English Departments in the Ideological Thrall of Identity Politics

When the curricula become all about "social justice."

Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.

In July, the English Department of the University of Chicago posted an odd statement on its website. In response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the supposed “thousands of others named and unnamed who have been subject to police violence,” the department announced that, “For the 2020-2021 graduate admissions cycle, the University of Chicago English Department is accepting only applicants interested in working in and with Black Studies.” What is the motivation for the targeting of that particular area of study now? The statement, in the tortured language academia is so adept at generating, explains that English as a discipline “has a long history of providing aesthetic rationalizations for colonization, exploitation, extraction and anti-Blackness,” and is “responsible for developing hierarchies of cultural production that have contributed directly to social and systemic determinations of whose lives matter and why.”

Apparently, the Chicago faculty believe that it is part of the mission of the English Department to mobilize its intellectual resources to address social problems and that the work of “undoing persistent, recalcitrant anti-Blackness in our discipline and in our institutions must be the collective responsibility of all faculty, here and elsewhere,” as the statement pretentiously proclaims.

While some observers lauded the department’s decision to focus graduate study on Black Studies, critics, including University of Chicago’s own president, Robert Zimmer, were quick to question a department committing itself to a political movement and activism supporting it. “[S]ome members of the University community have expressed concern that the exclusive disciplinary commitment effectively represents a political test for admission,” Zimmer wrote, in responding to the controversy, and “[t]he idea or even implication that there would be a political criterion applied to admission to our doctoral program would be incompatible with the fundamental principles of our University.”

Indeed, the language of the department’s statement is clearly political, pledging that the faculty “are committed to the struggle of Black and Indigenous people, and all racialized and dispossessed people, against inequality and brutality” and that “our commitment to the struggle for Black lives entails vigorous participation in university-wide conversations and activism about the university's past and present role in the historically Black neighborhood that houses it.” With such language they revealed that the department would be mobilizing to align itself with a political and social movement outside the university walls, and whether or not that is appropriate in the first place is the central question.

The University of Chicago’s English department is not alone, since the death of George Floyd in May, in articulating a commitment to anti-racism and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and participating in this type of collective virtue-signaling that typifies woke academics falling over themselves in an effort to show how very tolerant they are. A stunning open letter written in June by Rebecca L. Walkowitz, the chair of Rutgers’ English Department—steeped in the language of social justice, racial equity, white supremacy, and racial oppression—for example, announced that the department will “stand with and respond to the Black Lives Matter movement . . . create and promote an anti-racist environment . . . and . . . contribute to the eradication of the violence and systemic inequities facing black, indigenous, and people of color members of our community.”  

Not content with making a course in African-American literature a requirement within the English curriculum, Walkowitz suggested that, going forward, every aspect of Rutgers’ pedagogy and instruction would be suffused with layers of obsessive victimology and racism, including sponsorship of workshops that seek to “cultivate critical conversations for Writing Program instructors around the disproportionate impacts of covid-19; state power; racism; violence; white supremacy; protest and resistance; and justice.” Most troubling, perhaps, was the stated intention in the letter that Rutgers will be “incorporating ‘critical grammar’ into our pedagogy” as a way of accommodating, and excusing, a lower level of writing skills of minority students and “students from multilingual, non-standard ‘academic’ English backgrounds.”  The term ‘critical grammar,’ of course, suggests that the rules of English usage are merely social constructs, that the rules of grammar and the appropriate and accepted use of written English can be ignored and replaced, at will, with other styles of communication.

Instead of having to learn to write in a way that is articulate, grammatically correct, and conforms to university standards and expectations, Rutgers students will now be encouraged “to develop a critical awareness of the variety of choices available to them w/ [sic] regard to micro-level issues in order to empower them and equip them to push against biases based on ‘written’ accents.” Apparently, a professor who reads a composition by a student whose “written accent” is the language of the streets, or even the incomprehensible vernacular and fractured language of text messages, will potentially be considered biased if he or she tries to apply academic standards to the essay; in other words, anything written by any minority student, regardless of how inarticulate and grammatically incorrect it is, will henceforth meet the Rutgers standard.

As part of its virtue-signaling tool kit, the Rutgers English Department also has concocted something called the Committee on Bias Awareness and Prevention (CBAP), its purported purpose to be an “engine of workshops and forums related to anti-racist pedagogy, addressing bias in the classroom, and recognizing and eradicating bias in the workplace and academic profession.”  Clearly, none of the professors in these classrooms will be expressing racist thought, given that they are now required to attend workshops on “how to have an anti-racist classroom.”  Obviously, then, the only possible source of unacceptable racist thought will come from students, whose writing or interpretation of literary works will most likely be subject to intense scrutiny to ensure that no bias, bigotry, unacceptable views about race or justice, opinions about activism and protests as part of the BLM movement, or other controversial, and debatable, topics seep into classroom discussions.

Middlebury College’s Department of English and American Literatures chimed in also with its “Statement in Support of Black Lives Matter” in which the faculty authors wallowed in their collective white guilt, writing that “Black Lives Matter [and] they “acknowledge that the study of English and American Literatures has too often contributed to the larger history of racism, inequity, and the willful exclusion of Black voices. We recognize the ways in which white stories, writers, literary scholars, and professors have similarly contributed to this exclusion and are complicit in the current inequity and violence; likewise, we recognize that white privilege and white supremacy are not abstract ideas found only at the national and global levels, but operate daily at Middlebury College [emphasis added].

