kitchen table math, the sequel: 5/15/16 - 5/22/16

Monday, May 16, 2016

Disciplines versus studies: Camille Paglia on speech and the modern campus

Camille Paglia's essay Free Speech and the Modern Campus is well worth reading.

In it, she makes a point Ed has made any number of times: the real source of illiberal speech codes and suppression of dissent lies in the various interdepartmental "studies" programs that were set up in the wake of the 1960s.

Here's Paglia:
... new highly politicized departments and programs were created virtually overnight — without the incremental construction of foundation and superstructure that had gone, for example, into the long development of the modern English department. The end result was a further balkanization in university structure, with each area governed as an autonomous fiefdom and with its ideological discourse frozen at the moment of that unit’s creation. Administrators wanted these programs and fast — to demonstrate the institution’s “relevance” and to head off outside criticism or protest that could hamper college applications and the influx of desirable tuition dollars. Basically, administrators threw money at these programs and let them find their own way. When Princeton University, perhaps the most cloistered and overtly sexist of the Ivy League schools, went coeducational after 200 years in 1969, it needed some women faculty to soften the look of the place. So it hastily shopped around for whatever women faculty could be rustled up, located them mostly in English departments at second-tier schools, brought them on board, and basically let them do whatever they wanted, with no particular design. (Hey, they’re women — they can do women’s studies!)

I maintain, from my dismayed observation at the time, that these new add-on programs were rarely if ever founded on authentic scholarly principles; they were public relations gestures meant to stifle criticism of a bigoted past. In designing any women’s studies program, for example, surely a basic requirement for students should be at least one course in basic biology, so that the role of hormones in human development could be investigated — and rejected, if necessary. But no, both women’s studies and later gender studies evolved without reference to science and have thus ensured that their ideology remains partisan and one-dimensional, stressing the social construction of gender. Any other view is regarded as heresy and virtually never presented to students even as an alternative hypothesis.

Today’s campus political correctness can ultimately be traced to the way those new programs, including African-American and Native American studies, were so hastily constructed in the 1970s, a process that not only compromised professional training in those fields over time but also isolated them in their own worlds and thus ultimately lessened their wider cultural impact. I believe that a better choice for academic reform would have been the decentralized British system traditionally followed at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, which offered large subject areas where a student could independently pursue his or her special interest. In any case, for every new department or program added to the U.S. curriculum, there should have been a central shared training track, introducing students to the methodology of research and historiography, based in logic and reasoning and the rigorous testing of conclusions based on evidence. Neglect of that crucial training has meant that too many college teachers, then and now, lack even the most superficial awareness of their own assumptions and biases. Working on campus only with the like-minded, they treat dissent as a mortal offense that must be suppressed, because it threatens their entire career history and world-view. The ideology of those new programs and departments, predicated on victimology, has scarcely budged since the 1970s. This is a classic case of the deadening institutionalization and fossilization of once genuinely revolutionary ideas.

Let me give just one example of political correctness run amok in campus women’s studies in the U.S. In 1991, a veteran instructor in English and women’s studies at the Schuylkill campus of Pennsylvania State University raised objections to the presence in her classroom of a print of Francisco Goya’s famous late-18th-century painting, Naked Maja. The traditional association of this work with the Duchess of Alba, played by Ava Gardner in a 1958 movie called The Naked Maja, has been questioned, but there is no doubt that the painting, now owned by the Prado in Madrid, is a landmark in the history of the nude in art and that it anticipated major 19th-century works like Manet’s Olympia.

The instructor brought her case to a committee called the University Women’s Commission, which supported her, and she was offered further assistance from a committee member, the campus Affirmative Action officer, who conveyed her belief that there were grounds for a complaint of sexual harassment, based on the “hostile workplace” clause in federal regulations. The university, responding to the complaint, offered to change the teacher’s classroom, which she refused. She also refused an offer to move the painting to a less visible place in the classroom or to cover it while she was teaching. No, she was insistent that images of nude women must never be displayed in a classroom — which would of course gut quite a bit of major Western art since ancient Greece.

Finally, the Naked Maja was moved, along with four other classic art prints in the classroom, to the TV room of the student community center, where a sign was posted to alert unwary passerby that art was present — a kind of enter-at-your-own-risk warning. This action by the university seems to have been widely regarded as a prudent compromise instead of the shameful capitulation to political correctness that it was. There was a spate of amused publicity about the incident in the mainstream press, with criticism passingly voiced by prominent journalists like Nat Hentoff (a free speech warrior) and Robert Hughes, the longtime art critic of TIME magazine. But the response from within the teaching profession was strikingly weak and limited. This was a moment for independent thinkers everywhere in American academe to condemn that puritanical exercise by a literature instructor who had made herself a dictator in the visual arts, a field about which she was conspicuously uninformed. All that she had was a rote ideology absorbed from anti-porn fanatics like the crusading feminist Andrea Dworkin, whose attempt to ban the sale of pornography (including mainstream men’s magazines) in Minneapolis and Indianapolis had been struck down in federal district court in 1984 as an unconstitutional infringement of free speech rights. The instructor claimed that she was protecting future women students from the “chilly climate” created by the Naked Maja. But in a later published article about the controversy, she revealed that she herself was uncomfortable in the presence of the painting. She wrote, “I felt as though I were standing there naked, exposed and vulnerable.” I’m sorry, but we simply cannot permit uncultivated neurotics to set the agenda for arts education in America.

Here we come to one of the most pernicious aspects of identity politics as it reshaped the American university — the confusion of teaching with social work. The issue of improper advocacy in the classroom has never been adequately addressed by the profession. Teaching and research must strive to remain objective and detached. The teacher as an individual citizen may and should have strong political convictions and activities outside the classroom, but in the classroom, he or she should never take ideological positions without at the same time frankly acknowledging them as opinion to the students and emphasizing that all students are completely free to hold and express their own opinions on any issue, no matter how contested, from abortion, homosexuality, and global warming to the existence of God or the veracity of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Unfortunately, because of the failure of American colleges and universities to seek and support ideological diversity on their campuses, the humanities faculties have trended so far toward liberal Democrats (among whom I number myself) that they often seem naively unaware that any other beliefs are possible or credible.

The old-guard professors at the Yale Graduate School in the late 1960s may have been stuffy and genteel, but they were genuine scholars, passionately devoted to study and learning. They believed they had a moral obligation to seek the truth and to express it as accurately as they could. I remember it being said at the time that a scholar’s career could be ruined by fudging a footnote. A tragic result of the era of identity politics in the humanities has been the collapse of rigorous scholarly standards, as well as an end to the high value once accorded to erudition, which no longer exists as a desirable or even possible attribute in job searches for new faculty.

Barry's book !

Math Education in the U.S.: Still Crazy After All These Years

Very exciting!