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The Improper Subjects

December 15, 2014

Academia

Gender Studies

As an undergraduate I remember getting so frustrated at a mandatory Political Science course that I complained to the Dean of Studies that the subject was not a ‘real’ one, not a ‘proper’ subject. Asked to explain what a ‘proper’ subject was I uttered something to the effect that it wasn’t eternal, that in fifty years the knowledge contained in the textbook would be completely forgotten (not just subsumed) and probably the subject would have ceased to exist. This post is my belated attempt to answer the Dean not only more cogently but also more comprehensively as I include other subjects, many of which didn’t exist at the time of my exchange. I would now include under the rubric of subjects that are not ‘proper’, according to the gospel of Malcolm: media studies, gender studies, ethnic studies, black studies, women’s studies, diversity studies and maybe even sociology. For the purposes of this post I will call these disciplines improper subjects.

It’s not just the bad writing. After all, poor writing can occur in any field, but surely writing as bad as the following can only exist in a field where any pretence at genuine inquiry has deliberately been made subservient to obscurantism for purposes of group solidarity. Here is Judith Butler, a gender theorist and currently a professor at Berkeley University in California, where she no doubt enjoys tenured status subsidized in part by my tax dollars:

“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

Economics is the study of human action and the closest thing we have to a social science. The tools of economics have been successfully used to study areas as diverse as religion, family, law, politics, discrimination and sexuality. If the improper subjects were really about disinterested research their departments would require students to take courses in economics so they could apply economic tools to their respective areas of study. The reason they don’t do this is that the improper subjects are not true academic disciplines but rather indoctrination camps to prepare students for political activism in support of a preset agenda. This is no secret and even a cursory review of  university websites where the improper subjects are taught will yield examples similar to the following from the University of San Francisco’s Gender and Sexualities course:

 “Pragmatically, the minor aims to… prepare students for informed political action.”

Continue to produce graduates in these areas, lacking real work skills but articulate and self-righteous about student rights, the rights of women, the rights of minorities, the rights of gays, the right to a minimum wage, the right to health care, the right to green energy and the right to clean air etc., and you are well on your way to breaking up the body politic into warring factions, each trying to get the largest slice. Come to think of it, didn’t we reach that point long ago?

_____________________

“Creating whole departments of ethnic, gender, and other “studies” was part of the price of academic peace. All too often, these “studies” are about propaganda rather than serious education. Academic campuses have become among the least free places in America. “Speech codes,” vaguely worded but zealously applied to those who dare to say anything that is not politically correct, have become the norm. Few professors would dare to publish research or teach a course debunking the claims made in various ethnic, gender, or other “studies” courses.”  Thomas Sowell

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill

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48 Comments on “The Improper Subjects”

  1. johnrchildress Says:

    Another well thought and timely post. Turning out youth without proper life skips is a human and economic tragedy.

    Reply

  2. Holistic Wayfarer Says:

    I would love the gospel of Malcolm to collect converts here but suspect you preach to the choir. *chuckle* Though my little man isn’t college-bound anytime soon, I appreciate as a parent the tragic (not to mention exasperating) issues you raise. Indoctrination through propaganda is right. Gender studies. Roll eyes. (And to think of all the money out of our pocket!) You make a case for the sufficiency and efficacy of the study of economics as a way to explore the improper subjects with legitimacy. Wouldn’t history also serve as such a medium? May I ask if you did undergrad in the States? Because I would think the hoopla about rights is loudest in America.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Absolutely. How can you hope to learn anything about Black, Gender or Diversity studies without a knowledge of history? More to the point, if we use all the traditional disciplines at our disposal to try to understand the improper subjects are there any distinctive competences left for these subjects? In other words are there particular tools and methods of study that relate only to Black, Gender or Diversity studies. I would argue that there are not.

