Women’s Studies

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.