Identity Crisis in Higher Education

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

Maybe if colleges and universities spent more time on identifying historical eras than on identity group politics, American institutions of higher learning would stand a better chance of graduating students who could pinpoint, with precision, the start- and end-years of both the War Between the States and World War II. Believe it or not, an on-air reporter, not too long ago, began a story on Memorial Day with a reference to “World War Eleven.”

As it is, most schools spend more time on the politics of identity than do transgendered transvestites. “No assertion is more common in American intellectual life today than the insistence that race and class (and gender) are inextricably intertwined, and, in a certain sense, this is obviously true,” Walter Benn Michaels writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education on December 15, 2006. “Everybody has a household income; everybody’s descended from somebody; everybody’s male or female or some combination of the two.”

“But one of the things that thinking seriously about race makes possible is not just the imbrication of race with class, but the disarticulation of class from race.” As you can tell from his use of the words “disarticulation” and “imbrication,” Michaels is a college professor—of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. No wonder you can find fewer and fewer experts to ask questions about classic literature of.

“Even with joint appointments, such marginalization has the effect of elevating the unnamed default identity—whiteness—even more through its location in traditional disciplines,” NYU sociologist Dalton Conley pointed out in that same issue of the Chronicle. “A much better use of resources by Princeton—or anywhere else—would be to eschew special labels and instead hire folks who study the intersection of race and class (to take an example Michaels offers us) in existing disciplines.”

“Otherwise, if we really want to level the playing field by making everything ‘identity based,’ we’d better combine history, English, and sociology into one big ‘White Men’s Studies’ department and make it all explicit.” Now, that would be funny.

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