Hahvud Gets Sillier

Queer Studies Comes To Romper Room

I see in the Harvard Crimson,* once the students’ newspaper of what was once a university, that Boston’s foremost daycare center, Harvard itself, wobbles toward adopting Queer Studies. Soon, apparently, there will be a Department.

Why, you might ask, does Harvard want to study queers? It doesn’t, methinks. I suspect that the adolescents of Harvard, a category which also includes many of the students, merely want to behave disagreeably – to shock their parents or, in the case of the faculty, society. Queer Studies serves nicely. Next year it will be S&M Studies, Pedophile Studies, or a Department of Cannibalism.

On almost all campuses, the behavior of both the studentry and the professoriate is remarkably teenaged in savor. Universities are not the potting soil of maturity. The kids act like teenagers because they are teenagers. Members of the faculty do it, I think, because someone once told them that they were intellectuals. It is an odd idea, given the near-total inability of a professor to think anything that all the other professors don’t think.

To be an intellectual it isn’t enough, or even necessary, to teach competently. One must take to the barricades, any barricades; pose in coffee shops, such as the New York Times Review of Books; and gambol on the cutting edge, often of fields that do not have a cutting edge. One must Go Forward.

Loitering in the avant garde, a favored hobby of minor intelligences, allows them both to annoy and to congratulate themselves on their advanced thinking. All of this rests on the passive-aggressive hostility of the resentfully inconsequential. Thus Queer Studies.

A tenured professor cannot stamp his feet, throw creamed spinach from his high chair, or hold his breath and turn blue. Such candor would be thought excessive. He might find himself being forcibly diapered by passersby. Instead of spitting food, he advocates whatever will distress the country, to which he sees himself in a position of tutelary superiority.

What, exactly, is Queer Studies? Part of the impetus behind Harvard’s queerward lunge, saith the Crimson, is a lecturer in Literature, appropriately named Heather Love. Let us listen to Heather:

“Queer studies is about what thinking about sexuality can teach us about identity and desire in general.”

If this means anything, she didn’t say what. I’m inclined to think that students unsure of their identity might better consult their driver’s licenses instead of turning Harvard further into a den of psychotherapy. And if Heather thinks that college students need a special department to enable them to think about sexuality, she ought to get out more.

She continues, does this beskirted testimonial for Spengler, “Everyone has a gender and a sexuality – this field is not narrow, but rather incredibly expansive.” (“Rather incredibly”? Oh Strunk, oh White….)

It is perhaps true that everyone has a gender and a sexuality, despite the asseverations of my divorced acquaintances, but I am not sure this is a reason for studying queers. Everyone has an esophagus. Should we not have Esophageal Studies? Putting it more solemnly, the existence of a group does not obviously make it deserving of a university department.

Which brings us to an important point: The objection to Queer Studies is not that queers are reprehensible – I think they are not – but that the subject is too narrow for a major. Queers are a tiny group of a few percent of the population and of no great importance as a group. Yes, they have contributed much to civilization. So have people with warts. We do not have Wart Studies. Yet.

One might as well have a Department of Left-Handedness, or of Amputee Studies, or Balding Presbyterian in Cowboy Hat Studies. (Actually, not a bad idea.) A purpose of a university education is to provide the broad background to allow independent study of narrower specialties. Anyone interested in queers can easily study them at a library or, depending on the intensity of interest, in a gay bar.

But there is yet more in the Crimson. Queer Studies has behind it that siege howitzer of appropriate thinking, the school’s president. Listen:

“University President Lawrence H. Summers says he agrees that queer studies could potentially effect a broad range of disciplines.”

What this means is mysterious. What is clear is that the reporter, writing in Harvard’s newspaper, doesn’t know “effect” from “affect,” and that the Crimson needs an editor. Or another editor. It is to me disheartening that the populace of the nation’s premier university speaks English with the elegance and lyricism of a bladder infection.

She continues (there is a point in this; wait) with a direct quote from Summers, “I don’t think there is any question that issues of identity…is crucial in a range of intellectual areas.”

Whether this is more opaque than fatuous, or fatuous than opaque, may be debated by others wiser than I. Somebody should tell the president of Harvard that a verb agrees with the subject of the sentence, not with the object of the nearest preposition. Does everyone at Harvard talk like a concussed recent immigrant?

Now, it may seem that I am being pointlessly snotty about the infelicity of language. No. I am being pointfully snotty. There appears to be a direct correlation between the rise of political hobbyism and the decline of careful literacy, and for that matter of genuine scholarship, in our academic theme-parks.

As best I can tell, the quality of study, and of faculty, in departments varies inversely with the degree of politicization. Black Studies and Women’s Studies are scholastically absurd, as many know and few say. (They are also wildly militant, which is why they continue to exist.) Departments of literature and of “social sciences” (as in “cosmetology science”) are nearly as political, and as vacuous. Schools of chemistry and engineering remain healthy: No one has yet suggested that all equations should have the same answer so as to avoid invidious distinctions.

There is a reason why so many purported scholars express themselves so poorly. Good English rests on a precision of thought, a desire for clarity, and an appreciation of language that are inconsistent with enraged self-absorption. Genuine scholarship requires a focus on things other than psychic distempers. It does not cohabit easily with obsessive concern with oneself, one’s identity, one’s stultifying malaises and tedious angers – that is, with the characteristic concerns of teenagers. Succinctly, scholarship is not the domain of academic twerps. But that is who runs the universities. www.fredoneverything.net

* "Queer Studies Advances Cause" by Jessica E. Vascellaro, the Crimson, February 28, 2002