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Campus Follies Lesson One

It would be inappropriate to begin any series entitled "Campus Follies" without first talking about that ritual, "orientation".

Since it is obvious that modern college students do not experience anything like what their parents experienced, let me tell you what orientation used to be in the good old days.

Back then, a resident dorm supervisor would conduct most of the orientation. You did a tour of the buildings, a nice speech from the Dean about how your tuition only covered a portion of the costs (more like 200% of the costs undergraduates incurred, but that is a subject of another lesson), and then a short recitation of the rules.

There was no training of any sort. The whole process took a few hours. You see, back then anyone admitted to a university was expected to already know how to behave. Norms of behavior were widely understood throughout society. No need for remedial training in the first week!

But now, let us explore the moonscape of freshman orientation as it exists today, and then proceed to the deep outer space of the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the College Art Association (CAA) conventions.

You are going to love it!

Yggdrasil recommends that you read the following:

Sep. 29, 1992 Wall Street Journal A-14


It is never too soon to learn to identify yourself as a victim. Such, at least, is the philosophy of today's college freshman orientation, which has become a crash course in the strange new world of university politics. Within days of arrival on campus, "new students" (the euphemism of choice for "freshmen") learn the paramount role of gender, race, ethnicity, class and sexual orientation in determining their own and others' identity. Most important, they are provided with the most critical tool of their college career: the ability to recognize their own victimization.

An informal survey shows that two themes predominate at freshmen orientation programs - oppression and difference -- foreshadowing the leitmotifs of the coming four years. Orientations present a picture of college life in which bias lurks around every corner. This year, for example, the University of California at Berkeley changed the focus of its freshman orientation from "stereotyping" to "racism, homophobia, status-ism, sexism, and age-ism." According to Michele Frasier, assistant director of the new student program at Berkeley, the program organizers "wanted to talk more specifically about specific issues the students will face". The objective of the emphasis on discrimination is "to make students aware [of the] issues they need to think about, so they're not surprised when they face them."

Various Forms of 'Isms'

Dartmouth's assistant dean of freshmen, Tony Tillman, offered no less bleak a vision of the academic community. A mandatory program for freshmen, "Social Issues," presented skits on "the issues first year students face," which he defined as "the various forms of 'isms': sexism, racism, classism, etc." If the content of the skits overlapped, such overlap was, according to Mr. Tillman, unavoidable. The experience of discrimination cannot be compartmentalized: "It's not as if today, I have a racist experience, tomorrow, a sexist [one] . In any one day, one may be up against several issues. Some issues of sexism have a racist foundation, and vice versa."

The point of the program (and, indeed, of much of the subsequent education at Dartmouth and other schools) is to "try to weave a common thread" through these various instances of oppression. If one can't fit oneself into the victim role, however, today's freshmen orientation offers an alternative: One can acknowledge oneself as the oppressor. Columbia University brought in a historian from the National Museum of American History in Washington to perform, in effect, an ideological delousing of the students. Her mission, as she said in her speech, was to help students recognize their own beliefs that foster inequality. By describing the stereotypes in American society that support racism and prejudice, she hoped to give students a chance to "re-evaluate [and] learn new things."

Learning to see yourself as a victim is closely tied to seeing yourself as different. At Columbia, freshmen heard three of their classmates read essays on what being different--gay, black and Asian American - had meant in their lives. According to assistant dean Michael Fenlon, "the goal is to initiate an awareness of difference and the implications of difference for the Columbia community. And this is not a one-shot program. We expect it will continue through their four years here, not just in the classrooms, but in the residence halls, on the playing fields, and in every aspect of student life."

"Faces of Community," a program organized by Stanford's "multicultural educator," presented freshmen with a panel of students and staff who each embodied some officially recognized difference. James Wu, orientation coordinator of Stanford's Residential Education program, says that the "Faces" program "gives students a sense that everyone's different." At Bowdoin, the assistant to the president for multicultural programs hosted a brown-bag lunch for freshmen entitled "Defining Diversity: Your Role in Racial-Consciousness Raising, Cultural Differences, and Cross-Cultural Social Enhancers." Oberlin shows its new students a performance piece on "differences in race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and culture," and follows up with separate orientation programs for Asian-Americans, blacks, Latinos, and gay, lesbian and bisexual students.

The presupposition behind the contemporary freshman initiation is the need for political re-education. Columbia's assistant dean for freshmen, Kathryn Balmer, explained that "you can't bring all these people together and say, 'Now be one big happy community,' without some sort of training.... It isn't an ideal world, so we need to do some education." That students have somehow managed for years to form a college community in the absence of such "education" has apparently escaped administrative attention.

Stanford's outgoing multicultural educator, Greg Ricks, revealed the dimensions of the task: "White students need help to understand what it means to be white in a multicultural community. We have spent a lot of money and a lot of time trying to help students of color, and women students, and gay and disabled students to figure out what it means for them. But for the white heterosexual male who feels disconnected and marginalized by multiculturalism, we've got to do a lot of work here."

