A bit more background on me: My focus during my undergraduate career was post-colonial African history. Someday I want to go to grad school to continue studying it. Depending on the program I get in, I might be able to study post-colonial literature and literary theory as well.

Due to these interests of mine, I’ve found that I generally agree or harbor strong sympathies with what many conservative critics refer to as “victimization studies” such as women’s studies, critical race theory, queer studies, and the like. I’m curious to hear what the readers of Mere O think about these disciplines.

When you hear a phrase like “women’s studies” what comes to mind? What was the last book you read that would be part of the core reading of any of these fields? What role, if any, should such disciplines play in the life of the university?

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy and author of "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World." He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

15 Comments

  1. Christopher Benson June 9, 2010 at 7:48 pm

    Hello Jake: I welcome a new voice at Mere-O. You’ve asked some interesting questions. Because our backgrounds shape us, you should know that I studied philosophy in my undergraduate program and liberal arts in my graduate program, specifically the great books of the Western canon. My hunch is that we have different sympathies. Admittedly, I possess a “West and the rest” bias while your focus seems to be the non-Western world.

    My undergraduate school (Wheaton College) offers a Christian liberal arts program with the traditional academic disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. By contrast, our neighbor (University of Chicago) offers a revised liberal arts program with studies in human sexuality, race, and gender. (Have you ever noticed how sex, race, and gender constitute the “unholy Trinity” of the politically correct?)

    When I graduated from Wheaton, I put together a curriculum with a friend to reflect on education. Alan Bloom’s CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND and Martha Nussbaum’s CULTIVATING HUMANITY are ideal dialogue-partners because both authors are superbly trained and authoritative in the liberal arts programs; the former defends a traditional view while the latter argues for reform.

    If anyone could persuade me to adopt reform, it would be Professor Nussbaum. She gave me much to think about in her chapters on the study of non-Western cultures, African-American studies, women’s studies, and the study of human sexuality. Still, in the end, I was not persuaded because these “reforms” are often driven by identity politics and upheld by the unexamined piety of multiculturalism and political correctness.

    Professor Bloom had it right. If you’re going to study homosexuality in ancient Greece and Rome, do it in a Classics department rather than a separate department devoted to human sexuality. If you’re going to study women in Victorian England, do it in an English department or History department rather than a separate department devoted to women. The problem with these separate departments is that they are usually taught by politically charged faculty who have agendas that are irrelevant to the study of a subject.

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  2. I am certainly not a typical Mere O reader as I went to a secular women’s college, but I did take one women’s studies class that did not fit any of the femi-nazi, radical stereotypes that might come to mind. It focused on global women’s issues that were not included in the more traditional International Relations curriculum. This one class does not really justify an entire department, but it did support a lot of honest inquiry and did not lead us down a path toward pre-determined conclusions.

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  3. “Victimization” Studies and the Evangelical Conscience http://bit.ly/bCPofZ via http://topicfire.com/Christian

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

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  4. Mary – That sounds very similar to my experience at UNL. Strangely, I think the classes in women’s studies, post-colonialism and the like were almost truer to the classical tradition than my classes in more traditional fields. Much of the discussion in the traditional fields is so specialized at this point that the practical gains of having an education get completely lost. (No joke, I’ve heard of someone doing a dissertation topic on the symbolic role of the bicycle in Victorian Literature.) In the reform-minded classes, there was an eye toward our education actually making some difference in how we live. It was refreshing. So much of our modern education system is divorced from the day to day questions of how we ought to live. Actually having a class inform my day-to-day ethical decisions was refreshing.

    Chris – I think the discussion hinges on one primary issue, which we could frame a few different ways: A) Is there a philosophy of education that is apolitical? So, for example, you suggest that we could study the role of women in literature in an English class. But is it possible that the very idea of an “English Literature” class is premised on a political system as well? It all comes down to what we define as “default” or “normal,” doesn’t it?

    Same issue, different context: One of my biggest gripes with many of the hard materialists I meet is that they assume empiricism is the default position and in discussions about God the burden of proof is entirely and exclusively laid upon theists. But if the discussion is defined in these terms, the theist has already lost. You’re being required to use empiricism to prove theism. So even if you succeed, you’re not standing on theism, you’re standing on empiricism.

    So maybe the same thing is happening here? The assumption is that the trivium and the quadrivium are defaults and courses discussing race and gender ought to fall into the already-defined contours of the classical education. But if we’re looking to study gender and race, is it possible to study them in the way we must within the classical structure?

    (For what it’s worth, I’m still very up-in-the-air on these questions. I have enormous sympathies with the classical model, but I’ve studied too much African history to feel OK about privileging the west to such a significant degree.)

