Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

Ok, there are no lions and tigers and academia seldom tenures bears, at least not at my uni, so what are those conservatives on about now?

According to an article in the Times today, conservatives have given up on their overt assault on studies programs and redirected their energies to majors, honors programs, and high school cultivation. On the one hand, these programs represent a return to the study of Western Civ and “The Great Books,” and as someone who almost got a degree in the latter way back when in New Mexico until colder places and the allure of living out J Crew print ads lured me away from my brown brothers and sisters to my own cultural detriment, I really do not think there is a problem with that. That, being defined as the study of Western Civilization or the Western Canon. What conservatives, and some liberals, do not seem to understand was that most post-structuralists and post-colonials were educated on Western Civ and what they were rallying against was not the material (lit, film, philo, etc.) but the hegemonic presentation of it as both inherently valuable and the precursor of all knowledge.

In fact, if you grow up in a western civilization or read material written by someone from western civilization you need to know about it in order to deconstruct the material in question. For example, one of my close friends just called me the other day complaining because her entire 50 minutes was taking up explaining a Tower of Babel reference essential to understanding the reading in her black feminist thought course. She has planned a whole discussion-lecture about the feminist deconstructive and reconstructive word plays on Babel and instead spent the time delivering a dry lecture on the reference once her students made it clear “they did not get it.”  My response: Yep, I once showed a short in my lesbian theory class that’s primary metaphor was the tainted apple. I had expected to spend 10-15 minutes discussing the short and western notions of sin that feed into sexuality, especially homosexuality, as sinful also playing on concepts of hell or damnation. My students did not know the biblical reference nor the Greek precursor, I had to go to Disney to get them where we needed to be to discuss the film and by then the rest of the lecture-discussion had to be tabled.

I think most academics have a similar story. The difference is that while conservative academics bemoan the fall of [western] civilization as a result of these encounters, we progressives simply gripe about a missing core course on the classics and move on. To us the classics are one building block in an entire legoland, to them it is the mat without which the legos cannot be anchored.

The fundamental difference between the way we see and present Western Civ that causes the conflict and highlights the problem with these programs. Conservative funded western civ programs are not imagined by the conservatives funding them as simply part of an existing multicultural education. Instead they are still being posited as THE EDUCATION and everything else as useless ideological filler. As they say in the Times:

The initiatives “work against the thrust of programs and courses in gender, race and class studies, and postmodernism in general.”

– James Piereson, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute

In other words, these programs are designed to destabilize theoretical and methodological understandings that center or render equal marginalized identities such as gender, race, class, and sexuality. They are imagined as a foothold in academe that will ultimately allow for a shift in the supposed binary between white-male-patriarchy on one side and everyone else on the other. Since this binary is false, as evidenced by the teaching of western ideas in feminist courses and/or in conversation in ethnic studies courses, the solution is equally so.

Some administrators are clear on this and have used the funds to create Freshman only courses and/or majors. Others have simply resurrected “the great books;” these are often the Honor’s College or Institute versions of curriculum that neither attract, recruit, nor promote diverse faculty amongst the ranks and inculcate a sense of elitism amongst the students. The latter not only become havens for conservative faculty who are just as much idealogues as some of the liberal faculty they are hiding from but they also transfer over issues of superiority to their students in the way they see not only themselves vis-a-vis other students but also their core curriculum vs. that of other departments.

There is also the issue of longevity here. It is unclear what inroads into the university conservative funders will ultimately have on campus if these programs are a success. If the programs become core parts of the colege offerings, ways to bring in students, higher tuition, or accolades to the Unis in question, then the conservatives behind the purse can potentially pull the strings. We’ve seen this happen with the influence of sports on state colleges and the influence of biotechnology on state and private colleges as well. While Uni administrators and faculty may be working from a model of complimentary education in incorporating these new Western Civ programs, the funders clearly are not. And if the Times is to be believed, neither are the faculty who are shifting their lines into these programs.  And that, ultimately is a problem that even the most well-meaning Uni program funded by these organizations has not addressed.

My gf, a philosopher, and I have often talked about the meaning of higher education. While we both believe that education is supposed to be the free exchange of ideas and the embrace of complex and open ways of thinking, we have been in academe long enough to know that idealogues cross political spectrums, programs, identities, and rank. Moreover, taking a historian’s mind to the issue of higher ed, I always have to remind her that education in the U.S. was never imagined as a place for everyone but rather for the male heterosexual gentry and then later for their future wives (women not majoring in their MRS need not apply). The multicultural revolution, as it is misnamed, has been a rather short project in education with limited or stunted impact in the larger institutional history.

