mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Academic Claptrap and its Consequences

There’s a storm raging in the blogosphere over the recent firing of Naomi Schaefer Riley from the Brainstorm blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Her offense? Suggesting that Black Studies programs are “a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap,” and offering some pointed examples.

We’ll leave the debate over whether Riley’s dismissal was a legitimate response to over-the-line assertions or an exercise in political correctness to others. (You can read Riley’s take in the Wall Street Journal.) From Via Meadia‘s vantage point, meanwhile, the crux of the matter is somewhat different: not frankly having devoted a great deal of time to reading unpublished PhD dissertations gathering dust in the recesses of the nation’s university libraries, we are unable to state that there is more claptrap in Black Studies than in other disciplines. The impression here is that there is a lot of claptrap, leftie and otherwise, in academia as a whole, and that any Black Studies claptrap has to be seen in the context of so much claptrap in so many disciplines.

At Via Meadia in other words, we aren’t worried about why Black Studies is different from other disciplines; we are worried about the degree to which it is the same. And we are less worried that so much academic work is given over to lazy left wing platitudes and conventional tropes than we are worried about the plodding, repetitive and unreflective mindset behind so much of what the academy churns out. Because they are so easily reproduced and so widely acceptable, silly leftie platitudes and conventional victimization tropes are a common manifestation of plodding minds, conventional academic group think and mediocre educations today, but they are not the only form that rampant mediocrity takes.

After all, much of the “research” published in peer reviewed journals is not even getting read and is written less for the joy of learning and the enlightenment of humanity than because some poor underpaid junior academic hack somewhere has to fill an arbitrary publication quota to keep his or her job. Meanwhile, as the academy overproduces worthless “research”, it often fails to help both graduate and undergraduate students develop the habits and acquire the knowledge they need to tackle the real world and its economy. And the cost of whole enterprise has reached unsustainable levels.

As the country’s economic woes continue and our education system comes under greater scrutiny, academics in the humanities and the social sciences face very skeptical and tough questions from politicians and tuition payers about the work that they do. And we suspect that many disciplines and departments are going to be unpleasantly surprised at how little sympathy and understanding they get when the crunch comes. It is all too easy to imagine the reaction of state legislatures around the country to hearings that look into the various clueless dissertations and worthless social science and humanities “research” that taxpayer dollars are funding.

The prevalence of leftie claptrap and cliche will help sink funding for many disciplines, but so too will evidence about how infrequently most journal articles are cited, how few are read even by ones colleagues, and how narrow or recondite the topics of so much contemporary research turns out to be.

As a concept, Via Meadia likes Black Studies and considers it a perfectly valid element of a liberal education and university faculty. The African American experience in the United States is a rich and profound one, and it merits close study and deep reflection. Forget the pious conventional narratives about Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King that elementary students across the country are bored with in classes today. For almost four centuries now African-Americans have lived where the rubber meets the road in American life, where ideals of equality and brotherhood run up against realities of prejudice and culture. The results have sometimes been horrifying and sometimes inspiring. The many responses of African American intellectuals, cultural figures and ordinary people to the challenging and complicated circumstances around them illuminate American history, bear witness to the crucible that shaped an extraordinary group of people, and speak to universal human truths so profoundly that our society would be greatly impoverished if we did not ponder and cherish this history.

To study this legacy in a disciplined way and to teach this history to new generations is a perfectly reasonable thing for a university to encourage; some institutions might do this by grouping these courses into a separate department and others might integrate them into the work of different programs, but no serious American institution can turn its back on this subject completely. The trick is that Black Studies, like all other forms of serious intellectual work, has to be done well, it has to tolerate and even encourage a wide range of political perspectives and it has to be done critically rather than as a form of boosterism.

The threat Black Studies faces today is the same that many disciplines in the humanities face. The combination of mediocrity and group think on the inside of the profession combined with an age of tight budgets will force all the humanities and social sciences to defend their programs and their subsidies before a skeptical public. It will do no good for the professoriate to get all huffy and denounce the skeptics as barbarians, bigots and know-nothings. Insulting your patrons is no way to get them to cover your costs.

