In his recent article entitled “Offshore Core,” Harvard history professor James Hankins argues that universities are abandoning a traditional liberal arts education, excluding such writers as Plato, Voltaire, Shakespeare, and even Thomas Aquinas, the “great thinkers.”
I thought his argument may have some merit, so, as a professor for nearly 20 years, I kept reading. To my disappointment, which should be clear to any knowledgeable “contemporary reader,” the choice of the picture said it all. Above the article sits all white men from presumably Princeton University, one with his fist raised in the air.
Either Professor Hankins doesn’t get it, or he gets it a little too much. What he is really arguing for is the maintaining of a glorified privileged white-boys-only fraternity that focuses on the “great works” that, of course, were only (with a few very mild exceptions) written by white males of the past. He argues for the sake of this canon, for its freedom, when such an exclusive canon was anything but free for most. New Criticism is a term used for those that think a work can stand by itself, be timeless, and is of truth. To current literary critics like me, with a hint (hint, hint) of mental health training, we call this magical thinking.
Professor Hankins was modest enough to note that he taught at Columbia in the 1980s. I was a young boy, then. I was anything but privileged. In my family of six, all quit school. We were a family of janitors and newspaper deliverers. I was never diagnosed correctly for having selective mutism and social anxiety, so I was called “special,” a code word for retarded. In many respects, I am the antithesis of professor Hankins, white trash with a third-tier doctorate in philosophy that spent most of my career in the ER of higher education, the community college.
At community college, we accept all with very few exceptions. Our round tables often reflect considerably more diversity, where the Ivy League fails miserably. At my college, 98% of everyone sitting around my table, if we could sit around tables, are People of Color. In that group, there is the former special forces guy with a metal plate in his head. He is brilliant and can pick up a language in what seems like a week! He sits next to a person that writes “ruff draff” meaning “rough draft.” In front of him, sits a sister that held her dying brother after he was shot by a stray bullet. They all come from Prince George’s County. Like so many communities that were dominantly diverse, it was hit hard by the brutal evaluator called COVID-19. This reality is the closest truth we can get to.
With only a 24% graduation rate, it is not uncommon for someone to say after they hear where I teach, “Oh, I am sorry.” Do I think professor Hankins is right? He is right that liberal arts education is being gutted in a bad way, but it’s not because we teach Toni Morrison instead of Aquinas. Rather, most schools, out of funding desperation, have resorted to failed business models, where administrators unqualified to be CEOs are, in fact, CEOs. Real CEOs would never take such a low-paying job. So, the real harm is that teachers like me are being pushed to keep up our retention and success rates, but there are too many variables that can compromise one’s education outside the classroom (your dying brother in your arms, for example) to know what works and what does not. Schools manipulate this data, or those collecting data did not do very well in research methods, but as long as one can throw numbers around, it does not matter if they are significant or not.
Unlike, professor Hankins’ salary, I spent most of my career teaching a 6/6 or 7/7 course load, picking up an adjunct job because I could not survive on my full-time salary. After nearly 20 years as a professor, I make about $80,000, that’s with a Ph.D. How many courses does professor Hankins teach? One! Two per year? What does he make? $150-260,000. That is privilege, Prof. Hankins. I’d be privileged, too, if I had that kind of time to write or actually teach my students. That is inequality. The students that need professor Hankins are my students, but the way our system works is that those that are sickest, that hurt the most, that struggle in higher education the most, have the fewest resources get the very least. It’s the American way. The real American Dream, it turns out, has always been just a dream. Those that need the least help, our Princeton gang of young white men, get everything handed to them. They have time to read the “great books” without having to dodge bullets, go hungry, or wonder if they get COVID-19 tomorrow. Professor Hankins can laugh at me because he notices a typo or grammatical mistake, but he does not have to work three jobs, while wishing he could become a writer. Professor Hankins has all the time in the world to sit around and read his great books, and so does his privileged students. I doubt any of them have any sense of reality, of the frontlines.
Let’s take up professor Hankins’ concept of these great men and great books. With all due respect, if Plato was truly contemporary, he’d be locked up as a sex offender against boys because actions do matter. Yes, this is taking him out of context. I know that, and, yes, I worry about holding people of the past to current standards. That is wrong, but I point this out to show that Plato, like all of us, was very human and hardly great. In fact, his form of argument is too simplistic and binary. Hankins notes that an argument can sound true if told well. I would hope to use facts more than persuasion, and I often warn students to balance ethos, logos and pathos ethically. I think Rogerian argument is much better and more realistic. But focusing on Plato’s argument style as “great” subjugates other forms of communication all over the world where some make statements indirectly for example. So, what is great becomes what is white.