Education reform must always take this reality into account and to work toward curriculum that breaks down divisions rather than finds new ways to reify them. Take two examples:

  • Financial Aid – imagined as a way to even out the playing field by allowing working class students to attend the same colleges as rich ones. The reality – most poor and working class students are offered Stafford loans that cannot be forgiven through service nor deferred after the grace period without capitalization of interest. Students who already have existing barriers to advancement are thus saddled with huge debt regardless of the economy in which they will graduate and thus removed from certain kinds of labor and return to certain communities because of the need to pay that debt.  Rich kids graduate without debt, with their initial social capital connections in tact as well as their new ones forged in college, they can add to their access to existing family wealth their educational attainment. The poor kids graduate with neither previous social capital nor familial wealth,
    they can often add to their access to educational attainment the debt they owe and the debt their families incurred due to a loss of their paid or unpaid household labor (elder care, child care, part time job, full time job, etc.). Meanwhile  colleges with huge endowments dump billions into athletics, state of the art labs, wifi campuses, and even lavish parking structures with smart elevators and vending machines. While Harvard and the like should be praised for deciding to shift some of this wealth toward full funding for students loan free, the question still remains why these outcomes were not mediated in the invention of financial aid in the first place so as not to recreate inequality?
  • Identity studies programs – Let’s take ES as our base for this example. The majority of Ethnic Studies majors at most colleges are people of color from the same Ethnic background and a handful of white students. These students go on to work in social justice primarily with poc where they can seldom make enough money to pay back exorbitant loans or in academia in the Ethnic Studies Department. Most ES Programs do not have more than 1-5 lines, meaning most ES majors do not have academic positions waiting for them when they graduate. Many will have to take joint appointments with a home department that has some to no interest in the success of ES but does have the power to prevent tenure of its faculty as a result. These joint homes are almost always run by tenured white faculty. When budget cuts come down, ES is almost always the first on the chopping block, forcing faculty of color to beg for homes elsewhere where they may not fit, to go back on the job market, or be folded into their other Department where they may not be wanted as a full time presence. So you have a ghettoization of knowledge: black studies for black people, brown studies for brown people, etc. You have a ghettoization of career opportunities: poc work primarily in ES or they work alone, or if lucky with one or possibly two poc, in some other department isolated as the “race” prof on the faculty. Both represent a limited number of lines which carry with them certain stigmas the further removed they get from the ES Phd- ES faculty dichotomy. (Oh and many ES faculty are not ES majors further diluting the opportunities for ES majors.) Whether limited by small budgets or in non-academic positions with limited funding, the best and brightest are often defanged in a system that combines debt and indebtedness. Indebtedness is often caused by the recreation of racial hierarchies in which even tenured faculty of color are dependent to some extent on white allies to maintain their programs, their potential to receive tenure, and possibly even the continuation of their lines making it hard for them to implement any radical policy shifts that would impact the larger campuses on which they work. You also have the recreation of gender hierarchies in which ES remains largely a male dominated program leaving female faculty to fend for themselves in the one race position in WS or be the one gender expert in ES. Worse, because of this situation, you have ES faculty who turn it into fifedoms claiming they are making space for poc when they are really just browning the good old boy network and proving the master’s tools do not dismantle anyone’s house but our own. The revolutionary praxis that created ES never envisioned a separate but unequal academia based on gender and race essentialism any more than WS or Queer Studies did and yet the failure to deconstruct the hierarchies embedded in the institution of academe inevitably led to our continued marginalization.

The re-introduction of Western Civ at the core is no different. While many of us lament, at one time or another, the lack of shared knowledge amongst our students from which we can work, any attempt to add western civ back in without first addressing the existing institutional problems within academe will ultimately be hegemonic in nature. In other words instead of having a curriculum that is interdependent in which western civ has no more prominence than any other form of knowledge nor is pseudo-erased in such a way that when it is needed to understand material class has to be diverted, conservative funders and the programs they are building on college campuses promise a return to open hierarchies of knowledge in which white heterosexual male patriarchal history is both alpha and omega. On the brightside, it puts the fight back out in the open where linguistic games and claims to some version of marginality will not protect the hegemon but on the other it means we are back to an old fight instead of moving forward toward its end.

My father once said to me that affirmative action was like a band aid on a gaping wound, it is only a matter of time before the band aid is soaked through and useless. To be truly effective you have to clean, dress, and repair the wound. You have to allow for the itching and burning that comes with its healing. You have to recognize and embrace the scar that is left behind. We have always been bandaid folk here in N. America and one of the reasons we continue to have these same battles is because the blood on our collective gaping wound has soaked through and drenched the bed and the floors.

part two – pedestals, whores, and servants: women’s studies under the microscope coming soon

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