Carpet Bombing Identity “Studies”

At most colleges and universities today, you find courses and even entire programs in Women’s Studies and Black Studies; at many others, you’ll also find Chicano Studies, Queer Studies, Cultural Studies, and the like. Their defenders say that those courses are academically rigorous explorations of fields that were previously neglected and are important in our increasingly diverse, multicultural world.

Bruce Bawer begs to disagree.

In his new book The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind, Bawer shows that those various “studies” are for the most part academically dubious exercises in opinion-mongering. Far from filling any hole in the curriculum, he shows that these programs began because academic promoters realized that they could easily pressure administrators into giving them courses and departments—and money.  

The galaxy of identity studies has been under critical scrutiny for many years. Melana Vickers wrote a strong critique of Women’s Studies for the Pope Center in 2005. In her book History Lesson, Wellesley professor Mary Lefkowitz exposed both the misinformation peddled in her college’s Africana Studies courses and the vicious counterattack against her for daring to question their content. With his book, Bruce Bawer adds greatly to our understanding of the educational malpractice that goes on in the “studies” realm.

The thing about The Victims’ Revolution that makes it so valuable—indeed, incendiary wouldn’t be too strong a word—is the way Bawer has gone “inside” the programs. He attended conferences, read textbooks, and even got hold of student writings. Making fun of goofy course titles is fairly easy, rather like carpet bombing the enemy from 30,000 feet. Bawer actually infiltrated behind enemy lines.

One of the crucial aspects of all the “studies” programs that he identifies is the deliberately obfuscatory jargon that professors and authors use to make it seem as though they have something profound to say and to bedazzle naïve, impressionable students.

For example, concepts (especially those that are thought bad, such as capitalism or private property) are never simply analyzed; instead they are “problematized.” Books and documents are not read, but are “interrogated.” Everyday words can be turned into deeply symbolic notions. “Gaze,” for instance, doesn’t merely mean to look at someone. In the world of “studies” it is freighted with overtones of oppression.  “You may even, Sartre argued, feel ‘enslaved’ by the Other’s gaze,” Bawer writes.

The very purpose of “studies” departments is far more political than educational. Bawer has a lot of candid statements to that effect, such as this admission by the founders of the Women’s Studies Department at SUNY-Buffalo: “This education will not be part of an academic exercise; it will be an ongoing process to change the ways in which women think and behave. It must be part of the struggle to build a new and more complete society.” Consequently, students who take these courses have to demonstrate that they have absorbed the opinions and “facts” they have been fed. Here’s an example.

In one of his “behind-the-lines” forays, Bawer gazed (shall we say) upon a Women’s Studies course that was remarkably open. He could read the assignments and the blogs the students wrote. The results were reminiscent of cults where new members put their brains in neutral and obligingly parrot whatever the leader says. One pitiable young woman wrote:

“Being that men are more likely to inhibit [she means commit] murder and assault, as a women [sic] I need to be aware of not only this, but also of the cultural influences and emphasism/pressure [sic] for men to be this way. I need to become more aware of the environment/people around me as well as an understanding of the pressures media places over men.”

That poor student would have been far better off taking a course to improve her writing rather than one that “problematizes” the fact that some men commit crimes into a need for cultural reconstruction.

And then there are the books, the execrable books.

One book that is highly popular among “studies” professors is Paolo Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (The Pope Center’s Jay Schalin called it “the sacred scroll of the social-justice-in-education movement.”) The trouble is that the book is not an academic work at all, but simply a screed. Bawer writes, “Freire’s world is one populated solely by the ‘oppressors’ and the ‘oppressed,’ and in his book he does little more than insist repeated that the ‘oppressed’ should not actually be taught… but should rather be helped to recognize their ‘oppression’ and encouraged to resist it.” The book is irresistible to professors who are intent on instilling a feeling of grievance and injustice in their students, but that’s all it does.

Another book that is commonly used is Ron Karenga’s Introduction to Black Studies. It is chock full of the historical misinformation that led to so much grief for Mary Lefkowitz at Wellesley, along with such leftist tropes as the superiority of “black collectivity” over European individualism.

While “studies” advocates try to put on a veneer of academic respectability for the public, their conferences give the game away, since they cast aside the pretense of scholarship. (Nothing like a gathering of the like-minded to loosen tongues.0 Bawer spent a lot of time going to such conferences and heard a lot of astounding—and revealing—talk.

Consider his trip to a conference on Disability Studies. One speaker, in Bawer’s words, “explained that her mother has multiple sclerosis but refuses to use technology meant to make her life easier—an act Smith celebrates as ‘resistance in the face of hegemony, as many of the vendors of the technology are able-bodied white men.’” She went on to describe inventors of products to aid the disabled as uncaring capitalists and exhorted disability activists to “expose normalcy as a construction.”

In other words, it is better that suffering people continue to suffer as long as capitalists might make some money from selling things to alleviate their suffering. Why should we want people who think such absurd things teaching impressionable college students?

We shouldn’t, of course, but Bawer explains that these “studies” programs persist because the victimology advocates know that almost no college leaders will say “no” to them. It’s all a great con, he argues, in which academic hustlers figured out that white, liberal, guilt-ridden administrators could not deny them—professed spokesmen for groups those administrators have been conditioned to regard as oppressed—whatever they wanted. That is why we have this plague of “studies” and why they are so hard to prune back, much less eliminate.

The book ends on a hopeful note. Bawer suggests that parents and alumni who are immune to the “thick clouds of pretentious rhetoric and charges of prejudice” that “studies” advocates use to defend their fiefdoms will steer their children and their money away from those programs. The heightened awareness these days that college courses that don’t teach anything useful are an unaffordable luxury will make more people ask the question that must terrify the “studies” purveyors: “Is there enough educational value here to justify the cost?”

Bawer also advances the possibility of founding new colleges, employing faculty drawn from a huge pool of unemployed or underemployed scholars and offering a first-rate liberal arts education.

I will add another prospect that he doesn’t, namely the movement away from the traditional B.A. as the means of signaling one’s employability, and toward online badges and certificates. All the “studies” grew up under the shelter of degree programs, as little parts of the bundle of academic credits students felt the need to purchase. Now that the bundle is starting to break up, courses and programs will have to pass the test of the market on their own.

It’s hard to imagine that many of the “studies” programs will pass that test, and especially so once the message of The Victims’ Revolution gets out.