What’s UNC Teaching These Days?

A trip through the course catalog is a wild ride.

If I, a graduating senior, were to give one piece of advice to an incoming UNC student, it would be to research prospective classes diligently. Search online for syllabi, survey professors’ CVs and academic work, and read students’ course reviews. Far too often, one signs up for a class simply because it fulfills a general-education or major requirement, only to spend a semester subjected to a shallow display of advocacy and a denigration of what once provided the basis for a rigorous liberal education.

Unfortunately, the number of truly rigorous and enlightening courses available to UNC students continues to dwindle. In their place, the course catalog is increasingly filled with postmodern, intersectional, and critical theory-based offerings. Why bore English majors with lectures on Jane Austen or William Shakespeare when you can instead provide them with courses such as English 687, “Queer LatinX Environmentalisms”?

The number of truly rigorous and enlightening courses available to UNC students continues to dwindle.To observe just how far Carolina has gone down the intersectionality rabbit hole, buckle up and try entering some of the critical theorists’ favorite buzzwords into UNC’s course-search website. Search for “diversity,” and you’ll find over 200 results. Aside from perhaps a few biology classes on plant diversity, hits consist of an endless stream of DEI-focused courses available across numerous departments. “Islam and Sexual Diversity” is offered by the religious studies department. “Diversity and Inclusion at Work” is available at the business school. Interdisciplinary studies students can take “Increasing Diversity in STEM Research.”

A search for “equity,” meanwhile, leads to illuminating courses such as “Decolonizing Maternal and Child Health,” a seminar that “provides … an opportunity to examine key theories and qualitative methodologies that advance anti-racist, abolitionist, intersectional feminist, and emancipatory scholarship for health equity and reproductive justice.”

For comparison’s sake, try searching for a keyword such as “Western.” While nearly 150 results appear, closer examination reveals that many of these courses, too, have a leftist slant. Search results include a class in the religious studies department on “Race, Sexuality, and Disability in the History of Western Christianity,” a comparative literature course called “Queering China,” and an English class on “Sex, Gender, and Sexuality in the Premodern World.”

A search for “gender” returns 394 results. “Race” returns 189. A search for “critical theory” returns 92 results. Looking for something different? Try “civic” and pour through all 10 available courses.

While a keyword search is not the most precise method for mapping out UNC’s curricular offerings, these results highlight a growing trend in higher education. Across schools, departments, and disciplines, courses that take a “critical lens” to the liberal arts are crowding out the core teaching of the liberal arts themselves.

Across departments, courses that take a “critical lens” are crowding out the teaching of the liberal arts.Even in courses with titles and descriptions that do not overtly advertise a critical-theory slant, the first day of class often reveals that the course’s purported subject of study is actually its subject of relentless assault. For example, when I enrolled in an introductory philosophy course at UNC, I was surprised to find, on the front page of the syllabus, a series of photos of notable philosophers, from the Greeks to the present day, in which each of the “dead white men” (a popular condemnation on campus) had an “X” through his face. The photos of the modern, “diverse” philosophers were unadulterated. The instructor’s attitude toward the pictured philosophers mirrored her “artwork.” While I was fine with learning about the modern philosophers and their thoughts on race and gender, it was a shame not to be immersed in the works of Locke, Plato, and others who were denigrated more than they were thoughtfully studied. I feel terribly sorry for students whose only exposure to academic philosophy was this course.

In some departments, such courses aren’t only prevalent but required. Take UNC’s School of Education, where the B.A.Ed. program requires all students to take a “diversity/equity focus course.” Among these are “Identity and Sexuality,” “Social Justice in Education,” and “Nurturing Latinx Identity Formation.”

This pervasive academic slant has grave implications for the future of the United States. Students graduating from schools such as UNC ought to understand their history, culture, and institutions well enough to become the stewards of their community, state, and country. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, founder of the University of Virginia,

It is [our] duty … to pay especial attention to the principles of government which shall be inculcated [at the university], and to provide that none shall be inculcated which are incompatible with those on which the Constitutions of this State, and of the United States were genuinely based, in the common opinion; and for this purpose it may be necessary to point out specially where these principles are to be found legitimately developed.

Jefferson suggests that studying the works of men such as Locke and Sidney, texts such as “The Federalist” and the Declaration of Independence, and statesmen like George Washington should provide the curricular foundation for public higher education. I fear that we may now be inculcating, as Jefferson warned against, principles that are “incompatible with those on which the Constitutions of this State, and of the United States were genuinely based.” While it is, of course, crucial that students acquire the tools to evaluate their history, values, and political and cultural assumptions rigorously, we must not allow the modern academic fad of American self-contempt to displace the very foundational teachings that we wish to critique constructively.

The infusion of “intersectionality” makes graduates less able to engage in dialogue and debate.The miracle of Western higher education has been its success as an engine for solving some of humanity’s most complex problems. The departments that have corrupted once-noble subjects with critical theory and postmodernism—particularly the “studies” departments—have excelled primarily in their ability to create problems for humanity. The infusion of intersectionality, which teaches students to analyze issues through the lens of gender, race, and class, into countless academic disciplines makes graduates more divided, more authoritarian, and less able to engage in dialogue and debate. Campus censorship is on the rise as free speech is attacked in the name of social justice, and race relations have been plummeting for a decade. Americans today have a distorted view of their own history and lack basic civic knowledge.

There may still be time for an academic course correction. Public higher-education institutions such as UNC are responsible for educating the citizens who fund their operations, and UNC must answer to North Carolinians’ representatives. Stakeholders should demand transparency and ensure that hiring committees aren’t discriminating against dissenting professors. They should demand that their universities once again prioritize their raison d’être: preparing the people of the state to participate in leadership, business, research, and service. Students should learn to be discerning customers and avoid vacuous classes. Professors should advocate for academic rigor and against mindless activism.

Forthcoming programs such as UNC’s School of Civic Life and Leadership paint a promising picture for the institution’s future. Despite pushback from entrenched defenders of the status quo, the new school promises to provide spaces for students to have open, intellectual discussions about politics, civic engagement, history, social and natural science, and more. Perhaps the new school will provide a blueprint for the rest of the institution and for the UNC System as a whole. The future success of higher education depends on whether institutions can reestablish themselves as effective centers of research, civic development, and dissemination of the knowledge that provides the foundation for our society.

Harrington Shaw is an intern at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and a senior studying economics and philosophy at UNC-Chapel Hill.