New Wine in Old Bottles; reposted: “What John McWhorter Can’t Allow Himself to Know About African-American Studies”

by zunguzungu


From the “nothing is new under the sun” files, this was something I wrote at Cliopatria way back in 2009. But I repost it because the whole CHE kerfuffle shouldn’t come to seem like a sudden and exceptional scandal when it’s exactly the sort of thing that we’ve seen again and again, and will again. This is not to say that there aren’t real critiques to be made of the ways a field like African-American studies is constituted — Timothy Burke has a rundown on a few he finds to be intellectually honest, whether or not they are also persuasive — but simply that misrepresenting the thing you pretend to be honestly critiquing (and relying on your audience’s ignorance of it) is an old, old play from the culture wars playbook. 

I found John McWhorter’s jeremiad against African-American Studies unimpressive when I read it, but then I’m sure I’m not his intended audience (What African-American Studies Could Be,” Minding the Campus, 30 September, and McWhorter,”What Should African-American Studies Students Learn?TNR, 1 October). He asks “What should the mission of a truly modern African-American Studies department be?” and then spends the rest of the piece complaining that all African-American Studies departments do is complain about racism. In his words: “the answer common in such departments is that the principal mission is to teach students about the eternal power of racism past and present…too often the curriculum of African-American Studies departments gives the impression that racism and disadvantage are the most important things to note and study about being black.”

Constructing this straw man of African-American studies allows him to make sure that when he gets around to asking “whether this, for all of its moral urgency in the local sense, qualifies as education under any serious definition,” the answer can hardly be anything but no. Which is why, even though I don’t particularly disagree with his argument that the black conservative tradition is important and should be included and studied rather than dismissed, I’m disgusted by the extent to which he gets to that point by saying preposterous things about what actual African-American studies departments actually do; there is an argument to be made for increased attention to the black conservative tradition, after all, but this kind of intellectual dishonesty is not it.

Most of his examples come from what he calls “the curriculum of one African-American Studies department in a solid, selective state school west of the Mississippi,” a department where, as he puts it, “racism is, essentially, everything.” If that were true, if this curriculum in this unknown school could so easily be summarized in a one-sentence rehearsal of demonology, then maybe McWhorter has a point. But how can we know? By withholding the name of the school, we’re forced to take his word that this description is accurate.

Luckily, google gives us the means of checking his work quite easily and, with the same joy with which I discover students who have plagiarized papers from the internet, I found within minutes that the school was UC Santa Barbara, and quickly found a full version of the curriculum that so incensed Mr. McWhorter right here. I would encourage you to click over if you want to see what a disservice McWhorter does to them, how basically he oversimplifies what is done in that department, omitting notice of everything that doesn‘t fit his caricature. For example, how does a class like “The Black Family in the United States” fit into his account? Perhaps he would like us to think that “Particular attention will be paid to the various forces that have influenced the structural and behavioral aspects of family life among Black Americans” is code for “Kill whitey cuz racism.” I could go on, but it’s just too easy; the idea that a handful of classes on black radicalism indicate a “fetishization of radical politics as blacks’ only constructive allegiance” is simply disingenuous, and it took all of three minutes to see how false his attempt to extend this as a generalization about the entire curriculum is.

I emailed a few of the professors that taught the classes he pilloried, and Janice Madden, an economics professor at Penn, was nice enough to describe her course on”Racial and Sexual Conflict” to me, which he takes to task (again, without naming it or her specifically) as an indoctrination machine. For McWhorter, it is not enough that a hypothetical student in her class could write a term paper on “what people have done to get past obstacles”; instead, he bemoans the fact that the “material covered in this course gives precious little support to such an endeavor.” I’m trying not to put too much weight on the fact that while McWhorter bristles at the observation that racism and sexism even exist, he apparently views as impossible the obstacle of a professor who doesn’t actively encourage students to write a particular kind of paper and then spoon-feed them the resources to do it. That’s because it’s much more important to note how fundamentally off-base McWhorter’s characterization of the class’s purpose actually is.

McWhorter frames Madden’s course as “purporting to teach America’s brightest and most ambitious students about urgent realities” and I take that to mean he expects it to be a course teaching young black students how to succeed. If the course were this kind of how-to seminar, if it were about teaching the students themselves how to succeed, then perhaps the literature he cites would be appropriate. But Janice Madden sent me a copy of her syllabus (the same one he saw, I’m sure) and both made it clear that hers simply isn’t that course. Madden is an economics professor, and so, unsurprisingly, her course teaches her students how to do economics. In her words, “the course uses neoclassical economic theory and quantitative or empirical statistical studies” to address a disciplinary question: how “to sort out empirically and statistically the influences of differences in worker characteristics from the influences of current discrimination on racial and sexual differences in employment outcomes.” Teaching students how to do economics — how to use economic theory and apply empirical data to a problem — would seem to be a useful thing to teach students taking an economics class. And the emphasis, in that sense, is as much on how to use economics to solve a problem as on the problem itself. And the class not only doesn’t presume discrimination as an all-powerful plague on black people, but the entire point of the class is to question and analyze the extent to which it is. In other words, since the point of the class is to use economic theory and statistics to determine the extent of discrimination, the possibility of the kind of answer McWhorter wants is practically built into the question.

It seems telling to me, in fact, that his version of her course is the much more political one; while he wants her to teach her students “about urgent realities,” her course actually teaches them to ask smart questions about those realities and to then use economic methodology to find answers. Madden, in other words, is setting out to do what an economics professor might very reasonably be expected to do: teach her students how to do economics. And in her email to me (and after reading her syllabus), it seems very clear to me that this is what her course, in fact, does. In her words: “none of these choices about what is included is about a”political slant” but rather a disciplinary one. I make clear in my discussion of the term papers that the students must cover ALL perspectives on the topic they address and are NOT to write an advocacy piece…As an economist, I think it fair to focus on the economics literature and on the issues that economists of all political stripes address in that literature. A sociologist would no doubt teach different topics and use a different literature, as would a political scientist or a historian.”

Were McWhorter actually interested in the state of African-American studies, I imagine he would be above making cheap polemical points off of selective misrepresentations about the truth. But one of the responses I got from a UCSB professor said it all to me: “We know who he is…and what he stands for.”