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Heather Mac Donald
The Humanities and Us « Back to Story

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Heather Mac Donald writes:

"Regarding the visual arts, New Yorkers are particularly fortunate: many of New York’s museums still present the best of human creation, untainted by identity politics. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, former director Philippe de Montebello consciously fought off pressures for trendy relevance; his successor, Thomas Campbell, has so far preserved de Montebello’s magnificent legacy. (See “The Met’s Triumphant Democratic Elitism,” Winter 2001.) The Frick’s and the Morgan’s commitment to standards and taste is almost terrifyingly superb."

A recipient of Aristos Awards in 2007 and 2002 [], Mac Donald’s occasional commentary on the arts is always highly informed and a pleasure to read. In the passage quoted above, however, she seems unaware that far from “still present[ing] the best of human creation” in the art of the recent past and the present day, the three New York museums she cites present instead its dregs—the bogus art of the avant-garde artworld.

Regarding the Met, as critic Jed Perl notes in “Campbell Meets Warhol” (New Republic, March 2, 2011:, “the gist of most of what’s written about [Thomas] Campbell . . . is that the new director is very different from his predecessor . . . . Campbell the director is in danger of rejecting the values that Campbell represented as a curator.” Perl is too kind. As numerous newspaper accounts have documented in the years since his article was published, the transformation of the Met as a major exhibitor of “contemporary” work continues to accelerate at a record pace. The opening of its “Met Breuer,” the former home of the Whitney Museum on Madison Avenue, is only eight months or so away.

And what of the Morgan and the Frick? Same story in different details and scale. The Morgan’s series of avant-garde exhibitions, organized since 2005 by its first-ever curator of modern and contemporary drawings, betrays utter disregard for what it characterizes as Mr. Morgan’s vaunted “commitment to standards and taste.”

At the Frick, such betrayal has thus far occurred on a far lesser scale, but Jeff Koons has lectured there, and pieces by Cy Twombly and Ed Ruscha shared gallery space with magnificent small Renaissance bronzes in an exhibition of not long ago.

A recent lecture titled “Avant-Garde Museum Education: This Too Shall Be a Manifesto" had little to do with the high standards and refined tastes possessed by both Mr. Frick and his trusted daughter Helen (who lived to witness the rise of the avant-garde and did not approve). What is truly terrifying is the ease with which the trustees and directors of these two precious small museums ignore the legacies of their visionary founders.

While these examples all took place after Mac Donald’s "The Humanities and Us" was published, the Frick's "Artists, Poets, and Writers" lecture series has been dominated in the past by avant-gardists, among them Chuck Close, Frank Stella, and Bill Viola.

More recently is what the Frick proudly notes was the first "truly contemporary work" it ever exhibited—an "installation" consisting of a three-hour, slow-motion film transformation of an early-seventeenth-century still life painting that was on view in the exhibition featuring Vermeer's crowd-pleasing "Girl."

Sad to say, but the days when New York’s museums presented “the best of human creation” unblemished by trendy theory (political or otherwise) have long passed.

Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts) and Co-Author, ‘What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand’ (2000) -
God, you are good.
Those who agree with this article should look at the website of the UCLA English Department, which is deeply misrepresented by Mac Donald's argument. The department offers multiple courses in Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer, for example. Some of these courses are required for the major. It's true that the department also offers courses that focus, e.g., on sexuality. But some of these courses include the study of authors such as James Baldwin, a genuinely great writer by any reasonable standards.

Her attempt to blame the English professors suggests she either doesn't know anything about the profession or is being deceptive. It is simply false to say that university professors are not subject to economic pressures. They work in institutions that are subject to such pressures, and their salaries, departmental budgets, and so on are decided by administrators responding to those economic pressures. More than half of university courses are taught by adjunct faculty, who often work for very low wages and without health benefits or job security. Even tenured and tenure-track full-time faculty in the humanities typically earn salaries that disqualify them from being "privileged cowards," as she puts it. Cowards, maybe. But hardly privileged. A few superstars earn high salaries of the sort earned by lawyers and doctors. But most do not.

I agree with some of what she says in this article. The typical American student doesn't spend enough time studying great literature and art. I also agree that the study of Western classics is mind-expanding, not oppressive. (Du Bois says it better than anyone.) But it's a rant, not a real argument. As one of the responders pointed out, her laudatory emphasis on the importance of studying greatness needn't restrict itself to such a narrow conception of greatness. Readers should dismiss her remarks about the UCLA English department. She provides zero evidence, and a cursory look at the department website strongly suggests that she has distorted the facts to suit her rhetorical purposes. This is a shame, actually. It's this kind of rant that makes all parties to the debate simply dig in their heels.
I am adjunct professor trying to connect with my class while teaching Ethics. I am finding that books and movies which had formed the basis of American culture and education when I was a kid are no longer popular. More than this, historical and cultural references made to support my presentation seems to fall on deaf ears. They have never heard of some key ideas from their college or high school educations. I am grateful to Ms. Macdonald for reminding us of the value of the Humanities and for reminding me to hit the books again and learn just a few of the ideas and authors she had presented. Sadly, my background in the ancients is lacking but as a life long learner I will TRY to remedy my lack of experience.
Your articles are wonderful and heartening to read. I am a teacher at a homeschool coop for 13 years and trying to increase the Classical Humanities. I have begun to get push back. I have already noticed that classical books are being removed from libraries, book stores, public and private schools and of course colleges. These articles give proof that I am not wrong.
It may be of interest to you, if you do not know already, that in 1797 and Jesuit Priest Abbe Barruel wrote "Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism" that describes 837 pages of great detail how France and Germany were moral corrupted, knowledge destroyed leading to the French Revolution.
Thank you for all the information.

Allan Beale
George T. Karnezis February 24, 2014 at 2:39 PM
I have some sympathy for this argument. I have been a retired humanities teacher for 10 years. Toward the end of my full-time teaching, I did observe such narrowing trends in play in my students and younger faculty whose impact on my students seemed regrettable. There seemed to me a kind of kneejerk sameness to how they read, a hermeneutics of suspicion that turned the word "criticism" into something routinely negative or debunking, as well as a contempt for any aesthetic attention to works which always,or so they were taught, hid some propagandistic support for something perniciously conservative, making us congratulate ourselves on our own enlightened age. A work, it seemed, appeared to be a historical document, merely.

On the other hand, I hesitate to dismiss, as Ms. MacDonald has,the humanities' claim to teaching critical thinking, though I do worry over the ill-defined use of the term. It seems to me that the virtue of humanistic study, recognized by the likes of Arendt,Oakshot and many others is that it educates one into thinking/feeling with the other as well as cultivating the art of what Arendt called "representative thinking," that imaginative capacity for projecting oneself into another's thoughts or perspective -- a talent that amounts to critical thinking in the positive sense of a balanced interpretive judgment as to a work's value and meaning. Furthermore, recent movements in the humanities do offer more concrete treatment than is offered here on their cognitive value, i.e., the sort of knowledge and habits of mind such study cultivates, eg. cognitive literary studies. I suspect I'm not alone in sensing that this piece does risk turning humanistic study into a bit of a gee whizz idolatry or narrowly worshipful stance.

One thing I especially appreciate,finally, is the absence of the phrase "early or pre-modern" and the reappearance of "rennaissance" as a legitimate word.
In the Music Humanities course at Columbia, perhaps there was a missed opportunity for the student who questioned why she had to listen to Mozart. She could have been given an assignment to compare the music of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges and Anna Bon to the music of Haydn and Mozart. That might have overcome her initial reluctance.
Genre studies? Gender studies?
You recommended a particular biizography of Ber.lioz this morning on Bill Bennett's program. Which one was it?
Many many thanks.
Jim Brody
Editor, Dead Cats and Clippings
Excellent. Read this while listening to your interview with Bill Bennett.
Patrick Constantine February 04, 2014 at 12:15 PM
"Worthless characters, and such as are destitute of ability to attain eminence themselves, often seek to get into notice by decrying those who excel them."

I loved this article as I'm the type who loves reading dusty old patristic writings, which are often free on google books, or Hendrickson publishing makes them available to us.

