Here Come the Gender Theorists
English department Chair and Marquand Professor of English Lawrence Buell recently selected five new junior professors, no doubt welcome additions to a scholar-starved discipline.
Two of the scholars, Lynn M. Festa and Ann Rowland, have expressed interest in gender studies, which Buell said he hopes will fill the void left by the departure of "queer studies" maven, Associate Professor of English Ann Pellegrini.
Pellegrini's best known class is English 197, Introduction to Gay and Lesbian Studies, a whirlwind journey through the heart of the construction of gay and lesbian identity, where students learn to love Foucault and disdain any manifestation of bourgeois morality.
That is well and good. I guess small doses every once in a while of queer studies and other leftist fads are like the occasional flask of vodka; it doesn't hurt the body too much, and it's always good for a laugh.
But now, the English department has hired with an eye for gender studies, as if the their lack of specialists in that neo-modern discipline leaves a great void.
But it really doesn't. Harvard needs fewer English Ph.D.s who study sex and gender, not more.
To truly study gender and sexuality, scholars should have breadth; they ought to be conversant in the biology of sex, the anthropology of Western and non-Western families, theories of sex difference beginning with Aristophanes and Greek philosophers, and a measure of knowledge about art history. Rudimentary sociology and history wouldn't hurt, either.
Alas, few practitioners of gender studies are equipped to handle the questions they ask. But academic jobs in English are hard to come by these days. And, an entire industry has arisen to promote gender theory. Mimicking the jargon is a painless and politically correct way of building a resume.
So is it any wonder that the most peripatetic spewers of jargon-laiden gender-studies goo have Ph.D.s in literature? Just what makes a literary scholar so qualified to study sex difference in real life?
The answer for the gender theorists has to do with the value they place on the "text." The "text, they believe, is the alpha and omega of existence; it is through the text--be it a bible, a play, a legal code, even a film--that we mediate our lives. Words and language creates our "subjectivity," not the other way around. So to these fashionable theorists, gender is a mere social construct; no mushy meshing of sex membranes influences sex roles.
One can immediately see the political bias: if there's no social significance to the biological differences between men and women, then any legal or social sanction that separates men and women into distinct categories, such as marriage, is inherently flawed.
Harvard has also flirted with queer studies, a mish-mash of 1960s performance theory and post-structuralism. Marxist cultural criticism and post-modernist theories seem to be mainstays of many introductory humanities courses.
In a Core art history course I took, the majority of the writings were either Marxist, post-structuralist or post-modernist. The head TF of the course, who was fair in his tolerance of my opinions to the contrary, informed me that, indeed, the pedagogical goal was to "destabilize" the Western conception of art. So we read a large amount of Michel Foucault, whose connection to visual culture is entirely dubious.
The follies of these theories and the bloated prose that they inspire are beyond the scope of this essay.
I most object to the common features of these post-everything trends: the disdain for Western civilization and popular culture, the denial of the desirability or universality of human rights, the denigration of the ability of individuals to be autonomous moral agents, and a magnanimous disrespect for religion, science and aesthetics.
Many cultural critics of today conveniently forget that it is the very heritage of the European enlightenment and free-market capitalism that has enabled the voices of women, of gays and lesbians, and of other oppressed peoples to finally be heard.
Harvard's women studies department does indeed introduce its students to a wide range of theories on gender difference. But by de-emphaisizing and wholly dismissing as a patriarchal fiction anything "natural" or "biological," they misplace the proper emphasis. Most scientific research reveals that biology influences gender roles to a rather large degree. It's not a politically correct conclusion, but it's the one that most aligns with the world we know and perceive. If, on the other hand, gender is mostly a social construction, it is hard to find a legal basis for any law that recognizes women as women, such as abortion choice, Family and Medical Leave, deferment from the draft and even affirmative action policies.
To be sure, Women's Studies at Harvard is not as radical as it could be. I'm thankful that the classically liberal project of gender equity seems still a goal. Still, I believe that a more rigorous, fair and beneficial program to study sex and gender would be structured as follows: require students to take a half-course in basic human philosophy. Then expose them to the anthropological study of sex differences among different cultures and the psychological differences between men and women. Survey the broad swath of literature and art which deal with masculinity, femininity and sexuality. Save the theory for the icing on the cake. And don't take it too seriously.
A cursory reading of ancient poetry can accomplish what a headache inducing romp through Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Judith Butler cannot; an appreciation of the wonderful cornucopia of sexual relations from time immemorial and how sexuality was (and is) linked with spirituality, nature, power, and politics.
Higher education is supposed to have a liberalizing effect on its students, and I don't object to the a dash of cultural criticism in established humanities disciplines. But if Harvard has any intention to truly produce those who will form the discourse of tomorrow, narrow-minded theologies of the radical left ought not be the primary means of pedagogy.
Marc J. Ambinder '01, a Crimson editor, is a history concentrator in Lowell House.