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Friday, December 14, 2018
Telling Lies about the Humanities by Aaron Hanlon
“If you participate long enough in public discussions about the role of the humanities both within higher education and in broader civil society, it becomes apparent that quite a lot of people have opinions about what scholarship and teaching in humanistic fields entail, but few demonstrate even rudimentary knowledge of either.
“Charlie Kirk — founder and leader of Turning Point USA, a conservative nonprofit that targets what it sees as left-wing bias in higher education — falsely claims that Marx and Engels’s The Communist Manifesto is the most assigned book in college. Think pieces abound alleging liberal indoctrination in humanities classrooms, despite substantial counterevidence.
“You’d think, therefore, that when someone with knowledge and experience in a humanistic field offers corrective facts or testimony, such knowledge and experience would count for something. I haven’t (yet) walked into a corporate boardroom and insisted they run their third-quarter marketing strategy like an 18th-century pamphleteering campaign, so it’s odd when people act like they know better than I do about my classroom or my research field.
“Part of what’s happening is that we’re being discounted by those who hold prejudicial views of our disciplines. While the public is quick to defer to experts in fields like medical science, it’s resistant to the very possibility that expertise exists in fields like literature (‘you just read books and give your opinion’) or philosophy (‘navel-gazing’). Given that baseline, it’s no wonder that public portrayals of humanistic research and teaching are flooded with sketchy clichés, sweeping falsehoods, and invented evils.
“For the past few years I’ve engaged in countless public discussions about the benefits, challenges, and public image of my discipline, English, and of humanistic disciplines more broadly. I’ve written essays in popular media, spoken on panels and podcasts, mentored besieged students, and participated in more social-media exchanges than is good for my personal health and well-being. I’ve encountered lots of bad theories about the humanities, which I’ve grouped into four categories.
The humanities are ‘non-cognitive.’
“Today, it’s common — even considered innocuous — to describe the skills regularly associated with humanistic study as ‘soft.’ Well-meaning social scientists have taken to describing ‘oral and written communication skills’ — core humanistic skills — as ‘non-cognitive,’ juxtaposing them with ‘problem solving’ and ‘analytical’ skills, a characterization that’s both unscientific and patronizing, and that portrays writing as non-analytical and divorced from problem solving.
“In such descriptions we hear echoes of antiquated — often sexist — ideas about who is and isn’t capable of reason, which forms of cognition we’re willing to acknowledge, and whose work we’ll countenance as serious, scholarly, and worth learning about.
“Humanists frequently blame abstractions like ‘neoliberalism’ for the marginalization of fields like English, history, philosophy, and classics, but this overlooks a much simpler and more immediate explanation: disciplinary prejudice based in ignorance. After all, even ‘neoliberal’ organizations like the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Economic Policy Institute, the World Bank, and Forbes Magazine use the term ‘non-cognitive skills’ while advocating for educational policy and curricular shifts that would further the teaching and learning of those skills.
“Even when ‘non-cognitive’ isn’t explicitly linked with ‘the humanities’ as such, it’s hard to read descriptions like ‘social’ skills, ‘communication’ skills, and ‘non-STEM’ skills as anything but ‘humanistic’ skills in the contexts of educational policy and curriculum choice. This is not a ‘neoliberal’ conspiracy against the humanities, but a collection of people trying to advocate for certain forms of humanistic teaching and learning who simply haven’t thought through the implications of describing activities like communication, public speaking, and collaboration as ‘non-cognitive.’
“The tendency to confidently utter falsehoods about humanities research, classrooms, faculty, and students, and about the skills and knowledge developed within humanistic disciplines, is a consequence of what the philosopher Miranda Fricker calls testimonial injustice, discounting someone as a knower. In the case of education policy concerning ‘non-cognitive skills,’ such testimonial injustice reflects a belief that humanistic study requires less intelligence, cognitive ability, and analytical acumen than STEM work, or that ‘knowing’ in fields like English, history, philosophy, and classics is not really brainwork. And in the case of the wider moral panic over what Jordan Peterson calls activist disciplines and the ‘Sokal Squared’ hoaxers call grievance studies, it’s the belief that knowledge in these fields is made up anyway, so it’s fine to make up knowledge for and about them.
The humanities and social sciences are overrun by ideology.
More or less half the time someone is complaining about the humanities, they’re really talking about the social sciences, specifically a set of interdisciplinary social-science fields that study gender and race. They just don’t understand the difference between humanistic and social-scientific work. Sociology, for example, has been maligned as an ‘ideological’ discipline whose conclusions are driven less by rigor than by progressive political orientation.