That quote was from Socrates' church history, referring to those who trashed Origen 200 years after he died, chapter XIII of Book VI.
Very entertaining and very much to the point. There are some points with which I disagree but they are quibbles. Education, as opposed to training, ought to make the student feel uncomfortable. University curricula should not be designed to reinforce what the student already knows but should expose the student to things that are new. Reading and learning are ultimately subversive activities since they cause the reader to reach independent conclusions. The powers that be oppose true education because they do not want us to think but either to amuse ourselves to death or become stupid and barbaric.
Best piece I have read in ages! Thank you!!!
So you reckon the tracts of countryside stop people from getting to the Royal Opera House? Interesting theory, even if it makes no sense.

Whatever terminal snideness elements of our right wing press suffer from is a puritan residue. That kind of thing flourishes much more readily in your own toxic political culture where the narcissistic and internecine strife between two rightwing parties masquerades as a democratic system of government.

I find your choice of British caricatures quite fascinating. You've obviously never been here and are putting this picture together from your memory of whatever Victorian novels you read as an undergraduate.
"As for your claim that Puritans achieve, they only achieve according to their own debased metrics of achievement which usually involve mobilising against some enemy they've either imagined or actually created like witches or muslims or global warming. "

We do recall that Britain was once heroic and inventive and its men of letters inspiring. Wouldn't slice up the Queen or the military even today. However, you've got the chatterati you've got, chock-a-block with the terminally snide and repulsive anti-semites and nothing else of notice. And pity also your population of middle aged men is so well stocked with whose who have hardly any blood left in their alcohol stream.
"The 18 million figure doesn't refer to the dense settlement of New York, but to New York and surrounding cities i.e. the metropolitan area."

Oh yes it does. The dense settlement extends over 19 counties in New York and New Jersey. The institutional term used by the Census Bureau in this country is 'Urbanized Area'.

A 'Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area' refers to commuting patterns and makes use of county boundaries which incorporate scads of countryside. The distinction is less evident with regard to New York but is gross with regard to smaller cities. The tract development where I grew up has between 600,000 and 720,000 people in it depending on what boundary conditions you use. The 'Metropolitan Area' rambles over six predominantly rural counties which between them do not have a concentrated settlement with more than 15,000 people resident.

And the equivalent figure for London is 9.5 million. There is an analogous distinction in population figures reported by European census and statistical bureaux.
@Art Deco

The 18 million figure doesn't refer to the dense settlement of New York, but to New York and surrounding cities i.e. the metropolitan area. The equivalent area around London has 14 to 18 million people depending how it's measured. This might help you get your head around it:

As for your claim that Puritans achieve, they only achieve according to their own debased metrics of achievement which usually involve mobilising against some enemy they've either imagined or actually created like witches or muslims or global warming.
"If students don't want to hear Mozart or read Shakespeare, you will find that they really don't want to hear about race or gender from their professors when they get to the university. "

Natural selection should kill these corrupted departments off. You neglect the idological shticks of the faculty and administration, however. The liberal arts college I know best has dedicated space for two of its victimology programs and the latter has 38 'corresponding faculty'. The arts and science faculty hands out about 700 diplomas a year, of which typically about 4 go to 'concentrators' in these disciplines. One of these 'concentrations' was founding in 1970. It should have long since been killed off.
I am confusing nothing. "Metropolitan area" is a demographer's construct. The dense settlement is a physical thing, and the dense settlement of London has 9.5 million people in it.

"The reason you're all sober over there is because scratch the surface and you're all still puritans. There's a reason we shipped you over there in the first place."

Puritans achieve. As for you people, take a less from Henry Failie: "that once sceptered isle ruled for a half-century by the most disastrous ruling class in history".

We are civilized in this country. We visit the dentist every now and then, do not use street drains for urinals, and do not loathe the Jews.

The clientele of the Royal Opera House will have to speak for themselves.
elegant, judicious, relevant, just a great commentary on what we are losing by our neglect of the greats of the Western Tradition. Congratulations
@Art Deco

No, 14 million in the metro area of London. 9.5 million in greater London. You're confused about the difference between greater London and the metropolitan area.

The reason you're all sober over there is because scratch the surface and you're all still puritans. There's a reason we shipped you over there in the first place.
I have never seen an article so effectively argue against its own arguments! If the humanities is about discovering greatness (which seems pretty limited and shallow to me, but I'll let that pass), then why limit it to only one kind of greatness, from one tradition? The humanists avoided that by accessing one of the few alternatives they had -- the ancients. We have more alternatives -- why on earth not explore them on equal footing instead of rehashing the 19th century dictionary of greats?
Your analysis is interesting (even if it has been made often in recent years), but it might have been more illuminating if you had mentioned the number of students who now major in English at UCLA Los Angeles. If students don't want to hear Mozart or read Shakespeare, you will find that they really don't want to hear about race or gender from their professors when they get to the university. They have imbibed that in the previous 12 years of schooling. The Weekly Standard recently published a piece on the decline of history majors at Stanford over the last generation. Something similar is going on in all the humanities.
"since many non-Western humanities have been part of the last two centuries in Europe and America as much as Shakespeare, Milton, etc. Sanskrit literature, for example, or even the humanistic works of other non-white cultures?"

Sorry, I don't think courses in Sanskrit literature were ever widely available in American higher education. The arts-and-sciences faculty I know best awards just north of 20% of its diplomas to students of humanistic disciplines. Fewer that 2% of that 20% receive diplomas in Chinese or Japanese literature, even though the college has an amply staffed department.

I cannot figure why you conceptualize this as a dogfight between the humanities and social research. Literature professors are not crowding out serious social research; they are just spinning their wheels and beclowning themselves.
I agree with many of the sentiments of this author but why INSIST on "Western" humanities, especially since many non-Western humanities have been part of the last two centuries in Europe and America as much as Shakespeare, Milton, etc. Sanskrit literature, for example, or even the humanistic works of other non-white cultures? It's a humanities vs. social-science-pretending-to-be humanities that is the debate, not "East" vs. "West"
"The Royal Opera House is in London which has about 14 million people in its metro area."

9.5 Million, not 14 million. In addition, the capacity of people in the United States to appreciate performances exceeds that in Britain because most Americans are sober at any one time.
@Art Deco

He said "but every recent performance I've seen at the Welsh National Opera and the Royal Opera House..."

The Royal Opera House is in London which has about 14 million people in its metro area. Cutting and pasting a few words from the middle of somebody's sentence in order to score a point you have no right to is worse than stupid.
"but every recent performance I've seen at the Welsh National Opera"

About 350,000 people live in greater Cardiff. About 18,000,000 live in greater New York. Somehow I think one locus commands more attention than the other.
Re: "Yet New York audiences, unlike those in Europe, can still see productions that take the composer’s intention as their lodestar, however much such fidelity enrages the commentariat."

Ah yes, the parochial American. New York is a city; Europe is a continent.

Possibly some of the recent Ring performances at Bayreuth have gone, erm, "postmodern" but every recent performance I've seen at the Welsh National Opera and Royal Opera House of late certainly do "take the composer’s intention as their lodestar."

Apparently the French are hardcore traditionalists, too.

Come on, Heather, you're not a hayseed. You are capable of better.
"The real motive behind this sort of insidious nonsense is a generic desire to prevent those who might read literature from arriving at the sorts of political consciousness the right inevitably dreads. "

