How The Dominance Of Post-Structuralism Was Used To Marginalize Black Studies And Contributed To The Current Crisis In Academia And American Culture At Large
A. Post-Structuralism, Black Studies, And The Humanities
In looking for the roots to today’s cultural crisis, Scott Timberg believes some of the fault lies with academic Humanities Programs and English Departments. In his book Culture Crash (2015), Timberg recognizes a disturbing trend. “In the 1970s, the percentage of students studying English and the Humanities, which had been rising for two decades, plummeted. Humanities majors went from 30 percent in the 1970–71 academic year to 16 percent by 2003–04” (193) and “the Yale English Department graduating majors dropped 60% from 1983 to 2013” (187).
Timberg claims that this statistical decline is not primarily due to economic factors (i.e. of course Business and Marketing become more attractive majors than English or other Liberal Arts in the post-Reagan economy), but rather because English and Humanities departments had lost their connection to a common language, and were essentially “speaking in tongues” due to the dominance of post-structural discourse in these fields. Timberg believes that had not post-structuralist theories and lexicons been imported from Europe (especially France) in the last three decades of the 20th century, more people would still want to be English majors. Before this, Timberg believes, academia did speak in a more common language — but what does he mean by a common language? Did academia ever have that? Can we achieve it (or restore it) today? Certainly this requires closer scrutiny than his 8 page historical summary provides.
While I find aspects of Timberg’s argument attractive (especially as one who, as a grad student in the 90s, struggled with the faux-leftist regime of Post-Structuralist theory and jargon, and tried to find a way to subvert its hegemony from within), I must question some of his assumptions. First, just because the percentages have dropped, the absolute number of English majors is still larger than it was in the 1950s as college attendance, in general, increased during this time.
Most significantly, I believe that Timberg ignores some important socio-cultural factors within academia, and bases his theory on a reductive binary that opposes the post-1970s post-structuralists with the pre-1960s academics like the Joyce scholar who laments the loss of the culture in which teachers would “Champion with passion the books they teach and make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge in these books, and the tradition in which they exist, is a human good in and of itself.” Sure, when new academic books with Shakespeare in the title are more likely to be about the kind of underwear Elizabethans wore, no wonder there’s less passion for books. Yet, these need not be the only two options. In fact, if we look at the history more closely, we find other—and somewhat erased—factors within academia during the turbulent 1960s that intervened in between the reign of these two eras that came closer to proposing a more common language than either the Joycean or the post-structuralist.
While Timberg mentions that “the failure of the student/worker rebellions of 1968 Paris” lead to the rise of post-structuralism, he entirely ignores the student/worker rebellions occurring during the same time in America, as the growth of cheap, and in some cases free, publicly funded colleges and universities increased both the numbers as well as the diversity (in terms of race, gender and class) of first generation college students during the ‘60s, on a broader scale than the post WW2 GI Bill. It must be remembered that before 1960, the vast majority of college students in America were primarily white, male and upper (or at least upper-middle) class, and the “tradition” had been perpetuated to benefit those people.
Yet in the ‘60s, academia stood at a historical crossroads as many of these new students saw how the traditional “great books” curriculum and/or established ways of reading and discussing them reflected an anti-populist, elitist and Euro-centric agenda devised to justify and perpetuate the elite’s hold on the culture industry — hardly a common language. One of the most pronounced — but often erased— American student protests and/or rebellions during this time occurred when a collation lead by the Black Student Union managed to shut down San Francisco State. They wanted a humanities that gave a true knowledge of self that acknowledged the decadent nature of this society, as the Black panther Ten Point Platform put it.
These students demanded structural changes to the institution—-a more inclusive curriculum, and the development of a Black Studies Program. They didn’t demand doing away with “white” or “European” studies (for those who have a stake in it), but were interested in supplementing it to make the humanities more relevant to the communities they were a part of, stressing practicums and internships and providing a new paradigm that contrasts with, and challenges, the dominance of the traditional “ivory tower.” As a result of their struggles, Black Studies (and, more broadly, ethnic studies) departments were instituted around the country. Yet many of their demands went unmet. For instance, they didn’t manage to create a university curriculum in which a course on the Black Arts Movement would be required alongside of Shakespeare. Though the structural demands went largely unheeded, “identity politics” grew. Lip service was paid: Tokenism and admission quotas were debated. And it is in this context that post-structural ideas began flooding into academia from the top down.
