Prager U (and their Ilk) Also Killed the Liberal Arts

It’s not often that I feel compelled to share and comment an opinion piece from Prager “University”.

Albeit not an officially-registered institute of higher learning in the U.S., Prager works more like a think tank. Seizing upon the Youtube phenomenon, the conservative folks at Prager U have produced a series of punchy videos, with the aim of reaching out to millenials, and providing a counter to Progressive politics and Social Justice militancy – and their attendant institutional deep pockets – in both broadcast and social media.

Now, I think it’s fair game to denounce think tanks masquerading as universities, and Prager U demonstratively fits the bill.

But watch a few of their videos – at least the ones that criticize the current ideological climate of American universities – and you’ll get the impression, quite justified in my view, that American universities in general are becoming think tanks. The corporate funding of scientific research on campus and the politicization of liberal arts disciplines are but two symptoms of this overall trend.

Fair enough. But what then accounts for the current decline of the Liberal Arts in American universities? As Manhattan Institute-affiliated political commentator Heather MacDonald claims, it seems that Liberal Arts programs are currently engaged in a “sanitizing” process that is undermining the core secularism of humanities education.

Lest you wish to quibble over the (rather strident) tone, or the details of MacDonald’s presentation, dear reader, I would like to focus your attention on her main point.

If MacDonald’s defense of “Western values” seems overstated from my perspective as a historian, her argument does point to a creeping phenomenon in our universities: the transformation of Liberal Arts disciplines into a seemingly-rich-and-diverse offering of “studies” that share, for the most part, the same set of core political assumptions.

Indeed, for the past forty years, humanities departments in English-speaking universities have served as a breeding ground for a neo-puritan revival at the heart of campus activism, recently made famous by public campaigns of “deplatforming” (censorship) of liberal or conservative intellectuals deemed controversial by social justice activists and on-line petition aficionados. As it turns out, very few of the core canonical authors and thinkers that comprise a traditional Liberal Arts education have managed to conform to contemporary moral standards.

So who “killed” the Liberal Arts? Ironically, the guardians of the humanities have: the universities of “the West”.

On the other hand, the Manhattan Institute and their ilk have also played a part in this double sucker punch to the humanities. The complaint of economic irrelevance leveled at the Liberal Arts for decades already, as well as the restructuring of university funding relating to the Liberal Arts, have both contributed to the decline of core humanities disciplines in university life, and their devaluation as cultural currency at large.

Not a word on this line of assault from Prager “University”, it seems.

Politicizing the Humanities: Cui Bono?

The question I’d like to ask at this point: is there a link to be made between the corporatization of the university and the politicization of the humanities? Despite these two trends apparently being at polar opposite ends of the political spectrum, might they somehow share deeper affinities?

I’ll begin here by stating the obvious: what Heather MacDonald and Prager U and their ideological foes (i.e. campus activists and their teacher-mentors) have in common is that they have a stake in the current “culture war”. My point here is that enemies fighting in the trenches can’t readily see the historical forces that have made their conflict possible, and perhaps even inevitable.

I am not claiming, of course, that I can better see these “historical forces” than they. But I do see a set of contradictions at work in the so-called “culture war“.

On the one hand, university-trained activists fighting for “social justice” routinely attempt to restrict debate and intellectual inquiry to fit the requirements of “critical discourse”, a hodge-podge of politicized cultural theories that aim to deconstruct the “oppressive institutions of the West”. More to the point, the intellectual tool-box favored by this crowd – promoted at all levels of humanities education – is the product of decades of “anti-establishment” theorizing fostered for the most part inside elite universities.

As a result, and as Heather MacDonald would no doubt point out, earning an undergraduate degree in the humanities these days is more likely to resemble attending a four-year long Intersectional Bible Camp, than learning about the values and approaches of humanist secularism.

Behold ! A White Supremacist Heteronormative Capitalist Patriarchy ! Quick Sancho, my lance !

On the other hand, the current defenders of “Free Speech on campus” (a noble cause, to be sure) are fighting for a humanist tradition that doesn’t leave much wiggle-room for a fundamental critique of their cultural heroes. They reproduce the very image of the Establishment that so-called “anti-establishment” stalwarts take pride in de-canonizing.