    Thanks for stopping by!

    peace

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  5. Jake,

    If there were an official Mere-O position on this issue–and allow me to emphasize that there isn’t–it would be in favor of something like the classical model, even with its emphasis on the western tradition. I think you’re right about the problems of classical education as it is typically done, but would point out that the evangelical classical educational world actually avoids those problems–and the best representative of that is my alma mater, Biola.

    Can we all agree that “isms” (of any sort) are unnecessarily restrictive and reductionist (including “classicism”), and that the best thing for all of us is to read well, read widely, read old things, read new things, and read things we disagree with? : )

    matt

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  6. Matt – Yeah, I assumed that which is why I was curious to ask Mere O readers about it. Like I said, I have lots of sympathies with the classical model and if I could see it done without completely neglecting non-western models (or judging them based on their conformity to western models) I’d feel much more comfortable getting behind the movement completely.

    I’d be curious to hear more about the way Biola structures their curriculum. I have the reading list listed on the website and I just skimmed it and saw only 5 or 6 non-white authors and only one who lived after 500. (Douglass… who is a GREAT choice, but what about Du Bois or Malcolm X? I realize you can only fit so many thinkers into a curriculum, but Du Bois and Malcolm X are both landmark thinkers in the 20th century, so they ought to fit in the curriculum somewhere…)

    Hope it’s OK that I’m pushing on this a little. I love your last graph in the comment and agree for the most part. But, at the same time I do think you have to take labels and work within them at some point (though “working within them” certainly could entail trying to expand them). Just like you can’t live exclusively within the Mere Christian tradition, but must pick a room, so I think it is in these other issues.

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  7. Christof Meyer June 10, 2010 at 11:07 am

    So, since I’m not entirely sure where your question is coming from, this comment may be out of line. But I suppose I can always speak for myself… In any case, my sympathies certainly lie with the “redeemed Classics” model of learning – aka Torrey, old Harvard, etc. This belief can be boiled down, I suppose, to the following set of ideas.

    1. The suppositions of the authors who write books on other books (textbooks for example) is often left unchallenged in any curriculum that focuses on reading other people’s thoughts about other things. This does not mean that we shouldn’t read King’s Letter from a Birmingham jail. But it does mean that we should avoid making Dr. so-and-so’s commentary on King the cornerstone of our education.

    2. Victimization studies are just one part of a broader project (that I call just-because-we-can-ism) that promises knowledge but actually just leads to elitism. In art history (part of my training) this shows up in curated shows like “birds in ancient manuscripts” but can also show up in things like “treatment of women in 19th century detective stories”. The net result of these things is generally not a better understanding of the world, but a set of cherry-picked facts that may or may not represent anything more than that they existed in such-and-such a context. I can imagine a possible course on abuses of indigenous religions in colonial sub-saharran Africa that promises knowledge of Western ideas of religion, but in fact only delivers knowledge on the perspective of the person who designed the course. So, I agree, you can have some interesting conversations about the birds found in the margins of ancient manuscripts, but taking them outside of their broader context renders their ACTUAL meaning mute.

    3. The types of courses you are writing about are often full of contemporary literature that has not yet passed the test of significance, relevance, or helpfulness that many old/classical books have. What a shame to read a bunch of contemporary books on post-colonial-reading perspectives in the canon of Christian literature, only to find out years later that the time spent investing in these books was wasted because the books simply weren’t any good and/or didn’t cohere very tightly to reality.

    4. Many of the authors of victim-studies-type books have a polemic intention in mind – one that may not be particularly sensitive to the demands of goodness, truth, and beauty. Just like the real abuses of power in colonial Africa are really bad, so also the real goods done to former African colonies. And, while it may be interesting to read Achebe’s perspective on Nigerian colonialist history, it is unlikely to help us get at the truth of what the British really did in that country… let alone help us get at the more important question of what we should do in light of this reality.

    5. I disagree with the ontological (let alone teleological) foundations of many of the authors that write the books that frequently make up the canon of victimization type courses. I don’t believe the Afrikaners are nearly as bad as they are made out to be. I don’t believe Evangelicals hate gays nearly as much as they are in the imaginations of the New York Times. I don’t believe that the pill will ever emancipate women. Etc. This reason is, I suppose, more of a statement than an argument… But you know, you asked what I thought.

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  8. Christof – Great thoughts. Some very helpful, clarifying comments. I’ll try to respond point-by-point, b/c again I agree and disagree.

    First, the question of the norm/default texts arises again. I’m totally on board in saying that we ought to read primary sources rather than secondary. I’d much rather read Aristotle than someone’s thoughts on Aristotle. However, I do think there’s an added layer of complexity here that’s going unaddressed: So we don’t want to use Dr. so-and-so’s text as a cornerstone because they’re simply pontificating on an issue in a polemical manner with the intent to advance a specific agenda. Sure, that’s fine. But can’t the same critique be applied to many of the classical texts? Aristotle was writing in dialogue with other thinkers in a specific political context with the intent to advance an agenda, so how is what Aristotle is doing different from what Du Bois doing? On one level, the biggest difference is Aristotle won the arguments of his day and he wrote long enough ago that we’ve forgotten his opponents and we can now treat his texts as if they were dropped from heaven completely removed from any sort of historical, cultural, or political context.

