I have a bone to pick with such things as “women’s studies” in our colleges and universities which have become all the rage. My bone-picking will extend to such things as “black studies” and other attempts to narrow down the educational enterprise. But let me begin with a disclaimer.
I have no problem whatever with women. On the contrary, I have always felt much more comfortable in the company of women than I do in the company of men. This probably stems from the fact that my father left my mother, sister, and me when I was two years old and I have never fully trusted men since that time. His leaving was compounded by the fact that my father didn’t support our family after the divorce and left his high-school educated ex-wife with two kids to raise and very little money to do it with. As I said, I have no prejudices against women. Indeed, I suspect there are few men who sympathize more than I with the plight of women in a man’s world. That being said, I am convinced that such things as “women’s studies” programs in our colleges and universities are a terrible mistake, not because they study women, but because specialized studies at the undergraduate level are tangential to the real purpose of the academy.
Such programs confuse the goals of higher education, which are less about what to know, than about how to know. Women’s studies programs, together with other specialized courses of studies, come perilously close to indoctrination, which is the furthest thing from true education. As I am fond of saying, education is about putting young people in possession of their own minds. It’s not about instilling in students shared attitudes with their instructors through biased readings and one-sided lectures. So often one hears about the need for greater “cultural diversity” in these discussions, but we hear very little about intellectual diversity, which is at the heart of education. Indeed, at least one woman in academia spoke out against women’s studies when Daphne Patai of the University of Massachusetts/Amherst noted that they place politics over education, arguing that “the strategies of faculty members in these programs have included policing insensitive language, championing research methods deemed congenial to women (such as qualitative over quantitative methods), and conducting classes as if they were therapy sessions.” This sort of thing is miles away from what education is supposed to be about. To take a young person right out of high school and narrow her focus on books and lectures about the plight of women — which is worthy of study, but something that can be studied by anyone who has learned how to learn — is a mistake of the first order. The same could be said about any narrow course of study.
Generally speaking, young people today come out of high school knowing very little and lacking the basic tools required to take possession of their own minds — such tools as a mastery of language, mathematical reasoning, knowledge of the rudiments of science, and, especially, critical thinking. Such things must, then, be the focus of attention in any undergraduate curriculum. In a word, higher education must be built on a broader base than it is at present. That is what the notion of the liberal arts has always been about, and those arts have been swallowed up in the frantic battle at the “higher” levels over politics and intellectual territory. College professors in my experience know little about the purpose of education; they don’t think about it much because they are convinced that their area of study is the only one that really matters. They know a great deal about their own area of expertise and delight in the thought that the young people coming to them want to know more about what they themselves know. Their advice to their charges most often centers around taking more and more courses in their major field of interest — which is also the professor’s own. The result is the placing of blinders on young people who can’t see very well to begin with. The student becomes the victim because the student cannot possibly know what he or she is missing.
Thus, programs such as “women’s studies” that have a narrow focus and stress information about a tiny region in the domain of what there is to know about our world fool the young into wrongly thinking they are becoming educated persons. Education is about process, about how to learn, because well-educated people will continue to learn throughout their lives and not just during the four years they spend in college. As things now stand, a few bright ones do slip between the cracks and are inspired by their college courses to want to continue to learn. But any notion that such narrow programs as women’s studies, black studies, the examination in detail of the strange rituals of the Hottentot peoples, or one thousand ways to market spaghetti will turn out well-educated people who can think for themselves is absurd on its face. Those who lead the young should know enough to realize that their own particular interests are not the most important thing; what is most important is the growth of the young minds that come to them empty and sadly inept.
Hugh, thanks for your thoughtful post. Yet, I would argue that Women Studies and other group studies are relevant. To me the easiest one to support is Women Studies as women continue to be mistreated (and maltreated) around the globe and we must learn from this. “Half the Sky” and “A Call to Action” are two excellent books on the subject. My thesis is both societal as well as economical. If over half your population is women and you suppress their education and opportunity, you are competing in a world with only half of your resources.
