The Magazine

Identity Crisis

The high costs of feeling good about yourself.

Aug 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 46 • By MARK BAUERLEIN
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In academia, few sins are as grave and unforgivable as criticizing the “studies” programs. Journalist/author Naomi Schaefer Riley found that out this past spring when she wrote a blog post for the Chronicle of Higher Education website describing Black Studies as “left-wing victimization claptrap.”  

The reaction was swift. The Chronicle opened its Brainstorm blog (to which I contribute) to graduate students whose dissertation topics were mentioned by Riley as prime examples of stupid scholarship. They accused Riley of “breathtaking arrogance and gutless anti-intellectualism,” then discerned a motive: “One can only assume that in a bid to not be ‘out-niggered’ by her right-wing cohort, Riley found some black women graduate students to beat up on.” 

The African American Studies faculty at Northwestern commented, too, calling Riley’s post “cowardly, uninformed, irresponsible, repugnant, and contrary to the mission of higher education.” One fellow Brainstorm contributor labeled it “hate speech,” while another wrote a poem that began,

A certain white chick—Schaefer Riley—

Decided to do something wily:

Knowing her blogs

Were going to the dogs,

She got all gnarly and smiley.

An online petition demanding that the Chronicle fire Riley collected more than 6,000 (!) signatures within a few days, and one week later, the editor of the Chronicle issued a statement heeding the “outrage and disappointment”: 

We’ve heard you, and we have taken to heart what you said. 

We now agree that Ms. Riley’s blog posting did not meet The Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles. As a result, we have asked Ms. Riley to leave the Brainstorm blog.

All because of a 500-word post. Amidst the indignation and hurt, it should be added, one couldn’t find the obvious rejoinder to Riley’s charge: evidence of the intellectual value of Black Studies, such as research that has shaped social policy or books that have won honors.

The episode illustrates the syndromes outlined in Bruce Bawer’s book, a survey of major and minor “studies” fields, from heated beginnings to current, academic ends. Bawer has long chapters on Women’s Studies, Black Studies, Queer Studies, and Chicano Studies, plus summaries of Disability Studies, Fat Studies, Men’s Studies, and Whiteness Studies.  

The older ones he chronicles from their origins in social forces, such as the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s, to early academic units (San Francisco State had the first Black Studies department, and the Cal State system remains a bastion of identity programs), to today’s network of centers and departments, organizations such as the National Association of African American Studies, and annual conferences at which professors and graduate students share thoughts and research. Bawer interviews celebrities (Chon Noriega) and dissenters (Shelby Steele), cites canonical texts (Women’s Ways of Knowing, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, etc.), and attends cutting-edge panels highlighting the common concern of the fields: the operations of power, violent and hegemonic, upon victims (generally, anyone who is not a straight white male).

On one level, nothing is surprising in these portraits. Bawer quotes copiously from books, lectures, and mission statements to deliver familiar samples of special pleading, anti-Americanism, anticapitalism, one-upmanship victimology (being Chicana isn’t as authoritative as being a Chicana lesbian), and jargon. When the authors of a leading Chicano Studies volume hail Fidel and Che, declaring that “the Chicana/o movement strove to emulate Cuba’s monumental gains in eliminating poverty and racism and its courageous solidarity with global liberation struggles,” laypersons might reply, “Huh?” But such audacious pronouncements have been standard campus fare for 30 years.  

On another level, however, Bawer draws out something remarkably ironic, and sometimes bizarre, in the course and condition of studies programs, and it has nothing to do with their political commitments. It surfaces every time the political outlook of identity studies takes academic form in scholarly books and presentations, course descriptions, and mission statements. There, the radical thrust of Black Power, Women’s Lib, Gay Pride, and Chicano separatism enters an idiom of abstract, predictable, formulaic verbiage. Here is a professor summarizing her Intro to Women’s Studies course on her blog: 

[We will examine] ways in which power is deployed over and through bodies for use of the nation-state and elites. We will critique feminist histories, knowledges, and production in the face of imperialism, colonialism, environmental development-destruction & the negative consequences of violences deployed against poor, subordinated, and indigenous peoples.

The words tumble forth with the momentum of an imposing critique behind it; but pause over the phrases, and they sink into meaninglessness. The language is bloated and hackneyed (“power is deployed .  .  . violences deployed”), the basic sense fuzzy (power works “over and through bodies for use of the nation-state and elites”). Here are some lines from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s idolized queer theory volume Epistemology of the Closet:

In “The Beast in the Jungle,” written at the threshold of the new century, the possibility of an embodied male-homosexual thematic has, I would like to argue, a precisely liminal presence.

