Ethics & Public Policy Center

The MLA’s Moral and Intellectual Bankruptcy is a Symptom of the Academy’s Decline

Published in Daily Caller on January 20, 2014


This month, The Modern Language Association, the nation’s largest organization of humanities scholars, signaled that it wants to jump on the anti-Israel bandwagon. That bandwagon has lately been steered by MLA’s colleagues in the American Studies Association, who launched a boycott of Israeli universities last month. The MLA convention where its resolution criticizing Israel was debated (and from which The Daily Caller was banned), revealed much ignorance of facts but no lack of vehemence and self-righteousness. Over two hundred college presidents have condemned the American Studies initiative, and a few universities have terminated their affiliation with it. Thus the attempt to marginalize Israel has largely succeeded only in marginalizing itself. But now the MLA is raring to go. Why are these academic professional associations showing so little professionalism, or even sense?

What has been overlooked in the efforts to counter their perverse political mischief is the perverse nature of contemporary humanities and social science. What has become pervasive is political grandstanding combined with the identity politics of race, class, and gender, often seasoned with adolescent foolishness and deep contempt for everything American. Professional principles of teaching and research, on which alone the credibility of higher education can rest, are ignored.

The Modern Language Association has been making a fool of itself for decades, with such exhibitionist nonsense as “Victorian Buggery,” “Bambi on Top,” “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” and “‘Dude! Your Dress Is So Cute!’ Patterns of Semantic Widening in ‘Dude’” as topics at its annual conferences. Even the New York Times has excoriated the Association, yet it comes back with ever-more titillating topics pretending to be serious scholarship.

Last year, the American Studies Association’s journal, the American Quarterly, featured such earth-shattering studies as “Toward a Feminist Postcolonial Milk Studies,” and “ ‘Of Course There are Werewolves and Vampires’: True Blood and the Right to Rights for Other Species.” The intellectual bankruptcy of the ASA is evident in titles of conference papers that are self-parodies of academic work. The upcoming annual conference of the Association is themed, “The Fun and the Fury: New Dialectics of Pleasure and Pain in the Post-American Century.” Within the past three years, ASA audiences have heard such topics as: “Thawing Polar Discourses: New Queer and Feminist Readings of Hegemonic Polar Narratives,” and “Food and Sex, Cannibalism and Sodomy: Intersections of Desire and Consumption in the Americas.”

These profoundly dysfunctional academic associations could figure in the pages of comic fiction, but the joke is on us. American Studies and Modern Language Association buffoonery becomes the stuff of undergraduate courses, often in lieu of the kind of rigorous collegiate study that develops analytical reasoning and critical thinking. Craven deans and provosts dutifully award credit to students for taking classes such as “Fat Studies” or “Vampires and Zombies,” and grant tenure to the faculty who inflict such absurdities on their pupils. This reductio ad absurdum of the humanities and social sciences has filled the void created by higher education’s failure to establish meaningful academic requirements.

America outspends every other nation per pupil in higher education, yet our college grads – nourished on such nonsense — are below the average of their international peers in basic collegiate literacies. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni curriculum review documents that less than 19 percent of American colleges and universities require a foundational course in American history or government, the kind of course that prepares graduates for informed citizenship: its surveys show that 62 percent of young college graduates cannot correctly identify the term lengths of members of Congress. 96 percent could identify Lady Gaga, but less than 20 percent recognized James Madison as the father of the U.S. Constitution. We don’t have money to squander on such nonsense, not if we want a rising generation ready for the challenges of career, community, and citizenship. Boards of trustees everywhere need to follow the example of the universities that have terminated their membership in the ASA. It is time to stop wasting precious educational resources on thinly-disguised political pressure groups.

The late Alan Bloom warned of the dangers of nihilism and cultural relativism, particularly in higher education, because they destroy both civic principles and intellectual rigor. If values are simply an accident of culture and culture is the only valid identity, then the trajectory of civilization will descend to the selfish power struggles of personal and ethnic identity. That is now the world of contemporary American Studies, and the Modern Language Association may be close behind. While Bloom called on the academy to search for truth, we see professional associations choosing instead to chase juvenile self-indulgence, politics, and power. The assault on Israel is the most evident sign of the hollowness at their core.

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