* * *

Obsessive Emphasis on Difference

If all this sounds more appropriate for a war-crimes trial than for the first year of college, the incoming student can at least look forward to one unexpected area of freedom at Duke. According to President Brodie, "gender" is a "preference" that should be respected. Anyone who feels oppressed by their chromosomes can apparently simply "prefer" to be of the opposite sex."

Today's freshman orientations, prelude to the education to come, raise one of the great unexplained mysteries of our time: how the obsessive emphasis on "difference" and victimization will lead to a more unified, harmonious culture. Students who have been taught from day one to identify themselves and their peers with one or another oppressed or oppressing group are already replicating those group divisions in their intellectual and social lives.

* * *

Ms. Mac Donald is a lawyer living in New York.

Dec. 31, 1992 Wall Street Journal A-6
'Heterotextuality' and Other Literary Matters


NEW YORK--One sure way to deepen the post-Christmas gloom is to attend the annual convention of the Modern Language Association of America. With over 32,000 members, the MLA is the largest and most influential scholarly organization in the country. It has also become one of the most blatantly politicized.

The annual conventions of the MLA are like fever charts of contemporary academic life. Every radical trend besetting the academy is on florid display: 57 varieties of Marxism, feminism, homosexualism, anti-dead-white-European-male-ism, all dispensed in smug academic doublespeak. I have attended several MLA conventions. Each time I leave thinking things couldn't get any worse. Each time I have been wrong.

This year, close to 12,000 professors and graduate students descended on the New York Hilton and other midtown hotels to join in the four-day festivities, which concluded yesterday afternoon. They came looking for employment and to revel in the latest academic trends, which were fully represented in more than 700 panels: a total of more than 2,000 presentations.

Radical Political Sermonizing

As always, there were a handful of sessions convened to discuss such venerable figures as Chaucer, Spenser, Milton and Virginia Woolf. No doubt some of these were intellectually respectable. But the real action, and crowds, were at panels devoted to "Cultural Studies" - a fancy term for radical political sermonizing-- and other defiantly nonliterary subjects.

Even the panels ostensibly concerned with literature often turned out to be occasions for radical proselytizing. The session on Goethe, for example, titled "Outing Goethe and His Age," included such delights as "In and Against Nature: Goethe on Homosexuality and Heterotextuality."

"Heterotextuality"? That's about as close as many panels ever came to literature. Unfortunately, it is also about as close as many teachers come to literature in the classroom today. In its promotional literature, the MLA defensively claims "that professors of English literature continue to base their teaching on works from a widely recognized body of traditional literature.' But when one looks more closely, it often turns out that what seemed like a class on, say, Shakespeare is really a platform for denouncing "Western colonialism and imperialism." Although academics love to castigate Western society for being racist, sexist, imperialistic, etc., they do not at all like being criticized themselves. Several panelists railed against the hostile, obtuse journalists who would unfairly criticize the MLA in the days to come.

Is the criticism unfair? One eminent literary scholar who attended this year's proceedings (and who attended his first MLA convention long before I was born) reflected sadly on the degradation of literary studies on view at the MLA. Many of the sessions at the convention, he said, seemed to him like so many Chinese "honey boats," little vessels of excrement snaking their way downriver.

He was particularly struck by the extraordinary prominence given to exotic sexual subjects. These ranged from the blunt ("Sex Problems on the Left") to the extravagant ("Hermaphrodites Newly Discovered: The Politics of Gender"). A panel called "Lesbian Tongues Untied" offered, among other new research, papers titled "Cruisin' for a Bruisin': Hollywood's Deadly Lesbian Dolls" and "The Ins and Outs of Lesbian Sex: Bi-Morphic Re-presentations of Desire."

One could also hear "Henry James and Queer Performativity," "Status of Gender and Feminism in Queer Theory," and many other papers of "literary" interest. Of course, even citing such titles opens one to charges of "homophobia" by the MLA's PC police. But the real issue is the astonishing prevalence of teachers who regard the investigation of their sexual interests as a form of scholarly research.

Nor is it simply a matter of provocative titles. In a panel devoted to "Gay Subjects, Mass Culture," David Halperin, who teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, treated a large and enthusiastic audience to "Shane and the Guilty Pleasures of Male Spectatorship." The point of that classic movie western, according to Prof. Halperin, is that "in order for a boy to grow up to be strong and straight, he must first be seduced and abandoned by an older man."

In the course of this presentation, Prof. Halperin-like several other panelists had many negative things to say about American society and its "regime" of "compulsory heterosexuality." His central complaint was that in America physical combat, not (and here we paraphrase him) sexual intercourse, furnished the model for masculine development. In this context he concluded that "Shane" "demonstrates" that "heterosexuality can literally be murder." Much more attractive, for Prof. Halperin, were the practices of a certain New Guinea tribe in which boys regularly consort with boys or older men as part of their sexual initiation.

