University Humanities Studies and Cultural Nihilism
This article is quite a departure from my usual fare. It is an expanded version of a comment I submitted on the Captain Capitalism Blog article entitled “5 Reasons you SHOULD Major in Women’s Studies“. It is based primarily on my observations.
I majored in English Literature because I wanted to write good books and get into the business of publishing. What I got, instead of a deeper understanding of writing and the world of literature, was a program of behaviour modification so strange and subtle that I am really only beginning to understand it a decade later. My degree, like Humanities Degrees used an incredibly destructive method of teaching that alters the basic way that a student’s mind works. This method may be well-meaning, but its results are essentially predatory.
I believe that the Humanities are worthy of studying, and that a strong intellectual culture in our society is valuable, but I believe the current post-Transformationist way in which Humanities are taught is reprehensible.
In most Humanities Topics you are taught how to look at behaviour or works of art from many different perspectives. Ostensibly, this equips you to make up your own mind about everything that you encounter and defend your point of view in a thorough, rational manner. This is, in and of itself a laudible idea, however, a recent paradigm shift in education has moved our focus away from understanding an ideology and instead to identifying / empathizing with the people who practice the ideology, with disastrous results.
In practice, the professors have you try on dozens of different critical frameworks, so that you could dissect a given object from a Marxist frame, a Feminist frame, a Postmodern frame, Sturcturalist, Formalist, etc.. Your mark in an assignment is based on how well you could adopt that paradigm and write as if you believed it completely.
When you are good at using whatever framework that was being taught at the time, you are praised. Students who have trouble came to you. You get great marks. So, for example, if you are studying Frankfurt School Marxist Analysis this week, if you are good at thinking like a Frankfurt Marxist, your marks will improve, your insight during class may help others better adopt the same frame, so you become popular in class. The professors praise you on your ability to role-play the perspective of the Frankfurt Marxist.
If, on the other hand, you are not so good at being a Frankfurt Marxist, your marks go down, and you will need to seek help from someone else who is a good Frankfurt Marxist to help you understand the ideology. Basically tutoring and group work becomes a form of indoctrination – the students who “get it” help the students who don’t adopt the same view.
If you question the ideology, you are missing the point of the class. You aren’t supposed to look at the framework, only through it. If you find Frankfurt School Marxist Analysis bizarre and racist (which it is) and say so you might be told “maybe it is… but right now it is important to see how they thought so you can can understand how their ideas affect the ideas of later thinkers.” Or if that tactic fails, you are assumed to not just “get” the idea, and it is suggested you seek help.
Part of the rhetoric that is used during these classes is that there are no right or wrong frameworks. Each had a particular merit or weakness, and each formed in a unique context under which it seemed like the right way to think and act. Criticizing the framework itself when we are not in the context only clouds understanding of the framework.
This means that Humanities students can develop a kind of schizophrenia… they learned to erase their entire value set on a whim and replace it with a completely different one. This isn’t easy, nor is it easy to adopt an alien point of view to your own at a whim. Many students in the early years of their degree must constantly think through a given framework while they are studying it. If you are studying Feminism in class, you have to think like a Feminist outside of class too to help you hone your understanding.
Later assignments and exams have you do things like “Assess this magazine ad from three different frameworks.” This kind of assignment forces you to completely “download” and then “delete” an entire moral framework several times in an hour.
The Subject Matter
Students are trained in around a dozen frameworks in their early years. In English as it was taught in the last two decades, for example most students can expect to be called upon to try out these frames:
- Early Humanism
- Frankfurt School Marxism
- Freudian Psychoanalysis
Other Humanities topics have a similar set of frames: for History it is often History of a period (ex. Victorian Era), group perspective (ex. Women in History), or method of analyzing history (ex. Historiography and Hagiography).
There are glaring absences in Frameworks that also must be noted. With the exception of Early Humanism, it is very rare for a University to teach analytical frames that are in line with mainstream Western values. There is an underlying assumption that all students come in with an essentially semi-conservative, Traditional, Christian, Rational, pro-Democratic, Capitalistic worldview. There seems to be a belief that accordingly, the students stand to learn nothing by engaging any system that is consistent with that worldview, and that it will not facilitate their ability to shift from frame to frame. There also seems to be a belief that University exists to teach leaders, people who create change, and the avant-garde thinker, and because of it, examining more classically Western views will not facilitate the creation of such leaders.
Of course, many professors believe some frames are more “significant” or “challenging” than others. Not that they are more “right” or “wrong”… but that they take more mental effort to adopt, or are more easily applied to today’s problems. These frameworks are usually Feminism, Marxism, Structuralism, or Postmodernism. Students are often marked more positively for using these frames because they are “pushing” themselves.
