WSJ Opinion Piece: ‘The Humanities Have Forgotten Their Humanity’

I was all cozy in bed and reading, then I stumbled across this excellent article on Twitter called The Humanities Have Forgotten Their Humanity. This article is so excellent that I immediately leapt up to blog about it so that I wouldn’t forget.

The author, Heather Mac Donald, laments about the dismal state of the way humanities are taught at universities today. As someone not even two years out of university, I agree wholeheartedly.

Until 2011, students majoring in English at UCLA had to take one course in Chaucer, two in Shakespeare, and one in Milton —the cornerstones of English literature. Following a revolt of the junior faculty, however, during which it was announced that Shakespeare was part of the “Empire,” UCLA junked these individual author requirements. It replaced them with a mandate that all English majors take a total of three courses in the following four areas: Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability and Sexuality Studies; Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies; genre studies, interdisciplinary studies, and critical theory; or creative writing.

In other words, the UCLA faculty was now officially indifferent to whether an English major had ever read a word of Chaucer, Milton or Shakespeare, but the department was determined to expose students, according to the course catalog, to “alternative rubrics of gender, sexuality, race, and class.”

My friend B. was an English major at my alma mater. She took only one Shakespeare class and no courses on Chaucer or Milton (if I remember correctly). These courses were offered, just not required. I encouraged her to study Chaucer but she did not.

In my own major, history, there were courses that I deemed stupid and I did my best to avoid those. I graduated after taking mainly 300- and 400-level courses that were actually rigorous.

I’m not going to quote the entire article (because I want you to go read it!) but I’m just going to close with a short selection that speaks for itself.

Compare the humanists’ hunger for learning with the resentment of a Columbia University undergraduate, who had been required by the school’s core curriculum to study Mozart. She happens to be black, but her views are widely shared, to borrow a phrase, “across gender, sexuality, race and class.”

“Why did I have to listen in music humanities to this Mozart?” she groused in a discussion of the curriculum reported by David Denby in “Great Books,” his 1997 account of re-enrolling in Columbia’s core curriculum. “My problem with the core is that it upholds the premises of white supremacy and racism. It’s a racist core. Who is this Mozart, this Haydn, these superior white men? There are no women, no people of color.” These are not the idiosyncratic thoughts of one disgruntled student; they represent the dominant ideology in the humanities today.

Yes, obviously we only study Mozart because he was white, not because he was the one of the single most brilliant composers ever to have lived, a composer who wrote fully mature works as a teenager, a composer who transformed the way piano music was written and played, a composer who wrote one of the most brilliant double concertos in existence.

(I take particular exception to that last bit I quoted, since Mozart is my favorite composer whose brilliance I hope is recognized by everyone.)