The real motive behind commentary such as yours is to legitimate the avoidance political discussion in expository formats where the implication of your arguments can be laid bare. Better to disfigure discussions of literature. You can shovel a lot of BS that way and evade the necessity to cite facts and logic.
So many overwritten sentences and this article is nevertheless such a joke. As if we needed further proof that there is really no longer such a thing as as conservative intellectual. The real motive behind this sort of insidious nonsense is a generic desire to prevent those who might read literature from arriving at the sorts of political consciousness the right inevitably dreads.
The Sanity Inspector January 23, 2014 at 6:46 AM
Just as the soil needs cultivators of the soil, the mind needs teachers. But teachers are not as easy to come by as farmers. The teachers themselves are pupils and must be pupils. But there cannot be an infinite regress: ultimately there must be teachers who are not in turn pupils. Those teachers who are not in turn pupils are the great minds or, in order to avoid any ambiguity in a matter of such importance, the greatest minds. Such men are extremely rare. We are not likely to meet any of them in any classroom. We are not likely to meet any of them anywhere. It is a piece of good luck if there is a single one alive in one's time. For all practical purposes, pupils, of whatever degree of proficiency, have access to the teachers who are not in turn pupils, to the greatest minds, only through the great books. Liberal education will then consist in studying with the proper care the great books which the greatest minds have left behind -- a study in which the more experienced pupils assist the less experienced pupils, including the beginners.
-- Leo Strauss, graduation speech at University of Chicago, June 6, 1959
Yea for white people!
Humanities and the US. UCLA.
Great essay Heather. (Another!)
I'm as a leftist as it gets... but these idiot leftist hackademics don't realize most of the Western Tradition is a "liberatory force." Beethoven composed for a mulatto friend. Shakespeare's views on race and colonialism are often very ambiguous for his time. I sincerely believe we should abolish English departments at this point. It's over and hopeless now.
The modern Lilliputians safely tenured in their academic groves are desperate to escape the realisation of their true insignificance by pulling down the giants, reducing the commanding heights of our greatest artistic and cultural achievements from sheer self-negating spite, and leaving we inheritors of all that is valuable and sacred with nothing but an arid,flat vista where 'the lone and level sands stretch far away'.
I endured three years of an "English" major before realising my awful mistake.
Although I'm literally still paying for it I'm feeling much better now back in the real world, and my bookshelf is bursting with the despised classics.
Ambrose Bierce would be rolling over in his grave (wherever that may be). Shakespeare, Milton, Hobbs, Marlowe, John Donne, H.P. Huntington, Henry David Thoreau, John Steinbeck and a thousand others of their type would hang their heads and wonder why we, in the 20th and 21st centuries, did so much to murder our language and our culture and so little to preserve them.
Oz, walk into a McDonald's sometime and ask one of the employees what he or she majored in. The answer may surprise you.
Milton, Chaucer and Shakespeare have never prepared anyone for anything. Their multi-culti replacements are just following in that fine tradition.

The only thing an English major needs to read is the McDonalds training manual.
Wow, I just looked at the UCLA English major, and this article seriously misrepresents it. Students have to take four courses in four periods, one of which is before 1500, etc... They are likely to take Chaucer there. If not, some other interesting material from the period. For the relevant period, they are likely to take Shakespeare or Milton, etc... Then they have to choose 3 out of those four categories that you point out. One of the categories is critical theory, genre, etc..., a fairly traditional one. Another is creative writing, which I also find unobjectionable. Then there are two electives, and a capstone, for a total of 10 courses. I looked that the course offering for Winter 14, and they seem immensely varied and interesting. There is plenty of Shakespeare!
Okay, I have one. I'm going for "the artistic genius that allows us to enter worlds radically different from our own and expand our understanding of what it is to be human."

Obamacare should've been Pelosicare, but how would it have looked if Pelosi'd impeached Bush, ascended to the White House and then her net worth increased by 60%?

Obamacare was an afterthought. Make-work. A cheesier version of Roosevelt's New Deal. A consolation prize for those who'd win neither bailouts nor war profits.
The universities are no longer in the education business. The humanities are in the entertainment business: luxury dorms, good restaurants, gyms, and easy, doctrinal courses that do not challenge or in any other way offend the clients. The tragedy is that the students get exactly what they pay for, and they know that a willingness to briefly pretend to care about “alternative rubrics of gender, sexuality, race, and class" is part of that price.
Mac Donald is surprisingly pretentious for someone decrying the narcissism of others. This is one of the worst articles I've read in a long time.
In watering down the curriculum of English and other Humanities' majors, academics have managed to put these folks in the same courses many schools are trying to eliminate as they exist mainly to serve athletes who don't take "real" college courses. Simply amazing that we can't even take an area of study related to Western Civilization and not politicize it.

The self loathing of the left is incredibly striking.
Great article Heather, I think universities and professors have been hijacked by administrators. Administration has redefined the role of the univ., knowledge has taken a back seat.
Beautifully done. As an English and Comparative Literary Studies major at Occidental College in the late 1980s and early 1990s several of my fellow students and I saw this coming. We were lucky to still study core texts with professors who loved them and understood their value. Novels and poems and plays are complex, and it's not always easy to relate to them, which is part of their immense value. It's sad that students won't get the same kind of education I and so many other did. We are all the lesser for that.
God was that boring. And it seemed like such an interesting topic. English majors may learn how/what to read. But when it comes down to it, they can't write for sour apples.
The author steps on her own genuinely interesting arguments by hypocritically infusing it with her own "predictable politics". What purpose exactly did her comments about the "government takeover of healthcare" serve for her discussion of appreciating the historical context of classic texts?
She then frequently calls out the humanities departments for playing up "victimhood" but her entire article is suffused with victimhood….white male victimhood, and the victimhood of her mindset. I think she clearly has a great point to make here, and one that I definitely agree with: study the classics and appreciate them in their own context, not everything we study has to be about ourselves or about OUR context and we're not all so stupid and sheep-like that we need to have classic operas or plays translated into modern speech and attire and politics in order for us to appreciate it. I totally agree. But she did a terrible job fact checking. The MLA conference was about much more than what she purported and as mentioned in many of the comments above, she OBVIOUSLY did not check the current UCLA English major class offerings. (they do include many many classes on the classics but her article makes no mention of that). Besides the inaccuracies, it was her unnecessary eye rolling at liberal culture and her own hypocritical and totally exaggerated "the classics are LOST! this new generation just is so narcissistic and hate white males!!!!!!!" victimhood just made this article really hard to stomach.

There are plenty of undergraduates who love and appreciate the classics. The author took one single quote about Mozart, out of context, and made a case for the apathy of an entire generation.

There are good points to make here, but she was too lost in her own miasma of hysteria to make it. All the major universities still teach the classics, they just also teach other stuff that students are allowed to take as well. The reality is not the apocalyptic picture she painted.
R. Joseph Hoffmann January 20, 2014 at 6:22 PM
This is brilliant and sad to read. The academy has withstood centuries of turmoil and reformations. But this one is different because it threatens to eradicate the distinction between the political and educational functions of society, and, what is far worse, to give the political the upper hand and the directive voice.
Does it really matter? After graduation, classical literature will not make much difference as they wait tables with their "degree".
The paragraph that begins with “Why did I have to listen in music humanities to this Mozart?” stands out as a stark contradiction of the thoughtful analysis that precedes it. Of course Shakespeare occupies a central place in the English curriculum; he's English after all. But why should Mozart and Haydn occupy a similar place in the Music curriculum? Music is not inherently European. An enlightened curriculum should absolutely include Ellington and Jobim, for example, which is probably the sort of thing that the student mentioned here was complaining about. I would ask you to take another look at who needs to be disabused of their parochialism.
If I write again, I will take more care to write coherent sentences. When enthused, I babble.
Standing applause! Well, actually, I'm sitting, but you get the idea. Many thanks.

In my old age I teach at a nifty little community college, and via email told my students NOT to buy the assigned textbook because of the enormities you have discussed (and the thing is over $100). I have access to a copier, and Byron, Shelley, Keats, and the rest of "the boys in the band" (Sgt. Hathaway in LEWIS), I will give my students as much of civilization as I can.

Scott-King: "I think it would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world."

Headmaster: "It's a short-sighted view, Scott-King."

Scott-King: "There, headmaster, with all respect, I differ from you profoundly. I think it the most long-sighted view it is possible to take."

- "Scott-King's Modern Europe," short story,
Evelyn Waugh, 1946

Again, thanks.
Grace--I know you will enjoy this. I'm so thankful that you attend a real college.
p.s. the comments are great!


Reading Shakespeare should be part of any education. Cervantes, Goethe and others as well. Yet, the author sounds as shrill and narcissistic as those she criticizes. Too bad we have no Shakespeare to describe today's follies.
I wanted to stand up and applaud. Classical literature is among the best gifts of life. Thank you for your passion and reason. I try to do my own share of keeping them alive by sharing them with those close to me.

The author writes, "The humanities....provide the thing Faust sold his soul for: knowledge." This seems to be 180 degrees off course. After a lifetime of frustration in his search for knowledge, Faust sold his soul for "a moment so beautiful" that he would want it to last forever.
The Humanities and Us? Did she not mean We? Perhaps "alternative rubrics of" grammar ought to be included so that City Journal writers know the difference between subjects and objects. Not a good sign in an article claiming a "momentous shift in our culture".
A wonderful essay.