This kind of mental work is exhausting. It is not how the human mind was meant to perform. Many of the “challenging” frames are particularly so because they require a person to think in ways that require self-loathing, re-assessment of their values, or a total abandonment of logical and rational thought (especially Postmodernism and Nihilism.)
The Human Result
By the end of a student’s second year, they have, in effect, no fixed moral or intellectual framework, they have learned that they can just choose which frame you would approach every dilemma at a whim. For example, when in an argument between a Man and Woman, a student might be heard to say “Let’s look at this problem from a Feminist perspective…” and then proceed to argue as a Feminist with incredible skill, internally consistent rhetoric, and complex justifications. The same student might turn around and decide to be a Postmodernist or a Freudian when having a dinner-table conversation, just for the joy of shifting frames.
It is possible for students at this stage to cease believing that there could be a right or wrong – that there are merely different perspectives you could swap out like hats. That the only way to resolve a conflict is for each person to assume a frame and argue their point until one capitulates that the other’s arguments are more intricate and sophisticated. Rhetorical ability becomes more valuable than “rightness” or reason.
Generally, if such a student is faced a moral problem, they will pick whatever framework would justify them in doing exactly what they wanted in the first place. However, this tends to destroy a sense of values and breaks down long-term goals. A solid moral compass is required to have any real life goals.
I call this the “Humanities Paradox”: by studying different ideologies by striving to identify with and adopt them, you lose the ability to adhere to any of them. By learning how many different kinds of people set goals, you lose the ability to set them. By studying many different schools of moral though in this way, you lose the ability to think morally.
The less intelligent student can’t handle this sort of aimlessness for very long. They need to choose one and stick with it. So of course they would choose the framework that they used the most often – that is to say Marxism, Feminism, or Postmodernism. The Universities facilitate this process through the structure of classes; at the third- and fourth-year levels Humanities courses refine into the examination of one topic, one framework, or even one particular writer. This allows the student to become focused on that one framework to the exclusion of everything else.
Such students tend to become very intolerant of debate outside their particular sphere of interest. They often insist to other students that they keep within the framework established. This is extremely evident here in Canada, where Feminist students have lobbied and effectively placed a ban on any discussion of Men’s issues, Gender, or Gender Relations in Universities unless it is done so from within a Feminist narrative.
These students are uncritical – and in fact cannot tolerate criticism of their chosen framework. Because they are used to looking through the frame, but have been discouraged from looking at it, they can easily accept ideas that are illogical, contradictory, or self-negating, so long as they appear to be consistent with the frame. A Marxist trained in this manner can overlook the fact that the “bourgeoisie” are necessary for developing the means of production that the “proletariat” are dependent on, because that argument requires critical thought about Marxism not as a Marxist.
Similarly, a Feminist trained in this manner can simultaneously argue that there are no differences between the genders psychologically except by conditioning, and that capacity to gestate a child and breastfeed makes her “naturally” more nurturing. The contradiction is invisible to them because t would require that they think about Feminism not as a Feminist.
Smarter students often undergo an even more bizarre transformation. The thing about raw intelligence is that it doesn’t defend you against bad ideas. Quite the opposite: intelligence allows you to see the virtue of other mental frames and attitudes even when they contradict your own beliefs. Because an intelligent student has gotten so used to treating ideologies like costumes they can put on or take off at ill, they develop a highly cynical view of all ideas. They essentially exist without any kind of real ideology of their own whatsoever. They become a form of intellectual Nihilist who disbelieves in the possibility of their being Truth, Morality, or a valuable system of Ethics at all. They will often adapt whatever ideology suits them to help complete a class, make an argument. They see anyone who absolutely embraces a single frame as innately limiting themselves.
The resulting person is a Sophist and an Opportunist whose mind shifts so rapidly from frame to frame that they cannot come up with a reasoned argument without seeing counterpoints. They can justify any action they take by shifting paradigm, and so have little faith in the power of Reason. Ultimately, they are only swayed by emotional responses rather than intellectual ones, becoming irrational and amoral while appearing to be both highly rational and very moral. My readers will find an excellent example of this sort of intellect in author William Gibson or recently disgraced Feminist pundit Hugo Schwyzer.
One of the other effects of this mode of education is that it trains the student to look primarily at the stated intention of a movement first. Students are trained to role-play as, empathize with, and adopt the views of groups like Marxists. They are not trained to look at the real-world results of those ideologies. This is why University-educated people will often vehemently embrace exploded ideologies like Marxism, even to the point of intellectual dishonesty, despite the fact that practical application of Marxism has led to over 150 million deaths, devastated economies, psychological damage to entire generations, rampant crime, and ecological disaster wherever it has been instituted.
