Thursday, March 31, 2005

Progress Of Equality

Loren Krywanczyk has a YDN piece today that argues, among a hodge-podge of other issues, that discrimination against gay people won't be overcome until LGBTQ studies is (universally?) recognized as a legitimate field of academic study.

Her jumping-off point is the contention of Cornell professor Ritch Savin-Williams that homophobia is waning if not already passed away because of "'attention showered on lesbian kisses in the mainstream media' as well as reports that gay youths are bullied no more than other kids." Obviously the first datum is, as Krywanczyk says, "ludicrous," though I have a suspicion that she has not observed the principle of charity in thusly isolating it, and there is something noteworthy about recent developments in the societal view of certain kinds of lesbianism. (And that extends farther than heterosexual male wish fulfillment---it wasn't only in the last few years that straight guys got turned on by girl-girl imagery.)

The second datum is a lot more important, and though Krywanczyk breezily states it only to ignore it for the rest of her column, it in fact really pulls the guts out of her argument. I have no interest in commenting on the intra-Yale politics of the supporters and critics of LKI, but the salient point for me is this: the ability of intelligent and materially prosperous undergraduate and graduate students to study gay/queer issues is rather less significant of the amelioration of non-institutional bigotry (which is far less soluble than de dicto or de lege discrimination) than, say, a decline in the bullying of gay kids.

I also want to answer Krywanczyk's self-congratulatory rhetorical question about the number of queer authors in the DS curriculum. Answer: more than a few Greeks, maybe Shakespeare, and undoubtedly other writers whose sexual lives we just don't know that much about. If her indictment of DS is really that it doesn't cover writers writing specifically about the travails of being queer to the exclusion of all the other spheres of human life, then I'd suggest that she has confused her own one-trick show for an unjustly neglected element of Western civilization's history.

Last, the comment that's going to get me into trouble. LGBTQ studies, gender studies, ______ ethnic group studies, African Amerian studies, Judaic studies, etc: I just don't understand concentrating one's academic life on questions of group identification. There is more to an individual than his/her skin color or sexuality, and there's a lot more to the world than one's own existence and insecurities. I don't doubt that there are interesting classes to take on all these subjects, and interesting papers to be written, but as majors they suggest a fantastic intellectual paucity. If you want to spend four years doing nothing but self-reflection, well, there are analysts for that. Meanwhile, the universe contains a great many phenomena and syntheses that you don't know about, and you will never have a chance after your undergraduate years (graduate studies being obsessively single-minded even within a given field) to do something about that ignorance.

4 Comments:

At 5:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sir--A vice presdient at a university once told me when I had asked about opening a Black Studies Program that such things were just fine to take courses in or to minor in, but that what Blacks needed were programs that could get them real jobs (ie, accountants, scientists, psychologists etc) unless the individal planned to get a degree so he could teach in a Black Studies Program at some other college. He sure convinced me.

 
At 6:18 PM, Blogger Finnegan said...

Well, as a philosophy major I'm on pretty shaky ground when it comes to the pragmatics of major-selection but the point is well taken.

One phenomenon that seems apparent to me is that students in programs like Women's and Gender Studies or AfAm Studies, etc., have a tendency to hermetically seal themselves off from other disciplines and from challenges to their orthodoxies. As underclassmen become upperclassmen and new freshmen arrive, the process takes on a self-perpetuating quality.

 
At 10:37 AM, Anonymous Ampersand said...

I was a WS major (well, sort of a design-your-own major, based on economics and WS). Far from being "hermetically sealed," WS had a huge number of courses cross-listed with different disciplines - much more so than any of the more standard majors.

"There is more to an individual than his/her skin color or sexuality, and there's a lot more to the world than one's own existence and insecurities."

Your sneering description of what you imagine WS is like is so unrelated to the reality I experienced that it's not even insulting; it's just bewildering. It's as if someone said "I could never be a philosophy major, they don't learn anything; they just sit around contemplating how many angels could dance in their navel." The statement speaks to the speaker's bias and ignorance, but doesn't actually say anything about the subject matter.

"If you want to spend four years doing nothing but self-reflection, well, there are analysts for that."

Witty (well, not especially) put-downs are not a replacement for actual analysis or knowledge.

"Meanwhile, the universe contains a great many phenomena and syntheses that you don't know about..."

Virtually any major has this flaw; there is no major that will cover more than a tiny portion of the universe's phenomena. I've known physicists and economists who have gone through college without ever reading a novel after freshman year, for example. I was initially interested in being a computer science major, but recoiled after realizing the required courses list would leave little chance to take other sorts of classes. Business majors typically have next-to-no interaction with the rest of the campus.

In fact, ethnic and women's studies tend to be less cloistered than most other majors; at many universities, these courses are taught by professors from a variety of disciplines, hence all the cross-listing.

"...you will never have a chance after your undergraduate years (graduate studies being obsessively single-minded even within a given field) to do something about that ignorance."

Colleges provide a structured environment for study; but it's far from true, as this statement seems to suggest, that it's impossible to have an intellectual life outside of college.

Anonymous commenter seems to think that college should be trade school. You seem to think it should be a finishing school, in which people choose majors based on trying to learn as many different phenomina as possible.

I think you're both wrong. People should study whatever it is that they're passionately driven to study. There is intellectual richness to be found in almost any field, if you have a open mind; the silly "my major is better than yours" attitude of your post doesn't reflect that reality.

Of course, to study just one field exclusively - whether women's studies or philosophy or, I don't know, French - would be kind of sad. But I think few if any students actually do this; most take classes outside their majors. Most of the WS students I knew took minors in other disciplines; the same thing may be true of philosophy majors, for all I know.

 
At 1:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"the ability of intelligent and materially prosperous undergraduate and graduate students to study gay/queer issues is rather less significant of the amelioration of non-institutional bigotry (which is far less soluble than de dicto or de lege discrimination) than, say, a decline in the bullying of gay kids."

Finnegan, I had trouble parsing your sentence, but I think you're saying that less bullying helps gay people more than does a university's gay studies department.

I like your practical focus: what is more helpful to gay people?

However, I disagree that institutional support for gay studies is less important than stopping bullying. On the contrary, I think the two are deeply related. I believe that universities provide unique and precious support to the very few individuals on earth who have the fortunate upbringing and intellectual gifts to create original ideas. These ideas may struggle to develop in the rest of the chaotic, materially productive world. But these institutionally-funded ideas are often our best chances at change for the better.

More concretely, how will our culture discourage people from bullying if we do not support a few , lucky, creative individuals who can produce stories, policies, histories, and technologies which allow the rest of the world to consider and implement change?

Those creators who do not receive direct institutional support may still benefit from generally increased public awareness generated by institutional support.

 

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