Middlebury, it will be remembered, is where, in 2017, Charles Murray, political scientist, libertarian, and author of the controversial 1994 book, The Bell Curve, was verbally assaulted by a crazed audience of students intent on shutting down his planned speech—a crowd that eventually physically surrounded both Murray and a Middlebury professor who was shoved with sufficient force that she was hospitalized. Murray is now considered by his critics to be a racist and white supremacist, and it is no surprise that the Middlebury English faculty included in their statement a “pledge to use our positions of institutional privilege to support Black students, Black writers, and Black scholars; we can and will use our classrooms and our scholarship to uncover and dismantle the system of racist oppression which has for centuries silenced, brutalized, and murdered Black individuals.”

The English Department at Fresno State also committed itself to the BLM movement, announcing that it condemned “in the strongest possible terms the continued targeting of unarmed Black citizens by law enforcement throughout the country,” stating as fact the false narrative that racist police officers regularly, und unjustifiably, are biased when it comes to law enforcement and minority suspects.

“We stand aligned with efforts to dismantle white supremacist ideologies as they necessitate a Black Lives Matter movement,” the statement reads, and to achieve the elimination of this so-called white supremacy that somehow pervades literature, the department will “teach non-dominant literatures and histories; theories of race, social justice, oppression, resistance; and rhetorical approaches and genres to support efforts for a peaceful and just society.” And these English faculty, individuals whose specialty involves the analysis of literary works and the teaching of writing skills, apparently feel no compunction in assessing the underlying techniques and psychology of law enforcement, since they go on to suggest that “the law enforcement and criminal justice establishments as a whole must interrogate the extent to which they have internalized anti-Black mythologies that permit their members to perpetrate such violence, and, in most cases, to do so with complete impunity.” Absent from this analysis, obviously, is any attempt to measure the contribution of the criminals involved in the law enforcement “violence” they mention, including the fact that the most recent examples of black deaths at the hands of white police officers involved suspects who were shot or killed while resisting arrest, and hardly the victims of law enforcement officers engaging in random murders “with complete impunity,” given the high level of visibility the cases have enjoyed.

The English Department at Portland State University was even more proactive in its commitment to racial justice, stating in an open letter in the student newspaper that the department faculty stand “in solidarity with the protests against anti-Black racism and violence, and we believe that Black Lives Matter.” But the English department even joined other campus groups in pushing for an even stronger action, namely, disarming the university’s police force. “Dismantling systems of oppression entails ensuring our Black, Indigenous, students of color, and students with disabilities are safe on campus,” the letter reads. “This means taking a stand against the ongoing over-policing of the entire Portland State community, which disproportionately affects people of color and people with disabilities,” suggesting that law enforcement is actually unnecessary and that minority groups are targeted by police just because they are not white and not because of their actual over-representation in criminal activity.

“PSU cannot both sympathize with the widespread protests against institutional racism and police brutality,” the letter suggests, “and also invest in the armed policing systems that leave our students, staff, and faculty of color vulnerable to the racist violence we have seen for decades in this city . . . .”  The suggestion that the presence of law enforcement—armed or unarmed—actually endangers citizens as opposed to protecting them from criminals is, of course, both naïve and ill-conceived, and is typical of liberals who believe that racism and oppression themselves are the cause of crime, not criminal behavior itself.

When did it become the role or purpose of English departments to make as a central feature of its teaching social issues which are only tangentially related to the subject matter? These are not social justice departments, or black studies departments, or institutes or programs that focus on race, social issues, and activism. This leads one to wonder why English departments—whose function is, nominally, the study of literature and the teaching of techniques of writing and composition—would craft their entire mission and curriculum around an slavish affection with an anti-racist, Black Lives Matter-inspired ideology.

Part of the answer to that question is that English departments, like other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, are populated by faculty who are overwhelmingly liberal, that there is essentially one way of thinking about race, oppression, law enforcement, and crime because of the liberal leanings of most of the faculty. One revealing 2018 study, “Homogenous: The Political Affiliations of Elite Liberal Arts College Faculty,” as one recent example, conducted a survey of professors from elite universities and determined their political leanings based on their party registration. While the ratio of Democrats to Republicans in Chemistry, Economics, and Mathematics, for example, were roughly equal at 5.5, the ratio for English departments was, unsurprisingly, 44.1, 44 Democrats to one Republican.

For these liberal faculty members, obviously, the temptation is irresistible to pull racial activism, anti-police rhetoric, and other current topics in the victim culture into English department missions and curricula—even though they clearly do not belong there.

In their 2010 book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa researched student success in college and, after evaluating over 2300 undergraduates at twenty-four universities, they found that “45 percent of these students demonstrate no significant improvement in a range of skills—including critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing—during their first two years of college.” Perhaps if English departments, those very places where writing and critical thinking are core skills on which teaching should be focused, concentrated more on their own academic discipline and less on genuflecting to the current hysterical campaign for racial justice, universities might produce graduates with the very academic skills they require to positively shape American into the just society for which they so assiduously seem to strive.

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