Ms Mac Donald uses the "early music" movement as an example of "humanist reverence for past genius." I think Corelli, Vivaldi, and composers right up through Beethoven would have loved the sound of string instruments fitted as they are now. "That's what we thought our music should sound like!" I think they would have said.

The point is that we should be developing and improving upon the insights and achievements of past genius, and educators should be leading the way. Mac Donald's essay eloquently exposes their failure.

While I applaud the author's eloquent attempt to reinforce the importance of studying and appreciating the humanities, unfortunately, today's society places greater emphasis on disciplines where students can get jobs. Those disciplines are not in the humanities. Results from a recent survey of college students indicated that 88% said their primary reason for going to college is to get a job. Choosing a major they enjoy (especially in the humanities) fell considerably down the list of importance. This is partly understandable because parents who are paying for their sons' or daughters' educations want tangible returns in the form of jobs. Sadly, they are willing to trade the importance of landing a job for critical thinking, reading, and writing skills, which are intrinsic components of humanities courses.

Additionally, in today's society, most people are not interested in watching a Shakespearean play or reading Plato's Apology. Instead, they want to see who won American Idol, Dancing with the Starts, and the most recent episodes of Duck Dynasty. Many of them measure a person's knowledge of history through memorization and recitation of facts, and how often one watches the History Channel. Pretty low standards if you ask me. This is why it is vital for those of us who understand and appreciate the humanities to continue fighting those who want to push the humanities into the dustbin of history (no pun intended). While Ms. MacDonald's essay has some flaws, its overall message is spot on, and we must embrace it.
Thank you for this essay. It poked at the ashes of my spirit, letting in some air so the heap smoldered for a moment.

Class of '06.
Because human folly is intractable, ever more reason why our cultural inheritance remains indispensable. This essay ought to be passed among college/university Literature Departments.
Thank you, Ms MacDonald, for this important essay. My English lit course of study required two of three Shakespeare courses--the tragedies, histories and comedies, along with two from Milton, Chaucer or Homer. We read a thousand pages from the neo-classical period--Swift, Pope and Dryden, et al. I marinated in the British romantics and the American transcendentalists. I even took an elective in the Bible as literature. The trends you describe will be the end of this once great nation. How sadly ironic, after so many lives and billions spent dealing with foreign threats that the end would come from the inside. And not from mere negligence. This is a determined effort to disconnect the country from its historic ties in an effort to do what they tried to do in France--to make the world anew. The founders knew better.
Welcome to Obamaland.
All that is said here is true. I am one of the professorate who is not tongue tied about the patrimony of the great works. I have dedicated my life and my teaching career to passing on what I know about them and I can say that if taught with gusto, without political spin or ideological tripe, the works of Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Wordsworth, Keats resonate with students. And I have paid for my love of the English speaking patrimony. While getting my Ph.D. in the early 1990s I rejected the cookie cutter ideological positions and chose to teach students about form, idea, language, intentionality (gasp!!) and meaning. I thought there were more out there like me when I started, but I know now that is simply not the case. It's been a hard thing to watch: the utter trivialization of the beautiful in literature by boundless academic blowhards chasing the latest trend. Did I mention I was a woman? Let's just say I have been alone in my dedication to the authentic humanist tradition. When I began my career I thought I would meet others like me--I haven't met many and there are few professional organizations who mirror authentic humanist values.
"Modern" (I use the word advisedly) pedagogues have corrupted the academy beyond recognition. For them, "feelings" -- of perceived victimhood, of perceived gender inequality, of perceived racial discrimination -- are their cynosures, their pole stars, and pass for what someone trying valiantly to understand what they are babbling about might think of as "truth."

These obsessive-compulsive monomaniacs spend endless hours spewing out words, words, words that make absolutely no sense to anybody but themselves. Even their high priest, Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstructionism, admits that he cannot define "deconstruction."
I mean, how crazy is that?

These insane perverts have eaten into the flesh of the university like a cancer and have completely corrupted the ideal of intellectual inquiry. They have captured the citadel and now dictate terms to anyone who seeks an education. In order to be certified as an educated person today, one must accede to this dictatorial madness and simply parrot the gibberish they are selling.

Only a few colleges -- Hillsdale, among others -- still teach the Great Books and plumb the wisdom of the ancients. As to the rest, they have turned their backs on the accumulated knowledge of man and have substituted some incomprehensible psychobabble as the touchstone of "education." This rank insanity has seized the faculties by the throat with a mortal ferocity -- and will not let go.

I believe that, as a nation, we have committed intellectual suicide and are now lost.
Thank you for expressing ideas which my little mind and brutish vocabulary will not allow.

In short I wish I had said that.

I will forward this to others, especially my children.
I am one unabashed political radical who never thought he'd be fundamentally in agreement with an Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute - but I am! In my course titled "Ideas of Human Nature," at the University of Washington (in proudly left-wing Seattle), we read - among others - the Old Testament, the Gita, Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Dostoyevsky, Darwin and Freud. Much as I'd wish, however, I can't make up for the follies of postmodernism all by myself ...
It's as if the UCLA English faculty were turned loose after hours in Maxim's de Paris with the key to the wine cellar and chose to drink from a toilet bowl.
Wonderful article, Heather Mac Donald. Of course, western civilization has not been what it;s been touted,m historically (remember Gandhi';s famous quip), but to trash the western cultural legacy for the sins of the ruling classes is absurd. The teachers who mislead the young into believing in their moral superiority, and the youngsters who imbibe this tasty poison- shame!
I don't know you but I love you for writing this!!! You are so correct in your summation and analysis of today's 'scholarly' culture that I am weeping for joy at your brilliance!! THANK YOU -Professional art historian with tons of Ivy league degrees....
A prerequisite of culture is non-ironic attachment to enduring values. The only values of contemporary nihilists are conformity and the rejection of difference.

Thus, it has long been inevitable that all the wonderful works of beauty and qualitative complexity speaking to the human condition, and not to the IDEA of the human condition--in which humanity is defined as a set of objects, solely--would wither away when not being actively dismantled.

I call this Cultural Sadeism. The moral and political aspects cannot be separated, as one leads to the other.

My treatment of it, within the context of the Vietnam War--which remains badly misunderstood to this very day--is here:

I reread it the other day. Everything you need to know is there, at least in my personal opinion.
I thought essays of the kind written by Macdonald went out of style in 1990. For the most part what she writes is ill-informed nonsense. Has theory driven some students away from literary study? Yes? Was the aesthetic approach she recommends loved by all students? No. There is a land in between, and that land appears to be captured in the following excerpt from the Course Descriptions for classes taught in the English Department at UCLA in Fall 2013:

English 140A Chaucer: Canterbury Tales
Prof. Smith

Introductory study of Chaucer's language, versification, and historical and literary background, including analysis and discussion of his long major poem, Canterbury Tales.

English 146 The Matter of Britain: King Arthur, the Once and Future King
Medieval Story Cycles and Collections
Prof. Smith

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table often constitute a modern person's first exposure to "medieval" culture; however, contemporary renderings of King Arthur are far different from their medieval predecessors. In this class, we will explore the origins of the Arthurian legend and the many political and artistic Arthurs invented by historians and poets in the Middle Ages. Our reading will begin in the 12th c. with Geoffrey of Monmouth's pseudo-historical rendering of King Arthur in the Historia Regum Britanniae and end in the 15th c. with Sir Thomas Malory's romantic rendering of the king in his Le Morte D'Arthur. In between, we will be reading selections from or the entirety of every major Arthurian work written in medieval England, including Layamon's Brut, Wace's Roman de Brut, the Alliterative Morte Arthur, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Readings will include texts in Middle English and in translation. Major assignments include a Midterm, Final Exam, and Final Paper or Project. Classes will be a combination of lecture and discussion.

English 150A Shakespeare: Poems and Early Plays
Prof. Dickey

Intensive study of selected poems and representative comedies, histories, and tragedies through Hamlet.

English 150B Shakespeare: Later Plays
Prof. Watson

A study of Shakespeare works from 1604 onward, including Othello, Measure for Measure, King Lear, Macbeth, Coriolanus and The Tempest.

