Barbie Goes to College

, Malcolm A. Kline, 1 Comment

At one time, protractors and slide rules were the school supplies that students were expected to bring to class and young ladies were advised to leave their Barbies at home. Now, the dolls themselves have become teacher aids and not just in the lower grades.

“A month before I got to Duke, the Young America’s Foundation had issued its annual ‘dirty dozen’ list, which identifies the nation’s 12 most ‘bizarre and troubling instances of leftist activism supplanting traditional scholarship in our nation’s colleges and universities,” Elizabeth J. Chin writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “A course that I teach at Occidental College had landed in the No. 2 spot.”

“Good liberal that I am, I viewed making the list less as a black spot on my record than as a badge of honor.” Dr. Chin is an associate professor of anthropology at Occidental. Occidental is the California college at which a music professor likened the Department of World Affairs lack of registered Republicans on the faculty to the absence of flat earth theorists in the science division at the school.

“But I did mind the foundation’s implication that a student would learn nothing of value in the course, called ‘The Unbearable Whiteness of Barbie,’” Dr. Chin writes. “Although the title might not immediately suggest college-worthy skills, the reading list—which includes works by Walter Benjamin, Susan Bordo, Sandra Cisneros, and Karl Marx—should be evidence of serious academic content.”

“I start the course with material about understanding hegemony and Bakhtinian analysis of language.”

• Benjamin was a Marxist writer who died in 1940. He was a follower of writer
Bertolt Brecht, who moved to communist East Germany the day after giving testimony as an unfriendly witness before the U. S. House Committee on UnAmerican Activities.

• Bordo, a philosophy professor at the University of Kentucky, specializes in “body
studies,” according to her own website, and has written books such as the forthcoming My Father’s Body and Other Unexplored Regions of Masculinity.

• Cisneros, famous for her novel, The House on Mango Street, has written poetry
with lines like, “Girlfriend, I believe in Gandhi but some nights nothing says it quite precise like a lone Star cracked on someone’s head.”

• Marx is the author of The Communist Manifesto.

For more on “hegemony” see our stories on the Modern Language Association.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy tells us that the Bakhtinians’ “work focused on the centrality of questions of signification in social life in general and artistic creation in particular, examining the way in which language registered the conflicts between social groups.”

Dr. Chin was a visiting professor of cultural anthropology at Duke in the spring of this year. The course she taught at Duke was entitled “Girl Culture/Power.” Despite its title, from Dr. Chin’s account, she delivered more academic rigor than such courses usually entail.

“What I was actually doing with my students was correcting their subject-verb agreement and giving them some of the first C’s they had ever received,” Dr. Chin recollects. “During office hours, I tried to reassure them that their rewritten papers would be much better and handed them tissues to dry their eyes.”

“Of the 25 students in the class, about two-thirds were well-off white women who were in the most elite sororities at Duke.” Her concern over grammatical aesthetics is laudable, and, in her discipline, notable.

Dr. Chin arrived on campus in time to observe the scandal surrounding the Duke Lacrosse team. With her West Coast sensibilities, it seemed sometimes that she alone saw the incident that involved a stripper who makes house calls as a teachable moment as most of Durham’s establishment figures went in CYA mode.

“I was struck by the differences in the way administrators and professors at Duke and Occidental think about and interact with their undergraduates on questions of diversity and race,” Dr. Chinn observed. “At Occidental I would have expected a town meeting, teach-ins, and coordinated efforts in residence halls to promote dialogue and reduce tension.”

“But at Duke, my impression was that the official response to the scandal was aimed externally, as damage control.” Her observation is an astute one but, as she will see if she hangs around Durham much longer, damage control is a natural state of affairs for Duke’s administrators.

Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.