Build the “establishment” windmills to fight against, and our contemporary “anti-establishment” Don Quixotes will spontaneously gather around them, like bees to honey.

(Lest We) Forget Foucault

Am I making out the culture war to be somewhat of a side-show?

Perhaps. But the vehement tone and stalinist tactics on display in the culture war haven’t done much to foster substantive analysis on the corporatization of education. For one, commentators have often assumed that a right-wing political agenda comes bundled with the corporatization of academia. There are certainly many cases where this is true in the American University scene. But I’d like to make the case that corporatization of university life can accommodate – if not actively promote – many forms of politicization, including that which is readily seen and understood as “anti-establishment”.

Take a central figure of the current critical theory canon: Michel Foucault. There isn’t a humanities undergraduate out there who hasn’t been exposed, directly or indirectly, to the intellectual weapons of Foucault. Foucault’s works, and the industrial-scale application of his theories via the work of mainstream deconstructionists, intersectionalists, gender and race theorists, discourse analysts, etc. is now a permanent fixture of humanities education.

And yet Foucault’s legacy is fundamentally ambiguous. For one, Foucault’s approach to intellectual debate is instrumental, where “critique” functions as a rhetorical tool to fight ideological opponents, all the while making the critic’s position inaccessible (and therefore unassailable). After all, with the “death of the subject” now proclaimed, who to argue against? Foucault’s critique of discourse has also projected totalitarian tendencies onto the operations of language. His analysis of “the binary” at work in discourse is itself highly binary, if not manichean: for example, the discourse of law determines what is legal, lawful and moral, and that which is not; Christian ecclesiastical discourse will tell you who is saved, and who is not; medical discourse determines what is normal and what is pathological, etc.

Foucault’s theories of discourse do have an endgame: to “deconstruct” the mechanisms of social exclusion at work in our institutions, by theorizing how social norms are themselves constructed through a process of exclusion.

Michel Foucault (with Cowboy Hat) in Berkeley, California in 1983

It is no secret that Foucault and his epigones really took off outside of France, in the wholehearted embrace of “French Theory” by American academics from the 1970’s onwards. It was in American academia that French theory was first “weaponized”, in the humanities and related fields, via theorists politically affiliated with the New Left. For one, Foucault’s theories gave racial/sexual minorities tools to take on “majority” or mainstream culture in post-war America (or at least a phantasm of this “mainstream” required for anti-establishment posturing). Foucault’s wholehearted embrace of neo-liberalism also made for a good fit in a post-1960’s culture of individual construction of the self in “opposition” to social norms – a central feature of contemporary American culture. 

Back to our key point: the (non-obvious) link between corporatization and politicization in American Universities. The long incubation of Foucault’s theories (and that of other “post-structuralists”) in elite American universities needs to be situated in the context of fundamental research on social engineering methods and techniques (i.e. “social reform movements and programs”) funded by major private foundations on board with progressive social causes. Post-structuralism may have helped us critique social norms; such a research agenda cannot be construed as anathema to the priorities of for-profit corporations. Alongside the methods of Saul Alinsky and Gene Sharp, Foucault’s theories (and its many offshoots) are now part of the war chest of “social change agents” who operate on the Left side of the political spectrum, to help break up the pockets of resistance to market intrusions that remain in mainstream culture, under the auspices of promoting socially progressive initiatives.

In other words, not only has the Revolution been Televised (as any Hollywood/Netflix “progressive” biopic or superhero movie will attest), but the radical emancipatory potential of 1960’s social movements has for the most part been neutralized and co-opted, via the New Left, to serve contemporary market expansion and segmentation along the lines of identity politics and progressive global citizenship. Unawares, the subjective foes of our “culture war” may turn out to be objective allies in the grander scheme of things.

Thus, conservative “defenders” of the traditional humanities might have to throw out the baby of corporatization with the bathwater of “Left radicalism”, should they sincerely wish to rescue humanist values in education.

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