“Sociology journals were among the main targets of the recent hoax perpetrated by Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian, who included it among the fields they dismissively call grievance studies. The sociology journals they submitted sham papers to — at least the journals sociologists would claim as their own — accepted none of the papers, which is to say sociology held up well in that sense.
“Among the journals that did fall prey to the hoax was Sex Roles, which — ranked 11 out of 52 in total citations within Springer’s social-psychology index, and with an editorial board packed with sociologists, psychologists, and social-work scholars — looks a lot more like a ‘sociology’ or social-sciences journal than a ‘humanities’ journal.
“Another hoaxed journal, Sexuality & Culture, is edited by a psychology scholar, has an editorial board half-filled with social scientists, is indexed in sociology and psychology databases, and is associated by Springer with psychology and social sciences as ‘related subjects.’ Similarly, Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work, is ranked 29 of 42 in ‘social work’ citations, 24 of 42 in ‘women’s studies’ citations, and is indexed almost exclusively in social-science and social-work databases.
“The point here is that ‘the humanities’ bear the brunt of this hoax, despite their relative invulnerability to the hoaxers. Nevertheless, the hoaxers opened their description of the hoax by claiming that ‘Something has gone wrong in the university — especially in certain fields within the humanities,’ then proceeded to use ‘humanities’ and ‘social sciences’ interchangeably throughout the article.
“When hoaxers like Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian use ‘humanities’ and ‘social sciences’ interchangeably, they’re not doing it to recognize the history of academic divisions within the modern university, nor to challenge the epistemological basis of such divisions, but to segregate a broad set of disciplines they deem too ideological or too susceptible to ideology, even as peer-review and study-replication problems in the sciences are at least as extensive as those of the handful of women’s-studies journals by whom they slipped (heavily revised) sham papers after initial rejections. As the sociologist Musa al-Gharbi observes, the hoaxers’ ‘purported empirical studies (with fake data) were more than twice as likely to be accepted for publication as their non-empirical papers.’
“Writing off humanistic work because of fraudulent or failed social-scientific work is a category error. Though the hoaxers claim that social-justice ideology is what undermines evaluative rigor in the journals they targeted, al-Gharbi’s observation about their results suggests that fraud — not hoaxing with ideological bait — was the most effective way of getting sham papers through peer review. As it turns out, fraud is also a pretty good way of fooling journals in such activist disciplines as cardiology, in which more than 30 papers by Piero Anversa, formerly of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, were recently recommended for retraction due to fabricated results.
“The heuristic distinction between humanities and social sciences matters for this charge that all too often ideology, not truth or rigor, guides humanistic research. Whereas branches of social science have access to research methods, living humans, and extant government systems with which to design experiments and test hypotheses, humanistic work often means being as precise and accurate as possible about something whose nature is such that it can’t be falsified. I wish I could solicit 18th-century readers for controlled experiments, but alas the invention of the time machine is not within our sights.
“This distinction is of course a generalization with plenty of exceptions: Things like primary historical sources and formal logic can meet a relatively high bar of certainty, even if the application and synthesis of such knowledge introduces the need for interpretation and value judgment. But often when people are speaking against the humanities, they’re accusing scholars of trying to supersede scientific fact with unfalsifiable theory.
“A routine complaint I field from armchair epistemologists is ‘humanities research isn’t falsifiable,’ to which the appropriate reply is: Many of the most important questions we face as a species aren’t falsifiable. Can there be just warfare? Is the death penalty moral? Did the president behave ethically? Should we fund art museums or malaria-fighting mosquito nets, and in what proportions? Is Don Quixote a madman because he expects the world around him to look more like chivalric romance, or a visionary for trying to reshape the world around him into a more just world?
“To the extent that scientific fact can contribute to, but not resolve, problems like these, the claim that mainstream humanities work is an attempt to contravene scientific fact for ideological purposes falls flat on its face. What empirical scientific test would definitively answer these questions? Even a historically and empirically verifiable claim like ‘cultural notions of femininity explain why pink pens and razors are marketed to women in ways that biology can’t wholly account for" is not an attempt to invalidate what biology can account for.
“What would you call it if someone were willing to ignore clear evidence that there are some things in the world better explained by analyzing social, cultural, structural, and institutional developments than by analyzing the genome or broadly extrapolating from evolutionary psychology? I’d call it an ideological attempt to shrink the sphere of human knowledge, rather than to expand it, for the purpose of aggrandizing a small number of fields and a handful of self-interested scholars. Activist scholarship, if you will.