      Reply

  3. Cindy Bruchman Says:

    I’m still laughing at the rhetoric of Professor Bender’s paragraph. What in the heck did it say? However, Malcolm, you are harsh today. Indoctrination camps? “Improper Subjects” to rake up specialized, nontraditional courses offered at universities across the country and then generalize them as hogwash because they go against the canon and the covert motive is to have them vote their way? I’m sure this happens, but I don’t believe they all do. I’ve seen my share of radical professors, and I’m sure they’d like me to raise the banner and walk a few miles on their behalf, but I look at these courses as a way to experience a new perspective. These are voices denied and now heard. I find Deconstruction fascinating not threatening.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Cindy, I appreciate your comments and I’m sure there are a number of exceptional teachers who somehow manage to bring these subjects alive. However, the point is that other than the narrow focus of the subject or what you call a “specialized, nontraditional course” these improper subjects do not bring a distinctive competence to the table. If you are a professor with a radical agenda, say one that supports socialism, you have two choices. You can take on the opposing traditions, have your students read the great books and argue with them in your classes. However, that is very hard work and also very risky as your students might come to agree with the wrong side. Alternatively, you can find a way to dismiss the whole tradition, so that you can teach only books that support your politics. That is why deconstruction is so seductive. It allows you to dismiss whole literary, legal and economic traditions on the grounds that they are built on sexist, racist or other exploitative assumptions.

      Reply

  4. Michael R. Edelstein Says:

    Malcolm,

    Perhaps the most pervasive improper subject involves the current teachings in climate science. Fortunately this is in the throes of a ten year demise, as outlined by David Ramsay Steele .

    If Judith Butler had simply stated: “Power relations get instilled through repetition” she would have many fewer followers.

    In their operetta “Patience,” Gilbert and Sullivan explain:
    If you’re anxious for to shine in the high aesthetic line
    as a man of culture rare,
    You must get up all the germs of the transcendental terms,
    and plant them ev’rywhere.
    You must lie upon the daisies and discourse in novel phrases
    of your complicated state of mind,
    The meaning doesn’t matter if it’s only idle chatter
    of a transcendental kind.

    And ev’ry one will say,
    As you walk your mystic way,
    “If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me,
    Why, what a very singularly deep young man
    this deep young man must be!”

    Michael R. Edelstein
    http://www.ThreeMinuteTherapy.com

    Reply

  5. Middlemay Farm Says:

    Can I like this 10 times? I took a few gender and minority studies classes in college because everyone knew they were a joke. All you had to do was play the victim in your essays and beat up on the few white young males in the class for an easy A. Where else could I get an A for writing about the “unfairness” of having to shave my legs?

    I laughed all the way through the class, when I wasn’t infuriated by the ridiculous readings we had to endure. The professors seemed to think we’d be mesmerized by the big, important-sounding words. All I got out of those classes was that some people spend a lot of time being angry.

    Reply

  6. nicciattfield Says:

    As a diversity studies graduate, I acknowledge that the language is a mystery and the philosophy can sound vague. And yet my neighbor, Sally Gross, showed me the importance of recognizing the struggle of intersex people, as Judith Butler did. The real work isn’t in the language or the academics, as much as it is (in my experience) about exploring the lived realities of people who face difficulties, and understanding more deeply the importance of respect and human rights.

    Politics, I think, is about lived reality. The rest is for people with more time than me to work out.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Nicci, thank you for entering the lion’s den :-). Traditionally, sensitivity to diverse experiences such as your friend’s came from either personal experience, reading history and literature or from art and theater in all its forms. The issue at hand is why we need to create a new subject area called diversity studies? What does it add, if anything, to our existing body of knowledge? Maybe I move in sheltered waters but I have yet to meet someone deeply steeped in world literature and/or history who does not respect individual differences and individual rights.

      Reply

      • nicciattfield Says:

        I think diversity studies and literature overlap, to some degree. And I agree, if people can be sensitive and aware, respecting other people’s rights, then we don’t need to have a field for it at all. That was always the goal of human rights…a world where the work doesn’t need to exist.

        Literature studies often give very human and empathic insight into challenges and struggles. And role play helps to develop empathy too. Personally, I think art and visual experience shows a great deal of emotion and helps to break down barriers.

        I think a lot of the discipline specializations are very man made. But picking up on the need for human rights isn’t a bad thing either, when it comes to policy. Sally, for example, had to work for her right to exist (and be classified) as a person. I think it’s sometimes about looking for the parts that have been missing in the work that’s been done.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          “I think it’s sometimes about looking for the parts that have been missing in the work that’s been done.”

