Somehow, I got on the mailing list for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative non-profit dedicated to countering what they believe to be liberal bias in higher education. In the latest issue of their magazine, Intercollegiate Review, there is an article by John Zmirak mocking the courses that some universities offer to satisfy general education requirements. It’s a sneering list of classes that the editors have decided are not serious enough for college students, such as Stanford’s “The Mathematics of Sports” and Harvard’s “Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee.”
IR asserts that only traditional surveys can satisfy core curricula, and that these iconoclastic approaches to the topics fail to provide the most basic “old fashioned” information necessary for well-rounded students. The corollary assumption is that these are throwaway courses with no intellectual rigor; IR wanted “to see how easily you could check off the boxes in five key disciplines.” (Zmirak conveniently ignores that some of his picks are advanced courses for which a non-major may not be prepared.)
What, then, qualifies as a “solid humanities education?” IR recommends the following eight courses:
- Greek and Roman Literature in Translation
- Ancient Philosophy
- The Bible (Hebrew and/or New Testament)
- Christian Thought before 1500
- Early Modern Political Philosophy
- American History before 1865
- Nineteenth-Century Intellectual History
Notice anything there? Once we get into the twentieth century, there is nothing left to learn. The nineteenth is really pushing it, apparently. When I teach my sections of the post-1865 American History survey, who knows what I might be getting up to, what with all that progressivism, internationalism, race, gender, etc, etc. Imagine if I were teaching something foreign.
The above list does an impressive job of encapsulating a particular form of conservative worldview. Today’s United States of America is the heir of Greece and Rome, of the Christian tradition, and of Renaissance-through-Enlightenment European thought. The nineteenth century qualifies so that the foundations for modern conservatism may make their appearance.
Throughout the article, religion plays a key role. ISI states that the organization is not affiliated with any religion, but “relies on the moral and cultural traditions that are part of the Judeo-Christian heritage and rooted in Western Civilization.” Thus, Zmirak is uncomfortable with courses such as one at the College of the Holy Cross that explores religions comparatively, and does not tell you “what some dead pope had to say about how you…should try to act.” For IR, this misses the point of religion–and all other humanities disciplines–in higher education. They should instill “traditional” values, not open students up to other perspectives.
Zmirak laments that students from differing fields may have little overlap in their studies, that they won’t be able to “argue over ideas” coherently. In his view, the traditional curricula are the only ones that matter; new ways of learning have nothing to offer. Better that we rehash the same arguments over and over again as if nothing has changed in the world. Better that we continue to reify t he experiences of whites, of males, of all sorts of privilege.
This may be the most telling passage from the article:
Every BA student, regardless of major, had to conquer these classes to graduate. So you had future ad execs in courses on the American Revolution, aspiring politicians reading Chaucer and Milton, psychology majors thumbing through the King James Bible. These were the kinds of classes that Bluto and Flounder were cutting in the movie Animal House–and no wonder. New ideas only aggravate a hangover. (emphasis added)
Let’s unpack this. You have ad execs, politicians and psychologists–all good, solid, profitable professions. They are the ones for whom history, literature, and religion courses exist–not the poor souls who actually choose those fields for themselves. And finally, all those dusty tomes comprise new ideas, not, say, Yale’s “U.S. Lesbian and Gay History,” which can only have an ideological agenda, not actual ideas.
Full disclosure: I have taught a course at the University of Washington with the title “Religion and Conflict in Battlestar Galactica.” ISI will have to deal with that.