English 151 Milton
Prof. Shuger

Milton is the last Renaissance poet; his poetry, the culmination of the rebirth of Antiquity, both Classical and Christian, that began in Italy some three centuries earlier. Yet, if heir to the ancient traditions, Milton is also harbinger of what the dollar bill (look in your wallet) calls Novus Ordo Seculorum, the New Order of the Ages. Of the perhaps sixty paintings that encircle the walls of the New York Public Library's reference room, hung in chronological order to compose a visual narrative of American history, two (the second and third) are of Milton. . . . The course will focus on the major poetry, especially Paradise Lost, but since Milton was a political thinker and a fairly important figure in the English Revolution, we will also read some of the key prose tracts, including his seminal defense of a free press. There will be two papers and ten quizzes, but neither midterm nor final.

English 166A Colonial Beginnings of American Literature Prof. Colacurcio

Historical survey of American literatures of discovery and exploration, contact, and settlement, with emphasis on genres that express distinctive colonial identities, myths, and religious visions.
I am sorry to see otherwise valid points linked explicitly to a conservative *ressentiment* that is no less whiny and puerile than the victimhood and and obsession with identity politics the author of this piece rightly deplores. The liberal arts are not a political football to be booted about by those with Rightest or Leftist agendas.
Alas, while much of this rings true, in my own professional area, music, there were a couple of clunkers. This passage was particularly painful:

"The most important classical music development of our time is a direct rebirth of the Renaissance spirit: a loose group of performers known as the “early-music” movement is determined to re-create how music from the baroque and classical eras was originally performed. Like the Renaissance scholars who realized that the classical texts that had come down to them had been corrupted by errors, these musicians believe that twentieth-century performance styles veered drastically from how baroque music was intended to be played."

While that may certainly be the advertised project, the reality is somewhat different. Musicologist Richard Taruskin, to the dismay of many, has pointed out a number of problems with this simple tale. First of all, we do not and cannot know with any certainty how music was performed centuries ago. Second, the metronomic, up-tempo style of a lot of early music performances owes as much to the doctrine of neo-classicism that originated in the Stravinsky circle in the 1920s as it does to any adherence to historical performance.

But I agree entirely that the role of curating the glories of Western Civilization is the true role of the humanities in university and one they seem to be shirking.
The sorry state of the academic humanities is as much a result of market forces, as something that academics have wickedly allowed to happen in spite of their privileged freedom from the market. Their livelihoods are dependent as never before on putting out units of research like cars on a production line whether or not they have anything to say, and, as HMD rightly points out, most of them don't have anything to say.

Meanwhile, the basic university degree has been subject to so much inflation that it buys you less than ever before in the job market, and is possessed by far more people than ever before, most of whom aren't interested in aesthetic riches. If you ask them to cultivate their aesthetic intelligence and their contemplative faculties, rather than giving them the formula that will get them an A, they'll give you bad customer feedback. If you get enough of that you'll lose your job, so you have to strike a balance between catering to an increasingly broad spectrum of abilities in the classroom and maintaining standards, and the standards slowly lose out.

Traditions of leftist critique that may have started as genuinely critical thinking about capitalism and imperialism have been commodified by neoliberal culture such that in universities now it's often the case that student-customers are being equipped with ideological templates that allow them to read their own sublime victimhood into any text. Instead of learning to appreciate Shakespeare's sublimity they learn to use social justice issues as a cover story for their personal resentments and immaturity, much as Heather MacDonald uses an interest in aesthetic splendour as a cover story for the unbridled greed that she's an apologist for.

Money and power are the materialist values that constitute the common denominator between right and left liberals. The solution to their conflict is not to be found within the the terms of the debate as it's described by either HMD or her adversaries.
the vast majority of people who wrote in to comment on this inaccurate and duplicitous screed ought to be ashamed of themselves. MacDonald is a polemicist who pays no heed to facts. She's got a theory of oppression (she's the oppressed!) and she goes about selecting facts that match her witless imagination. Take a look at the UCLA English Department's course offerings for the Winter 2014 session: I defy any reasonable, open-minded observer to conclude that it bears any resemblance whatsoever to MacDonald's descriptions. And there's lots more here: How about a little critical thinking and independent research before concluding that baseless accusations and pious baloney should stand. Get an education!
Wise, and beautifully written.
It's a Sunday afternoon outing until MacDonald employs the term "commentariat," at which time rhyme becomes dogma, reason becomes incest.

Better: Leave home. Find a property such as The Chronicle of Higher Education, which is supported by such articles as "Aaron Swartz was Right," and offer something new:

Aaron Swartz was wronged.

The crime is the infantilizing of Aaron Swartz, who, at the time of his death, was old enough to have been a veteran of his nation's military and a pro at serving the cause of justice, and who would have been those things had it not been for the perverting of the student-teacher relationship by such individuals as Glenn Greenwald and Lawrence Lessig: members of the Academy, whose credentials testify of them that they knew better.
"In 2011, the University of California at Los Angeles decimated its English major."
So, they only removed a tenth of the major? The rest of the article sounds like they overhauled it entirely. Someone needs to revisit the meaning of "decimate".
BRAVO to the author!

There should be certain STANDARDS in English depts in US universities. Those standards shouldn'be in the hands of profesors&administrators to change.

Too much freedom in education is not good.
What a well reasoned, detailed polemic. And so sadly true!
May I pick one nit? You speak of “the perfect crystalline brooks and mossy shades of pastoral poetry.” But surely you know that pastoral poetry down the ages, from Theocritus all the way to Matthew Arnold, treats a wide range of human passions and affairs, not excluding things ugly and squalid. Its essence is that it sharpens what it deals with by funneling it into the simplicity of rural life.
That Old Stone in the Shoe January 19, 2014 at 9:13 PM
From the Beijing and World Times April 1, 2114. 'Possible cause of West's decline uncovered. Our archaeologists find ancient drivel foundry in Beijing East suburb (formerly Los Angeles). Professor Thorium Zhu of West Xian (formerly NY) declared, “It seems they lost control of their very language. A group of drivelists took control and that was pretty well it. It was rather like a slow-burning Cultural Revolution.” When asked by a journalist what “the West” was Professor Zhu stormed off in anger.'
Could Lincoln have written the Gettysburg Address or Martin Luther King the "I have a dream" speech, or Churchill any of the phrases that consoled the British in their life and death struggle with Hitler had not Lincoln, King and Churchill had internalized the cadences of the King James Bible? And could have the King James authors have memorialized these cadences had they not grown up with the poetry of Milton and Shakespeare on their lips? And could Milton and Shakespeare have pierced the souls of the sensitive without their knowledge of all that had gone before them? What substitute do the post modern dogmas provide?
So what is to be done? (Apologies, Vladimir Ilyich.) Mount a counterattack or stand aside and let them continue to make a laughingstock of themselves?
I always had a problem with the label 'post-colonial'. English was formed by colonization- Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Romans,Vikings, Normans...
Only brute ignorance could argue otherwise. Thanks so much Heather.
Thank you for this brave and clear statement. The great universities will not survive of they do not serve humanity in the manner that you advocate. Some people desire more in life, and will find it wherever it is - if not at the university, then elsewhere.
This is a good to read this early morning --refreshing and activist.

Between past and future is now,no hands in the stone -- although breath has many doors to mix retrospect with apprehension, maybe told, forgotten,lost, found this morning.

After it is ripe, time is banished.Root
did not eat down. Nuclear swords, dialectic
knots hang over candidates for Alexander's
shoes, stare-into futures for accidents from
yesterday's tapestry.

Rot eats down, seasons
scatter. And we read in them, fraying. Black
mirrors, white minutes manure to loam. Meat
is absurd. "Of" is "from's" motive; "what"
is "why's" dance. Ideas, nuclear ripe, coral
mouthed, are blind windows.

Now sit in judgment on the past and out of that dark doorway, remember now is not elsewhere, we are not 'there' and do not know an elsewhere.

Now, 'here' is. Other : there where we are not. I do not know other than this. Other than this is not now. Now the sky begins to split open.

Now sit, judge.

