A Rebuttal from the Third Tier: What the Harvard Professor Doesn’t Wanna Get

Image by M P from Pixabay

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.

5 thoughts on “A Rebuttal from the Third Tier: What the Harvard Professor Doesn’t Wanna Get

  • April 6, 2021 at 6:20 PM

    I think that you are mixing apples and oranges. Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle were philosophers i.e. metaphysicians. The individuals you’ve listed that you like are novelists Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf. Shakespeare is also a playwright – not a metaphysician. That is one problem with your article.

    But a more fundamental problem is that by being dismissive of classical greek philosophy, you’ve also effectively dismissed a massive part of world civilization. That is the world of Islamic Philosophy – that cannot be studied or understood without knowing and understanding whom we Muslims call The First Teacher i.e. Aristotle. And of-course in order to understand Aristotle we also need Plato. Muslims do study this classics in the respective seminaries in particular in Qum (Iran) and Najaf (Iraq). Thomas Aquinas of-course built much of his metaphysical thought on his reading of Avicenna.

    The world we have today is much more reified today than in ancient or classical times. Then there was a tremendous amount of cross-fertilization of ideas and thoughts – you will have a very difficult time actually understanding not only Islamic Philosophy but also Chinese and other Eastern traditions. If you wish to just ignore much of the planet in order to focus on what you perceive to be the correct at this time – well that is your choice. Thankfully most of the planet don’t think in such terms. But the US will become ever and even more isolated with this kind ignoring what is truly great – no matter the skin tone. And even if you do want to take skin tone into consideration – the material is in reality way more colorful than any thing contemporary.

    • April 7, 2021 at 12:42 AM


      You make a good point that I could have addressed better, the distinction between philosophy and literary writers. However, I did not bring Shakespeare up myself. Dr. Hankins did, so this opens things up to the literary, as most literary works do have a philosophy behind them. I am sure if you asked Morrison, she could give you philosophy. Woolf would tell you that the great men you admire are actually very insecure men, and often this insecurity makes them hate women and some can become dangerous, as they inflate themselves to greatness. Just pick a world leader. I see powerful, dangerous, but very weak men. Woolf is quite a philosopher in her own right. We just think that women are too dumb to be smart historically. Remember Gilgamesh? We had long periods of history where women were gods or high priestesses. We stripped sexuality out of religion, as if it is primarily evil, and we then equated women, blamed women for tempting men! If anything, this proves that men CANNOT lead. They are generally too weak-minded. Your focus on one religion (on the big three) undermines how many others? Native American, Hindu, Buddhism, and it goes on and on and on. We have a word for this: colonialism. Good try, but sorry. As popular as these religions are, each make part, yes, part of a much larger diversity.

      You seem to be focusing on Islam and religion. If we look at the big three critically, arguably these religions see men as superior to women, and, in parts, slavery is acceptable. I think you need to be careful here because it is the Greeks (and Romans to a degree) that influence the rebellion and new democratic republic in the United States, a “democracy,” but the problem is with your point of view is that religion/Aristotle seem to be at the heart of great civilization for you, as if the Chinese and Koreans were not. While Aristotle’s knuckles were dragging on the ground, the Chinese ruled an empire, the Koreas, three of them, later mastering (Korea) the only language to be created. They were only ahead of such thinkers for what, 3,000 years! In fact, a woman writer in Japan wrote a Samurai tale dating 5,000 years ago. This is exactly my point. These great thinkers that Hankins notes were not so great, and exactly what great civilization are you talking about? No, you want it to be simple, a structure: good and bad, right and wrong. Context? Diversity? That structure fails to see what keeps us all alive on this planet, diversity. Logic is cute, but people will always be more than simple logic, facts, and rules.

      As for my point about religion and the Greeks, you error where our Harvard professor does. One religion cannot co-exist with democracy, so are not these great men hypocrites, or are we as educated as we think we are about a few men being the bases of “civilized thought?” The only reason why religions have survived in the US is because secular law protects freedom of expression, so I find it odd that you would push a religion (these religions are dictatorships that fight human progress) by quoting the folks where the birth of democracy happened. We cannot force a religion or a handful of thinkers on people and then say we are well educated. But then again, the U.S. republic hid it’s real ugliness didn’t it, during the time these great thinkers were seen as idols: the brutal kidnapping and enslavement of African peoples. So, for the Greeks, like the U.S. freedom is only for those that look like them. We used religion to justify this brutality, as people in power often use these great thinkers, for their own selfish benefit. Holy books become killing machines. The only way to justify this is to maintain the idea of the great white supremacist male. No better way to justify this than through religion/philosophy and later hijacked science. Great men are not worth a damn if they cannot connect to the human condition. I did not say we shouldn’t teach these works. We can. We just have to cut them down to size and be inclusive.