The Chronicle of Higher Education can bow to the prevailing winds and fire Naomi Riley, but it cannot shelter its readers from the coming storm. Academics, and not just those in Black Studies, need to listen to voices like hers; the questions that Riley asked on her blog are the kind that, increasingly, trustees and state budget officials are going to ask.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Eric from Texas

    Hear, hear! Liberal Arts can enrich and educate, if done well

    I was fortunate enough to have such a graduate education. I have a Ph.D. in Economics from a Big Ten school, circa mid-80s. My doctoral dissertation was in Financial History that was based on the work done by Charles Kindleberger on stock market bubbles. I was very fortunate that I had a terrific dissertation advisor who also ran a top-notch seminar in Economic History. At the seminar, I had a chance to hear presentations from some of the great minds in the Economic History profession from that era – Doug North, Deidre McCloskey, Joel Mokyr, Julian Simon, Charles Calomiris, Barry Eichengreen, among others. Open debate was strongly encouraged, and the graduate students were forced to think on their feet in presenting their own work at the seminar.

    What the program did is what WRM has been preaching in his columns – give a solid grounding in history with a strong view on how institutions evolve in response to social and technological change. The program I attended strongly encouraged econometric analysis, always being tempered by historical reality.

    I have used those building blocks from graudate school repeatedly in my career in government and the private sector, and have found they have given me a leg up on seeing changes in the industry in which I work (electricity markets).

    It really is sad that so much as academe today is the hostage of left-wing group think.

  • Some Sock Puppet

    This has been a problem for at least a decade. I chose to participate in a women and cultural studies course with my (now) wife at a very blue state school. I thought it could be interesting. (Please save your jeers 🙂 ) And why take only courses that pander to your side?

    It ended up with the two white males in class questioning everything, declaring that the course material was utter excrement and absurd, and my being kicked out of class after a particularly heated discussion about the behavior of one of the minority students stalking me online and out of class around campus to harrangue me about my alleged evils.

    My wife, being of Jewish decent also spoke up about the ridiculous greivances presented and bandied about as gospel. She mentioned the holocaust and her utter amazement that something that had hapened only 50 odd years past was ignored for something that occured 200 years ago, and has had far more progress made against it ever occuring again. She further claimed that if anyone had a more relevant claim, it was her. Which won her no friends. I mentioned the Irish famine, the Scottish repression, and stated that at one point or another every single group on the face of this planet has been oppressed by another, but the beauty of America was that we look to the future and that old world nonsense could stay in the old world.

    The instructor took all this personally and had me removed from class and I went from a 3.8 to a 1.7 GPA in that class. I was told I had to attend anger management classes. (For raising my voice as the stalking harpy screeched at me.)

    I was so thuroughly disgusted and ashamed. Not of my supposed history, (Being 24 at the time, I had done little to anyone) but of the tripe masquerading as teaching, and the amount of money being spent on it.

    College in it’s current form is a massive scam.

    We’re seeing the fruit of this particular tree all around us in the state of government, the lack of direction, and ambivalent equivocating of our representatives, etc.

    The republic is doomed if we don’t have a massive course correction and soon.

  • surfed

    African-Americans are the concience of our country.

  • Will

    There’s an awful lot of academic hackwork–and not just in the humanities–but is all research hackwork? And how much teaching is the same? Shifting a focus from research to teaching doesn’t seem likely to solve the underlying problem. Non-selective colleges are packed with students going through the motions. The would be much better served by vocational training or apprenticeship programs that degrees in fields that aren’t really academic to start. If the wider culture dismisses humanities fields as silly and irrelvant–anything besides STEM is fluff–and schools don’t teach effective reading comprehension and written communication, let alone spark an interest in learning, what can be expected students going through the motions.

    I agree entirely on the problem of group think and mediocrity, but outsiders judging programs on a completely irrelevent set of criteria only makes the situation worse. George Babbitry isn’t much better than the antics of tenured radicals or the theory/culture wars of the 1990s.