    Another difference I can see between the two is the breadth of what they’re addressing. Du Bois focuses on race issues and tends to interpret everything through that grid because, as he put it, the great problem of the 20th century is the color line. Aristotle, meanwhile, has a broader interest in pretty much everything he could possibly have imagined. So I’m willing to grant that for that reason we should study Aristotle in great detail because he’s a time-tested teacher with a breadth of knowledge and insight that is unparalleled.

    However, can’t you also argue that the only reason Aristotle was able to study so broadly is his position of privilege (his proximity to Philip, his connection to Alexander and Plato, etc.) while the only reason for the comparatively smaller scope of Du Bois is his position of subordination? So if we grant that point and still insist on a classics model that ignores him or, at best, subordinates Du Bois to Aristotle, aren’t we allowing our educational philosophy to be written by history’s winners? Given what Christianity teaches about the least of these, the fools being wise, and so forth, we’ve got to at least wrestle with that issue, don’t we?

    On the just-because-we-canism, I’m totally tracking with you. But again, my experience at a public, research 1 university was that that sort of thing is much more of a problem in the traditional disciplines within the humanities than in the newer ones.

    The only point where I think we disagree quite strongly is the point about the characterization of oppressing groups like the Afrikaners. Having read the primary sources from that period… their treatment of non-whites really was that awful. If you want some sources on that, I can pass them along. A good place to begin would be with Donald Woods’ book, Biko, which is an account of the murder of Steve Biko, an anti-apartheid activist in the 70s by the Afrikaner government.

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  9. One other general comment that should be made about liberation studies and the great books approach: I’m all for wanting to give everybody a fair shake and assuming that in most cases there’s something commendable about a group. However, let’s make sure that empathy for the whites of the modern world (let’s call it the 17th-early 20th centuries) comes from a thorough acquaintance with the sources and not just vague feelings of empathy we have for our fellow whites who are currently getting lambasted in many academic circles.

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  10. Christopher Benson June 10, 2010 at 8:25 pm

    Jake: To answer your question, I don’t think there’s a philosophy of education that’s apolitical. Political neutrality is a myth of the Enlightenment. That said, we should acknowledge how academic inquiry is shaped its setting.

    For instance, let’s take the topic of same-sex practices in ancient Greece. A student in the Classics Department at Johns Hopkins University will explore the issue quite differently than a student in the Lesbian & Gay Studies Project of the Center for Gender Studies at the University of Chicago. The former student will treat same-sex practices as they are relevant to the art, literature, philosophy, and religion of ancient Greece whereas the the latter will probably treat same-sex practices as they are relevant to the identity politics of gays and lesbians in 21st century America. In my opinion, the former student’s approach is legitimate while the latter’s is illegitimate.

    My alma mater, St. John’s College, does not arbitrarily separate the academic disciplines, nor does it promote identity politics. Instead, St. John’s acquaints students “with the best that has been known and said in the world, and thus with the history of the human spirit,” as English poet Matthew Arnold recommended. There is a liberal arts program dedicated to the Western canon and––unlike Torrey Honors Institute, Thomas Aquinas College, and other great books colleges and programs––an Eastern classics program dedicated to rich traditions of the East (China, Japan, and India).

    If a woman (Jane Austin, Virginia Woolf) or ethnic minority (Booker T. Washington, DuBois) is read in the curriculum, it is because the author has proved worthy of the canon––not because of double X chromosomes or dark skin pigmentation. This is not the time to examine what qualifies as “worthy,” but there is a criteria.

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  11. Christopher Benson June 10, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    What is the danger of “victimization studies”? According to Allan Bloom in CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND, it’s relativism:

    Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating. Openness––and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings––is the great insight of our times. The true believer is the real danger. The study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.

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  12. William E. Woodward June 10, 2010 at 11:09 pm

    This economics undergraduate, who went on to earn graduate degrees in public policy and applied mathematics, fancies himself as straddling the technical and non-technical disciplines, and capable of conversation in both worlds. That’s a more interesting academic dichotomy than the one between traditional humanities disciplines and post-modern ones.

    My reaction to a phrase like “women’s studies” is that we need more interdisciplinary efforts in the academy, not further specialization.

    I’ve been personally victimized too many times by engineers who can’t write AND by artists who can’t count (or even think logically).

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  13. William – A thousand amens to the need for interdisciplinary thinking. (And I do think this is one area where a classical education could serve us quite well.)

