Saturday, April 9, 2016

Women's Studies Is Not Scholarship

Get Activism Out Of Academia
In my last video, I promised that I was going to provide some concrete non-ideological reasons why women’s studies programs should be abolished at universities across North America. This is the first in my three-part series outlining the reasons, which are as follows:
1. These are advocacy programs, not academic programs, and that’s enough right there to declare them totally illegitimate.
2. These programs do not have a subject to teach. They are what is called
interdisciplinary,” and that inevitably leads to intellectual incoherence and a lack of seriousness.
3. Women's Studies programs are expensive, not to mention the moral and social cost. This money could be far better spent on research and on ensuring that students leaving our post-secondary institutions are literate and numerate.
My first point: gender studies programs advocate for social justice. No surprise there. Most such programs, though not all, are quite explicit about this goal in their descriptions. The Simon Fraser University Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies program declares in its description that it “aspires to build networks with feminists and activists from the South to organize against social and economic exploitation of women globally.” That’s quite a departure from an academic focus. And most professors, administrators, and students today will see nothing wrong with that. Why shouldn’t university programs organize against injustice? 
The Department of Women’s and Gender Studies is a hub for feminist knowledge production and engaged citizenship at the University of Alberta. Its hallmarks include award-winning teachers and scholars, a vibrant feminist research community, a long-standing commitment to interdisciplinary collaborations, and outstanding graduates who move into their communities as critical and engaged citizens with abiding commitments to social justice.
Notice that there is very little here about what faculty members actually research and what the students are taught. What is the content of the courses? The description doesn’t say women; and in fact women are not the focus of a lot of these courses. The focus is “feminist knowledge production.”

“Knowledge production,” by the way, is cooler than just “knowledge” because it suggests a dynamic and anti-hierarchical process: the idea is that the students are producing knowledge as much as the professors in a collaborative venture with perhaps a little Marxist whiff of materialist struggle against oppressive forces.

And what is the feminist knowledge that is being “produced”—well, the description doesn’t specify, but it emphasizes a specific kind of citizen who comes out of the program: an “engaged” citizen—not a knowledgeable one, necessarily, but an “engaged” one (that’s said twice in two sentences, so it must be very important), a citizen with an “abiding commitment to social justice.”

So the knowledge that is being produced is intended to create citizens with a commitment to activism. This is not a place for ideas to be considered, tested, or debated in a spirit of disinterested exploration.

The University of British Columbia has gone even further, changing the very name of its women’s and gender studies program to the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice.

So what’s wrong with that?

The most obvious problem with social justice is that it often has very little to do with justice as traditionally understood—meaning good things like equality before the law, non-discrimination, the protection of freedoms such as freedom of expression and freedom of association, habeas corpus—those aren’t a part of the ‘social justice’ ideal. Social justice has much more to do with state-mandated and guaranteed equality of outcome, a utopian community forged through propaganda and the suppression of dissent, by force if necessary. Every social utopia of this sort has produced human misery and dysfunction on a massive scale, so it’s the last thing that universities should be encouraging.

Still, many people, including many university professors, think there should be more ‘equality’ in our society, even if that means you manufacture it by suppressing individual liberties. Fine, that’s another discussion. But even if one agrees with many of the planks of a social justice platform, which I do not, there is a simple reason why advocacy should never be the goal of a university program: any commitment that interferes with the university’s core mission of pursuing knowledge is a fatal corruption.

A teacher can’t be a social justice advocate in the classroom because advocacy will always interfere with commitment to the subject being taught in a multitude of small and large ways. It’s like teaching math while at the same time making the case that odd numbers are more worthy of our attention and sympathy than even ones  the equations will be garbled by the desire to prioritize the odd numbers every time. I’m not saying that teachers can’t be advocates in their non-teaching lives; I’m saying it’s lethal if you bring that into the classroom. The more passionately held the social justice commitment, the greater the temptation to organize course materials to support a particular conclusion, and to misconceive your classroom role. Teaching should not be about shaping how your students view the world except to the extent that you want them to be serious and passionate about their work.

Advocacy and teaching are diametrically opposed. Teaching aims at objective consideration of a subject. It’s fashionable now to laugh at that ideal, to say it isn’t possible to be objective: whether it’s fully achievable or not, we must strive for it. A good teacher becomes a different self in the classroom—totally committed to the subject above all. The teacher’s personal investments, cherished values—of course these cannot be escaped, but they are never to take precedence over open dialogue about all intellectually legitimate facets of the subject. The classroom should be a “safe space” not for anyone’s feelings or for the promotion of any ideology, but for the pure and unfettered search for understanding.

Advocacy, on the other hand, is all about persuasion and about particular social ends. It begins from assumptions and theories that must be defended—not questioned. The problem with women’s studies courses is that they don’t teach about feminism, which would be fine. The problem is that they teach feminism.

How we got to the point where whole programs can state right up front on their websites that they’re about feminist engagement is the story of the takeover of the university by the fanatical enemies of knowledge. The problem is much bigger even than gender studies programs because feminist methodologies and dogmas are all across the university now. >The first step to reforming academia would be to close these programs, with a clear statement by university leaders that advocacy is off limits. That’s what I would do if I were elected president of a university. But you can imagine the chances of that.

Tune in next week for further discussion of the illegitimate nature of academic feminism.