“When Shakespeare lost out to ‘rubrics of gender, sexuality, race, and class’ at UCLA, something vital was harmed.” Heather MacDonald
“UCLA’s undergraduates can take courses in Women of Color in the U.S.; Women and Gender in the Caribbean; Chicana Feminism; Studies in Queer Literature and Cultures; and Feminist and Queer Theory.” Ibid
“’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.’” Ibid
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.”
Such defenestrations have happened elsewhere, and long before 2011. But the UCLA coup was particularly significant because the school’s English department was one of the last champions of the historically informed study of great literature, uncorrupted by an ideological overlay. Precisely for that reason, it was the most popular English major in the country, enrolling a whopping 1,400 undergraduates.
The UCLA coup represents the characteristic academic traits of our time: narcissism, an obsession with victimhood, and a relentless determination to reduce the stunning complexity of the past to the shallow categories of identity and class politics. Sitting atop an entire civilization of aesthetic wonders, the contemporary academic wants only to study oppression, preferably his or her own, defined reductively according to gonads and melanin.
Course catalogs today babble monotonously of group identity. UCLA’s undergraduates can take courses in Women of Color in the U.S.; Women and Gender in the Caribbean; Chicana Feminism; Studies in Queer Literatures and Cultures; and Feminist and Queer Theory.
Not so long ago, colleges still reflected the humanist tradition, which was founded not on narcissism but on the all-consuming desire to engage with the genius and radical difference of the past. The 14th-century Florentine poet Francesco Petrarch triggered the explosion of knowledge known today as Renaissance humanism with his discovery of Livy’s monumental history of Rome and the letters of Cicero, the Roman statesman whose orations, with their crystalline Latin style, would inspire such philosophers of republicanism as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
But Petrarch wanted to converse with the ancients as well as read them. So he penned heartfelt letters in Latin to Virgil, Seneca, Horace and Homer, among others, informing them of the fate of their writings and of Rome itself. After rebuking Cicero for the vindictiveness revealed in his letters, Petrarch repented and wrote him again: “I fear that my last letter has offended you. . . . But I feel I know you as intimately as if I had always lived with you.”
In 1416, the Florentine clerk Poggio Bracciolini discovered the most important Roman treatise on rhetoric moldering in a monastery library outside Constance, a find of such value that a companion exclaimed: “Oh wondrous treasure, oh unexpected joy!”
Bracciolini thought of himself as rescuing a still-living being. The treatise’s author, Quintilian, would have “perished shortly if we hadn’t brought him aid . . .” Bracciolini wrote to a friend in Verona. “There is not the slightest doubt that that man, so brilliant, genteel, tasteful, refined, and pleasant, could not longer have endured the squalor of that place and the cruelty of those jailors.”
This burning drive to recover a lost culture propelled the Renaissance humanists into remote castles and monasteries to search for long-forgotten manuscripts. The knowledge that many ancient texts were forever lost filled these scholars with despair. Nevertheless, they exulted in their growing repossession of classical learning.
In François Rabelais’s exuberant stories from the 1530s, the giant Gargantua sends off his son to study in Paris, joyfully conjuring up the languages—Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Chaldean and Arabic—that he expects his son to master, as well as the vast range of history, law, natural history and philosophy.
This constant, sophisticated dialogue between past and present would become a defining feature of Western civilization, prompting the evolution of such radical ideas as constitutional government and giving birth to arts and architecture of polyphonic complexity. And it became the primary mission of the universities to transmit knowledge of the past, as well as—eventually—to serve as seedbeds for new knowledge.
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.
W.E.B. Du Bois would have been stunned to learn how narrow is the contemporary multiculturalist’s self-definition and sphere of interest. Du Bois, living during America’s darkest period of hate, nevertheless heartbreakingly affirmed in 1903 his intellectual and spiritual affinity with all of Western civilization: “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas. . . . I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.”
It is no wonder, then, that we have been hearing of late that the humanities are in crisis. A recent Harvard report from a committee co-chaired by the school’s premier postcolonial studies theorist, Homi Bhabha, lamented that 57% of incoming Harvard students who initially declare interest in a humanities major eventually change concentrations. Why may that be? Imagine an intending lit major who is assigned something by Professor Bhabha: “If the problematic ‘closure’ of textuality questions the totalization of national culture. . . .” How soon before that student concludes that a psychology major is more up his alley?
No, the only true justification for the humanities is that they provide the thing that Faust sold his soul for: knowledge. It is knowledge of a particular kind, concerning what men have done and created over the ages.
The American Founders drew on an astonishingly wide range of historical sources and an appropriately jaundiced view of human nature to craft the world’s most stable and free republic. They invoked lessons learned from the Greek city-states, the Carolingian Dynasty and the Ottoman Empire in the Constitution’s defense. And they assumed that the new nation’s citizens would themselves be versed in history and political philosophy.
But humanistic learning is also an end in itself. It is simply better to have escaped one’s narrow, petty self and entered minds far more subtle and vast than one’s own than never to have done so. The Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino said that a man lives as many millennia as are embraced by his knowledge of history. One could add: A man lives as many different lives as are embraced by his encounters with literature, music and all the humanities and arts. These forms of expression allow us to see and feel things that we would otherwise never experience—society on a 19th-century Russian feudal estate, for example, or the perfect crystalline brooks and mossy shades of pastoral poetry, or the exquisite languor of a Chopin nocturne.
Ultimately, humanistic study is the loving duty we owe those artists and thinkers whose works so transform us. It keeps them alive, as well as us, as Petrarch and Poggio Bracciolini understood. And as politics grow ever more unmoored from reality, humanist wisdom provides us with some consolation: There is no greater lesson from the past than the intractability of human folly.
Ms. Mac Donald is a contributing editor of City Journal and a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. This article is adapted from the Winter 2014 issue of City Journal and based on the author’s Wriston Lecture for the Manhattan Institute.