Humanities professors push left-wing ideas on students.
“The political orientations of professors across disciplines — even in the natural sciences — tend to be left of the general population. According to a recent study on faculty party registration in different academic departments, history boasts 33 Democrats for every one Republican. In psychology, a discipline whose most prominent public figures — Steven Pinker, Jordan Peterson, and Lee Jussim, to name a few — have been critical of political bias in humanities fields, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans is 17 to 1, hardly a balance. Given that the imbalance is often much steeper for humanistic disciplines, there’s understandable concern that the humanities classroom is a space of left-wing political indoctrination.
“This accusation is assumed far more often than it’s examined. But the findings are clear: Professors don’t impose their political views on students. One of the leading researchers on this topic, my Colby College colleague Neil Gross, finds that, contrary to popular belief, attending college does not make college students more liberal. The Acadia University political scientist Jeffrey Sachs has rounded up a collection of studies on this topic as well, showing that faculty contact makes students more moderate (not more liberal); that college graduates tend to have identical political ideologies to their siblings who haven’t matriculated college; and that students consistently rate their professors as being more moderate than they actually are (which, Sachs explains, means ‘the more extreme the professor, the greater pains he or she takes to disguise bias’).
The humanities are ornamental.
“When the comparative-literature scholar Moira Weigel wrote a highly critical review of Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s new book The Coddling of the American Mind, the social psychologist Lee Jussim took to Twitter to defend Haidt and Lukianoff’s book. Jussim had a fair point to make: Weigel doesn’t have the relevant experience to adjudicate Haidt and Lukianoff’s main points, many of which come from the field of psychology. But Jussim’s language was telling: ‘Weigel has a Ph.D. in, wait for it … Comparative Literature … she has no relevant expertise, except perhaps regarding the quality of the prose. …’
“This is a common rhetorical move meant to quarantine fields like comparative literature to the realm of the ornamental. Jussim wants to suggest that there’s nothing in a book about culture wars and cognitive behavioral therapy, written for a wide, mainstream audience, that Weigel’s training in comparative literature could possibly qualify her to evaluate besides its prose quality.
“Reducing the study of literature to purely ornamental terms — how ‘good’ is the writing — is like reducing the field of psychology to making determinations about your Myers-Briggs personality type. Whatever you think of Weigel’s review, much of it focuses on rhetorical and framing similarities between Coddling and prior culture-wars books like Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education, as well as what Weigel calls Coddling’s participation in a ‘contemporary liberal style’ that ‘wants above all to be reasonable,’ that is filled with ‘elaborate syntactic balancing acts,’ and that ‘signal[s] the distance between the authors and the partisans of identity who are too emotional to think clearly.’ All of this is well within the purview of the comparative-literature scholar, and a perfectly legitimate area of focus instead of or in addition to Haidt and Lukianoff’s social-psychology claims.
“The most amusing bit of hate mail I’ve ever received was from a man who sent me a cartoon of himself having an argument with me, and winning it handily. I loved this, not only because I’m not used to seeing myself (or a much heftier version of myself) in cartoon form, but also because the cartoon unintentionally illustrated a fact of our culture wars today: People who disagree with you would like nothing more than to script not just their side of the argument, but yours as well.
“It’s a lot easier to make yourself look smart and others look wayward if you get to write their words in the dialogue bubble, to speak for them with the weakest or most absurd version of their position. This is, I think, the perfect metaphor for how humanistic fields are publicly portrayed lately. People make stuff up about us — ‘they’re indoctrinating your children!’; ‘they’re postmodern neo-Marxists!’; ‘they think biology isn’t real!’; ‘they’re all overrun by ‘critical theory’!’ — and wage war on scarecrows.
“It would be one thing if the problem were merely a knowledge gap, a matter of more people like me going out into the public and setting the record straight. But it’s not. It’s also a problem of people — some of whom are our colleagues — actively distorting and maligning our work. I don’t know how to solve this problem other than to encourage colleagues from across the disciplines, as well as the journalists who cover us and give us platforms, to cease tolerating misrepresentation. And if you think the stakes of correcting the misrepresentation of humanistic work are simply about preening academics or ivory-tower musing, think instead about the students interested in literature, history, philosophy, and language. When you malign and misrepresent what scholars do, you’re punishing students” (Lies about the Humanities and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them by Aaron Hanlon).
Aaron Hanlon is an assistant professor of English at Colby College.