While Timberg makes it seem like those who considered the canon “too white” and “too male” came to academia after the post-structural challenge, it’s important to note that the challenge Black Studies presented to the traditional academic culture in English and Humanities departments preceded the rise of deconstruction. Considering this chronology, it’s very plausible that the rise of post-structuralism in American universities was at least as much a reaction to these popularizing, democratizing student movements of the 1960s as it was a reaction to the old-school professors. The same academic power structure that resisted the revolutionary challenges the Black Student Union made found post-structuralism much less of a threat to the established ways of doing things.
It’s perhaps not a coincidence that just as blacks and women and other previously disenfranchised people were beginning to empower themselves as subjects that the fashionable new trend of post-structuralism did away with the subject, and rendered it “outré.” What happened in the 70s and 80s was the academic equivalent to White Classic Arena Rock (AOR) in mass culture; it presented itself as progressive while serving to reify a new exclusionary, racist and (thoroughly mediocre) elitism. Though some proponents of the old academic establishment would later lump all these challenges together, proponents of Black Studies ask what can “The Humanities” mean in a society that treats some as less than human. Their challenge was not merely about “the death of the author.”
By contrast to the poststructuralists, proponents of black studies did not “distance themselves from good books.” They just rejected the taken-for-granted standards by which certain books (usually by white males) and traditions are judged great, while others are not given an equal hearing. It asked, among other things, why, in America, do we still call it an English department? What does it mean to be a “humanist” when the humanities have been used, more often than not, to justify segregation and the belief that white institutions were categorically superior?
Black Studies also challenged (and challenges) the specialization of genres, a model of education that became dominant during the “enlightenment.” It didn’t need to resort to the overly specialized lexicon and codes of post-structuralist approaches. Black studies understood that one could express the most sophisticated intelligence and imagination in a common language — certainly much more than post-structuralism did, but also much more than the old school professors with their Eurocentric “eternal verities” did. On the contrary, Black Studies made room for the oral, verbal intelligence that Derrida and his ilk would deride as phallogocrentrism, just as traditional humanists would deride it as “afro-centrism” or “ebonics” as earlier slave-masters considered Africans less “civilized” because they didn’t write things down. These aspects of Black Studies could also come to benefit English and Humanities programs in general, and could play a part in truly opening up public discourse to the full spectrum of opinions and perspectives that are still largely unheeded in academic Literature programs.
In being more inclusive and less specialized, the language of black studies was too clear and too common for those who have a stake in exclusion, as do both the new fangled deconstructionists an the old-fashioned New Critics, an outgrowth of white southern “fugitive” aristocrats. Was the new “post-structuralist” way more elitist than the old way? Probably not, but neither was it unequivocally better especially if one is looking for more inclusiveness, and values honesty as Timberg does.
In short, Black Studies, with its more inclusive, functional, approach understood how to create a wider demand for an academic degree in ways that what we now call The Humanities could benefit from. If Academia had chosen to allocate more of its resources to an Afro-centric Black Studies Curriculum, I believe we wouldn’t be in the predicament we are today — manifested not merely by a declining number of humanities students, but also by a higher unemployment rate among college and grad-school graduates. In this sense I agree with Timberg that the dominance of post-structuralism has indeed contributed to the crisis both within the academy as well as in American culture as a whole. I just disagree that returning to the pre-1960s notion of “The Humanities” is the best way to address it.
As post-structuralism came to dominate the academy, so did academic inflation (the devaluing of the degree). In the 1970s, you could land a full-time tenure track academic position with only a M.A.; by the 1990s, even a PhD couldn’t guarantee that, and not because of a declining percentage of English majors, but rather because there was more of a supply of graduates than there were employment demands. This new, post-1970s culture, crammed more people into a smaller room when it could have created a larger room, by tearing down some exclusionary walls as black studies programs would have.
Hence, a new labor force of over-educated and overqualified graduates emerged, armed with post-structuralist discourse that promised to give them a competitive edge in an increasingly bureaucratic profession.