          Well said Nicci. I think if there is a justification for the improper studies it is this one.

        • nicciattfield Says:

          Thanks for opening dialogue, Malcolm. All views should count.

  7. surgeryattiffanys Says:

    one of my friends studied law and she called them brainwashing subjects!

    Reply

  8. chr1 Says:

    Malcolm,

    I appreciate the challenge you pose to intersectionality, the body in space and time, and the post-structural political hegemonies accounting for meaning and myth-making in our modern age, as well as our daily lives.

    Reply

  9. Jon Sharp Says:

    Hi Malcolm,
    Why is it that Economists think themselves superior to all other social scientists? According the The Economist a survey in 1985 found just 9% of Harvard econ grads strongly believed that economics was “the most scientific of the social sciences” but, as economics became more mathematical, its practitioners became more confident and by 2003 this had risen to 54%. The Economist goes on to cite other metrics that support the growing egos of economists and this despite their collective failure to predict the financial crisis (though a few lone voices were faintly audible). Historians are more likely to question themselves and wonder whether you can learn anything from history. But “For a modest fee,” jokes Deidre McCloskey, an economic historian, “an economist will tell you with all the confidence of a witch doctor that interest rates will rise 56 basis points next month or that dropping agricultural subsidies will increase Swiss national income by 14.8%.”
    I think Malcolm, that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Jon, I believe you are aware that I’m an adherent of the Austrian School of Economics. Austrians believe that economics can only generate qualitative predictions not quantitative ones i.e. if the demand for money rises and the supply of money remains static, other things unchanged the rate of interest will rise. The latter is a qualitative prediction while your examples are quantitative. In short, ego inflation may be a problem for Keynesians and Monetarists but not for Austrians 🙂

      However, qualitative predictions can still yield valuable information. For an example of what I mean by the using economics to understand everyday life please see David Friedman’s book ‘Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life’. You can read a sample chapter on ‘The Economics of Law and Law Breaking’ here. After reading this chapter (preferably the book) please let me know whether you still think economists are living in glass houses.

      Reply

  10. Dalo 2013 Says:

    This is good, and really pretty funny if not so accurate. You are correct ~ these “studies” are things not to be learned but rather experienced out in life and from that a much greater sense of education. I think that is why I truly struggled in such classes during my university days ~ battling with professors but not really knowing why. Cheers!

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      I sometimes feel that it’s wrong to assume that college should automatically follow high school. Maybe life should come in between and after stopping work we would all go off to college to reflect on our experience?

      Reply

      • Dalo 2013 Says:

        Agree. The ‘gap year’ is becoming much more common these days, and kids are taking 1-3 years off either between HS and college, or between years 2 and 3 of college. This was unheard of when I was heading off to college, but I sure would have benefited take a year or few off between.

        Reply

  11. Iris Weaver Says:

    Wow, Malcolm, interesting topic. I have my BA in Women’s Studies and a lot of feminist and LGBTQ friends. I know they would be taken aback by your essay.

    I have to say I was more politically active earlier in my life before and during going back to school at age 30, than I have been in the years since I got my grad degree (in English).

    When I did my WS degree I was very angry at men, and it was actually in a women’s history class with some rabid lesbian anger-mongers that I realized I had to get over that and start seeing more of the good side of men. And since I have gone back to believing that we as a human race, men and women, need to heal and change.

    One of the purposes of courses that you mentioned is to expose the parts of history that have been suppressed or hidden, since history is written by the victors and the powers-that-be. It is good for disenfranchised groups to know their history and learn more about their worth as a group.

    My classes in women’s studies really helped me to see the world differently, and yes, I did take economics classes as well. I think there is a place for the improper subjects, even though they may not be part of the curriculum 50 years hence. And part of the reason they won’t be is the change they have helped bring about, IMHO.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “One of the purposes of courses that you mentioned is to expose the parts of history that have been suppressed or hidden, since history is written by the victors and the powers-that-be. It is good for disenfranchised groups to know their history and learn more about their worth as a group.”

