Naomi Schaefer Riley, a journalist and writer whose main focus is academia, was recently at the center of a tsunami-like upheaval in the blogosphere caused by a post she authored for Brainstorm, a Chronicle of Higher Education blog. In it, Ms.Schaefer Riley questions the academic standards and bona fides of black studies departments, summarizing a sample of doctoral dissertations as “…a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap” and the theories argued and discussed as “sheer political partisanship and liberal hackery.” Needless to say, this did not go over well with many readers. Ms.Schaefer Riley was personally attacked and denounced as a close-minded, racist bigot. The vitriol was such that she was subsequently fired from the Chronicle. Apparently she didn’t get the memo not to criticize the relevancy of black studies departments.
Here’s my take on this and I am speaking from personal experience.
The reality of academia is not unknown in my family. Several of us have graduate degrees; many in “hard” disciplines such as science, engineering and mathematics. I was halfway into the completion of my masters program when I decided to take a class in sociology offered by the black studies department. Wow! Where do I begin? Honestly, it felt as though I had stepped into an alternate universe, circa 1963. There was so much that was off kilter but for the sake of brevity and your sanity dear reader, I will discuss only three.
Let’s start with the syllabus. Compared to some of my courses in history, economics and political science, the reading list was light on peer reviewed books and articles. It was essentially a collection of obscure works by friends and colleagues of the professor, with excerpts from unpublished doctoral dissertations thrown in for good measure. It just didn’t come across as serious; would definitely not stand under rigorous objective analysis and critique.
The second thing that struck me was the nature of the interaction between the professor and the students. At times, the atmosphere in the classroom seemed more like a political rally than an academic lecture. There was talk about social justice and speaking truth to power. We were encouraged to champion diversity and challenge the institution of white male patriarchy that was so debilitating to the progress of women and minorities. You would think the era of Jim Crow was alive and well and that nothing much had changed.
Finally, there was the distinct impression that a contrary viewpoint to that of the professor’s was not welcomed or respected and would most likely result in a bad grade. There was no real discussion and free exchange of ideas. I felt muffled and constrained; an intellectual fraud. Ended up dropping the class after one week.
What did I learn from this experience?
My advice to prospective minority students; make the MOST of your opportunity. Do NOT major in African-American or Gender studies. Mix it up with those in the military industrial complex but focus and stay true to yourself. Get a SOLID education. It’s worth the effort.