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BOOK REVIEW: 'The Victims' Revolution': Identity Studies Departments and How They Contributed to the Closing of the Liberal Mind at American Universities
One of the more repellent developments of the 1960s is the rise of identity studies in American colleges and universities -- Black Studies, Women's Studies, Chicano Studies, Queer Studies, Crip Studies: the whole ugly, despicable lot that places a premium on victimology.
My view of identity studies is shared by Bruce Bawer in his "The Victims' Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind" (Broadside Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 400 pages, bibliography, index, $25.99), the first comprehensive history of identity studies that I've come across.
I was fortunate enough by an accident of birth to have attended college in the late 1950s and early 60s, graduating in 1961, well before this academic cancer had spread throughout the humanities departments of many universities.
High school graduates contemplating majoring in the humanities -- if there are any left -- aren't so fortunate today. In addition to the woefully overpriced tuition and fees of our institutions of higher education, prospective English, Philosophy or History majors more often than not will find that their beloved subject -- I was an English major -- has been taken over by ideologues in a manner similar to Jack Finney's 1954 novel "The Body Snatchers" that was made into an excellent 1956 Don Siegel directed film "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers." (OK, I might make an exception for teaching "Film Studies" as an academic subject, as long as it's in the English Department! But don't push me.)
Bawer writes that he was an undergraduate English major at a well respected state university (SUNY Stonybrook, on Long Island) in the late 1970s, contemplating an academic career. In the early 1980s, he writes (and he writes beautifully) he was a graduate student at the same school: "By my final year of graduate study I had grown cynical about certain aspects of the academy and I decided I didn't want to spend my life in it." He earned his Ph.D. and became a writer, critic and translator. He describes in detail in "The Victims' Revolution" why he decided to avoid academia -- except to write about it.
Beginning with Marxist critical theories -- many of them imported from France -- and a universal denigration of Western Culture -- a subject that Allan Bloom (1930-1992) wrote about in "The Closing of the American Mind" (1987) which Bawer cites with approval, the groves of academe saw a jungle growth of identity studies. Probably the first was Black Studies, with "Chicano" studies following closely, mostly in California, but soon spreading throughout the nation.
Bawer interviews or discusses the notables and the "hustlers" in all of the identity studies. Among the "hustlers" in Black Studies are Cornel West and, a more sophisticated example, Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr., the West Virginia native who heads the department at Harvard University. Yes, the same guy who was arrested by Cambridge, Massachusetts police a few years ago for trying to enter his locked home.
Around the same time as Black and Chicano studies were adopted as full-fledged academic disciplines -- mostly without protest -- by many universities, Women's studies were became campus fixtures and the proliferation of identity studies grew like kudzu, choking the teaching of Western Civ Around this time, Democratic Presidential contender, the Rev. Jesse "Hymietown" Jackson joined Stanford University students in chanting "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go" --- a graphic illustration of simple-minded candidates and students alike.
I direct readers to Pages 329-30, where Bawer discusses with passion the impact of Western civilization courses on his own life. Humanities courses were still taught by a decreasing number of professors, who loved their subjects.
This resonated with me because I discovered their kind at the university I was fortunate enough to attend, Northern Illinois University. We learned the greatness of Western literature from dedicated teachers who encouraged their students to read more -- and read widely.
When I was a college student, around my freshman or sophomore year, I discovered C.P. Snow (1905-1980) the great English chemist and novelist who wrote about the "Two Cultures" that bridged the gap between the Humanities and the Sciences. (for more about Snow: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Two_Cultures).
Even before I discovered Snow -- while I was still in high school -- I read the "Inside" books ("Inside U.S.A.", "Inside Europe," "Inside Asia,", etc.) by John Gunther. "Devoured" is probably a better word. Bawer was also a Gunther Nerd, describing how Gunther "presented richly detailed political and sociocultural portraits of almost every country in the world." I might add that Gunther's book about the death of his son, "Death Be Not Proud," should be read by everyone.
Much of what Bawer discusses in "The Victims' Revolution" was covered a few years ago David Horowitz in "The Professors" (for my review: www.huntingtonnews.net/columns/060228-kinchen-review.html)
The addition of divisive identity studies has had a corrosive effect on politics and society today, Bawer writes. But there is hope, from students as well as professors who've refused to concede defeat to the identity studies forces. A particularly moving passage (Page 250) involves a conversation between Bawer and Chicana studies professor Eden Torres of the University of Minnesota, who tells Bawer at a 2010 convention in Seattle that today's young Hispanics aren't like the ones of the 1960s and 1970s: "When she was young, politically active Chicanos like herself dreamed of Aztlan," Bawer writes, referring to a secessionist Latino country detached from the U.S. "But her Chicano students today? Nope. For many young Chicanos nowadays, Chicano identity just doesn't mean what it did to her. They're apolitical. They don't see themselves as 'different'. They don't aspire to secede from the United States.....they consider themselves members of mainstream American society and buy into its values." What's a victimology-driven professor to make of such people?
Once, Bawer argues, the purpose of higher education had been to introduce students to the legacy of Western civilization —“the best that has been thought and said.” The new generation of radical educators sought instead to unmask the West as the perpetrator of global injustice. Age-old values of goodness, truth, and beauty were disparaged as mere weapons in an ongoing struggle of the powerful against the powerless. Shifting the focus of the humanities to the purported victims of Western colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism, the new politicized approach to the humanities gave rise to a series of identity-based programs, including Women’s Studies, Black Studies, Queer Studies, and Chicano Studies. As a result, the serious and objective study of human civilization and culture was replaced by “theoretical” approaches emphasizing group identity, victimhood, and lockstep “progressive” politics.
What have the advocates of this new anti-Western ideology accomplished?
Allan Bloom warned about the deleterious effects of the attack on Western Civilization in "The Closing of the American Mind" and much of what and others predicted has come true, Bawer writes. Bawer concludes that the influence of these programs has impoverished our thought, confused our politics, and filled the minds of their impressionable students with politically correct mush. Everything Western is trashed, while teachers ignore the crimes of past and present Communist regimes like Castro's Cuba, as well as giving a pass to the hatred spewed by many Islamists. Bawer’s book is must-reading for all those concerned not only about the declining quality of American higher education, but also about the fate of our society at large. I'm sure reading "The Victims' Revolution" will open the eyes of many who are unaware of the state of higher education.
About the Author
A native New Yorker who has lived in Norway since 1999, Bruce Bawer has written several influential books on a range of issues. "A Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society" (1993) was named by columnist Dale Carpenter as the most important non-fiction book about homosexuality published in the 1990s; Publishers Weekly called "Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity" (1997) “a must-read book for anyone concerned with the relationship of Christianity to contemporary American culture”; "While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West from Within" (2006) was a New York Times bestseller and a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist; and "Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom" (2009) was hailed by Booklist as “immensely important and urgent." He has also published several collections of literary and film criticism, including Diminishing Fictions and The Aspect of Eternity, and a collection of poetry, Coast to Coast, which was selected by the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook as the best first book of poems published in 1993. He is a frequent contributor to such publications as The Hudson Review, City Journal, The American Scholar, Wilson Quarterly, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, and has reviewed books regularly for theNew York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, and Wall Street Journal.