Gender Studies on campus

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A recent report by Investor’s Business Daily documents the disturbing trend in American higher education away from teaching the great works of Western civilization and toward the teaching of many disciplines through the eyes of the oppressed. As an example, the report points to the University of California Los Angeles, which no longer requires English majors to study Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Milton, but instead requires students to take classes that examine literature through alternative rubrics such as gender and sexuality.

UCLA is not alone. The 2015-16 course offerings listed in catalogs from area campuses reveal a seismic break from the classics.

— At Harvard, academic classes include The Secret Sex Life of Anthropological Objects and a stand alone class called, Friends with Benefits.

— At Brown, students can sign up for Queer Discipleship, or, if they prefer, Feminist Utopias and Dystopias.

UMass-Amherst’s upcoming spring samplings feature a course called  Feminism, Comedy and Humor which promises to dissect the popularity of shows like “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Broad City” as well as the clout of performers such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Wanda Sykes.

— And this coming fall, Boston University will offer a course entitled Gender Trouble, Genre Trouble that will examine Caitlin Jenner’s coming out and ask “How does gender change in a digital age? How do textual practices like tweeting, binge-watching and texting shape our sense of gender? Do they reinforce old models or enable new ones?”

Is there any harm in offering such courses? National Association of Scholars president Peter Wood has argued that “the victim studies departments – all of them – confuse scholarship with advocacy.”

But, Wood also notes that courses in gender and other “victim” studies “betray the basic promise of liberal education to free the student from the particular and the local to enter into the larger world of ideas.”

Wood seems to be on to something. Indeed, at least 15 universities worldwide – including Yale University, Brown University and Penn State – now offer college credit for students who volunteer to help write “feminist thinking” into Wikipedia entries.

On many college campuses, concentrated course offerings in Gender Studies reveal a truly confusing dialectic in which the gender binary (i.e. ‘he’ and ‘she’) language is considered oppressive. The result is that academics and administrators who do not want to offend or appear to be patriarchal and oppressive capitulate to student demands for gender neutral pronouns such as “ze, xe, xem, xyr, zirs and hirs.”  (The word “they” is permitted – as a singular).

The origins of this trend can be traced back four decades. Michel Foucault’s three-volume work, “The History of Sexuality,” published in 1976, helped usher in what is today known as third-wave feminism – a movement that presupposes sex to be socially constructed and traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity to be oppressive. The founding principle of third-wave feminism seeks to abolish gender role expectations and stereotypes. At its most extreme, it seeks to abolish gender altogether.

Feminist author and activist Amy Richards argues that there is both an economic and intellectual imperative to keep gender and women’s studies courses alive. Economically speaking, Richards points out that colleges and universities would not offer such courses if they were not in high demand, and were not significant money-makers for academia. More importantly, Richards argues, women and gender scholarship is critical to the modern pursuit of truth and justice.

But others disagree. Jennifer Roback Morse, President and Founder of the Ruth Institute, argues that third-wave feminism’s ideology neither edifies nor strengthens the complementary natures of women and men – rather, it makes women continually feel cheated and men feel emasculated.

“We are headed for conflict and grief if we cannot acknowledge basic differences” between men and women, Morse said. According to Morse, the systematic denial of genuine gender contrasts has not made people happier. To the contrary, Morse argues that this denial has made people miserable.

Others, including Professor Daniel J. Mahoney, Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College, believe that an obsessive emphasis on gender “hopelessly politicizes the university and undercuts the possibility of the disinterested pursuit of truth.” Mahoney told the NewBostonPost that “it also denies in principle the common humanity that liberal education at its best presupposes.”

“Balkanizing human beings, it balkanizes the truth,” he said. “And the increasingly dominant belief in our culture that human beings ‘construct’ their gender out of whole cloth, is a willful denial of the human nature that structures our existence and gives substance to our freedom.”

Lori Brannigan Kelly is a freelance writer in South Boston. She can be reached at [email protected].