    Christopher – Your comment regarding St. Johns is both interesting and encouraging. However, on the point about liberation approaches encouraging relativism, I disagree. Certainly on paper what Bloom is suggesting makes sense, but I have taken classes in critical race theory and women’s studies and based on that experience I can say Bloom’s critique completely misses its target. My experience in liberation courses was precisely the opposite – those were the courses most willing to say that some things are right and others are wrong. And the instructors had no problem in telling us how what we’re studying ought to shape the way we live.

    It was the traditional courses taught in the modern university that were plagued by “because-we-canism” and a sort of knowledge divorced from wisdom.

    If you wish to argue against liberation education then, I think the battle ground is not the relativism point. Honestly, my professors in those fields would find the suggestion that they’re relativists patently offensive and then they’d drop a pile of books on your lap to prove that they aren’t. (And I think that’s an argument they’d win.) Where I think the argument should be raised is “Toward what end is our education focused?” And then I think there’s going to be real disagreement. But the way the issue needs to be framed is 21st Century Liberal morality, which tends to be the basis of the liberation courses vs. a classical Christian approach to morality. Both make absolute claims, neither are relative. (And there will be some overlap between the two, I think. Not all their truth claims are mutually exclusive, though some certainly will be.) The relativists of the bunch are the people studying the roles of bicycles in Victorian literature in the English department.

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  14. Christof Meyer June 11, 2010 at 7:50 am

    Jake, I like some of your thoughts here, but alas, while I think I understand (and feel the tug of) your appreciation for the causes of maligned/victimized peoples I am suspicious about the possibility of liberating anyone from anything simply by empathizing (and this really is the goal of much of the victim-group literature) with their position.

    For example, I don’t think it’s going to be possible to intelligently address the (real) unjust situation caused by apartheid in ZA armed with information that is designed to result in a binary distribution of blame. Case in point: by failing to understand the Afrikaans experience the door is left open for “fixes that fail” and that is exactly what has happened in South Africa, Namibia, and (to a lesser/slightly different degree) Zimbabwe. Certainly a redistributive change was necessary in South Africa, but the narrative in the victim-finding West was almost exclusively concerned with punishing white people. Many of whom were nothing more than uneducated farmers. Many of whom were totally unaware of their own racism. Many of whom had the majority of the business skills necessary to run a country. Etc. Don’t hear my defense of Afrikaners here as a defense of white people per se. When it comes to Africa I have my favorites in nearly every country. But the same process (finding a victim, supporting a victim, beating the victimizer to exact justice) has been going on for a very long time and I don’t see it very often leading to the balanced, good life – la vita bonum.

    In the 60’s and 70’s almost every America Democrat supported Israel. They were the underdogs, picked on by the big, bad, Arabs. Now the Israeli’s are seen as evil incarnate by many liberal democrats and the Arabs are seen as the enemy. What changed? Well certainly the power structures changed, but the root structures, causal chains, and world views are largely unchanged. I think it would be better for everyone if we took a step back and took responsibility for our actions when we support someone/something simply because they are the underdog.

    A final great example that I know a lot about is the American Indian story. I grew up on or near a reservation my entire childhood and many of my best friends were Navajo. My experience with the stories that people tell in academia about Indians is so fundamentally misconstrued that it causes me to question the entire project. Listen, the grieving Indian stereotype is real. White settlers had a power role to play in creating it. AND, many of the proposed fixes to the situation, dreamed up within the halls of higher education not only miss the point, they don’t describe reality (in any holistic way), and are neutered of their capacity to cause change by their stubborn refusal to deal with the multiple, powerful, overlapping systems that come to bear on real grieving Indians.

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  15. Christof – First, many apologies for the “Christopher” above. Didn’t proof my comment carefully enough.

    A few thoughts – I don’t think the problem is that empathy is being used to advance an argument. I think the problem is in the way it’s being used, which is what your comment points out.

    On the specifics of South Africa – Point taken with the typical Afrikaner farmer. The Brits need to go in for a good hammering too b/c you’re right, the Afrikaners were getting a raw deal from Britain for a loooooong time. That said, even in the early days of Dutch settlement, the use of indigenous Africans as slaves was common. The farmer might not have the same level of culpability in the evils done to black South Africans as Cecil Rhodes or Hendrik Verwoerd, but you can’t act as if they’re completely innocent either. In any event, though, your point that we should be leery of simplistic dichotomies of completely innocent victim vs. completely guilty attacker is well taken.

    Also, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this question related to the underdog point: I think some of that is probably a desire to empathy with the traditionally-oppressed, but it seems that pulling for the underdog is near the heart of the way Americans have always seen themselves. Assuming we grant that the frontier thesis is mostly true, it isn’t too far a walk from “Pioneering explorer” to “Underdog facing insurmountable challenges.” Of course, it’s still empathy driving it, but the empathy we feel for underdogs has less to do with a desire for justice and much more to do with the American love of the frontier, I think.

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