Not just a “liminal presence” but a “precisely liminal presence.” And it is not just the “male-homosexual thematic” that bears such presence, but an “embodied” one, or rather, the possibility of that embodied one which does so. The prose slides into ever more nuanced and qualified assertions, as if the reality the theorist broaches has such a tremulous existence that only the most delicately stated propositions can capture it.

Bawer also quotes from a historical tome on California by a Chicano Studies expert:

Those immigrants who arrived under Spanish rule, I call simply “Spanish,” or “Spanish colonizers.” .  .  . I call those arriving or living in California after 1821 “settler-colonizers.” .  .  . For those colonizers and settlers who were raised in California, I also use the term by which they identified themselves, Californianas/os. .  .  . I refer to Californianos and Mexican immigrants collectively as “Chicanas/os.”

The nomenclature discussion goes on for a full page, Bawer notes—part of the “tireless attention to labels [so] common in Chicano Studies.” Naturally, of course, for in fields based upon markers of identity, the taxonomy of human beings rises to an obsession.

The problem with these statements isn’t the stilted prose or conceptual jargon or posturing personae. It is that they exemplify customary academic speech, which is to say that they couldn’t stand any farther from the revolutionary impetus of identity studies. For all the adversarial, aggressive extremism of identity studies ideology, the practice accords neatly with the Establishment. Identity studies professors parse identitarian terms just as English professors do the terms of prosody. They analyze cultural texts just as art historians analyze a Caravaggio. “This academically approved rhetoric pretends to be unorthodox, deviant, threatening, and anti-normative,” Bawer observes, “but is, in point of fact, mind-numbingly conformist.” 

Even more ironically, they have secured money and resources for three decades while being held to low intellectual standards. Shelby Steele recalls his days in the early 1970s building such programs, at a time when “there was so much white guilt that you could just go into these places and they’d give you anything you wanted.”

The very endurance of Women’s Studies, Bawer remarks, “belies its own rhetoric about the ruthless hegemonic power of the patriarchy.” For years, University of Pennsylvania professor Alan Charles Kors tells Bawer, Michael Eric Dyson, author of books like Know What I Mean? Reflections on Hip-Hop, was the highest paid arts-and-sciences professor at Penn in spite of his youth. To watch individuals who enjoy such lavish professional rewards denounce American racism, sexism, and homophobia is either comical or pathetic. Steele labels them “hustlers.”

The professors might respond, “Academia may, to some degree, escape those evils, but America doesn’t, and we aim to change that.” If that’s the case, though, then why make academia your home? Why speak in terms that only “Ivory-Tower initiates” (Bawer’s term) can understand (e.g., “marginal positionality,” “paranoid modality”)? Academia forces them into academic behavior that blunts the radicalism. No wonder they are so defensive; they are living a transparent pretense.

The result is bad education. This is Bawer’s ultimate complaint, and it makes a stronger indictment of identity studies than do charges of ideological bias. Students don’t graduate from these programs learned and thoughtful leftists. They don’t even acquire distorted versions of history, politics, art, and ethics. In truth, they don’t acquire any versions of them at all.

Quickly they realize that their professors discourage free inquiry lest it stray from party lines, and so education turns into a parroting procedure. The lectures Bawer hears and the books he reads display little historical knowledge and less independent reflection. He finds the same catchphrases and seventies platitudes again and again offered as if they were transgressive and brilliant. If everyone in the room weren’t playing the same game, the whole setup would collapse. 

The question is: How long can it go on? Political correctness demands solemn respect for these units, and every administrator knows that an honest appraisal of them will kill a career. Bawer agrees that “it’s not easy to imagine a successful revolt against identity studies,” and he merely advises parents to avoid them.  

From what I’ve seen, I believe that the fate of identity studies rests upon money. Identity studies will survive as long as administrators believe that the cost of maintaining these programs is less than the fallout that would come from phasing them out. If a dean faces a shrinking budget and the Women’s Studies department has eight tenured professors but only 30 undergraduate majors, it looks a lot more vulnerable than the more popular, less “top-heavy” departments. If they have the money, they’ll keep it going. But if they don’t, and it’s a matter of cutting a biochemistry unit that brings in steady federal research dollars or a Women’s Studies department that offers courses on Barbie-femininity .  .  .

Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory, is the author, most recently, of The Dumbest Generation:  How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.