Blaming cultural studies for much of the ills of undergraduate learning continues to be a popular hobby among those who profess to favor great thinkers in the academy. Recently, we did a search for “cultural studies” on the website of the Chronicle of Higher Education, which directs readers immediately to a list of 25 publications. Of the fifteen pieces that actually mention cultural studies in the title, the vast majority offer critiques that overemphasize the contributions of cultural studies to negative educational ills in college and universities. Clear evidence of a genesis of this approach can be found in a 1990 letter to the editor titled, “Cultural Studies: A ‘Spoiled Offspring” as well as in later pieces, like the 1998 and 2009 articles titled respectively, “Wearying of Cultural Studies, Some Scholars Rediscover Beauty,” and “What’s the Matter With Cultural Studies,” a piece questioning whether cultural studies was initially promising, but losing its bearing. To add insult to injury, we learned in 2014 that the Chronicle of Higher Education refuses to publish rejoinders to the various attacks it publishes, so the opportunity for counter-narratives that offer readers dis-confirming evidence on such an important topic in a feature article is lost. As a result, we are publishing our critique here at Cloaking Inequity.
A recent blaming of cultural studies for the deterioration of undergraduate learning was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education by David Mikics in an article titled, “Cultural Studies: Bane of the Humanities.” Mikics is a professor of English at the University of Houston who contends that the real purpose of higher education is to pursue truth all on your own and that students should be invited to challenge and decide if they agree with the great thinkers, which may change the way they think and, as a result, maybe even their life. Few would disagree with this contention. It is where Mikics goes next that we find problematic, at best. He argues that such invitation for students to challenge so called great thinkers is “in fact almost invisible these days in the humanities—not that they were ever common.” What is the scapegoat for this problem from Mikics’ purview? You guessed it: cultural studies. Having spent significant time with the evolving field of cultural studies, we are hesitant to—as one might say—take the bait by writing a response. However, we find the main points of this response to be imperative in the current geo-political climate of the U.S., where too many readers are living in fear of reorganization plans to dissolve cultural studies, gender studies, ethnic studies and the like. The key word of this response is “irony.”
The first irony in “Cultural Studies: Bane of the Humanities” is that ultimately the well-planned thesis of the argument seems to fall short of its purpose. From the beginning, it founds an argument upon a well-documented intellectual disease in the academy—The Great Man’s Disease. Symptoms of The Great Man’s Disease manifest “when a famous [or influential] man in one field develops, [publicizes, and acts upon] strong opinions about another field that he does not [fully] understand” (Krugman, 2009; p. 29; and English, 2013, p. 5). In this case, the article becomes a venue for The Great Man who advocates an Adler/Hirsch-style cultural literacy list of great thinkers. These great thinkers are centered and normalized in ways that privilege and overemphasize “great [white and European] thinkers.” Yet, the article purports the project to be conducive to deeply engaging in ideas that are divergent from the norm.
Second, the form of cultural studies discussed in the article is unfamiliar to cultural studies scholars of “these days.” It doesn’t ring clear to any of the graduate education we both received at Wake Forest University and University of North Carolina at-Chapel Hill. Unlike the article’s assumptions and assertions, the premise that we continue to learn from cultural studies is that our subjectivities are informed by the cultures within which we participate, resist and generate but they are not necessarily, as you say, “ruled by forces beyond [our] control.” The latter concern on finding ways to “really escape from it” or to escape Giddens’ agency/structure forces with generative knowledge by imagining how to go about it was, and continues to be a big part of our education in cultural studies and for the project of thinking with cultural studies in educational research.
Third, a key argument of the article was at least partially directed to open students up “to pursue truth” on their own, yet with a prescribed canon of chiefly white/European male authored texts. Perhaps, a question we should ask of the context is how students can “pursue truth all on [their] own” without the canon of prescribed “great [white] thinkers,” or any other prescribed canon for that matter. If the student in the “Bane” article is the subaltern, Spivak may ask, “Can the subaltern speak with such a prescription?” In no way would we disagree with the goal of supporting students to navigate the “jargon-infested jungles of heavy theory” toward more theory-into-practice, particularly in our field of education. However, the notion that all of cultural studies lies inextricably within this problem seems wildly hyperbolic. But, perhaps, we are not “taking reading seriously” enough into the “wisdom literature” of Descartes, Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Trilling and others; the “great literature” that the article prescribes.
Fourth, we don’t find beliefs and consumption always to be as mutually exclusive as the article claims. Cultural beliefs about consumption can sometimes “constrain,” bind, blind and free one up to engage the type of change that the “Bane” article champions. Let us take the article’s point that “books, whether theory or not, have become tools for making predictable references to big concepts (capitalism, gender, modernity)….” When has this point never been accurate in some geo-political context? Certainly, throughout the ages, there have been students (and faculty) that read in superficial ways, yes? Beware nostalgia—notably something of a maxim in cultural studies—as it usually is a lament for something that never was. However, we paused at the two specific points that accompany this assertion in the text: (1) this assertion represents the “biggest obstacle to humanistic education in the 21st century,” and (2) the “great literature” books “…should be, guides to life.”
(1) While we would be hesitant to name the biggest obstacle to humanistic education in the 21st century, we might venture to suggest some bigger obstacles than the one named in the article. These bigger obstacles seem to stretch across multiple fields and disciplines: (a) to remain relevant, (b) to remain adequate, (c) to remain critical and reflexive in our thoughts and actions, particularly as we fight the many manifestations of structural racism, (d) to remain student-centered and inquiry-based to unpack data/information/evidence/narratives in the present about the past for the future, and (e) to be conscientious of our contributions, complicity and mortality for our posterity.
(2) While we agree that one “reason to read a book” is to “shake up, and perhaps to transform, your life,” it need not be the “only real reason,” and moreover, we would disagree with approaching the so-called “great literature” as tools of “conversion” or “guides to life.” Reading also helps one with communicative competence, a skill that helps us rethink episodes, events and encounters in the process of selecting what to keep and what to strip away as we navigate within and outside the social contexts of our comfort zones. Hughes finds that these social contexts in his life as a Black American man don’t tend to be embodied, per se in the most celebrated texts within the canon prescribed in “Cultural Studies: Bane of the Humanities.”
Finally, if one’s experiences of perceived diverse “others” tend not to be embodied through the most celebrated pieces among the prescribed canon of texts, perhaps another important “real reason” for reading books is to prompt us to invite and engage critical inquiry and dialogues with those diverse “others” with the explicit goals of negotiating the critical and of adhering to the spirit of “nothing about us without us.” This spirit seems to have the potential to spark a reconsideration of the article’s thesis through the activation of diverse, interdisciplinary/anti-disciplinary co-equal teams of post-critical friends who may find the main “Bane of the Humanities” to be an academic ill much more powerful than cultural studies; a condition that we may properly diagnose as: The Great Man’s Disease.
Krugman, P. (2009). A Country is not a Company. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School.
English, F. (2013). The Ten Most Wanted Enemies of American Public Education’s School Leadership. A presentation to the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, CA: April, 1-14.
Authors of this post
Sherick Hughes, Ph.D., Associate Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Rob Helfenbein, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Loyola University-Maryland
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