The Fall of the Humanities

Duke University president Richard Brodhead, who abandoned his own students and took the word of a prostitute before knowing the facts in the infamous Duke Lacrosse case, has served as co- chairman of an allegedly bipartisan group convened by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to investigate the value of the humanities in the college curriculum.

Members of the quango included filmmakers Ken Burns and George Lucas, musicians Yo-Yo Ma and Emmylou Harris, actor John Lithgow and retired Supreme Court justice David Souter -- an odd assortment to be called on to interpret academic  trends.

Said Brodhead in a news release: "The humanities - languages, literature, history, jurisprudence, philosophy, comparative religion, ethics, history and arts criticism - tell our shared story as a culture and help us appreciate our commonalities and differences. The social sciences - including anthropology, archaeology, economics, political science, sociology and psychology - analyze the lives of individuals and societies, revealing patterns of behavior and interpersonal dynamics."

Who could disagree? The problem is the courses of study listed by Brodhead fit the description of the Humanities over 50 years ago. Today's liberal arts/humanities curriculum is dominated by the ascendancy of politically motivated "identity" studies designed by emergent radical scholars in the 1960s as ammunition in the culture wars against Western civilization.

Accompanied by techniques such as "critical theory," "radical deconstruction," "multiculturalism" (and its enforcement arm, the politically correct thought police) the underlying strategy has been to denigrate and eradicate the success of the Western canon for its complicity in fostering racism, chauvinism, imperialism (from the British empire to the American empire) and later homophobia. Consequently, students are encouraged to take faux coursework sprinkled in the curriculum: Queer Studies, African and African American Studies; Women and Gender Studies; Culture Studies; Sex Studies; Transgender Studies - none of which was mentioned by Brodhead.

The first battle in this academic civil war was fought over the existence of traditional scholarship in the late 1970s. Before then, at many liberal arts colleges and universities, incoming students were frog-marched through two years in sequence of what was often  referred to  as General College before gaining access to courses in their major. The purpose of this boot camp was threefold: bring new students from various educational backgrounds up to an acceptable level of knowledge; ensure professors that their junior and senior classes were not bogged down in remedial instruction; and create a process that weeded out students who could not perform college level work. And, oh yes, pass on the accumulated facts and values of Western civilization.

General College students were normally required to take 17 hours a semester to remain enrolled, a tough load during the Vietnam War draft from 1965 to 1972. To matriculate out of General College at the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill, students had to complete four semesters of science (with lab), two semesters of English and English literature, two semesters of math, four semesters of a foreign language, two semesters of physical education and two semesters of Western Civilization - the course that contributed the most to the failure rate.

The radical scholars recognized Western Civ had to be erased to achieve their goal of destroying the old order and ushering in the new "inclusive" inclusive manifesto. (Remember Jesse Jackson's chant at Stanford? "Hi-ho, hi-ho, Western Civ has to go"). In the process, the General College was abandoned - and with it went the foundation of a proper college education.

And out went academic standards, which suited the radicals who adopted grade inflation as a gesture against the Vietnam War. College students found it much easier to remain full time students without contending with the onerous course load, and even easier to maintain a 2.0 academic average - the minimum to avoid losing the student draft deferment. Plus students could now choose courses across the spectrum without having to build a foundation of academic rigor.

By the late 1970s, many radical scholars were gaining tenure -- the archaic privilege enjoyed by academics that guarantees a job for life -- and the power to push their advantage to mold the curriculum to their purposes. New hires were screened for allegiance to the radical manifestos. Traditional liberal arts course work was re-defined to focus on women, race, sexual technique, gays and the environment. The result has been unsound subjects masquerading as worthy academic pursuits -- and college graduates who are unaware of their inherited culture.

The public was mostly unaware of this revolutionary change. The skirmishes were unreported in the mainstream media.  At Duke, considered the national leader in radical scholarship for hiring Professor Stanley Fish in the 1980s -- the gadfly Milton scholar who made national academic headlines -- the National Association of Scholars attempted to counter the steady march of the decline of standards and the slanders against traditional professors who refused to fall in line with new agenda.

The NAS still exists but knows it lost. And although Fish finally left Duke in 1992, his influence continues as evidenced by President Brodhead's initial handling of the Lacrosse case in 2006: The radicals, who rallied behind a black prostitute as a symbol of their beloved class warfare against white males, were able to sweep him along  in the tide of multicultural fantasy. White boys from wealthy families -- bad; black female employed in the sex trade -- good. Brodhead should have been fired. Instead he is co-chairman of a prestigious panel peddling the importance of humanities studies that no longer exist.

Brodhead is not simply a fraud. He is a witting player in the collapse of scholarship, easily observable in a conversation with college graduates of the past four decades, or by the absence of ethics and morality dramatized regularly in American society. But the audacity to list the subjects that comprise the humanities as we knew them, and omit the courses offered today that have undermined, or in many cases replaced them, is a testament to the abandonment of the lessons they were designed to teach. What's left is not worth the effort to preserve.  

Follow Bernie Reeves on Twitter: @reeves_bernie.