Edward Mycue 19 January 2014
As the father of two college aged kids and the godfather of two others, the same age, I breathed a sign of relieve the four were accepted by Cal Berkeley instead of UCLA.
My paternal grandfather had only six years schooling. He once showed me his battered McGuffy's reader. (Name?????) it contained a miscellany of readings, some Greek myths, some Roman history, some American history, and some poetry. Referring to something as a Sisyphean task or a Herculean labor, or to Mussolini as a dime-store Caesar, or using phrases from Shakespeare was ordinary speech for him. We cannot say as much for the average college freshman today, or even most college graduates. The rot set in long ago.
I wish there were footnotes...
@ Art Deco

My argument about 1869 does not negate yours about 1897, true. Where I take exception is your statement that "time marches forward." Maybe in the sense of flipping calendar pages but not in the implication of "progress."

1897 was a regression from 1869; indeed, by then Boston Brahmin Progs had become quite the cultural force, John Dewey had already begun taking down American education, and Woodrow Wilson was just around the corner.

That was when the destruction began; showing that it was so already then does not negate that it was the beginning of a catastrophe.

P.S. I did not state or imply that in my mothert's HS three languages were mandatory; I only stated that HS alone(it was Catholic)gave her complete fluency in Latin -- sonmething I find remarkable and sorely missed nowadays.
Peter Christofferson January 18, 2014 at 9:28 AM
What continues to baffle me is the failure of people like the Columbia University undergrad (“Why did I have to listen in music humanities to this Mozart?”) to recognize that their argument cuts both ways. If I am to accept that a "dead, white, European male" has nothing of value to impart to a modern, black, feminist female, then she must admit that I, a white male of European descent, can't possibly find anything worthwhile in the works of Africans and Asians, living or dead. After all, they're nothing like ME; what can they possibly have to say to ME?

This is, of course, worse than nonsense. It is in fact the very argument used by racialists to deny the fruits of our shared culture to blacks who aspired to better themselves and their understanding of their fellow man, as DuBois understood so well. At one time DuBois and others said, in effect, "This legacy of music, art, and literature is my birthright as much as yours, and I demand to be allowed to claim my inheritance." The modern "student of color" (blech), far from demanding his share of our heritage, shuns it, to his lasting impoverishment.

To what extent this is the product of simple laziness -- a natural tendency among students to avoid challenging work -- we may never know. Shame on the professors who indulge this childish impulse, in themselves and especially in their students.
This is why I switched my subject of study from the cursed "Cultural and Historical Studies" (never recommended) to studying history of architecture and design. When your topic is, say, 17th century Boulle marquetry, no amount of fancy "critical theory" can come between the student and the studied object. You have no choice but to appreciate the past and learn from it.

I've sat my share on seminars and lectures where classics were rammed trough post-colonialism and gender studies and always it felt unnecessary, somehow diminishing the topic. As a fiction writer myself I tend to notice when professors start to over-read in to texts and reflect their own issues and fantasies.

As the topic here is the studies of English Literature it would be silly to argue why there are only English writers on it. But in general, Humanities would benefit from including non-Western works as well (non-Western classics, not non-Western writing just venting their grievances). My course wasted many weeks on some 1960's counterculture nonsense that had no value at all (but for professors to feel nostalgic about their youth, I presume) that could have been spent on Chinese, Japanese and Russian classics.
"Please take your proggy agitprop elsewhere, for more impressionable readers. My mother, who graduated HS in 1932, could speak fluent Latin and recite page of Latin poetry by heart 60 years later. And Harvard entrance 1869 entrance exam looked like this:"

I am not engaged in 'proggy agitprop' and I fail to see how the Harvard entrance examination of 1869 contradicts my contentions about what it was in 1897 or 1916. Time moves forward.

The notion that a high school diploma required fluency in three ancient languages "a few decades before that" is just fantastical tommyrot (as is clear from the removal of classical language examinations to screen even the small minority attending private universities in 1917). By the way, here is a description of a pamphlet detailing the available courses of study at the single public high school to be found in my home town in 1875.

I see - the point is to take the "human" out of humanities. The forefathers and mothers of this nonsense were the ones who rebelled against civilzed society's requirements - namely keep your pants on, wipe you butt, and walk on two legs.
The people who need to read Ms. MacDonald's essay unfortunately are unlikely to do so. The current situation is certainly bad, and the state of the humanities at many universities reminds one of Communism. But under Communism there were always intelligent individuals who weren't taken in by state propaganda, and the same may be true now. Some students will be smart enough to see through the shallow ideology that is being peddled as knowledge, will appreciate beauty when they find it in art, literature, and music, and will be curious about the history of the world and want to understand its real complexity, beyond simple narratives of oppression and victimization.
Milton who ???
"Carney" below makes the jump -- unfortunately, not a difficult one -- directly to white supremacy. The only way to save the humanities, he argues, is simply to purge the nation of individuals whose ancestors are not white Europeans. I certainly do not believe that Heather MacDonald shares his views, but her systematic deployment of the either/or fallacy, coupled with a relentless exclusion of non-Western texts from consideration, makes this inference possible.

In fact, there are more options available than "dead white male country club" and "hellscape of Regietheater and postcolonial theory." The key is simply to accept the value of "the classics" but to expand the definition to include non-Western traditions as well. If we can only understand our own parochial background, we are limited -- and this goes for white Euro-Americans as much as for anyone. Unfortunately, MacDonald seems to be blind to her own use of "white westerner" as the "normal" human archetype; she is blind to her own blindness.
"New York’s music press has been baying for the Metropolitan Opera to give over the house completely to revisionist opera directing. "

This is simply not true. If there is one thing we can learn from studying the humanities, it is that hysterical babble is no substitute for reasoned discourse.
Heather is way out of touch with reality. It would be a major achievement just make college students quit saying and actually writing actually.
@ Art Deco

Please take your proggy agitprop elsewhere, for more impressionable readers. My mother, who graduated HS in 1932, could speak fluent Latin and recite page of Latin poetry by heart 60 years later. And Harvard entrance 1869 entrance exam looked like this:
"Farewell to Nemi"

'WE are at the end of our enquiry, but as often happens in the search after truth, if we have answered one question, we have raised many more; if we have followed one track home, we have had to pass by others that opened off it and led, or seemed to lead, to far other goals than the sacred grove at Nemi. Some of these paths we have followed a little way; others, if fortune should be kind, the writer and the reader may one day pursue together.

'For the present we have journeyed far enough together, and it is time to part. Yet before we do so, we may well ask ourselves whether there is not some more general conclusion, some lesson, if possible, of hope and encouragement, to be drawn from the melancholy record of human error and folly which has engaged our attention in this book.

'If then we consider, on one hand, the essential similarity of man’s chief wants everywhere and at all times, and on the other hand, the wide difference between the means he has adopted to satisfy them in different ages, we shall perhaps be disposed to conclude that the movement of the higher thought, so far as we can trace it, has on the whole been from magic through religion to science. . . .

'Brighter stars will rise on some voyager of the future — some great Ulysses of the realms of thought — than shine on us. The dreams of magic may one day be the waking realities of science. But a dark shadow lies athwart the far end of this fair prospect. For however vast the increase of knowledge and of power which the future may have in store for man, he can scarcely hope to stay the sweep of those great forces which seem to be making silently but relentlessly for the destruction of all this starry universe in which our earth swims as a speck or mote. . . .

'Our long voyage of discovery is over and our bark has drooped her weary sails in port at last. Once more we take the road to Nemi.

'It is evening, and as we climb the long slope of the Appian Way up to the Alban Hills, we look back and see the sky aflame with sunset, its golden glory resting like the aureole of a dying saint over Rome and touching with a crest of fire the dome of St. Peter’s. The sight once seen can never be forgotten, but we turn from it and pursue our way darkling along the mountain side, till we come to Nemi and look down on the lake in its deep hollow, now fast disappearing in the evening shadows.

'The place has changed but little since Diana received the homage of her worshippers in the sacred grove. The temple of the sylvan goddess, indeed, has vanished and the King of the Wood no longer stands sentinel over the Golden Bough. But Nemi’s woods are still green, and as the sunset fades above them in the west, there comes to us, borne on the swell of the wind, the sound of the church bells of Aricia ringing the Angelus.

'Ave Maria! Sweet and solemn they chime out from the distant town and die lingeringly away across the wide Campagnan marshes. Le roi est mort, vive le roi! Ave Maria!'

