are not being made (and in some cases I am familiar with, mediocre faculty members don’t want high-achievers around to highlight their lack of productivity; academic politics can be as catty as Mean Girls) and course offerings so niche that they are utterly divorced from reality (these are frequently driven by faculty’s antiquarian and activist research agendas); the list goes on, unfortunately.
And, as Jonathan Haidt recently pointed out, the problems caused by identity politics and ‘critical thinking’ are no longer confined to the universities; they are now also showing up in high schools, fuelled in no small part by teachers who are themselves the products of Education programs saturated by ‘critical thinking’ dogma. So, ill-prepared students will be leaving high school without necessary basic skills and arriving at universities armed with tools that are designed for activism, not learning, where they will encounter staff who don’t think of teaching as their primary job (most of whom have never even been trained to teach).
Things may be bad now, but they’re likely only going to get a whole lot worse when the broken parts overlap to form one big dysfunctional system.
If you’ve been unsettled by the recent shameful display at Wilfrid Laurier University, then this is like a good place to find ideas about how to break up the horrifying and destructive groupthink that is gripping our universities and, frankly, ruining students’ future prospects. It’s a wide-ranging and utterly engaging discussion between Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Haidt on what’s going wrong at universities and what needs to be done to start setting things right.
Most recently, the media reported Lindsay Shepherd, a grad student and teaching assistant in Laurier’s communications program, ran afoul of her university bosses while instructing a first-year class. She showed a clip of a debate between U of T professors Jordan Peterson and Nicholas Matte. The debate, which previously aired on public TV, had Peterson explaining his objections to the use of non-gendered pronouns while Matte argued in favour.
Shepherd showed a three-minute clip to spark discussion but it seems someone in class complained that the ideas of Peterson made them feel unsafe. Shepherd found herself called before a hostile tribunal of her thesis adviser, the program chair, and the manager of the university’s Gendered and Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Office.
Quotes from the meeting, which Shepherd recorded, show that she was subjected to a barrage of accusations as her motives and character were called into question. She was ultimately told she was not allowed to expose students to views like those of Peterson because, according to her thesis adviser, discussions that create “an unsafe learning environment” are “not up for debate.”
You can listen to excerpts from the recording Lindsay made here. And, to her credit, Lindsay holds up quite well, considering the tone of her, er, inquisitors.
Now, if you’re thinking that this all sounds uncomfortably reminiscent of a Struggle Session… well, I’d agree with you.
I know we all have bad days. After all, we’re only humans trying to do our best; we can be tired or irritable some days due to stresses and strains, and we can fall short of being the best versions of ourselves. But were both these professors having such bad days that neither thought to think that maybe this wasn’t a terribly good–never mind constructive or fair–way to treat someone who said they took a neutral stance on the video and is, after all, one of their students?
And, realistically, is what Jordan Peterson has to say really dangerous? I mean, come now, are the comparisons to Hitler at all justified? Peterson is as hard on Hitlerism and Fascism as he is on Communism in his talks; is that perhaps the issue for these inquisitors? To my ears Peterson’s work always sounds well-intentioned: part well-informed psychology and part knock-off René Girard, a French philosopher of violence whose work I found quite useful when I wrote this several years ago. And surely we could all spend a bit more time cleaning our rooms?
But I’d also ask is this really what Canadians–who, after all, are footing a serious slice of the bill–want (deserve?) to see happening in their universities? Should Canadian universities be ‘safe spaces’ where certain beliefs and theories simply must not be challenged? Places where anyone who even tries to question those beliefs and theories with evidence is immediately characterized as some sort of threatening bigot? Or should Canadian universities be places where academic freedom is enshrined? Places where difficult and complex issues can be honestly discussed and openly debated, using the best evidence available, to help us ascertain the truth?
I ask because this happened a very short time ago at UBC.
Yes, I know that it’s a hoary old chestnut that has been cited here, there and everywhere by all sorts of people, some of whom I might not want to be counted among; nonetheless, de Tocqueville’s thinking offers a useful lens for viewing what speech-and-offence codes on university campuses are doing to both their students and their freedom.
Here’s the snippet I’ve been pondering the most:
Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?
Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things; it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.
After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
Beautiful writing, isn’t it? That’s even in translation.
