As a steadfast believer in the value of literature I am appalled at the degree to which English standards have degraded at a top-tier school like the U of M. If there is any lesson I would like to impart from my experience with the department, it is that rhetorical measures, like those taken by the University of Chicago administration, are crucial to maintaining a truly intellectual atmosphere.
In light of the University of Chicago’s administrative decision to take a stand against “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” and in light of the backlash this admirable stance received, I’d like to insert my personal experience with the left’s monopoly on academia here at Michigan. One of my liberal friends on Facebook, a current student at the University of Chicago, wrote a lengthy opposition to the administration’s letter. Interestingly, he did not choose to attack the practical consequences of abandoning emotional safety measures. Instead, he objected to the “spirit” of the letter. To him it represented a “flippant” attitude towards the so-called marginalized members of the U of Chicago community; to him it was a sign of the university’s appeasing its more privileged students.
What, then, is the “spirit” of trigger warnings and safe spaces? The left would have you to believe it is a spirit of empathy and humility, a spirit of inclusiveness and equity. Whether or not these are legitimate concerns or mere virtue-signaling is unclear. What is clear to me as a direct witness to this spirit’s academic manifestation, is that it results in a stagnant, crippled, intellectually unhealthy classroom experience.
I entered the University of Michigan dead-set on becoming an English major. I had always loved reading and I excelled in my high school English classes. I had high expectations for college English – I couldn’t wait to tackle much more challenging texts and refine my ability to analyze literary meaning. Over the course of my Freshman year I took two 300-level electives and the English major prerequisite survey. As it turns out, college English and high school English share very little in common (at least at Michigan). The former is concerned less with literary texts themselves and more with a set of half-baked philosophies known as ‘literary theory’ or ‘critical theory.’ This is not necessarily a bad thing: I found some theorists like Viktor Shklovsky and Jacques Derrida quite insightful on topics such as language’s tricky nature and the purpose of art. However a good half of the theorists we read struck me as social justice demagogues, using Shakespeare or Jane Austen as a pretense to feverishly rant about the evils of the white man.
However a good half of the theorists we read struck me as social justice demagogues, using Shakespeare or Jane Austen as a pretense to feverishly rant about the evils of the white man.
However, what bothered me more than the emphasis on ‘identity politics’ in my classes was the way the material was presented and received. While I was never chastised for violating safe space protocols, I detected a “spirit” of extreme intellectual complacency. My professors implicitly guided their classes toward social justice dogma, speaking of “dead white male” authors in snarky, dismissive tones and preaching “intersectionality” with smug confidence. When discussing academically fashionable topics like “queer theory,” they avoided opening up any sort of serious and critical debate. Instead we were encouraged to apply skepticism to older, more formal theorists and writers on grounds of racism, sexism, transphobia or colonialism.
My classmates, by and large, seemed to blindly accept the ideologies they were presented. Even when the professor introduced a point not covered by the reading or clearly mis-explained an aspect of the text, they would eagerly nod along in agreement. In particular, when topics of race came up in class (which they did, frequently) discourse became almost nonexistent. Fearful of being branded as racially insensitive, my predominately white classmates would only venture meek affirmations of the week’s theory of white oppression or African literary achievement.
My classmates, by and large, seemed to blindly accept the ideologies they were presented.
For many students, this cult-like system of learning resulted in a kind of intellectual regurgitation. To paraphrase the great JS Mill, an idea must be filtered through unflinching analysis and impartial discourse in order to be truly understood. An idea simply received and accepted is shallow; it fundamentally lacks intellectual meaning. In the process of peer-editing my classmates’ papers I found countless iterations of that latter kind of thinking. One memorable example was a term paper written by a girl in my Shakespeare class on the gender fluidity of several characters in Twelfth Night. To me, it resembled a sort of “mad-libs” of liberal academia: terms like “heteronormativity” and “genderqueer” were blithely thrown around with little regard for their usefulness or meaning. Her thesis, that during the course of the play several main characters are forced into assigned gender roles, seemed quite hollow to me. Perhaps her theory was true, but it was merely a statement about the play. I tried asking her questions along the lines of “why does this matter?” and, “what further, big picture point are you trying to make?” Unfortunately, before she could respond my professor checked in on our session. He gave her paper a quick read-through then thoroughly praised her “subversive” take on the Bard. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if she ended up receiving an A.
Since then I have switched to focusing on a History major. Perhaps due to History’s higher degree of accountability to hard evidence, I have found a much more intellectually satisfying classroom atmosphere. However, as a steadfast believer in the value of literature I am appalled at the degree to which English standards have degraded at a top-tier school like the U of M. If there is any lesson I would like to impart from my experience with the department, it is that rhetorical measures, like those taken by the U of Chicago administration, are crucial to maintaining a truly intellectual atmosphere. If we want to impart a substantial dose of artes, scientia and veritas on our graduates, we must take serious steps to challenge ideology-driven teaching and deferential learning. Students must be encouraged to think critically and bravely, not fall in line with social justice dogma. The “spirit” of trigger warnings and safe spaces impedes our intellectual growth; we need a new spirit of intellectual freedom and productive discourse.