To me, our issues are complex and require holistic solutions and women can bring an important viewpoint, but they have to be given that opportunity and I believe these studies further that. I look forward to further discussion. BTG
I never said women’s studies aren’t relevant. On the contrary. I simply contend it is a matter of priorities. There’s so much kids need to learn before they narrow down their focus. We have stood the pyramid on its head and it is bound to topple over! Bear in mind that a great many young people entering college these days have precious little to draw on when it comes to learning about their world. By default, the colleges must fill that void — or the kids suffer in the end (as does our political system). But I agree that there are many topics that need to be studied. It’s just a question of when.
Thanks for the clarification. The world is a large oyster, so I understand your desire for sequencing and helping people find a path forward.
Great blog today. Undergraduates should get broad education and collect ‘tools’ about how to explore new information. Graduate school is where depth in a chosen field should be developed.
Hugh, thank you for that. I hadn’t thought about Women Studies in that light, i.e., narrowly focused for under grad offerings. I agree with your observation(s), and Bruce Mate (above) says it so much better. Food for thought….again, thank you. R.
Thanks to all of you for the good comments. I realize that the topic is a hot one, but I do think that no matter how deeply we feel about a subject, we should realize that our kids are coming to college very ill-prepared to use their minds (more than half of our colleges and universities offer remedial math and language and the college-level English classes are well below par as compared with 25 years ago). Much has fallen to the lot of the colleges, but they cannot do all things and be all things to all people. The main concern must be with taking these young people from where they are and trying to make sure they can use their minds to think about the things we all agree are very important.
Hey, wait a minute! I am fascinated by the strange rituals of the Hottentot people, and I think we all should be!
No. More seriously, Hugh. I think your blog was one of the better explanations about why such specialized programs can be problematic. Rather than widening the scope of what we learn, as may have been the original, constructive intent in some cases, if they narrow our worlds and do so by political or societal pressure, they do not serve education.
I do wish there would be more room for some of these issues – civil rights, women’s contributions, black/female/Latino/American Indian voices in literature — in the general canon of education and literature studies than there sometimes has been. Then they could be studied along with other issue and writers in the SAME conversations, on equal footing. By splitting them off into separate areas of study, it can actually continue to or increase the marginalization of those topics. Not to mention add to a sort of mutual alienation!
Obviously, women, for instance, have contributed in major ways to several areas that are studied. Eliot, Wharton, Dickinson, Austen, Cather, Woolf are elite leading lights in Western literature. (Although, I think Austen is a bit overrated and repetitive). But we should study them alongside their male counterparts, and let their wisdom and art speak for itself. And, obviously, the fact that they are women will have an effect on what they write – just as Dostoyevsky’s being Russian has an effect on what he wrote, Hemingway being on the front lines of three wars affects what he wrote, Melville being at sea affects Moby-Dick, etc. It is an influence, but should not be the only thing that defines the writer or their work. What matters more is can they take their influences and create something that speaks to universal truths? And can we read them for the universal things they say, not the political things we want them to say?
Like I wrote, I think that’s how you framed your blog, and that is a good way to do it!
Thanks, Dana. The problem is there is so little time do accomplish so much we want to accomplish — and it seems we are now spending much of that time trying to make up ground that has been lost in the early years or demanding that our own agendas take priority. When we insist on specialized studies early on something has to give, and what is giving is precisely what the kids need to grow intellectually. Great comment (sorry about the Hottentots. Maybe later).
Great post. I completely agree. It’s about teaching students to think so coursework does not amount to indoctrination. As my oldest child nears college age, I am becoming more mindful of this. Choosing a college/classes that develop critical thinking will be important.
Thanks, Katy. You have a child near college age?? Good grief!!
I know! I couldn’t possibly be that old. Hannah is a junior and just completed her first community college course. I’m coaching her high school tennis team.