Thomas Aquinas is brutally sexist and offensive, and I say that not only as a longtime Catholic and lead Alter Boy in the Roman Catholic Church, but also as one that almost went into the priesthood. If Aquinas saw a girl, he probably vomited uncontrollably. He is a far cry from great. I’d say he is hateful. Western philosophers like Voltaire are, well, western, and there is nothing wrong with being western, but there is something wrong with only being western and male. Where are the other voices? If we want to be educated, the least we can do is be worldly in our pursuit of education. Maybe I should be hired at Harvard? I think I can do a better job.
My one agreement with professor Hankins is with Shakespeare, so the playwright deserves a mention here. Shakespeare is different on several levels. First, for a man that wrote over 600 years ago, he got pretty close to getting his head lopped off by the Crown but managed to keep it. That was brilliant or “great.” In Shakespeare’s time, girls and woman could not perform on the stage, so boys or men had to play women. We often see crossdressing noted in plays like The Merchant of Venice, but we also see something extraordinary. In a time where women could not speak or write publicly, as Shakespeare did, Shakespeare has Portia dress like a man, go into court, and beat men at their own game. Even before she is forced to marry, based on her late father’s wishes, she says to her suitor that she is “locked in one of them” referring to the caskets where her picture will decide who gets to marry her. Over and over, from Othello to The Tempest, to the Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare pushes back against oppression of girls, women, black men, and religion.
Shylock, a Jew in hateful Venice, humanizes himself in a world that demonizes him in saying that you call me a dog, so then beware of my fangs. The real tragedy is that such a powerful play did not stop the Holocaust nearly 400 years later. It’s tough not to see that for the Nazis white privilege also mattered, so did the great white male writers! The Merchant of Venice may have been a great work, but it could not stop what historian Richard Miller calls “The Chain of Destruction:” the repetitive and on-going formula of “otherness.” Plug in who you hate, and in five steps they are incinerated; the wealthy are always at the top, directing the show.
Yes, professor Hankins is right about Shakespeare. He was a man before his time, and, though flawed, he spoke for people that could not speak for themselves. The realism and complexity of these characters, Othello’s jealousy and Iago’s malevolent psychopathy, are so real and so brilliantly done. I finish here with Julius Caesar, and that speech, “And you are honorable men,” the mastery of public speech that shows how those that are often privileged and “great,” those above us, abuse us terribly.
But at my college, few have stopped teaching Shakespeare.
The real question is just who decides which of these men are great? What criteria are used? I suspect, well more than suspect, that Hankins is arguing for a kind of timeless truth. There is some center and at this center are these great white men, those white men of religion, those white male writers and thinkers, and the absence of women and everyone else becomes troubling. I would remind professor Hankins that Virginia Woolf said it well when she discussed the need to kill the “Angel in the House,” not because angels or idealistic girls or women are bad, but that angel becomes destructive when this is the predominant or only view of girls and women, a standard men and women alike must live by that comes only from great men. What do men know about women? What do white men understand about a Black man’s oppression? Often, these men did not have or had bad relationships with women and with girls, so, of course, that means these girls and women must be either angels or whores, correct?
Woolf is correct that women have written for thousands of years but were excluded, as People of Color are excluded. Interestingly, we do not hear Hankins voice in favor of these great folks: Dr. Martin Luther King, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, one of my favorites, Zora Neale Hurston, or even female writers like Mary Wollstonecraft or Emily Dickinson. Even among the white British canon, these would be thrown in, even if such were a guilty attempt at tokenism. It seems that our historian forgot that the U.S. had a Harlem Renaissance.
To be more lighthearted and a bit severe, professor Hankins sounds like what he is, someone that taught too long and has yet to mature. He is a sheltered man pent up in the privilege of the Ivy Tower with time to do as he wishes. Professor Hankins, it’s called progress, and with that progress come challenges and setbacks, but static thinking only leads to extinction. That is why the liberal arts are dying. He is responsible. Stop blaming “others.”
I am leaving my job at the college this year. Why? I am burned out. I am going back to school for a seventh degree, my fourth graduate degree. I spent almost as much time in college as a student and teacher than professor Hankins spent teaching. I have been every place from community college to Columbia University, and I sat in prisons and faced a level of repeated trauma that I doubt he or his students ever experienced. That matters for those that cannot hide behind their parents’ cash and security, their white-male privilege.