      Thank you Iris. I agree with the sentiments expressed in the above quotation but that should be the task of the social historian whose skills include writing the history that did not get written. However the improper subjects have something else in mind. Here’s a quotation from the Women’s Studies page on Wikipedia:

      “Since the 1970s, scholars of women’s studies have taken post-modern approaches to understanding gender as it intersects with race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, age, and (dis)ability to produce and maintain power structures within society. With this turn, there has been a focus on language, subjectivity, and social hegemony, and how the lives of subjects, however they identify, are constituted. At the core of these theories is the notion that however one identifies, gender, sex, and sexuality are not intrinsic, but are socially constructed.”

      Now, the view that gender, sex and sexuality are socially constructed concepts is popular, but it is far from universally accepted. An articulate feminist proponent of the contrarian position would be Camille Paglia, who believes that this post-modern approach to studying gender has harmed not benefited women’s position in society. I think it would be difficult to argue that the methodology used by historians and economists automatically rule out certain explanations but that is exactly my criticism of the post-modern approach which underpins the improper subjects.

      Reply

      • rung2diotimasladder Says:

        Wow. I’m flabbergasted at this: “At the core of these theories is the notion that however one identifies, gender, sex, and sexuality are not intrinsic, but are socially constructed.”

        I’ve never been drawn to take a course like this, but I had no idea such assumptions were this explicit. In fact, I was so flabbergasted that I looked it up to be sure. And there it was. All I can say is, wow. I’m glad that you mention someone else who is a bit more nuanced. I find it hard to believe such courses, even if they do tend to indoctrinate, could be this…careless.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          I believe it’s accurate to say that this view is the prevailing paradigm in the improper subjects. BTW Camille Paglia is not nuanced. She is outspoken and brilliant. Thank you for commenting.

  12. Snowbird of Paradise Says:

    All of the programs of study that you mention derive from what you consider to be ‘proper’ subject. For examples, media studies derive from rhetoric and cultural studies derive from anthropology.

    The discussion about the most noble purpose of universities has been going on for a long time now, and most people would agree that it would be great if all students could learn critical analysis and fundamental reasoning skills.

    The problem as I see it is not so much in the subject matter or the name of a course of studies as it is in the method of teaching. Lectures to huge classes do not lend themselves to much engaging discourse. Seminars and small-group work are more effective but less efficient.

    Universities and colleges now work from a business model which doesn’t always accommodate the kind of learning which cannot be easily measured. New technologies, however, are offering some hope that this may change. You may be interested in this article from The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/08/the-future-of-college/375071/

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Please see my reply to Iris Weaver above on why I think the improper subjects are qualitatively different from the ‘proper’ subjects. Thank you for the interesting article on Minerva. I love reading about these new developments in education but please watch this brief video to see why I’m skeptical of the role of technology in education.

      Reply

  13. Gregoryno6 Says:

    As Nick Cohen put it in What’s Left:
    “Writers write badly when they have something to hide. Clarity makes their shaky assumptions plain to the readers – and to themselves.”
    The improper subjects as you define them, Malcolm, produce such an abundance of bad writing that any sensible person is forced to assume that that is their only reason for existence.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      And a valuable reason at that, after all, it’s a way to establish group identity (if you write like this you are one of us). Consequently entire university departments are filled with similar people who spend their time trying to figure out what their colleagues mean. This has as much value as trying to establish how many angels dance on top of a pin.

      Reply

  14. Andrea Stephenson Says:

    Hmm, Malcolm. Where to begin? I studied Women’s Studies in the 1990s in the UK, so there may or may not be a different approach. I would suggest that I had quite a well rounded education in a variety of subjects – history, economics, literature, sociology – though obviously not to as great a depth in each subject as if I’d studied that subject alone. What I always pointed out to those who suggested that I only learned about one half of the subject is that in order to analyse that subject in relation to gender, a knowledge of the subject as a whole was required.

