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Culture: Today’s humanities a target of misdirected anger?


Nicholas Dames asks “Why bother?” (N+1, April 13, 2001) with the humanities these days, offering,

Last February, a professor of biology and Harvard PhD named Amy Bishop, having recently been denied tenure by the University of Alabama in Hunstville, released the contents of a nine-millimeter pistol on her colleagues during a departmental faculty meeting. She killed the department’s chair and two others. Three more were wounded. Startling as the homicides were, and though they ratcheted up the common, unglamorous tensions of the tenure process to something fit for a media spectacle, they were hard to read as an allegory for the Problems of Higher Education.

Unless, that is, you were unfortunate enough to peruse the reader comments on the New York Times’s online coverage of the killings and their aftermath. Among the helpless expressions of sadness was a large and growing strain of anger amounting to celebration. What was bizarre about the reaction was that, though Bishop worked in the Department of Biological Sciences, most of the commenters’ rage was directed toward the humanities. The dozens of hateful posts—however incoherent their stated reasons—were troubling moreover because they borrowed the rhetoric of neoliberal reform. Away with unjust privileges (like tenure), away with the guardians of unmonetizable knowledge (the humanities, the speculative sciences), away with any kind of refuge from the competitive market! Academics may not need to worry much about hostile gunfire, but they do need to worry, more than ever, about the more legal means by which hostility toward the academy gets expressed.

One way of directing contempt as well as hostility toward the humanities is to subsume them under pseudosciences like evolutionary psychology. Go here, here, and here for plenty of examples.

Nancy Pearcey’s recent Saving Leonardo attempts to provide a way forward.

As a former untenured faculty member at UAH where Amy Bishop went berserk, I might point out that Amy was herself a "neo-liberal", or what I would prefer to call, a Post-Modernist. In the past, liberals were rationalists, but today they are PoMo. There is more than coincidence in the actions of Amy and the blog commentators. Peter Wood, a sociologist writing in "A Bee in the Mouth", argues that PoMo, having rejected absolute truth, find their validation in passion, or more precisely, anger. If so, then we can expect a lot more Amys in the future.Robert Sheldon
April 14, 2011
09:13 AM

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