—“Farewell to Nemi,” The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer

We are the keepers of the flame. God bless us, every one.
Several decades before that, you were expected to know Latin, Greek and possibly Hebrew - fluently - at least at the reading level - BY THE TIME YOU FINISHED HIGH SCHOOL.

My grandmother completed high school in 1913. She did not know Latin or Greek or Hebrew much less fluently. Her father was a lapsed philology professor who insisted she attend college. While we are at it, Harvard College dropped Greek from its entrance examinations in 1897 and Latin in 1916 (and few high school graduates were bound for elite colleges).

Take your fantasies elsewhere, please.

I would fulfill UCLA's "race, gender and disability" studies requirement by studying Othello (race), As You Like It (gender) and Richard III (disability). Shakespeare addresses it all.
I would fulfill UCLA's "race, gender and disability" studies requirement by studying Othello (race), As You Like It (gender) and Richard III (disability). Shakespeare addresses it all.
All is not lost. As the Dean of an Honors College at a private Midwestern university, I can assure you that the classics are still being taught. Our freshmen read Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, the New Testament, Plutarch, Virgil, Cicero, Augustine -- just to get started. There are many colleges and universities still committed to teaching the great works of the Western tradition, often supplemented by the classics of the East. Look to the ACTC (Association of Core Texts and Courses) for guidance as you consider where to send your children. There are still wonderful places to find an education.
Absolutely brilliant. Thirty years ago, I chose to be an English major because literature, more than any other course of study, encompassed the whole of human experience. My professors brought the brilliant writing to life by exploring the psychological, political, historical and cultural underpinnings of the work, including the author's own biases and shortcomings. Reading this piece returned me to those ecstatic days but deeply saddened me as well. It's tragic that today's "liberal arts" professors defame Western literature instead of encouraging students to approach it with reverence and wonder. My undergraduate experience enriched my life and my mind forever, and I would to it all again in a heartbeat! Thank you.
This is a disaster. The only way to become a great writer is to read great writing. It does not matter if the writer is black, white, gay etc. etc. it is actually BIASED to consider these factors in evaluating great writing.

In the past, the potential for people in some "groups" to get published just was not there. Sadly, we will never read the works of those potential "greats." But we should read the works of the "greats" that ARE available to us, if any of this new generation - black, white, male, female - is to become great themselves!
Superbly written and argued, Ms. MacDonald. I am writing to the president of my alma mater (one of what remains a "Seven Sisters" school) for her response to your fine piece.
Wonderful, beautiful, Heather -- but too late by 25 years at least.

Three generations are walking about now whose brains have been pumped full of toxic sludge starting in kindergarten. The longer one's years of "education" the more toxic the mind's software. It has been a Long March indeed, and that is how it has marched.

If you think it's bad in the Humanities you should train your microsope on the nation's Law Schools and the hundreds of thousands of arrogant saboteurs they have unleashed over 50 years now. Overwhelmingly,from the Harvard faculty lounge to the bench in court or Congress, the DoJ and the NGO, they wage lawfare in order to engineer the society they decided is good for us.

Or visit the Social "Sciences" with their thicket of totems and taboos. It's too late; the only possibility that still harbors hope is to split into two nations: Equalitania and Freedomia.
The goal of the progressive education establishment is to create compliant little Maoists through indoctrination.
All these learned impressive articles are nice, but will have zero impact if we don't radically change our immigration policies. An America with a majority that does not have its ancestry hailing from Europe is going to be indifferent at best and most likely hostile to traditional Western Civilization and culture. The way to preserve them is NOT scholarly articles, but to resist the immigration-driven demographic change. Stop illegal immigration. Deport illegal aliens. Overhaul legal immigration to include a heavy emphasis on ease of assimilation and acculturation, which takes national origin into account.
Thank you, Heather Mac Donald, for your brilliant and tireless efforts to save the Humanities from self-destruction.

I believe that what most disturbs those who have taught college courses in the Humanities and who support your efforts is that we are required to keep our views to ourselves or suffer mistreatment. Addressing that problem would require the efforts of some distinguished college administrators. The silence is deafening.

On a lighter note, I vividly recall attending a production of "Hedda Gabler" some time in the eighties at a fine repertory playhouse in a major midwestern city. The production suffered from the efforts of a dramaturge who touted his feminist interpretation of the play. Hedda's husband was presented as an immature and fearful nerd. There was a void where Hedda's marriage should have been. Instead of being presented with Hedda's tragic compromises in her marriage, the audience was presented with the question "When will Hedda show this guy the door?"

Ideological interpretations of a work of art can suck the life out of it. Professors who are ideologues are unlikely to find anything interesting in historic works. They cannot bring themselves to let the work be itself.
One is hard-pressed to strike a detached pose while witnessing the willful suicide of a civilization. People who would gleefully cast off the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare in exchange for the screeds offered by tawdry community organizers in the Grievance-Industrial Complex practice cultural vandalism. A university that would countenance such an act has lost its soul and its legitimacy.
What a brilliant writer!! As an English Major in the 1980s, I can remember a time when college emphasized a classical education. It has been invaluable in my life and in how I approach my work. My daughter is currently an English major in a prestigious New England college, and it's sad to review her choices in classes; post-modernism, colonialism, race, culture, blah, blah... She reads the classics on her own time. They certainly aren't taught in higher education. College has become a waste of time better spent self-educating.
@ Pied Piper: “Sorry to put it this way, but have you noticed how so many college students these days, seem totally dumb? I don’t mean just misinformed, uncurious, superficial: I mean really dumb?” – No; but I agree with misinformed, uncurious and superficial. The problem is that they don’t read. This professor argues that the effectively can’t read:

I think HG did a good job but tried to cover too much ground. I’d like to see a full body smack down on UCLA.

Re: “We have bestowed on the faculty the best job in the world: freed from the pressures of economic competition, professors are actually paid to spend their days wandering among the most sublime creations of mankind.” This is true for the tenured professors. However, more and more teaching is being done by adjuncts who are modern day serfs.
When I was in what you would call sixth grade here, we read an abridged version of 'MacBeth.' I was stunned by the beauty and power of the language - and went on to read many more of Shakespeare's works. Little did I know that as an Irish lad, I should never have been introduced to (let alone have enthusiasm for) an ENGLISH writer!

How we limit humanity when we only can identify with works created by those 'like' us (particulars) versus works created by true geniuses (universals).
It is unfortunate that the choice has to be either/or. Why can't we continue to teach the classics, while also discussing issues relating to gender, race, inequality, etc. As so often happens, we overreact and move to an extreme instead of striving for a balanced approach.
Superior analysis! Since I teach college courses in "Flyover" land I can stick with a traditional approach. Even so, I do it discretely.
One brief critique of your otherwise excellent essay. Petrarch didn't really rediscover the ancient Greek and Latin texts, these were being spread and translated long before he came on the scene. By 1200, there were Latin translations of most of the main classical authors. Petrarch is most responsible for promoting the myth of the Middle Ages as a "Dark Age" and the myth of Rennaissance as a rebirth of discovery of ancient learning, something you unwittingly repeat here. The late Middle Ages brought us the university, Dante, William of Ockham, Thomas Aquinas, numerous others, and the birth of something approaching modern empirical science. The Rennaissance brought great art and architecture, but also the Hundred Years war, witch burnings, and the Spanish inquisition. Do your homework a little better, a simple google search for "Myths of the Middle Ages" or "Myths of the Rennaissance" would turn this stuff up.
Gilbert W. Chapman January 16, 2014 at 5:09 AM
My first exposure to Shakespeare was as a sophomore in high school where we studied "Julius Caesar" in an English class.

Then, some years years later, while an undergraduate student, I again had this same teacher, who had garnered a PhD, and was a Professor of Philosophy.

One day, while chatting, he asked me what I remembered from "Julius Caesar". My response was that I could no longer recite "Friends, Romans, countrymen . . .", but I did remember one line in particular ~

"Cowards die many times before their deaths, the valiant die but only once."

He smiled, and said, "That's good . . . It's nice to know you were paying attention."

Four decades have passed since that conversation took place; and now, having observed the rise and fall of many within our nation's capitol, I am grateful that I was exposed to that one phrase.

For today's 'educators' to deny the wealth of wisdom Shakespeare created is, quite simply, obscene.