  • vanderleun

    “It will do no good for the professoriate to get all huffy and denounce the skeptics as barbarians, bigots and know-nothings. Insulting your patrons is no way to get them to cover your costs.”

    Actually it has worked and worked very, very well for decades now. It will not stop working anytime soon. It is tried and true and it will be responsible for keeping this scam going long after funding for things such as Dr. Mead’s position have been defunded.

    The reason is not the weakness of this entire endeavor, but the fear that the hack scholars of this endeavor have learned to instill. The firing here is just the latest reminder.

    You think not? Try getting some of the worst and most offensive hacks booted at Bard.

    Go ahead. We’ll wait here for you.

  • vanderleun

    “African-Americans are the concience of our country.”

    Really? I always thought that was left up to Jiminy Cricket. If so it is easy to see why we have a crisis of conscience around here. Best to hand it back to the Cricket.

  • Anthony

    WRM, at bottom you make an economic argument – costs, budgets, sustainable departments, etc. Yet, your reference to all forms of intellectual work being not only well done but also meeting high and rigorous standards as it encompasses ranging perspectives is essential to constraining academic claptrap – perhaps with the unintended consequence of improving institutional economics.

    Here’s to the joy of learning and the enlightenment of humanity; may we all bask in its beneficence.

  • Luke Lea

    @ “As a concept, Via Meadia likes Black Studies and considers it a perfectly valid element of a liberal education . . .”

    The subject is valid but why couldn’t it, and shouldn’t it, be rolled into the general history curriculum? The same goes for gender studies and every other kind of ethnic studies. History is the great undiscovered country in our university curriculae.

    P.S. The real scandal in the Riley episode was shutting her down with charges of racism. To call someone a racist unjustifiably is one of the worst sins there is. To tolerate this kind of slander in the Chronicle of Higher Education is unpardonable. (Here’s a picture of Riley’s husband btw.)If free enquiry can’t be allowed on a blog called Brainstorm — well, that’s just absurd. Somebody needs to be fired.

  • Luke Lea

    Seriously, the best argument for ending black studies is the reaction to Ms. Riley’s post. The story of African Americans is an integral part of the story of America as a whole and should be integrated into the general narrative of American history. End curricular segregation now! It is demeaning. (Same goes for women’s studies.)

  • MikeL

    Via Meadia and Luke Lea (and most of the other responders) have hit the nail squarely upon the head.

    My own Ph.D. dissertation was nothing to rave about, but, compared to much of what I’ve seen (yes, the social sciences is worse than STEM) it was respectable. Since then, I’ve taught at colleges and have had 3rd (4th?) tier institutions tell me with a straight face that they expect all faculty to be doing original and published research. Really? (that last word is dripping with disbelief).

    Our colleges and universities have become jobs programs for the employees (both faculty and staff) and con games played cruelly upon young people who are woefully naive about the con being perpetrated upon them.

  • Jim.

    @Luke Lea-

    Hear, hear! Separate but “equal” is inherently unequal, one way or another.

  • Corlyss

    “The threat Black Studies faces today is the same that many disciplines in the humanities face. The combination of mediocrity and group think on the inside of the profession combined with an age of tight budgets will force all the humanities and social sciences to defend their programs and their subsidies before a skeptical public.”

    I’m not so sanguine about such an outcome. The drek has a way of hanging on because eliminating would offend a powerful interest group that has more clout with foundations and government grantors than the Western Canon does. If anything goes, it will be whatever vestage of non-minority history is left in the “higher ed” cesspools. After all, the people who are supposed to demand some standards are the very people who have paved the way for the claptrap, the same people WRM has been writing about as being the most disadvantaged by the collapse of the blue model: minorities, especially blacks, and women.

  • Kris

    “Insulting your patrons is no way to get them to cover your costs.”

    But surely the force of our righteous indignation will manage to drill into their primitive minds an understanding of their inherent racism, whereupon they will understand that they need to repent by opening their wallets.