    I agree with what Iris said about studying the hidden stories that aren’t presented in the canon of the various disciplines – although it perhaps should be the job of a social historian to encompass the experience of all members of society, the problem is that this wasn’t the case. What I would most definitely argue against in my own experience is that these courses are about indoctrination. My studies covered a wide range of theories – including but not limited to the fact that gender is a social construction – and in fact there have been various strands of feminism including those that were based on the view that the natures of men and women are innate. One of the interesting things about the courses as well is that the participants were very varied. Yes, most of them were women, but of a variety of ages and backgrounds, so there certainly wasn’t a common view on each subject among the students.

    I would be interested to see how Women’s Studies courses have evolved as it’s been 20 years since I studied it. Either way, it’s been interesting hearing your point of view, though I wholeheartedly disagree with it 🙂

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Andrea, so glad to have you commenting on this one. My, admittedly somewhat limited exposure to gender studies, suggests that gender as a social construction is a ruling paradigm with other theories being given short shrift. Furthermore, the accepted wisdom seems to be that men have always repressed women and continue to do so today. There is no doubt some truth in this but are abusive and exploitative women really so not existent and are women always the victims? I certainly don’t see much self-criticism in the field, and this is borne out by the fact that most gender studies programs, (including your own) are dominated by women. I doubt there are more than a handful of male heads of gender studies departments in the entire world.

      Reply

      • Andrea Stephenson Says:

        It’s interesting to discuss this with you Malcolm, it’s been some time since I had a discussion on the subject – age tends to mellow! That is an interesting point – there weren’t any ‘gender studies’ at the time I did it – in fact I think there were only around 3 places in the country where you could study ‘women’s studies’ – personally I suspect ‘gender studies’ was a way to try to be more inclusive, when actually the focus is still women’s studies – and I’m not sure it should have gone down the ‘gender studies’ road – it is what it is and in my view, why apologise for that? There was quite a lot of criticism within the subject in relation to the experience of different kinds of women – for example, it was felt that many of the women writing on the subject were white and middle class and that the experiences of women of colour, for example, were marginalised. I don’t think women are always the victims, but if you look at the experiences of women around the world there are still many areas of life where women don’t have basic rights – even in the UK women still earn 18% less than men, despite the equal pay act. But in my experience of women’s studies, although yes, we discussed how women had been marginalised through history, it didn’t make me feel as though women are always victims – it gave me an understanding of a whole gamut of women’s experience.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Clearly the field has changed a great deal since we were both at college. I know we will not persuade each other on this issue but I would like to pick up on the issue you raise of women earning 18% less than men in the UK. I think the figure is about 23% in the U.S. but this can be explained without bringing in issues of discrimination and exploitation. Men and women choose different types of jobs i.e. men choose more dangerous and high stress jobs. They also choose higher paying career fields, hold more full time jobs, and work longer hours than women. All these factors create differences in pay that have nothing to do with the exploitation of women. Probably the biggest reason is that women are the only ones giving birth to babies and when they do their incentives change and this affects their choice of jobs and careers. Basic economics tells us that it makes no sense for an employer to pay a man more than a woman, if they can get the same productivity out of hiring a woman, unless the employer values discrimination more than profits.

        • Andrea Stephenson Says:

          Ah, but that’s the point Malcolm – why is it that because women have babies that this should affect their employment options? I’m quite highly paid and I don’t have children – so I’ve been able to pursue a career, work the hours that were needed, not take any career breaks or worry about childcare. There has been some progress in terms of paternity leave and so on, but generally, it is still expected that women will do the caring work, stay at home with children and so on. And I’m not saying they shouldn’t have that choice. But that’s not a good expectation for either men or women.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Andrea, I could turn the question upside down and say why should an employer (who has to train an employee for the first few years) be forced to pay the same salary to an equally talented man and woman knowing that the woman is likely to take maternity leave in the near future, has a statistically higher probability of leaving her career for a few years after childbirth, or maybe even giving it up completely? It’s not a question of exploitation it’s just a matter of employer incentives. If social attitudes changed such that men and women were equally likely to look after children then salaries would tend to equalize.

  15. Andrea Stephenson Says:

    That comment posted before I was ready Malcolm! Ultimately, you’re right we’ll never agree on this particular subject, but I’ve enjoyed the discussion.

    Reply

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