* * *

Many of the papers delivered at the convention were as grotesque as Prof. Halperin's. But the most alarming performance I heard was the presidential address by Houston A. Baker Jr., the Albert M. Greenfield Professor of Human Relations at the University of Pennsylvania. The first black president of the MLA, Prof. Baker regaled his eager audience of more than 1,000 academics with an orgy of political oratory. His main point was that teachers of literature should subordinate literary concerns to the task of fostering radical political activism. He began, to thunderous applause, by celebrating "the rebirth this past November of the possibility for hope in the humanities." He also congratulated the MLA for having had the "courage" to denounce "the courts, councils and programs of the wicked," i.e., the Reagan and Bush administrations and everything about them. Republicans, he made it clear, are not welcome at the MLA.

This president of the Modern Language Association of America mentioned few literary figures in his harangue. His longest quotation was an approving sound bite from the rap performer Sister Souljah: an appropriate reference for a man who once charged that literacy perpetuated "Western hegemonic arrangements of knowledge." Prof. Baker also scoffed at the idea of imparting "reading skills," calling instead for "local pedagogy," his currently favored term for political activism.

* * *

This leaves us with two questions; Will students continue to allow themselves to be cheated of an education by teachers who are more interested in radical politics than imparting knowledge? And will parents, trustees and alumni continue to capitulate as our educational institutions are transformed into centers for political indoctrination and cultural radicalism? The spectacle of the MLA does not encourage optimism. Mr. Kimball is managing editor of The New Criterion and author of Tenured Radicals" (1990, Harper-Perennial).

Mar. 24, 1993 Wall Street Journal A14
Rogues' Gallery: Art Scholars on Display


Thanks to the bizarre goings-on every year at the conventions of the Modern Language Association, the politically correct activities of English professors are notoriously familiar to readers of the popular press. But it's not only English departments that have become politicized. In fact, scholars from across the disciplinary spectrum have followed the trail toward an activist curriculum.

Few have done so with more dogged determination than art historians. The annual meetings of the College Art Association-the professional organization of more than 12,000 scholars of art history and studio art--have become the sites of academic antics that rival those observable at any session of the MLA.

Last month's CAA conference in Seattle was typical. It featured scholarly papers such as "Their Bodies! Our Thoughts? Problematizing Western Understandings of Mesoamerican Body Fragmentation." A panel on "Lesbian Looks: Politics, Erotics, and Art" included a presentation by Julie Zando, a video artist and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In her paper, titled "The Personal Is Private: Bypassing the Political in a New Theory of Masochism," Prof. Zando explained that she "would like to undermine the reasoning behind anti-sadomasochistic arguments."

She showed her audience a clip from one of her own works in progress, a video of "cowgirls . . . involved in a sadomasochistic orgy."

In the same time slot, at a somewhat less visually startling panel down the hall, listeners staged a revolt. After four scholars gave papers on race and museum "presentation," one member of the audience stood up and contested the all-white panel's credentials to speak to the issue of race. Questioner after questioner castigated the panel and its organizer for their insensitivity.

The panelists reacted by apologizing and heaping criticism upon themselves for nearly half an hour. One scholar went so far as to dedicate, somewhat belatedly, her paper to a black feminist colleague. Another questioner, a professor from Boston University, accused the panelists of "quotationage," which she defined as the practice of quoting too many male authorities. It wasn't necessary to attend an actual session of this year's CAA conference to notice how far attention has turned away from the study of art objects. Tabletops at the entrance to the conference were covered with handouts dealing with almost every cause--from Colorado's Amendment 2 to the feminist clash over pornography. One of the few pamphlets that addressed the subject of art advertised the work of community-college Prof. Tom O'Day. Prof. O'Day's art consists of performance pieces in which he buries, burns or blows up other artists' works.

The 1993 conference met the standard CAA has set in recent years for making radical interests central to its program. Last year's meeting, in Chicago, devoted an entire panel to "women/power, pleasure/ Pain." One paper delivered at that conference was called "Introducing the Outsider:- Tarzan, Van Gogh and the Marlboro Man." Another was illustrated with 10-foot of color projections of women's genitals lifted from pornographic magazines.

At the 1991 meeting in Washington. by D.C., the CAA convened a panel to discuss "The Problem of Fetishism." It featured a talk in which a scholar discussed the phallic forms he detected in the light reflections depicted in 17th-century Dutch stilllife oil paintings. He was followed by a Northwestern University professor who gave a paper arguing for the art historical significance of what he characterized as the childhood trauma of " 'peering up' at a parent's genitals."

Public attention has recently spurred the Modern Language Association to hire a public-relations heavyweight to help make its annual convention seem less of a spectacle. Meanwhile, just published materials announcing CAA's 1994 conference suggest an even more iconoclastic agenda. Among the topics slated for discussion: "The Grotesque Body" and "Pornography Made Me Do It." Intellectual discretion advised.

Miss Munson is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.


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