  • Kris

    MikeL@10: I’ve read more than my fair share of dissertations. I found even those in STEM from elite institutions to be too often disappointing, considering that dissertations are generally required to be “substantial contribution of new knowledge to the field of study”. But at least they were intellectually rigorous. When it comes to Social Science dissertations, especially in less elite universities, … Well, there most definitely is some worthy work in that haystack.

    [ObDisclaimer: This comment obviously should not be interpreted as a judgement on the value of Social Science studies as such.]

  • John Burke

    Leftist claptrap may be common across many disciplines but let’s face it, Mead, Black Studies, Women’s Studies and (soon to be as common) Gay Studies are “disciplines” that exist solely to provide a focal point for particular ideologically driven grievances. In theory, of course, studying the African American experience could be interesting, constructive and free of dominance by politics and ideology. Alas, in practice, it is not.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @John Burke: Actually, I think it is jobs more than ideology.

  • jaed

    Hmmm. I think the key point, without which none of this makes sense, is that Black Studies – as a major – is not a subset of history, and the degree is not an academic degree – rather, it’s a pre-professional degree in political activism. (So are all the “Studies” degrees. Take a look at the web pages of “Studies” departments with well-regarded programs, and look at what they say a graduate of the program knows and can do.)

    There’s nothing wrong with such a degree, any more than with other such degrees such as Divinity, Speech Therapy, or Pre-Med. Such degrees can in principal be rigorous (though usually they’re not). But a pre-professional degree isn’t the same thing as studying an academic discipline. The degree in Black Studies aims at molding the student’s attitudes in certain ways. History is taught, but it’s taught didactically: one is supposed to derive certain lessons and dispositions from it, not examine it with an open mind for the sake of learning. Same with sociology, psychology, and the rest of the coursework one might find in such a degree.

    The problem here really is twofold:

    – The Studies departments are presented to students, the academic community, and the world at large as academic disciplines instead of pre-professional programs. They cannot withstand judgment by this standard, and the public view of what an academic discipline is, is distorted by seeing it through the lens of activism.

    – Because there is crossover in subject matter, the boundary between such departments and academic disciplines such as history is blurred, with history more and more called into service to inculcate attitudes drawn from political activism, with displaying the proper viewpoint being more important than developing knowledge and insight. The end of this trend is corruption of the liberal arts to the point of uselessness.

    And here, more or less, we are.

  • Corlyss

    “Insulting your patrons is no way to get them to cover your costs.

    Wow! Where’s the empirical evidence for THAT conclusion? It’s worked extremely well since the 1960s. Actually, it’s worked extremely well since the limousine liberals of the 1880s thought it cool living on the wild side by bringing their pet anarchists to social events aimed at raising money for the cause.

  • Douglas Levene

    A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I studied East Asian Studies. It was quite rigorous, I thought – students focused either on Japan or China, studied either Japanese or Chinese, and took lots of related history classes, economic history classes, diplomatic history classes, art history classes, literature classes, sociology classes, and so on. At the end of that, students knew quite a bit about Japan or China or both. I guess my point is that interdisciplinary “studies” need not be non-rigorous, pre-professional training in political activism. It’s quite possible to create rigorous, intellectually challenging programs that focus on interdisciplinary areas.

  • Clutch cargo cult

    “…leftie or otherwise..”, are you kidding? If “otherwise” existed that might make this ridiculous situation tenable.

  • Texan99

    “Our colleges and universities have become jobs programs for the employees (both faculty and staff) . . . .”

    That’s it, right there. Just like the K-12 schools.

  • Sam L.

    Dr. (Ph.D) Isaac Azimov wrote an article about 50 years ago titled “The Sound Of Panting”, in which he described the increasing number of published papers that he should read. He said then that if he read them all, he would have no time to work. And/or have a life. He wasn’t complaining about the quality of the work, just that the quantity was prohibitive in itself.

  • jaed

    Area studies majors (like East Asian studies) bear little or no resemblance to the grievance-studies fields. The fact that they both have the word “Studies” in them doesn’t mean much… there isn’t a particular ideological commitment that East Asian studies students are expected to make. (I make a partial exception for Middle Eastern studies, at least in recent years.)

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service