Cognitive dissonance prevents such students from being able to accept real-world results as proof-of-concept for any ideology. If you have worked hard to think like a Marxist and find you are good at it… if you have been consistently rewarded by ersatz parental figures for being a Marxist, listening to evidence that it is destructive and toxic would be invalidating.
Additionally, there is an element of Orwellian double-speak that occurs in this educational milieu. Because each frame is designed to help students analyze and criticize, it is rightly called “Critical Thought”, but students while they think critically using a frame, often refuse to think critically about various frames. They only think for themselves once they have donned the costume of a particular brand of critic. Once the student has put on Marxism or Postmodernism, they can proceed with Critical Thought, but are unwilling to do so with a naked intellect. This is the Second Humanities Paradox: the study of critical thought often paralyses students from thinking critically.
Another result of this is an exceptional level of elitism. The student who has been trained to see themselves as critical thinkers has come to associate Critical Thought with whatever ideology they have chosen (or with not having an ideology at all.) Because none of the frames in which they have been trained are consistent with a traditionally Western view, they see those who espouse Democracy, Capitalism, Christianity (or quasi-Christian values), Logic, etc. as being essentially ignorant or untrained minds. Their reasoning is that if the “Average Westerner” were capable of critical thought, they would have rejected that ideology in favour of another framework (preferably their own) ages ago. They cannot see how a person could not embrace some alternative intellectual frame.
The Student rapidly comes to identify themselves as an expert with a superior intellectual ability built out of this cognitive dissonance and their new reconstructed identity. As graduates they define themselves and their way of doing things as the true “Intellectualism” from whence “Expertise” arises. They often believe as well that their framework contains within it all of the answers to society’s problems. Their commitment to whatever framework they have chosen becomes the basis for their political action as adults – they are willing to lobby, rally, and politick for their “superior” intellectual solutions, regardless of the real-world costs when they are converted into policy.
The Philosophy Buffer
Of all Humanities Disciplines, Philosophy is perhaps the only one that is resistant to this process to any great degree. The method of teaching that is used – the consistent changing of frames and focus on being able to take the role of a believer to gain intellectual results is almost identical to the Sophists of ancient Athens that Western Philosophy was invented to counteract.
Most Western Philosophies before the 18th century were built on rational exploration of intellectual premises. They are measured and judged based on how they conform to Aristotle’s rules of Logic, and how free they are from contradictions and baseless assumptions. Many of them are also constructed as a criticism to other philosophies.
Accordingly, you can’t look through the frame without first trying to look at it. Many frames directly attack and openly contradict previous frames through argumentation. This the student of Philosophy has to be versed in the art of logical assessment of the frame and its assumptions before they can try on the frame. Often, assignments in philosophy are designed to see if the student comprehends the logic of the framework, rather than testing to see if they can adopt it.
Philosophy also has the aim of creating a solid moral or ethical frame for life. Students are studying not just a way of analyzing, but a way of analyzing that must lead to practical, real-life moral results. Students of philosophy understand that in order to be philosophical they cannot entirely reject real-life experience or results from the equation.
Nor can one study philosophy without studying Western Culture, as traditional Western Culture is essentially built on the work of many of the earliest and most significant philosophers.
To a degree, minoring in philosophy was an inoculation against being indoctrinated for me. It does so at social cost. Philosophy, especially in departments where the professors are older (the youngest of my professors had been born in 1941, most were beyond retirement age), are considered “stuffy” and “out of step with the modern world” by other Humanities students and faculty. Students of philosophy can expect subtle teasing from fellow students and professors for taking courses. Many ideologues vilify philosophy departments, describing them as “bastions of white male privilege” and “the last old boy’s club” in the Humanities.
Today the methodology applied in other Humanities has found a way to breach philosophy as well, however. Rather than teach specific philosophers and their writings, younger professors have a habit of lumping philosophers into basic categories, and teaching the whole category through cherry-picked quotations. In this way they can demand students debate from the role of a philosophical school the same way they could argue from a critical analysis framework.
Another method has to be focusing classes exclusively on modern applied topics, like “Biomedicine and Ethics”. In such classes, students are encouraged to discuss and debate current events related to the topic supplemented with only cursory readings.
At my own University from a faculty of four, two professors died due to failing health and age, while another retired. The department was reduced to three, and the two new hires were respectively a Feminist intellectual and a specialist in Eastern, rather than Western Philosophy.