Anyone who has followed my blog over the years knows the contempt in which I generally hold the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente, not least because it seems that, whenever she’s at a loss for something to carp about in her column, she reverts to her favourite target: the contemporary university, especially humanities programs, and even more especially English departments.
Reader, she’s at it again.
I’d gotten pretty good at ignoring Wente, something made easier by the Globe’s general decline—given that I no longer read the paper as a matter of course, that has tended to relieve me of the occasional temptation to click on her invariably cickbaity columns, and I’ve been of much sounder mind for it. But in her most recent screed, she’s taken aim at the Dalhousie University English Department, and I can’t help but take that a little personally: I know a significant number of the professors in that department, people whose devotion to teaching and research and to generally making the world a better place is unimpeachable.
Well, unimpeachable if you’re not a lazy, sinecured columnist with little actual idea of what she’s talking about.
Let’s start with her title: “Universities preach the new religion of anti-racism and anti-oppression.” I could go on for a long while about the reactionary right’s antipathy to “social justice,” but I’ll try to be succinct: who, precisely, is pro-racism and –oppression? Aside from the obvious, I mean; Wente isn’t stupid enough (not yet, anyway) to come out and declare that racism and oppression are net positives, but it’s emblematic of our current cultural moment that the Wentes of the world are comfortable slagging people actively engaged in opposing racism and pursuing social justice. The usual argument tends to say that racism and sexism are bad and all, but the puritanical PC left (or, in Jordan Peterson’s framing, postmodern neo-marxists) have morphed into the equivalent of Orwellian thought police, silencing all who dissent.
Because, yeah … hardly a peep to be heard. It’s not as if Canada’s newspaper of record would employ such dissenting voices.
I suppose this argument is now so frequently made that Wente doesn’t really feel the need to rehearse it; she spends the first half of her column sneering at Dal’s attempts to address the fact that their founder (George Ramsay, Earl of Dalhousie) was, well, hella racist, a fact made more problematic by the city of Halifax’s troubling past of racial injustice. She similarly sneers at the university’s attempts to promote diversity among its faculty and student population, writing:
Why is diversity so important? “Diversity is a powerful agent of change,” insists Dalhousie. “Indeed, diversity is an imperative that must be embraced if colleges and universities are to be successful in a pluralistic and interconnected world.”
Actually, I thought that colleges and universities got to be successful through excellent scholarship and teaching. But I guess that’s old-fashioned thinking.
This is why reading Wente is bad for my blood pressure. First, a proven plagiarist has no standing to opine on “excellent scholarship.” But more importantly, the canard here is the suggestion that diversity, and excellence in scholarship and teaching, are somehow mutually exclusive. Wente’s columns on the sorry state of university curricula today almost invariably nostalgize the halcyon days when the canon was ascendant and only Great Books by Great (Male) Authors were considered worthwhile of study. (I wrote a post eerily similar to this one five years ago on this very topic). So rather than continue to harp on Dalhousie’s social justice preoccupations, she turns to their English department offerings, and needless to say,
I was shocked. I knew the field had fallen on hard times, but little did I realize how marginal it has become. Judging by the meagre offerings, would-be English Lit majors have fled to the greener fields of Social Justice Studies.
Gone are many of the staples of my youth, when I was an English Lit major at a different university. Now on offer is less taxing fare, seemingly designed for people who are ambivalent about reading books: a heavy sprinkling of courses on pulp fiction, popular culture, mystery and detective fiction, science fiction, fan culture, and afrofuturism. I did find one lonely little course on Shakespeare – but it’s not required. One thing you can say for it, though the English curriculum is certainly diverse.
(Excuse me while I take some blood pressure medication).
The second most galling thing about this characterization of Dal’s course offerings is how easily refuted it is. Check it out for yourself: the courses ostensibly “designed for people who are ambivalent about reading books” are crowded out by such “traditional” fare as Chaucer, Renaissance poetry and drama, medieval literature, as well as a course devoted entirely to the Brontes.
The most galling thing about this characterization of Dal’s course offerings is that I felt obliged to write the two previous sentences. What the actual fuck is wrong with offering courses on “pulp fiction, popular culture, mystery and detective fiction, science fiction, fan culture, and afrofuturism”? None of which, I feel compelled to add, suggest that students will not have to read. All of those topics Wente apparently disdains are embedded in the contemporary cultural moment: if an English degree is at least partly about developing critical reading and writing skills, it doesn’t hurt to be able to deploy those skills with regard to the various discourses in which we live.
While I was writing this post, my friend Jason, who is chair of Dal’s English Department, wrote a wonderful response to Wente’s idiocy. He begins by imploring people not to read Wente’s column and thus reward her trolling with ad revenue for the Globe (which is why I just removed my own link to the column—if you must read it, by all means do so, but I won’t facilitate it).
I’ll end here by quoting Jason:
We don’t need to defend ourselves against Wente’s spurious claims; we need to double down on what we do. Nothing would make me personally happier than to have a program that makes Margaret Wente shudderingly, inconsolably uncomfortable, simply because that would mean it more fully and accurately reflects the growing and ever diversifying field of English Studies as new and previously silenced authors, texts, approaches, and contexts, past and present, make themselves heard.
Let’s walk past the braying calls for a bounded and bordered ignorance and into an open space resounding with an ever more complex cacophony of voices. Let’s commit curiosity.