My good friend and a college professor himself said it this way, “God is the reconciliation of contraries.” There can be no progress if we get our world view, our identities or figure ourselves out by looking at a singular, one-race, one-sex, one-culture view. To put it in a tacky way, a rainbow would not be beautiful if it weren’t full of contrasts. There is no truth, professor, in a singular view. If professor Hankins recalls long enough, a philosopher also said something like this, when good conquers evil, good becomes evil. These are not separate.
If we want to address what is wrong with the liberal arts, it would help if professor Hankins would rely on experience instead of a privilege. I seem to know more, but being white trash means that I have no creditability. I am just a community college professor after all. However, these are the real problems.
Colleges and universities were never meant for everyone. They were meant for privileged people, particularly white men. When at Columbia, I could not help but notice that every few weeks, someone very wealthy was leaving 250-, 550-million-dollar bequests. It blew my mind! As a social work student, I quickly realized that no one would ever give Columbia’s social work program, one of the best in the United States, money like that. Why? Because no social worker becomes rich, and the Trump family or any other rich family would disown any child that would want such a profession, one helping others without financial rewards.
It is also common for these “great” schools, the Ivy League in particular, to grant legacy admission to these “honorable men’s” children because these men said so with checkbook in hand. These great people turn out to be not so great after all. While poorer rich people, like that “housewives’” women get locked up for bribing schools to get their white children in, while the richest face no such problem.
We often let the more ignorant and spoiled rich kid into the greatest institutions but deny the smartest white girl or Black kid because we don’t want to lower our standards of greatness, maleness, and whiteness. Almost all of the Ivy League has built its wealth on the backs of slaves. But I guess, professor Hankins was not paying attention in history class. Professor Hankins knows better, but he is not telling.
Unlike Harvard that has so much money it does not know what to do with it, most public schools, community colleges, too, struggle for money. Every year, funds are cut, cut, cut. Money only goes to the wealthiest and richest people that often give the most to the wealthiest and richest schools, schools that need the money the least. When will any of these individuals give that kind of money to a community college? They won’t because they don’t want brown people to be “like them.”
So as a teacher, I read 1200 essays every two semesters, but I don’t have a teaching assistant or graduate assistant. I cannot keep up and have to cut corners. Our class numbers keep growing and the demands on us by senior administration seem to double by the semester. All the while, we make less and less money every year. I cannot even look at an English essay anymore. My students deserve to sit in your class, professor Hankins, but all the odds are against them.
I agree that liberal arts are dying, and it will die. Our college, forced by the University of Maryland, is gutting its Introduction to literature class. Yet, the University of Maryland is graduating graduate students that write so poorly that they cannot get hired by the state for jobs in the courts. By the time most administrators realize this, it will be too late.
With the rise of composition studies, and writing about writing, we have only seen writing get worse and worse because the complexity of ideas, and in some cases, censorship and fear of “triggering” people is undermining the teaching of critical thinking. My students refuse to read a story or book. They just will not read. Twenty pages is like 5,000. But this has nothing to do with the cancelation of “great” works. It has to do with the Wal-Martization of higher education. Professors are now customer service representatives, and people like me that are specialized are stuck teaching things that a kid with BA in English can do. That is the goal: get the cheapest labor and work them to death before they cost more money. It’s called decruitment.
When I resigned from my position after 13 years of service, the generic note I got from Human Resources said that most of the faculty are 50 or older, so leaving will save them money. Wow! Thanks for your service, right. Education is not a business. There is not a single for-profit school that can match even most community colleges’ success rates, and community colleges rank very low in graduation rates for many complex reasons. The graduation rate at for-profit Walden University is 9%! Sadly, such schools, if you want to call them schools, appeal to military veterans, People of Color, and working parents. Yes, Harvard offers many cool free classes, but that is not a degree.
Of all the Ivy League schools, I tend to like Harvard University because, in fairness, they are more progressive and forward-thinking, so I was very disappointed that a Harvard faculty member can be so blindsided by a little old community college professor on his way out of a disappointing career.
Do better, professor Hankins. I will wait and see if Harvard calls me, or better yet, one of my students.
Earl Yarington (LMSW) is a social worker and school bus driver. He taught literature and writing for nearly 20 years and spent 3 years working in forensic social work internships with offending populations, including work at Delaware Correctional facilities and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He has a PhD in literature and criticism (feminism/women writers) from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Master of Social Work from Louisiana State University, and an interdisciplinary Master of Liberal Arts from Arizona State University, where he studied the impact of visual image and girlhood in media/social media. He also has an MA and BS in English from SUNY College at Brockport. The opinions and analyses that Earl writes are his own and are not necessarily the positions or views of his employers, the agencies he supports, or that of his colleagues. Reach out with comments or questions.