The Fall of the Humanities and the Rise of the Theorists

by Professor Jack

“Hang up philosophy! / Unless philosophy can make a Juliet,” says Romeo.

UCLA recently gutted its English department, replacing required courses on Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton with au courant courses on gender, race, class and other trippy subjects that ease the attainment of graduate degrees without requiring much knowledge of actual literary content. This has been the regrettable direction of the humanities for a generation, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute writes: 

“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.” 

The political and cultural Left knows that a critical part of undermining existing traditions is to erase the memory of our forebears, especially those memories ensconced in works of literature, history and music. Rather than simply outlawing the study or enjoyment of, say, Charlotte or Emily Bronte, why not instead place Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights in a theoretical matrix where those masterpieces can be dismissed as nothing more than cries of feminine or other minority oppression? 

Do you think I exaggerate? When I was in my doctoral program I had to read and critique reams of such sophomoric material, often written for journals whose readership was confined to the local MFA program.  

“And when night / Darkens the streets, then wander forth the sons / Of Belial, flown with insolence and wine,” writes Milton in Paradise Lost. The Evil One wants to make The Present the auditor and judge of The Past. And so our academics, as true sons of Rehoboam, wish to subject The Great Tradition of our civilization’s literature to theories now in fashion. They know that when classic literature is read in its unmediated splendor, it judges us and relativizes our present obsessions, and threatens the sterile pieties of contemporary liberalism. 

Wisdom, temperance, and moderation, Aristotle’s Good, True and Beautiful–in other words, the fruits of the humanities–are no longer the pearl of great price of the typical secular university. It is no wonder that fewer and fewer students are choosing majors in the humanities. It seems that English departments, in seeking to extinguish the light of the past, are also extinguishing themselves. 

Of such cultural fools the philosopher Nietzsche wrote: “Not a few of those who meant to cast out their own demons went thereby into the swine themselves.”