LARSON: Defending a broader academy

Nothing in Particular

My last column, on the subject of grade inflation, attracted a group of commenters who made the interesting case that grade inflation itself is not a problem. Rather, it is departments and classes that teach subjects relatively new to the academy (read: gender, race, sexuality) that create grading imbalances.

Harry Larson_headshot_(David Yu)Such disciplines, the argument goes, allow students to earn high grades with little work. Students who study these subjects fill themselves with bits of obscure pseudo-knowledge and propaganda, and are thus challenged less than those who study physics or philosophy. This imbalance penalizes students who study “traditional” topics and debases the value of a Yale transcript. Political correctness is exchanged for scholarship.

Outside the question of relative difficulty — and according to the Ad Hoc Committee on Grading, grade inflation is a problem that persists equally across departments and areas of study — a larger antipathy towards the study of minorities, gender and sexuality is shockingly common. Earlier this month, writers in the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal jumped to the defense of a businessman who claimed to have been ridiculed by the president of Bowdoin College after suggesting that the school put too much emphasis on an ill-defined diversity. Not only are the people at colleges too liberal, the subjects of inquiry are, too. Particularly illuminating is an accompanying video interview in which the interviewer asks incredulously how parents could pay for a college education that features a class called “Racism.”

The narrative that American higher education has devolved since the 1960s into an ideologically self-reinforcing attack on American values — one that shuns Western achievements and accomplishments in favor of minority groups — is no longer the pet story of a few grumpy conservatives.

Do these criticisms bear up? Some claim evidence for them simply by sifting through our Blue Book. They point to classes like “Refuge, Racism, and Religion in African Canadian History.” But for each of these classes, one can find “Ancient Notions of Time” in the Classics and Philosophy departments, or “Alliterative Poetry in Middle English” in the English Department. Specificity and a focus on the arcane are also present in those departments that teach almost exclusively about the work of dead white men.

Indeed, it is hard to look at the Directed Studies reading list and conclude that much has changed over the last 50 (or 500) years in terms of what works the academy values. If anything, I would guess that we devote far more resources to the study of obscure elements of the Western experience (“Sources for Medieval Hispano-Jewish Civilization”) than we do to the study of all of Africa.

As for the other criticism — that when we study America and the West, we pollute that study with unfair and out-of-context indictments of Western leaders — it’s true that our historical understanding has become more critical, though our appreciation of the artistic accomplishments of great white male writers has hardly been diminished. But is the former really a bad thing? Surely a college that can spare classes that examine the scars inflicted by the Peloponnesian War can also allow classes about the scars slavery has left on American society. Both types of classes contribute to our understanding of our past.

Somehow it’s become mainstream to think that any class on African literature is a direct attack on Plato, or that any class on gender and sexuality means we must reject everything done by straight men. Students should be given more credit; we can learn the bad parts of Western and American history without ignoring everything that’s good about them. By refusing to trust us to be fair, as well as critical, would-be defenders of the West’s reputation cast doubt on the very values and traditions they seek to uphold.

Critics of the post-’60s academy often speak as if classes on women or minorities have totally replaced the classes that used to define college. A glance at nearly any college’s course catalogue demonstrates that this couldn’t be further from the truth. Maybe it’s not the exclusion of white men, but the inclusion of women and minorities, that these critics object to.

Harry Larson is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at harry.larson@yale.edu .

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