January 11th 2021
Ever since its founding in 1883, the Modern Language Association has been considered the leading professional group for college faculty in language and literature. Each year, it holds a meeting - this year virtual, but featuring the same weary dissection of liberal issues as in all recent years.
Last year's meeting in Seattle was filled with hundreds of presentations on radical topics. To name just a few, taken almost at random: "Resexualizing Necrophiliac Desire in William Faulkner's 'A Rose for Emily'"; "Denise Ferreira da Silva, Martin Heidegger, and the (Black Feminist) Thing: or, How Blackness Thinks"; "Age, Disability, and Desexualization in Edith Wharton's Ghost Stories"; "Literature of the Caravan: Reading United States Foreign Policy through Central American Literature of Migration"; and "Media Circulation and Erotic Economy in Tennessee Williams' 'One Arm.'" These and other presentations ran morning to night, relieved only by cash bars and lunch. Just the kind of intellectual stimulation I'd seek on a gray winter's day in Seattle.
It's unlikely that the 2021 meeting (January 7 to 10) will vary that much. There will be the usual accusations of systemic racism, gay complaints of an oppressive straight culture, Marxist assaults on capitalist inequality, postcolonial readings that show how unjust colonizers were and how blameless postcolonial rulers (like Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe, Mobuto Sese Seco, and Charles Taylor) have been, and a slew of feminists assailing the patriarchy. What's missing is reason, judgment, and common sense.
Any ordinary, sane individual stepping into an MLA meeting would think he had wandered into an asylum for disturbed intellectuals. He wouldn't know whether to laugh or cry, but he would soon flee the proceedings and wipe what he'd heard from his mind.
Unfortunately, the students of these professors have a harder time fleeing or disregarding the message of race, class, and sex that dominates MLA proceedings. At the very least, they must sit through months of indoctrination in required humanities courses. Most will accept what they're hearing on faith, and they will carry some of it with them after graduation, causing them to orient toward the left.
Or, if they aspire to be humanities teachers themselves, they'll enjoy four years devoted to just this sort of nonsense. Checking the fall semester 2020 course list at U.C. Berkeley, I find a course entitled "Reading Marx Now"; another on "American Hustle: Race, Ethnicity, and Dreams of Getting Ahead"; one on "Eco-Crisis and Climate Refugeeism"; and one entitled "Is It Useless to Revolt?" (Answer: no.) And while many traditional period and genre courses are still offered at Berkeley, the presentation is often slanted toward identity politics and Marxist analysis.
Students may be lucky enough to encounter a few professors who don't subscribe to the left's ideology, but that would be rare, indeed. In one survey of college history professors, liberals outnumbered conservatives 33 to 1. And only 2% of literature professors identify as Republicans.
As one of that 2%, I suffered a great deal of abuse. I was careful to conceal my political orientation until I had received tenure, but even so, I found my career slowing down after I "came out." The worst thing was to see faculty whom I had respected and befriended suddenly putting politics ahead of professionalism. Articles were chosen for publication based on their political agenda - submissions that offended the prevailing ideology did not find their way into leading journals, and university presses were just as bad. If I'd come out before receiving tenure, I'd have been driven out of the profession.
That, I suspect, is the state of affairs in the university today: fanatical professors at the helm, radicalized young professors waiting for tenure, demoralized or embittered students, and a handful of conservative professors just hanging on until retirement. Nothing is changing because college faculty seem to lack the imagination to think beyond race, class, and sex - that unholy trinity of critical approaches fueled by the fantasies of professors who think they're battling for social justice.
It's not just a matter of what English professors are teaching these days; it's what is left out because of their exclusive focus on identity politics. By definition, the study of ethnicity, sex, and class comes down to a focus on power, and while power is a part of human existence, the assumption that power or wealth or privilege is the most important element of existence is false.
Literature has not always been read as the record of "man's inhumanity to man," to quote Robert Burns. For most of human history, literature was studied as a guide to "truth and beauty." It was viewed as a record of the thoughts and feelings of the wisest, most compassionate, and most sensitive of human beings stretching all the way back to Homer. Much of literature, in fact, is devoted to the expression of such values as courage, ambition, excellence, loyalty, and chaste love. How often does a discussion of these positive values find its way into the college classroom today?
What's missing, in a word, is the humanity of the authors that we study. Identity politics reduces human beings to one-dimensional figures defined by their race, sex, or class. But the real question is whether one has lived nobly, with kindness and decency and strength. And the study of literature displays human beings in situations of struggle and crisis who display these positive characteristics, and negative ones as well. Ironically, the "villains" of the past - Iago, Big Brother, and Lady Macbeth - are precisely those who behave as lit professors do today, focused as they are on race, power, and sex.
Faculty members in the humanities need to consider what they are withholding from their students, and just how destructive their focus on power actually is. What is the point of teaching white students that they are guilty, because of their race, of racial oppression - or that blacks are victims of systemic racism? Or that men are invariably, unless they are gay, members of the patriarchy and that women are victims of men? Or that gays are victims, migrants are victims, the poor are victims, and all will remain victims? Isn't there a more hopeful and honest truth to be taught?
The annual meeting of the Modern Language Association is open to any person, college faculty or not, who wishes to attend. Simply join the MLA and pay your conference registration fee and, this year, attend hundreds of MLA presentations online without ever traveling to the conference site.
If you wish to see what your children or grandchildren are learning in college, attending the MLA meeting would be an effective, if painfully tedious and thankless, way to find out. It would also be a way to find out what your taxpayer dollars are supporting.
If you are a conservative, you won't be happy with what you discover. And I suspect that you will see the connection between the mischievous behavior of college faculty and the drift of America's young toward the left. College faculty may be entrenched in the Ivory Tower, but their radicalism has a harmful effect in the real world. In many cases, young people have already been radicalized in high school, but college is where they receive their advanced training in anger and alienation. It's also where they miss out on the true nature of literature, history, philosophy, and so many other disciplines.
Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).
Image: Rafiq Sarlie via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0.