A Disturbing Turn in the Culture Wars

Two new pieces suggest one way that the campus culture wars might end — and it's a worse outcome than anyone imagined.

By Nathan Pippenger

Shakespeare.jpgThere are intriguing connections between two recent pieces on the plight of the humanities: In Commonweal, Jackson Lears has a review of William Deresiewicz’s book Excellent Sheep, and in Slate Robert Matz calls for defenders of the humanities to spend less time fretting over the future of Shakespeare. Together, the pieces offer a glimpse into disturbing shifts in culture-war politics.

Many of the 1980s-1990s clashes which are now remembered as part of the culture wars were a battle over the direction of American intellectual life. Arguments over the canon, for example—pitting defenders of traditional curricula against left-wing reformers—were tense, even acrimonious. But the fight itself was premised on the shared conviction that what is taught in philosophy, history, and literature courses is deeply important (which was one reason why the argument was so bitter). Recent forays into these familiar controversies reflect the assumption that nothing has changed since those days.

As Matz notes, however, this assumption is dangerously mistaken. He cites a worried new report, from a right-of-center humanities organization, noting that fewer top colleges today require Shakespeare courses. In the changed circumstances facing the humanities, Matz sees this concern as almost quaint—“frozen in amber.” Conservatives who still champion the familiar canon need to recognize that more than Shakespeare is at risk: “in a nation obsessed with career-specific and STEM education, there is scant support for humanities in general.” Responding to the present crisis by calling for more Shakespeare is naively narrow. “We have our modern philistines,” writes Matz. “Where are our modern conservative voices to call them out? Instead, on the shrinking support for the liberal arts in American education—the most significant issue facing the humanities—[conservative humanities organizations] mistake a parochial struggle over particular authors and curricula for the full-throated defense of the humanities.”

The search for conservative allies goes beyond the syllabi of English literature courses. Lears makes a similar observation in his review of Deresiewicz, whose polemic against the conformism, superficiality, and narrowness of contemporary higher education finds an unusual ally in Allan Bloom:

The focus on mastering technique rather than grappling with substance means that too often higher education “does nothing to challenge students’ high school values, ideals, practices, and beliefs,” as Deresiewicz observes. How can it, if it has no vision of what an educated human being should be, as Allan Bloom complained nearly thirty years ago in The Closing of the American Mind. It is interesting how often Deresiewicz cites Bloom, the bogeyman of the politically correct left in the 1980s, who was nothing if not a passionate defender of the humanities. Resistance to technocratic imperatives cuts across conventional political boundaries.

Indeed it does—but the frightening prospect, hinted at by both writers, is that even an alliance among old foes is unlikely to prove an effective counterweight to the forces now assembled against humanistic education and the liberal arts. Today’s humanities-critics, if they stop to think about the old canon debates, probably regard them as useless exercises in intellectual vanity, ones that can be eliminated (or at least pushed aside to small, poorly funded departments) in the universities of the future. The culture wars, in this sense, may be coming to an end after all—although not in the way that adversaries on either side of the 1980s and 1990s debates might have imagined. Instead of the victory of the reformers or the vindication of the traditionalists, the culture wars could end with their common downfall, and the victory of people who don’t understand what all the fighting was about in the first place.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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