Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Culture Wars

(Note: This is part 2 of a larger piece)

The “culture wars” are over; culture lost. A product of the halcyon days of the early 90s, the “culture wars” refers to the debates over the western canon in American universities, as well as to the attempt, not so halcyon, of certain politicians to gain mileage from those debates, and of certain scholars to write about those debates for several years afterwards. Ah, what an era, in which the only “wars” people had to worry about were those centered on undergraduate reading lists!

It is now hard to remember a time in which undergraduates chanted idiocies like, “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Western Civ has got to go!” and protested the dominance of “dead white males” in education. The more radical students wanted to expand the ‘canon’ to include women (who were always there), homosexuals (yep, them too), and people of color (again, this is new?). The conservatives wanted to “save” Chaucer from those who would throw him out. Believe it or not, it was once seen as “reactionary” to be studying the western tradition without a sufficiently derogatory stance. Now, you’re just seen as vaguely dorky and pathetic.

Nobody marches anymore. It is hard to imagine that anyone could be much offended by the current educational program, a sort of salad bar approach in which students are offered a dab of this and a dollop of that with no underlying coherence or depth whatsoever. Students are now given the idea of an education. So the image of them fighting for inclusion in that salad bar seems odd: you mean they were arguing for more books instead of less?

Well, perhaps. I’d imagine that some students were actually marching for less books. But, no matter. Neither side won: the conservatives didn’t get liberals out of teaching positions, and the radicals didn’t get any deeper discussions of those once marginalized authors; they get mentioned so that now one can come out of university knowing very little about Chaucer or Beloved. The process of watering-down education until it becomes a meaningless formality won out. After all, Universities are a business; at least, they’re determined to be.

This watering-down process: turning a liberal arts education into a formality for gainful employment, letting in waves of the same sort of bored, insensate slackers that have long clogged American high schools, and passing far too many of them while focusing largely on their “satisfaction” with the university “experience”: is commented upon only obliquely by conservatives, touching as it does on a critique of capitalism, and not at all by radicals, who seem to have moved on to larger concerns. When there are real wars and global empires, somehow Chaucer seems less threatening. In the end nobody really lost, except those of us who are still struggling to fill the gaps in the lousy education that we got at good universities.

(Note: More to come.)

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