Friday, April 29, 2005
Oh, I almost forgot: I've stayed relatively out of the whole Columbia University Mideast Studies fracas. I see the latest wrinkle is to offer a position in Israel Studies as a "balance" for the rest of the department, and that sharp-eyed critics (such as Martin Kramer) have already noted that the deck is being stacked to hire an anti-Israel academic for the position.
Now, I have little sympathy for Columbia in this whole business, and it's obvious to me that Mideast Studies is badly, even dangerously politicized. But it does strike me that this is not something unique to Mideast Studies; indeed, it is endemic in the academy, and particularly problematic in departments of "Studies." Women's studies, a "discipline" organized entirely around an ideology, is particularly egregious in this regard, but so is African-American Studies, Latin-American Studies - for that matter, American Studies and Judaic Studies. I took courses in both American Studies and Judaic Studies in college, and generally they were quite good. But it did not escape me at the time that these disciplines were - inevitably - tinged with ideology. American Studies as a discipline is premised on a certain understanding of America, one that comes from a left-wing perspective. Judaic Studies, meanwhile, was a frankly pro-Jewish department; or, more correctly, a Judeo-centric department. That is to say: many of the professors assumed that much of their class was Jewish and that the students brought Jewish concerns to the class. This was certainly not universal, but it was common.
Did I find this congenial? Basically. But I also find it problematic, because the university is not supposed to be sectarian in that manner. I was a history major, and I couldn't help but notice the difference between classes where the discipline of history was understood to be governing and classes where the governing principle was ideology or identity, with the discipline of history serving as a mere tool. And this is not about subject matter; I took a class on the Spanish Civil War - a hot-button item for lefties of a certain generation if there ever was one - that was excellent in every way. We studied a wide diversity of primary and secondary sources - everyone from Stanley Payne to George Orwell to Gabriel Jackson to Noam Chomsky to Jose Maria Gil Robles - and got fully versed in the historiographic debates and their significance to partisans on the various sides. By contrast, a course in American Labor History - cross-listed, I might add, with American Studies - was, well, I would call it an indoctrination except that it was assumed that everyone who came in to take the class was already politically correct, so indoctrination as such was unnecessary.
Anyhow, my point is that "Studies" departments, because they are frequently organized around questions of ideology or identity, and because they are consciously inter-disciplinary, will find it extremely difficult to avoid falling into this trap, even if they are chaired by well-meaning and open-eyed individuals. I wonder, then, whether the solution (not that anyone would actually put this into practice, mind you) doesn't begin with eliminating all of these departments, dispersing their professors into departments affiliated with the relevant discipline (history, comparative literature, art history, etc.). Let them be forced to affiliate with and be evaluated by their peers on the basis of a common discipline rather than a shared commitment to an identity or ideology. You could still always provide undergraduate or graduate programs of an inter-disciplinary nature if they made sense, but you would at least no longer have a formal structure supporting sectarian, non-objective programs of study.
I don't pretend this is a total solution, nor am I naive enough to think anyone would actually put even this much reform into practice. But I do wonder whether it isn't a necessary condition to fixing the university, if hardly a sufficient one.