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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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.