De Tocqueville is, of course, talking about the state, and Rowan University is just a university. Indeed. But what connects them for me is the process whereby individuals are infantilized and their freedom eroded by an institution that has authority over them. Rowan’s policies on ‘microaggressions’ boil down to an institutional interference in how grown people talk to each other; and, as de Tocqueville notes, the process of infantilization is carried out through a benign, mild authority that is composed of ‘a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate.’ Indeed, such an authoritative network of ‘microrules’ seems designed to ensnare, rather than free, individuals through the active micromanagement of small, everyday interactions. De Tocqueville also reminds us that ‘[s]ubjection in minor affairs breaks out every day and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their own will.’ It’s hard not see the same grinding mechanism at work in Rowan’s policies, which amount to imposing a one-sided model of language wherein everyday conversations must take place in accordance with rules that both presume the guilt of the one accused of causing offence and prevent the same from refuting the charges. Such a model of communication clearly has nothing to do with dialogue, no matter what is claimed; it rather resembles the controlling one-way flow of information used by the Senders in William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. It is designed to shut people up.
De Tocqueville makes it clear that the old words like ‘tyranny’ and ‘despotism’ don’t quite capture what he wants to isolate for scrutiny: this network does not ‘tyrannize’ per se; nor should we expect it to resemble a ‘despotic’ regime, complete with a dear leader wearing a vaguely militaristic uniform surrounded by laughing-but-terrified minions. On the contrary, this ‘despotism’ doesn’t look much like despotism at all. As de Tocqueville notes earlier in the same chapter, this ‘despotism’ even looks mild at first glance: ‘it would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them.’ Therein lies the network’s insidiousness: it reaches into every corner of your existence, making you dependent upon it, unable to function without it, as it quietly degrades you, reducing you to the state of being a helpless, perpetual, child, utterly in grip of its mild power.
Can such a form of authority, which disregards personal freedoms as it ‘compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies’ people, reducing them ‘to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals,’ actually be considered a good thing? How can such a form of authority do much besides stunt its charges? It certainly can’t do much to equip them with the skills required to stand on their own two feet like reasoning and free individuals.
And what if both the university and the state want the same thing?
“A wide-ranging, informative and engagingly written book on the emergent field of posthuman studies”
—Stefan Herbrechter, Research Fellow, Coventry University, UK
My latest publication, a trade academic book from Bloomsbury Academic just came out at the start of March, 2017. It’s called Posthumanism: A Guide for the Perplexed and it’s available from Amazon, libraries and select bookshops worldwide. It explores how humans and humanism are changing through interactions with technology, science and medicine; it considers how advances in the fields of technology, science and medicine challenge and redraw the usual distinctions made between humans, animals and machines.
I must admit that this book had something of a difficult birth: the half-completed first draft of it was stolen, along with my computers and back-up drives, in a break-in at our house in Vancouver in October, 2013. I had started work on the book again, not a little disheartened, when, one night in February, 2014, the writing process encountered another setback: our house was flooded with sewage back-up during a power outage, which caused the sump-pumps to stop working. I also had the great good fortune to discover the sewage back-up by falling into it in the dark (not a night I’ll soon forget, let me tell you). We had to leave our house so the restoration could be completed, and so began a long odyssey of moving from temporary accommodation to temporary accommodation, while the world’s most incompetent crew of ‘restorers’ (thanks for nothing, Sevicemaster), spent the next six months doing a job we were assured would last only six weeks.
During this disruptive peripatetic existence, I was working on the book whenever I could. But the book had begun to change from what had been the half-completed stolen draft. I found that as I researched, I was becoming more and more skeptical of the ‘science and technology studies’ approach to technology and science favoured in the humanities; that same approach has also informed a lot of what has been written about posthumanism. It seemed to me that such an approach was severely limited in what it could say about science and technology because it could not properly get to grips with the science and technology it was purporting to criticize/analyze. In practice, such an approach is confined to making shallow comments about ‘representations’ of technology and science, which wind up making ill-informed (and often outlandish) claims about technoscience that cannot help but put off those who actually know something about how science and technology actually work. I resolved that I’d try to avoid such shortcomings by giving my reader a more technically informed overview of the technoscientific advances–such as gene editing and artificial intelligence–I discussed in the book. My approach also meant that I had to try and speak across the deep divisions that separate the sciences from the humanities: not an easy task.
Then, in October 2015, just as I was finishing up the complete draft for submission to the publisher, a now infamous fight over Halloween costumes at erupted at Yale. This fight, in its turn, set off a whole spate of outlandish ideological demands (and frankly outrageous claims) by students (and several of their ideologically-driven professors) at universities in America and elsewhere. As a result, I started to become more and more uneasy about (and mistrustful of) the state of the humanities, especially about what had been passing for the so-called ‘critical thinking’ in the humanities for decades. I decided that the book should therefore reflect my growing concerns about that form of ‘critical thinking’ and the harm it does the students subjected to it. I finally submitted the manuscript to the publisher in June, 2016.
Oddly enough, I now think looking back that if it hadn’t been for the break-in and subsequent delays, Posthumanism: A Guide for the Perplexed would have been a boring-by-the-numbers-academic-book.
I think the book may also hold the dubious distinction of being the first academic book to use the word ‘kek.’