      In sum, you are simply giving the same argument: a handful of great men should be read and understood by billions of people, only related schools of thought from one place, one western culture. Such blots out and subjugates so many other amazing thoughts and perspectives. This is extremely dangerous because we can then, as we have, use those men and their great teachings as a moral justification for the subjugation and slaughter of people that don’t agree or hold these men up as greater than they really were. I will go with what I quoted. My philosophy which is taken from many others: God is the reconciliation of contraries, not the master of one-way thinking: be a sheep for the slaughter for the rich. These men stole religions’ real message. Jesus was nothing more than a slave, an outcast that if existed today, we’d kill him. God and the devil are the same being, for there will never be a time that is pure good or pure evil. So humanity has become nothing more than practiced insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. The world does not work that way. Heaven will be heaven for a week. Then hell will take over. You and I can make an eternal bet, and I bet I am right. Truth hurts. This is one, big game. The powerful hold the cards, and we are the pawns they slaughter for fun or with indifference.

      I will let others carry on this conversation, but I think you need to open yourself up a bit because that is what true education is all about. I am not convinced the Ivy League is the best place to learn about life. I don’t see much evidence that these books did much good in connecting you to human kind, only this abstract idea of a utopian future that will exist only in one’s mind. It’s kind of magical thinking.

  • April 6, 2021 at 11:02 AM

    Hi Gracie,

    Considering that I have hundreds of thousands in student loan debt, I do have privilege, as I repeatedly stated in my other writings and also note here. What one does with one’s privilege is another matter. Many others get full funding to go to school. I never had that opportunity, even though a McNair Scholar. But my privilege, though real, has a higher price as a poor white male, not as a wealthy one. My family is also bi-racial. Where one gets a degree also matters. I spent my whole career helping POC and taught at minority institutions for much lower pay and a much higher workload. As for assumptions, I do make them, but I think you will find that what I write is generally true of these individuals. There are exceptions, of course, but they are not represented in Dr. Hankin’s words or the photo he used. You seem apt at pointing out and assuming my privilege while ignoring Dr. Hankin’s deliberate and intended exclusion of “other” great works and persons. What is your excuse for Dr. Hankin’s exclusion? His own privilege? It seems you have no criticism for his privilege? I wonder how much student loan debt he has? Given, as I stated, that I went to Columbia University, I have some idea. Of course, some oft these young men struggle and can have much to overcome, but they have many more resources to help them than those outside of the Ivy League.

    • April 7, 2021 at 3:34 PM

      Thank you for taking the time to thoughtfully respond. I’m sure this is a discussion that could continue on for quite some time and unfortunately is too nuanced for written responses to adequately address all of the dynamics at play. I will leave you with a few of my final thoughts.

      First, I am by no means a fan of Dr. Hankins. I am sure that he is more privileged than some and less than others. How much more or less is difficult to say given there are so many ways one can define privilege. This leads me to my next thought which is, what standards are you using to determine that your privilege is at a higher cost? Strictly wealth? If so, what do you consider poor? Again, this seems like a very ambiguous standard.

      I feel like your article has a strong undercurrent of contempt for Dr. Hankins and his position. It also seems to illustrate a lack of personal responsibility for one’s actions. You yourself said that you chose to teach at a community college. I assume you did this because the idea of providing educational instruction to those with financial limitations and from minority groups was judged to be meaningful work by you and worth the lower salary. I feel it’s also important to note that people choose schools every day based on finances and making the choice to pursue a degree that is 3 times the cost at an Ivy League is a matter of judgment.

      More importantly, upwards of 60% of Harvard’s current students belong to a minority group. Which leads me to question if the assumptions you state you are correctly making, apply to BIPOC and people that have historically been highly oppressed. Again, are you basing privilege on income? Would I be incorrect in drawing the conclusion that you feel a black female at Harvard would be more privileged than you based on their level of individual wealth? These minority students also often LACK resources and struggle to access those that exist…Are you attempting to say they have more resources than non-BIPOC?

  • April 6, 2021 at 10:37 AM

    It seems very ironic that you repeatedly mention the concept of privilege and then speak of returning to college for your 7th degree. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the level of privilege you yourself have. I know you never denied having any sense of privilege, but you seem very passive aggressive in pointing out perceived privilege you feel others have. Dismissing the level of adversity Dr. Hankin’s students may have faced previously also seems very assumptive…You are making very broad statements with no understanding of the background of these individuals.

Comments are closed.