Thank you for your essay, Ms. McDonald . . . It's obvious you and I have taken a 'road not traveled' by those within the academy today, and it has (indeed) 'made all the difference'.
How does your sentence: "... Du Bois, living during America’s darkest period of hate." Fit with the rest of your essay? It seems that you are in essence enlisting the theme which you otherwise preach against.

PS Du Bois wrote and spoke glowingly of Stalin and Mao, things that make you say, "Hmmmm?"
The only real justification for teaching the Humanities is that they provide some kind of knowledge, or some way of knowing, that's not provided by the natural or social sciences or any other discipline. Indeed, early apologists for poetry (like Aristotle and Sir Philip Sidney) place near the heart of their argument how poetry teaches in a manner that is distinct from both history and philosophy.

Perhaps a good dictum here is Robert Frost's line from "The Figure a Poem Makes": "It begins in delight and ends in wisdom." He then adds, "The figure is the same as for love."

A grad student in the mid-80s, I found that in the literary theory of the day there was no room for wisdom or love; those qualities were for scoffing.
This old English major thanks you for your wonderful article, Heather. For me, becoming an English major was all about falling madly in love with Shakespeare, Keats, Austen. I guess my question would be--when the haters are in charge, where do the lovers go?
Nicely done.
This is a stunning manifesto. I hope sympathetic readers will spread its message.

I taught in a Canadian school system that quickly hollowed out the curriculum but left Shakespeare still standing (albeit with no requirement for any teacher to include him). I always argued that when Shakespeare was retired from the curriculum, the end of literature would have been reached. As long as teachers were required to read and teach Shakespeare, there would remain an undeniable demonstration of genius by which other things could be judged. Even if a teacher had little idea of what a Shakespearean play was about, there would be students who would feel the power.

Don't worry the best of Western civilization is being kept alive in the Far East, with kids of various races/cultures here attending music classes ie. piano, string instruments and so on (some, no doubt, under duress with pushy mums a la Tigress Amy Chua in control!). I gave my little niece a book for a Christmas present, Alice in Wonderland. A week later when I met her, the first words she said to me with a sense of elation was, that she is halfway through reading it. That Frankfurt opera director should thank his lucky stars that he wasn't living in the Third Reich as he would be charged for producing Entarte Kunst or something like that.
The barbarians hold high places of honor in the academy, the government, education, and elsewhere.
Once humanities education was to challenge and broader the mind thgouht he exposure of the best in art, literature, writing, and thought.
If only race and gender count, perhaps the academics would find a home among the headhunters of Borneo or some groups in Mongolia.
If one does not need any knowledge, why spend money on it? Can't think of a reason.
As with Alistar McIntyre, "We await some new Augustine" but with another name.
What the Renaissance recovered, the West is tossing in favor of nothing worth owning.
Thank you Heather Mac Donald. A powerful and elegant antidote to the woolly thinking that passes as intellectual discourse at so many humanities departments around the world.

Never ever enroll or teach in any subject that ends with the word "studies".
At one time, up to about 1965, if you got a PhD in English, you were expected to be a minor expert in French and Italian classics as well. At least.

A class A Phd would also include
familiarity with the influence and tradition of German, Spanish and possibly Russian literature on the development of English.

Several decades before that, you were expected to know Latin, Greek and possibly Hebrew - fluently - at least at the reading level - BY THE TIME YOU FINISHED HIGH SCHOOL.

(Most of our Founding Fathers, those repulsive dead white males, were indeed familiar with all these classics.....familiar to the point they had them at the tip of their fingers.... and tongues. One can go so far as to say that these classical traditions were *living* traditions to our Founding Fathers – the classics guided and in some ways determined how they led their lives).

Those days are long gone as you can imagine.

Although I totally agree with HM on the value of the humanities, she fails to see, as do many of those who espouse similar viewpoints to hers, that the purpose of colleges and universities in modern day America is not to *educate* in the traditional meaning of that word, but it is rather to *train* students for careers in the workforce.

When I encounter a college graduate these days and he informs me he “studied” IT at MIT (IT=information technology), I know right away that I really have nothing further to say. Chances that he will lead an “unexamined life” are high, and I don’t want to be around to witness the result.

Sorry to put it this way, but have you noticed how so many college students these days, seem totally dumb? I don’t mean just misinformed, uncurious, superficial: I mean really dumb? Like there’s something genetically wrong? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to leave a room guffawing at some stupidity I just heard from an undergrad or recent graduate. No wonder employers “don’t want to hire”. My company recently hired a Princeton graduate sort of sight unseen. You shudda seen the Dodo bird that showed up ! It was pathetic. DIdn’t last, needless to say.

But I don’t despair. Humanistic education is still around – most colleges and unis still have a “classics dept” where the really interesting people teach and study.

The fact is, this classically based education has *always* been for the minority of students. That is to say, an *education* writ large has always been for the few. But this is something you can’t utter in America today so let the pretention continue. He’s getting his education in “sustainability studies”. More power to him, I say – after all, he’ll get a “job” right after graduation.

I am sending this to my grandson who is a freshman at a small private college. He has come out of public education.

Want him to be exposed to what most likely is not in his presence.


ps look forward to your article on criminal justice

What exactly are these students learning as English majors that they couldn't learn by simply reading books on their own? We know what vocational oriented degress provide: credentialing, plus access to expensive technology in the case of engineering and science. Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton are available for free at every big public library in the country, or at for those with e-readers. Is it that the students have so little interest in Chaucer and Shakespeare that they can't read them on their own but have to be forced to read them by threats of a test, or that they are so dumb that they can't read these books without assistance?
Anne Marie Vickers Quin January 15, 2014 at 5:42 PM
Thank you, Heather MacDonald, for your glorious overview of many of the important elements of the liberal arts including your cogent enumerations of a number of the ways in which they enrich our lives.
In elementary we introduce a new "New Math" every 3-5 years confusing the students and confounding the parents then wonder why everyone fears math
ah good old psychobabble. What does it mean? There is also more to education than being forced to view the world through the perceived eyes of a group that sees the world as a hostile entity that is to blame for their own problems, as you said victimhood.While I did not always appreciate the core studies, at Brandeis at least there was a basis for study to help understand how we got where we are.While some of these studies are interesting they are self limited and often too"detailed"and time consuming
It is not that way in mathematics. We don't teach Archimedes in the Greek, but we do touch on his central insight that geometric figures bounded by curves can be filled in ever more perfectly by triangles, or rectangles, until when all is done, the figure is full. And the sums of the areas of the pieces is....the area bounded by the curve. On to Newton, and a merging of this insight with algebra. And onward and upward, through Gauss, and if possible, to some glimpse of today's fields of endeavor. For today is yet more glorious than the past. {Sorry, Charles Murray, but there it is. This is the age in which the four color theorem, Fermat's last theorem, and other riddles that had occupied the profession for centuries, finally fell.}
As much as I agree with Ms. MacDonald, I wonder if this is a tempest in a teapot. I suspect that for every student who studies Chaucer OR leftish humanities scholarship, there are 100 business majors who get no (or almost no) exposure to either.
As much as I agree with Ms. MacDonald, I wonder if this is a tempest in a teapot. I suspect that for every student who studies Chaucer OR leftish humanities scholarship, there are 100 business majors who get no (or almost no) exposure to either.
I have been claiming for several years now that one of the problems is the Ph.D. candidates fall so in love with their dissertations, that once they are granted their degree, they can't let go of it.*

If they land a job at some place like the former UCLA English Department, they feel rather like the Emperor being told he's naked... So they lash out at the subject matter they haven't seen, touched, read, felt, encountered for the ten years they've been working on their dissertation. They WANT the thing they've wasted so many years of their lives to MATTER, to be "relevant." And I suspect the only way they think they can accomplish that is to kill off the "dead, white males." No Shakespeare, and, voila! the dissertation topic they sweated over, a doorstop that would make Alan Sokol proud, is put in its place--and NOW, it "matters."

Most of these nonsensical classes replacing Shakespear and Milton read like Dissertation Titles...

* Or else it is the monster on the disk they have come to resent with every fiber of their being that has controlled every facet of their lives for so long, and for which they have lived in poverty and misery over for so many years... that they now feel, "G*****m, this WILL be TAUGHT."